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Women priests establish themselves

30 Jun 2002, 0205 hrs IST, G V R Subba Rao, TNN

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HYDERABAD: Women priests in Andhra Pradesh have over the latter half of the 20th century established their
presence in what is literally a traditional male bastion.
“The conduct of worships or sacrifices by male priests had become so lifeless and artificial that the dedication
displayed by women priests has become a primary reason for their growing popularity,” says Dr Suneeti, considered to
be the state’s earliest women practitioner of Vedic rites in the last century.
The female purohitas display more sensitivity while conducting the various vows and observances, says Dr Suneeti,
who started off as a priest in the early 1950s. In the footsteps of the great women philosophers of the Vedic period,
highly-qualified priests such as Dr Suneeti, Sandhayvandanam Lakshmi Devi and Vasudha Sastry have established
their credentials as priests.
Other than these Hyderabad-based purohitas, Oruganti Lakshmi Devi (Miryalaguda), Sulochana, Saraswathamma
(Kamareddy), Swaroopa Rani (East Godavari district), Kalyani (Tenali), are other well-known women priests. The Arya
Samaj played a key role in encouraging women to take up the profession as part of their attempt to revive Vedic
Suseela Vidyalankar, during the 1950s, used to go along with her priest husband to perform pujas. But Dr Suneeti
says she started performing rituals alone with out anyone’s assistance. Lakshmi Devi, the first woman to obtain a
doctorate in Vedic studies in the state, has trained many women irrespective of caste as priests. More women are now
taking up the profession in the state.
The women’s foray into this profession was not without opposition. The Vedic tradition is exemplified in a verse from
Bhihadaranyakopanishad, which reads, “atha ya icched duhita me pandita jayeta,” (a well-to-do man always thinks that
his daughter should be a scholar). But the Puri Shankaracharya denounced Vedic education for women. “Let the
Sankaracharya show at least one example from Vedic texts which forbids women from performing Vedic rituals.
I will become his disciple,” says Dr Suneeti. Male priests first criticised and opposed their female counterparts by
invoking religious authority. They said that ‘soft-hearted’ woman priests could not perform difficult rites like obsequious
anniversaries (shraddh). But Sandhyavandanam Lakshmi Devi, the first woman to conduct Telugu rituals had an
answer for this. She has performed many anteyshtis (last rites) including that of her teacher Gopadeva Sastry.
“A person who knows atma and karma tatva will not fear the death,” she says. “Women can conduct puja as efficiently
and with proficiency as the men priests.We explain to the host about the purpose of a puja and the ritual as prescribed
in the scripture and complete the puja without short-cuts,” says Vasudha Sastry.
Knowledge of Sanskrit, correct and clear pronunciation and rhythm of mantras allows the conduct of rituals with
authority and dignity, she said.

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