Whilst the topic of “Women Priests and Spiritual Leaders” remains controversial in many religions, such as Catholicism, Hinduism from ancient times has boasted a number of remarkable female spiritual leaders. The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu sacred text, cites more than 30 women sages.
However, in medieval times, a period of intense conflict and social upheaval, Hindu society became more restrictive, and women Purohits all but disappeared from the spiritual horizon. Of course, there remained some Hindu women saints, but they often had to face intense difficulties, exampled by the legendary Rajput princess turned saint, Meera bai.
The modern age has seen the spectacular re-emergence of Hindu priestesses, saints and spiritual leaders. The process is not yet complete, but the results are plain for all to see.
We have charismatic spiritual Gurus, the most famous example being Mata Amritanandamayi, The Hugging Saint, renowned for her charity work and humanitarian activities. Others include Sri Ma of Kamakhya, Anandi Ma, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Jayshreeben Talvalkar and several others. Relatively recently, in March 2005, it was reported that an American woman was ordained as a Priestess in the Holy town of Varnasi, India. Originally called Saima, she was given the name Laxmi Devi Chalanda Sarvanandmayi Ma and was affirmed “Mahant Mahamandleshwar” or Chief Priest.
Many groups, in the last few decades, have launched ambitious programmes to ensure that the role of officiating at Hindu ceremonies is not restricted by gender.
The Shankar Seva Samiti (SSS) based in Pune have trained over 7000 women purohits. The Jnana Prabodhini (JP), an educational institute established in 1990 has trained hundreds of women in all rituals. Further examples are Gurupadam Institute of Kodungallur in Thrissur district and The Rani Laxmibai Bhawan, which has been operating under the guidance of Sanskrit scholar Veenatai Modak.
Of course this challenge to Hindu Orthodoxy has caused a stir, the main discussion point has predictably been “menstruation”, where women are considered “unclean” to perform religious rituals. A Mandhir in Kerala has overcome this problem by ordaining four women priests, each alternating their duties during these times.
The concept of Shakti, the Feminine aspect of Divinity, is embedded into the roots of Sanatana Dharma. Now we are once again seeing the respect for female divinity in Hinduism translating into recognition of the abilities of women, after a long lapse of time since the Vedic age. Time will tell if this Traditional but so very modern concept of Shakti will become a global phenomena with Hindus leading the way to a truly exciting and enriching concept.