The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Woman as idol, not priest
- Certified by religious school, ladies wait for call to perform

Calcutta, Sept. 14: No, even Sania Mirza wouldn’t make the cut. Nor would Kalpana Chawla.

In spite of the lethal forehand that had world no. 1 Maria Sharapova scampering at the US Open, or the historic mission to space aboard the Columbia.

No, not to conduct community Durga pujas in Bengal or anywhere, for that matter. No way. That’s not their cup of tea.

They are not men.

As the Durga Puja season creeps up yet another autumn, certified women priests are twiddling their thumbs. No community puja worth its salt will have them conduct rituals, little matter that Durga Puja is a celebration of stree shakti.

“With the right kind of support, I am confident I can conduct a community puja,” says Purnima Ghosh, who completed the priesthood course from the Maniktala tol (Hindu religious school) last year.

“But I am not a Brahmin and I am moreover a woman. How can they allow me to conduct a community puja' I have not got any offers. My pujas are confined to my home,” rues the 56-year-old homemaker from Bagbazar.

Wife of a retired state government officer, Purnima had been inspired into taking up the course by a desire to better herself. “Initially, my family members were surprised, but later they fully supported me.”

Purnima was among six women who enrolled for the paurohitya (priesthood) course last year under Nitai Chakraborty at the tol. Some others signed up for a course on jogar (helping with puja arrangements), but they’ve had no luck either.

Gita Dey, another certified out-of-work priest, says for a woman credentials and confidence are not enough. She has visited all pilgrimage centres in India and picked up how elaborate pujas are conducted, but it’s of no use.

“I am a non-Brahmin by caste and a woman by gender. So, I will not be allowed to conduct a puja,” she says.

The one-year priesthood course, which spans six months each of theoretical lessons and practical work, was introduced last year by Chakraborty, who is all praise for his women students.

“Women have the right to conduct a puja and can do it with as much finesse as men. It is the ego of the male purohit samaj that is coming in the way. Also the fear that they will lose the means to earn their bread,” he says.

But the malaise is so deeply ingrained that even women are not in favour of female purohits, he adds.

“The community pujas in Ultadanga and Ballygunge, which are managed by women, have turned down my offer to introduce women purohits.”

Nor are religious scholars too willing. “Women cannot conduct puja on a social platform. The shastras ban it. Only men, Brahmin men, have the right to conduct such pujas,” says Dhaneshnarayan Chakraborty, adviser to the President and former head of Sanskrit at Rabindra Bharati.

“Women can perform puja in their homes but they cannot offer barowari puja.”

Sukumari Bhattacharya, an exponent of the Vedas and former professor of Sanskrit at Calcutta University, asks: “Theoretically, why not' The discrimination is based on gender bias. However, practically it is impossible.”

She says there are instances of women performing yajnas in ancient times but “today the era is different”. “Women need vast knowledge of the Vedas and years of experience, apart from acquiring the holy thread to perform as a purohit.”

Another scholar, Murarimohan Bedanta Sankhatirtha, chose not to comment. “Leave alone women, most male purohits know nothing of the pujas,” says the former president of Bangiya Sanskrit Shikhya Parishad and governing body member of Sanskrit College.

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