India's Hindu priestesses challenge male-dominated traditions The priestesses are part of a feminist push to make Hinduism more inclusive. Some have begun officiating at Indian weddings stripped of patriarchal traditions: No more "donating" brides to in-laws.

Hindu priestesses fight the patriarchy, one Indian wedding at a time

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India is celebrating one of its biggest festivals, Durga Puja. People walk in processions and conduct rituals dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga. Traditionally, only male priests perform the rituals. But this year, for the first time, women are taking part - priestesses. They're part of a new feminist movement within Hinduism.

NPR's Lauren Frayer reports it started with weddings.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sharmistha Chaudhuri is a PR professional in Austin, Texas. She's independent, educated, has traveled the world. And when she and her boyfriend decided to get married, she balked at the idea of a traditional Hindu wedding.

SHARMISTHA CHAUDHURI: I just knew that I didn't want to do this. And it was more like, how can we do something less traditional (laughter)?

FRAYER: But Sharmistha wanted to get married in her native India, where weddings are typically all about tradition. They often last days, officiated by male priests chanting in Sanskrit, an ancient language most laypeople don't speak. So Sharmistha did something different. She walked me through her wedding video...


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

FRAYER: ...In which, instead of a male priest, four priestesses performed a multilingual, egalitarian ceremony stripped of patriarchal traditions.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

CHAUDHURI: Here, we both walked up together. My father didn't give me away. The onus doesn't fall on the girl. Like, it's not the bride who's kind of praying for the long life of her husband and, you know, his family.

FRAYER: The groom prayed for his in-laws, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Sanskrit).

FRAYER: On a stage in downtown Kolkata, the same priestesses who married Sharmistha are rehearsing hymns for something even larger. Their participation in this week's Durga Puja festival made headlines across India. And they've been flooded with requests to officiate more Hindu rituals.

NANDINI: Nonstop (laughter) - it's irritating at times.

FRAYER: Nandini, one of the priestesses, who goes by one name, says it wasn't like this when she first started 10 years ago.

NANDINI: In the beginning, we got very little calls because people naturally did not believe in us. They thought, what will the women do?

FRAYER: Once, after she performed a wedding, one of the newlyweds' conservative relatives brought in a male priest to repeat the ceremony just to make sure it was valid. But unlike Catholicism, for example, which has the Vatican, Hinduism has no one central doctrinal authority. Nandini is a Sanskrit scholar. She claims as much right to interpret or reinterpret scripture as any other priest.

NANDINI: I have just omitted those portions which are regressive to women, like kanyadaan, donation of the daughter to the husband, in-laws. Naturally, how can I keep that when women of today are so enlightened? They are empowered.

FRAYER: Nandini thinks India and Hinduism are ready for this change. But the vast majority of Hindu priests are still men, not even just any men - men from the Brahmin - highest - caste. These new priestesses are working primarily in one of India's most liberal states, West Bengal. But even here, some have a problem with what they're doing.

And Sudeshna Chakraborty has heard from them.

SUDESHNA CHAKRABORTY: Some people used to call me up and - how can you do this? What is the reason behind you?

FRAYER: She's another Hindu priestess who left corporate life five years ago to study Sanskrit scripture. She's gotten harassing phone calls from male priests, who she suspects feel threatened. But for every harassing call, she says she gets many more from women who want to follow in her footsteps.



CHAKRABORTY: Hello. Namaste.

FRAYER: Namaste.

So on the third floor of an old colonial building in downtown Kolkata, Sudeshna is running classes for priestesses in training.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Sanskrit).

FRAYER: One of her top students is Tina Halder. She's a woman. She's not a Brahmin. But she is determined.

TINA HALDER: At very first, we faced little problems. But after few times, when we practice this, I get confident in myself.

FRAYER: She says she's confident that Hindu priestesses like her can help make an ancient religion more inclusive.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Kolkata, India.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Sanskrit).

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