Hindu priestesses fight patriarchy, one Indian marriage at a time
KOLKATA, India – When Sharmistha Chaudhuri decided to get married in her native India, she was faced with a dilemma.
Chaudhuri, 35, is a public relations professional in Austin, Texas. She is independent, educated and has traveled the world. She wanted her marriage to reflect her liberal values ââand the equal partnership she has with her American fiancÃ©.
But Chaudhuri found some Indian wedding traditions to be patriarchal. Hindu weddings are usually performed by male priests. The bride’s parents “give” her to her in-laws. It is usually only the bride, not the groom, who prays for the longevity of her new family – and has her forehead anointed with colored powder to signify that she is married.
âI just knew I didn’t want to do this,â Chaudhuri recalls. “It was more like, ‘How can we do something less traditional?'”
His like-minded mother found a solution: Instead of priests, they hired four Hindu priestesses to perform a multilingual and egalitarian ceremony, devoid of patriarchal traditions.
The priestesses belong to a Calcutta-based collective known as Shubhamastu – âlet it prosperâ in the ancient Sanskrit language – who began revising the Hindu marriage liturgy about 10 years ago. Two are Sanskrit scholars with decades of academic experience. In addition to traditional wedding songs, they often incorporate secular hymns with lyrics by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
The Shubhamastu collective is part of a feminist push to make one of the world’s oldest religions more inclusive and appealing to younger and more progressive female members. They work in one of India’s most liberal states, West Bengal, but have become famous all over the country.
For the first time, women of the clergy join in rituals in honor of a Hindu goddess
They don’t just officiate at weddings. This week, for the first time, the priestesses of Shubhamastu preside over the rituals of one of India’s biggest festivals, a tribute to the Hindu goddess Durga. Traditionally, only male priests have performed the Durga Puja rituals, which are most popular in Calcutta but are observed throughout the country. This year, after the death of a veteran priest, the four priestesses were invited by festival organizers to play an official role at the main celebration in Calcutta, alongside their male counterparts.
“Women storm the male stronghold” an Indian newspaper headline reads.
Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority, unlike Roman Catholicism, for example, which has the Vatican. There is therefore no universally accepted ordination scheme for Hindu priests. While the vast majority of them are Brahmin men – members of what is perceived to be the highest caste in Hinduism – the female clergy has existed for a long time, albeit in very small numbers. (Experts say they number in the hundreds or maybe thousands in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people.)
“You have to have confidence in yourself, you have to work hard,” says Nandini, a Shubhamastu priestess who recently started using only one name to avoid revealing her caste. âBut you can become priests by profession. Why not ?
On hiatus from his job as a professor of Sanskrit at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Nandini, 60, claims as much the right to interpret – or reinterpret – Hindu scriptures as any other priest.
“I just omitted these portions [of Hindu wedding liturgy] which are regressive for women. As kanyadaan, the gift of the daughter to the husband and to the parents-in-law, âshe explains. âHow can I keep this when women today are so enlightened? They are empowered! Most of them work. “
In India, Hindu marriages are governed by the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which sets the legal age of marriage for women at 18 and 21 for men. He says that weddings can be performed in accordance with “customary rites and ceremonies,” and mentions the Hindu practice of circling a sacred fire seven times – but doesn’t require it. It does not legislate the sex of the officiant, nor any liturgy.
Nandini says she and her fellow priestesses have been ringing their phones since their role in the Durga Puja festival was announced a few months ago. They have performed hundreds of weddings over the past decade and are currently booked until the end of 2022. In addition to weddings – including those of her two daughters – Nandini also officiates at memorial services and hanging blessings rack.
But this was not always the case.
âAt the beginning, we received very few calls. Of course, people didn’t believe in us. They thought, ‘What will the women do?’ Â», Remembers Nandini.
Once, after marrying a couple, a conservative relative of the newlyweds hired a priest to come and repeat the ceremony afterwards, just to make sure it was valid.
âYou can’t blame them, you know? It’s such an old belief,â she said. âIt will take time to change.
But Nandini believes that India and Hinduism are ready for this change. I’m even hungry for it.
In recent years, Indian courts have supported women’s access to certain Hindu temples which restricted their entry. A recent tv ad for indian bridal fashion features a Bollywood actress playing the role of a bride who challenges the kanyadaan tradition of âdonatingâ a wife to her in-laws. The announcement received praise, but also some criticism from the Conservatives.
Some Hindu priests feel threatened
Sudeshna Chakraborty has heard from some conservatives. Inspired by the four priestesses of Shubhamastu, Chakraborty quit her job five years ago as a customer service manager at one of India’s largest companies, Reliance, to study Sanskrit and Scriptures full time. She has since received a certificate in Sanskrit from Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal and began officiating at weddings last year.
Like the Shubhamastu priestesses, she specializes in revised and egalitarian Hindu marriages in Kolkata. But Chakraborty, 40, says she has received harassing phone calls from male priests whom she suspects of feeling threatened.
âSome people would call me and say, ‘How can you do that? What’s the reason behind this?’â She recalls.
She says she has never received a direct and specific threat related to her work as a priestess. But nonetheless, she recently registered with a local human rights organization and keeps her phone number programmed into her phone, just in case.
For every harassing phone call, Chakraborty says she gets a lot more women who want to follow in her footsteps. This year she started teaching a handful of them.
Sanskrit mantras, sung in unison, resonate on the third floor of an old colonial building in downtown Kolkata. This is where Chakraborty holds classes for priestesses in training. She is affiliated with an event organization company that manages weddings.
“After practicing this a few times, I gained self-confidence,” says one of her students, 38-year-old Tina Halder, who comes from one of India’s oppressed castes. “We can change that and break the rules. It feels good.”
Breaking the rules is good for married couples too
Chaudhuri, the Texas-based bride, was married by priestesses Shubhamastu in Calcutta in January 2020. Months later, the pandemic erupted. Under confinement, she and her husband had plenty of time to watch their wedding video.
It shows Chaudhuri in a shimmering salmon pink outfit – not the traditional red color most Hindu brides wear. She shows her with her fiancÃ© going to the ceremony together. Neither has been “given” to the other. He shows them anointing each other’s foreheads with colored powder.
And it shows their guests captivated by a rare Indian wedding that they could actually relate to, as the ceremony was conducted in Bengali, Sanskrit and English. People may have even forgotten to eat – something that never happens at Indian weddings, Chaudhuri jokes.
âWe look back at parts of the ceremony and laugh and smile,â she said. “There’s nothing we cringe at. I’d say it’s pretty good.”
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.