Hindu Priestesses

By Lauren Frayer, originally published by NPR. Featured photo: Sharmistha Chaudhuri (center, wearing pink), 35, at her wedding in Kolkata, India, in January 2019.

KOLKATA, India — When Sharmistha Chaudhuri decided to get married in her native India, she faced a dilemma.

Chaudhuri, 35, is a PR professional in Austin, Texas. She’s independent, educated, and has traveled the world. She wanted her wedding to reflect her liberal values and the equal partnership she has with her American fiancé.

But Chaudhuri found some Indian wedding traditions patriarchal. Hindu weddings are usually officiated by male priests. The bride’s parents “donate” her to her in-laws. It’s typically only the bride, not the groom, who prays for her new family’s longevity — and gets her forehead anointed with colored powder to signify she’s married.

“I just knew that I didn’t want to do this,” Chaudhuri recalls. “It was more like, ‘How can we do something less traditional?'”

Her like-minded mother found a solution: Instead of priests, they hired four Hindu priestesses to perform a multilingual, egalitarian ceremony, stripped of patriarchal traditions.

The priestesses belong to a Kolkata-based collective known as Shubhamastu — “let it prosper” in the ancient language of Sanskrit — that began revising Hindu wedding liturgy about 10 years ago. Two are Sanskrit scholars with decades of academic experience. Along with the traditional wedding chants, they often incorporate secular hymns with lyrics by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was awarded 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 adherents. They are working in one of India’s most liberal states, West Bengal, but have won fame across the country.

For the first time, female clergy are joining rituals honoring a Hindu goddess

They’re not just officiating at weddings. This week, for the first time, the Shubhamastu priestesses are presiding over rituals at one of India’s biggest festivals, an homage to the Hindu goddess Durga. Traditionally, only male priests have performed the Durga Puja rituals, which are most popular in Kolkata but are observed across 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 Kolkata, alongside their male counterparts.

“Women storm male bastion,” one Indian newspaper headline reads.

Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority — unlike Roman Catholicism, for example, which has the Vatican. So there is no universally accepted ordination scheme for Hindu priests. While the vast majority of them are Brahmin men — members of what’s perceived as Hinduism’s highest caste — female clergy have long been around, albeit in very small numbers. (Experts say they number in the hundreds or possibly low thousands in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people.)

“You have to be confident, you have to study hard,” says Nandini, a Shubhamastu priestess who recently started using only one name to avoid revealing her caste. “But you can become priests by profession. Why not?”

On hiatus from her job as a professor of Sanskrit at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, Nandini, 60, claims as much right to interpret — or reinterpret — Hindu scripture as any other priest.

“I have just omitted those portions [of Hindu wedding liturgy] which are regressive to women. Like kanyadaan, the donation of the daughter to the husband and in-laws,” she explains. “How can I keep that, when women of today are so enlightened? They are empowered! Most of them are working.”

In India, Hindu weddings are governed by the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which sets the legal marriage age for women as 18, and for men as 21. It says marriages may be solemnized in accordance with “customary rites and ceremonies,” and mentions the Hindu practice of circling a sacred fire seven times — but does not require it. It does not legislate the gender of the officiant, nor any liturgy.

Nandini says she and her fellow priestesses’ phones have been ringing off the hook since their role in the Durga Puja festival was announced a few months ago. They’ve officiated hundreds of weddings over the past decade, and are currently booked through late 2022. In addition to weddings — including those of both of her daughters — Nandini also officiates at memorial services and housewarming blessings.

But that wasn’t always the case.

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This article was originally published by NPR and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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16 Responses to Hindu Priestesses

  1. They do not have the authority to change the rituals of Hindu marriage.
    The rituals of Hindu marriage are not without any deep purpose or meaning. Knowing Sanskrit does not give one the eligibility to change them.
    The matter of disobeying and disregarding the rituals mentioned in the sacred scriptures is being glorified here as being progressive and open-minded. Real progress and open-mindedness is the result of following the authorised scriptures.

    • Let’s not forget that Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada changed the rituals of Hindu marriage for the benefit of his disciples, and believed he had the authority to do so.

      • In order to justify your comment, you would have to supply evidence.

        • Prabhupada sometimes had a couple (sometimes many couples at the same time!) exchange garlands, and then did a homa. He also made up his own “wedding vows” that the couples would say to each other.
          As I asked in my other comment, what is the standard that you think exists for a marriage ritual? There is unlimited variety, and Prabhupada made his own version as well.

        • If Prabhupada “made up” his vows then that can be called as a temporary adjustment. After all, we do not accept all things Prabhupada said or did as the truth. For eg.: Prabhupada’s statement that women are less intelligent, jiva falls from Vaikuntha, etc.

          You asked:
          As I asked in my other comment, what is the standard that you think exists for a marriage ritual?
          My reply:
          I have explained it in my reply to that comment.

          You asked:
          There is unlimited variety, and Prabhupada made his own version as well.
          My reply:
          By this logic, you also have to accept everything that Prabhupada said and did as having full shastric authority, eg. his opinion about women, his views about democracy, etc.

        • I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are suggesting here. The acarya possesses full sastric authority because of understanding the essence of the sastra, the spirit of the sastra. The acarya may be living in sastra, while not following every letter of it according to literal interpretation. sastra-yukti!

    • The Vedic Gandharva marriage is one based on nothing other than mutual consent. Mahabharata considers it the only viable form of Vedic marriage in Kali-yuga. And according to Jiva Goswami, Krsna considers the Gandharva rite “the highest dharma” with regard to marriage: “Mutual acceptance between bride and groom is what the Gandharva marriage consists of. And this mutual acceptance is the highest dharma, manifesting naturally as it does between lovers.” Gopala-campu 1.24.85

      • Guru-Maharaja, Gandharva marriage is not the point of the article in question.

        • If the marriages under discussion in the article are based upon and driven by no more than mutual affection, then essentially they could be considered Gandharva marriages, for which there are no hard and fast rules/procedures. As such to add procedures would be of little or no consequence.

        • Gandharva marriages only have mutual consent. No rituals of marriage are performed.
          To perform rituals and then say that it is Gandharva marriage is not correct.
          Also, as you said, in the case of Gandharva marriage, adding rituals does not make sense. But the article speaks about CHANGING the rituals of marriage.

        • I’m unable to comment this directly to Sastra-vani’s reply:

          “In the case of the Gandharva and other rites of marriage, in order to constitute the legal status of husband and wife, there must be performed the ceremonies of Homa and all the rest up to Sapta-padi.”—Yajnavalkya-smrti with commentary, translated by Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vidyarnava

          “The Smrti-candrika and other digests state that in the gandharva [marriage] … homa and saptapadi are necessary, and they quote Devala and the Grhyaparisista in support…. Since Asvalayana first speaks of eight forms [of marriage] and then prescribes the performance of homa and saptapadi, he implies that these are necessary in all forms.”—”History of Dharma-sastra, PV Kane

          So it appears that according to many authors and commentators on these texts, marriage rituals are to be performed. Thus, according to these statements, it is correct to perform a ritual and then call it a gandharva marriage.

    • You have suggested that there is some “authority” that these women priests don’t possess to change rituals, and also that they would be progressive and open minded only if they followed “authorized” scriptures.

      Please explain what authority they are missing. Please explain what the authorized scriptures are. Are you talking about OUR authorized scriptures? Because those aren’t every Hindu’s authorized scriptures. Please explain what is “the” standard marriage ritual, and where it comes from. I have seen hundreds of tweaks to Hindu weddings, including our own Gaudiya version.
      I doubt that any participant in such a non-standardized spectrum of marriage ceremonies thinks that the rituals they choose to implement are without deep purpose and meaning. In fact, they probably tweak things, modify rituals so that they will have MORE purpose and MORE meaning. Is that not the point, to make the marriage meaningful and deeply purposeful to the participants?

      • Pranaam,

        You asked:
        Please explain what authority they are missing.
        My reply:
        They are lacking the authority of being thoroughly learned in dharma-shAstras such as those of the discipline of Purva-mimamsa, Yajnavalkya-smrti, Manu-smrti, the various Grhya-sutras, scriptures related to the domain of karma, etc. in whose domain the rituals of marriage fall.

        You asked:
        Please explain what the authorized scriptures are.
        My reply:
        I have mentioned them above.

        You asked:
        Are you talking about OUR authorized scriptures?
        My reply:
        No. I am talking about authorised scriptures related to Hindu marriage and its rituals.

        You asked:
        Please explain what is “the” standard marriage ritual, and where it comes from.
        My reply:
        Whatever marriage rituals are according to the above-mentioned scriptures are authentic.

        You asked:
        I have seen hundreds of tweaks to Hindu weddings, including our own Gaudiya version.
        I doubt that any participant in such a non-standardized spectrum of marriage ceremonies thinks that the rituals they choose to implement are without deep purpose and meaning. In fact, they probably tweak things, modify rituals so that they will have MORE purpose and MORE meaning. Is that not the point, to make the marriage meaningful and deeply purposeful to the participants?

        My reply:
        Different regions of India have slightly different marriage rituals according to the particular Grhya-sutras and smrti texts they follow.

        • How do you know they are not learned in dharma sastra?

          You acknowledge that different regions of India have different rituals according to the texts they follow. This would seem to emphasize my point: culture is fluid, changing, constantly renewing. Some places in India are influenced by different texts, by different teachers, by different history, by different language, etc. What to speak of the global society that we now live in? This article is about a professional woman, living in the USA, who wants an Indian wedding that reflects her culture and her modern values. Why should that be discouraged?

          From our Gaudiya outlook on the world, aspiring to be “harmonists”, what should we care to discourage people who are incorporating some progressive adaptation of Hindu ritual? We are not adherents to dharma sastra, or advocates of vedic varnasrama duties. Neither are we destroyers of it, but we are first and foremost advocates of paro dharma. I suspect these priestesses or Ms. Chaudhuri, already questioning traditional dharma would be more receptive to this type of progressive view of dharma.

          yat-prahvaṇād yat-smaraṇād api kvacit
          śvādo ’pi sadyaḥ savanāya kalpate
          kutaḥ punas te bhagavan nu darśanāt

          To say nothing of the spiritual advancement of persons who see the Supreme Person face to face, even a person born in a family of dog-eaters immediately becomes eligible to perform Vedic sacrifices if he once utters the holy name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or chants about Him, hears about His pastimes, offers Him obeisances or even remembers Him.

        • “. . . the Puranas are a fluid body of literature that went on transforming along the centuries through the process of transmission and adaptation. Unlike the genre of texts known as shruti,s which could never be tampered with, the Puranas, which are smriti,6 had much more flexible expectations associated with them. While nonetheless sacred and authoritative, the Puranas transmit information for the general populace, and thus adjustments according to the day and age are not viewed askance-indeed, such fluidity is inherent in the claim made by most Puranas of presenting the “essence” of the Veda according to time and place, of explaining, expanding on, and even superseding the contents of previous scriptures, of revealing secret truths not contained elsewhere. They are thus ongoing revelation.”

          Edwin F. Bryant. Krishna: A Sourcebook (Kindle Locations 1592-1596). Kindle Edition.

    • Being completely ignorant of dharma-sastra and Hindu ritual, my genuine question is, Can anyone completely follow ancient rules of dharma and ritual in Kali-yuga? In “History of Dharma Sastra,” PV Kane says,

      “In connection with the rites of marriage, it is necessary to observe that the greatest divergence prevailed from very ancient times…. There is not only great divergence as to the number of separate ceremonies that constitute the samskara of marriage, but the sequence of even the most important ceremonies is different in the several sutras and the mantras also are different.”

      The answer to my first question appears to be no. And then I wonder, Which texts do marriage rituals come from? In addition to the main ancient texts, there are many commentaries on those texts throughout the centuries. Then there are probably innumerable other texts throughout India based on those core dharma-sastras.

      So nobody can perfectly follow the core dharma-sastras in this age, and there are innumerable commentaries and dharma-sastras based on those. If only the core texts are authorized, how does one deal with the many commentaries and all the contradictions found therein? And if only those core texts are valid, then uncountable Hindu marriages for hundreds or thousands of years have been invalid.

      If we admit that all the derivative dharma-sastras and rituals are valid, then there appears to be room for ongoing change to marriage rituals according to time, place, circumstance. Right?

      Now, who is qualified to make those adjustments to these sastras and their ceremonies? If you take issue with the Hindu priestesses and what they’re doing, this is what Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra says about wedding ceremonies: “And one should learn from women what ceremonies [are required by custom].” What do we make of that?

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