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Morgenstierne Lecture: Hindu priestesses (Strī Purohitā) in Pune
September 7, 2016 - 14:15-16:00
A Talk by Ute Hüsken
According to many Brahminic texts in Sanskrit, Vedic learning, initiation into priesthood, and the performance of rituals “for others” (parārtha) is the exclusive right of male members of Brahmin castes. Members of non-Brahmin castes, but also women are traditionally excluded from the right to even listen to the Veda, lest learn specialized religious / ritual theory and practice. However, we witness a radical change in contemporary India: In spite of initially strong opposition from orthodox Brahmin circles, today more and more women receive training in Sanskrit knowledge and ritual practice.
Since the late 1970s, a very active center of female priestly education is in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and here especially the large city Pune. At present, this still seems to be a largely upper middle class and urban phenomenon, driven in part by the dissatisfaction with the services offered by the traditional male priests. Some training institutions that educate women as Hindu religious specialists, however, see their role mainly in promoting social reform, campaigning against “superstition” and “blind belief”. Important part of their mission is the scientific explanation of the purpose of the ritual services they offer to their clients. These groups do not focus on the religious and ritual empowerment of women alone, but to a similar degree on the empowerment of non-Brahmin castes. Yet there are many more groups and individuals, with a broad range of motivations, from a wide variety of social and religious backgrounds, who are engaged in similar activities, although for very different reasons and with different agendas. All these activities, as different as they may be, are expressions of a shift in the religious and ritual agency of women in Indian Hindu traditions, which however inadvertently goes along with the women’s emphasis of their connection to, and continuation of the orthodox Sanskrit textual tradition.