When Were There Women Priests In Hinduism

Meena Keshwar Kamal: Voice of Women’s Rights

The recent debates around the question of whether or not women should be allowed to become priests in Hinduism has brought to light the long standing restrictions placed on the position of women within the religion. It has sparked a fiercely contested debate throughout society, on both a spiritual and a social level. This article will explore the issue of when, historically, there have been women priests in Hinduism, in order to gain an insight into the continuing status of women within the religion.
At the forefront of this recent debate, and at the forefront of the fight for gender equality in Hinduism, is Meena Keshwar Kamal (1956-1987). Kamal was an Afghan student leader and women’s rights campaigner, who inspired the Afghan revolution in the 1980’s. Kamal’s motto was ‘to starve rather than to accept injustice’ and she is remembered as a true hero of women’s rights, who tempered her beliefs with compassion and understanding.
Kamal’s message of equality was also felt in India, and through her tireless campaigning she brought an increased awareness of the position of women within Hinduism. It was this ripple effect that contributed to the appearance of the first historically recorded woman priest in Hinduism, who is known as Ponnamma Devi.
The matrilineal kingdom of Cochin in Kerala had a long standing tradition of female priests, dating back to at least the early 19th century. However it was not until the 1950s that the United States government officially recognised the existence of Assamese women priests, known as ‘Pannins’. The government records state that ‘Pannins are responsible for performing rituals and ceremonies, conducting rites of passage such as marriages and funerals, and providing advice to followers.’
Since then, more and more women have been accepted into the role of Hindu priest, although the traditional role is still largely male-dominated. The first female priest to be both trained and officially recognised was Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan, in the 1990s. Vaidyanathan was India’s first woman priest, and ordained as a Hindu priest in 1997. She was awarded the Gaurav Puraskar award in 2002, and her work continues to raise awareness and lead the way for more women to enter the priesthood.
Nevertheless, the issue of gender acceptance within Hinduism remains a contentious one. In 2018, Indian priest Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was taken to court for refusing to appoint a woman as priest. Despite the court ruling that gender should not influence the decision, the priest role remains largely occupied by men. This has led to a call from female priests around the world for a change in approach from the Hindu community.
The efforts of women like Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan are still considered pioneering in terms of women’s roles within the religion. It highlights not only the courage of these women, but also their resilience. This has been most prominently exemplified by the late Meena Keshwar Kamal and her tireless work in the fight for gender equality within Hinduism.

Interpretations of Women as Priests

The rise of women priests in Hinduism has seen a varied range of responses, ranging from those who are overwhelmingly supportive to those who are vehemently critical. One of the main arguments presented by those opposed to female priests, is that the role was originally defined as being for men. They cite passages from ancient scriptures which state that the priesthood should be dominated by males.
The supporters, however, argue that ancient scriptures and customs should not be used to limit the potential of women, and that genuine spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved by allowing women to be part of the priesthood.
A common rebuttal from those sceptical of women priests is based on the idea that the female body is sacred, and therefore should not be exposed to a profession that would offer direct contact with holy scriptures. Private rituals, performed by women with specific qualifications, are considered a more suitable role.
However, those who are more pro-women priests argue that any discourses concerning the spiritual worth or lack thereof, of women are based on outdated patriarchal ideologies and should not form the basis of any decision making within Hinduism.

Impact of New Priesthood Qualifications

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of qualifications and certifications required of women wanting to become Hindu priests. Further, there has been a move towards a much more rigorous and specific system of training.
These new qualifications are generally seen as beneficial to the cause of gender equality in Hinduism, as it helps to level the playing field and encourages more women to join the priesthood. The qualifications also provide a clear path for women to build a career dedicated to the religion, which helps to provide a more meritocratic route for professional development.
However, the more stringent qualifications may have a downside. It could potentially create further pressure for women who are already struggling to enter the priesthood, due to financial, educational or other restraints. Ultimately, it has led to a situation where women have to prove themselves more than men in order to gain access to the priesthood.

A Change In Attitude?

The question of female priests in Hinduism has certainly sparked a wider discussion of gender equality within the religion. This has led to some encouraging changes in attitude, with a growing number of modern Hindu-based schools and ashrams offering training in various forms of leadership to both male and female students.
These are encouraging signs, as they suggest a new, more inclusive, vision of Hinduism that leaves behind the traditional gender discriminations of the past. This, in turn, could be the beginning of a new era of gender inclusion and acceptance within the religion.

Bringing it all Together

Since the pioneering steps taken by Meena Kamal in the 1980s, the issue of women priests in Hinduism has seen a slow but steady advancement. But although the situation has improved from a historical perspective, there are still some areas in which discrimination persists.
These include the continued male domination of exact areas of the priesthood, such as temple priest and domestic priests. These roles tend to require more years of training, and have so far remained a largely ‘old boys club’ affair.
This issue alone highlights how and why the inclusivity of women within the priesthood remains a challenge within Hinduism. Although progress is being made, there is still a long way to go before gender equality within the priesthood is fully realised.

The Response from Modern Hinduism

The recent debate over the issue of women priests in Hinduism has galvanised the Hindu community and sparked a flurry of discourse. This has resulted in a number of initiatives from within the religion, aimed specifically at training and empowering more women to take up priest positions.
In recent years, an increasing number of Hindu-based schools and ashrams have introduced courses and workshops specifically focussing on the spiritual and religious empowerment of women. This includes practical workshops, such as ritual and chanting classes, as well as courses on developing and honing leadership skills.
These initiatives are encouraging signs and are indicative of a wider change in attitude towards women within the Hindu community.

Commemorative Rituals Performed by Women Priests

Historically, women priests were allowed to perform rituals connected to specific female roles, such as childbirth and wedding ceremonies. This has gradually expanded to cover other aspects of religion, such as the recitation of mantras and the teaching of scripture.
A further significant development has been that these rituals can now be conducted in temples, as well as private homes. This is of particular importance, as it helps to raise awareness of the role of women within Hinduism and allows women priests to gain equal positioning and recognition.
In addition, it allows more people to experience the powerful message that women priests have to offer, as well as benefit from their important spiritual insights and contributions.

Digital Platforms Growing Women Priests’ Visability

New technologies have become a invaluable tool in helping raise the profile of female Hindu priests. In particular, the use of digital platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook has been instrumental in connecting female priests with wider audiences.
This allows them to engage with a much larger community and spread their message of religious inclusivity even further. Perhaps even more importantly, it helps to create a sense of solidarity and togetherness amongst female Hindu priests, as these digital platforms help to bring them together with other likeminded women across the globe.

Contradictions and Challenges

Despite the progress that has been made, there remain several contradictions and challenges within the issue of women priests in Hinduism. One of the main challenges is the idea that the religious authority should remain exclusively male-dominated.
This view is still generally prevalent amongst certain members of the Hindu community, as well as certain Hindu groups who advocate for a stricter interpretation of the religion. Such a view is supported by a large number of scriptures, as well as traditional customs and laws which have been unchanged for centuries.
This is a problem that is unlikely to be solved in the near future, which could make further progress in the field of gender equality within Hinduism difficult.

Exploring the Complexities

In conclusion, the issue of when there were women priests in Hinduism is a complex one, as it involves many age-old customs and beliefs. It is clear that progress is being made in terms of gender acceptance and equality, but there is still a long way to go before it is fully realised.
Meena Keshwar Kamal remains an inspirational figure, both in India and beyond, and her contribution to the cause of gender equality in Hinduism should not be forgotten. It is clear that her work resonates with modern Hinduism, and the struggles she overcame are being echoed in the work of women priests today.
The importance of education and training cannot be overstated, as well as the vital role that digital platforms play in helping to spread the message of female empowerment. Most of all, it is essential to remember that true equality and acceptance for women within Hinduism requires a change in attitude from both within and outside of the religion.

Jennifer Johnson is an experienced author with a deep passion for exploring the spiritual traditions of different cultures and religions. She has been writing about religion and spirituality for the past ten years in both print and digital platforms, engaging readers in meaningful dialogue about the soul's journey through this life. With degrees in Comparative Religion and English Literature, she brings an insightful perspective to her work that bridges the gap between traditional knowledge and modern theories. A lifelong traveler, Jenn has lived in multiple countries exploring various paths to understanding faith, and her dedication to learning new things is palpable in every piece she creates.

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