Friday, July 10, 2009

Hindu Women Priests?

Talking with Dr. Anjoo Upadhyaya, a professor at BHU, was one of my best experiences in India.

She is Director of the Center for the Study of Nepal at Banares Hindu University, and her husband, Priyankar Upadhyaya, is coordinator of the Malaviya Center for Peace Research at BHU.

One of their sons works in Londonderry for the Institute of Conflict Resolution, and the other will be a freshman at Yale this fall.

Anjoo arranged to have lunch with me to discuss a common interest: working to advance women as priests and pastors.

When I introduced myself after the lectures by Karen Torjesen and Kristin Laverty the day before, I mentioned that I support Catholic women working to ordain women priests and I'm interested in advancing Protestant women beyond the stained glass ceiling.

Anjoo would like to see women priests in Hindu temples. Driving us in her car, she took me to a Japanese restaurant in Vanarasi, parking just outside it on the narrow street.

"In Hindu temples, there are very few women priests," she explained.

"What? Even though you have both gods and goddesses?" I asked. "What about temples that are dedicated to a goddess?"

"Even there," she said. "There's this ancient belief that women would contaminate the temple--you know, the taboo on menstruation. Even among middle class, educated people, Hindu women have to contend with ideas about menstruation."

She explained that her caste is Kayastha, not that high, but she married a Brahman, and Brahmans observe many older practices, such as believing that a woman should not enter the kitchen during her period; to do so contaminates the kitchen.

"My mother told me, 'No custom is there for no reason,'" she said, suggesting that this custom at least provided women with a rest from cooking.

Most Hindu women do not visit a temple during their periods, she said.

"But my sister-in-law will go to a temple," she said. "Especially a Dhurga temple."

Dhurga is a form of Devi, Mother of the Universe and the supreme power of the supreme being.

Anjoo said that there are four "shankara charias" (knowledgeable ones) in India, and they are only men.

"Mahants" are always men; they are in charge of a temple, even Devi's temple.

"Sometimes you see articles in Indian newspapers about a women priest, women who are rebels," Anjoo said.

"These women may have performed last rites for a family member because that person asked her to," she continued.

"There was a Dalit woman whose father's last wish was that his daughter do the cremation, and she did. But this would not have occurred in the upper classes. Middle class women tend to follow rules, propriety. The lower in caste hierarchy you look, the more powerful are the women."

"Middle class standards can be used to condemn both upper and lower classes," she said.

"Feminist consciousness in India began to develop in the 18th and 19th centuries," she explained, recommending Feminism in India edited by Maitrayee Chaudhuri (Zed Books, 2005).

Chastity and rape are among the subjects discussed in this book. "Rape is constructed to be such a big thing here," Anjoo said. It can affect a woman's chances for marriage.

Women in India are working on many issues--domestic violence, education, choice in marriage, she said. Most don't take an interest in Hindu temples and the lack of women priests there.

In Kerala on India's west coast, however, there is a movement for women priests in the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, a reform Protestant branch of Orthodox Syrians that traces its roots to the Apostle Thomas.

"We don't care about women leaders; we want women at the altar," is their position, she said.

Respect and status in India generally can be ranked (highest to lowest) as older woman, older man, younger woman, young man, she said.

But getting women into Hindu priesthood is an uphill battle.

~ ~ ~

Note: I heard philosophical Hindus refer to "one god" (appearing in various forms and incarnations) using masculine language: "god... he... him."

How can this be in a country where Devi, the Great Goddess, is worshipped also? Is it the influence of British colonization? Or Islam? Or just the tendency of a patriarchal culture?

This trip to India left me with more questions than I had when I arrived.

See Devi: Goddesses of India by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (Univ. of California Press, 1996).

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