Shloka lessons to break temple glass ceiling

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  • Published 8.01.07

Varanasi, Jan. 8: After puja and meditation each morning, Tejaswini Rao settles down on a grassy patch at Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya to study Sanskrit shlokas.

The daughter of an Andhra farmer, in the second year of a 10-year course in Vedic studies, wants to be a Sanskrit teacher or a priest. A priest ? “Yes I can, I wear the holy thread, a Brahmin’s identity,” says the confident 12-year-old, pointing to the threads on her shoulder.

At the institute in the town’s Tulasipur area, 125 young women, some of them from Nepal and Bangladesh, are being coached in shlokas from the Vedas and the tenets of Sanskrit grammarian Panini.

“The institution has so far produced about 25 women scholars, at least 12 of whom are engaged as priests in Hyderabad. They perform pujas at community events and at home,” says Nandanam Satyam Arya, the coordinator.

Not all women studying at the institute are from Brahmin families. Arya touts the presence of backward caste students as proof of the institute’s aversion to the caste system.

The institute was set up by Acharya Prajnadevi, who rebelled against the Brahminical order that denied women the wisdom of the Vedas. She vowed to follow the paths of ancient women scholars like Gargi and Maitrayee.

But grooming priests isn’t the only objective. “It’s not our goal only to produce women priests. Imparting a thorough knowledge of the Vedas and Sanskrit shlokas is important, too. But it’s the women who want to be priests. And, we find nothing wrong with it,” Arya says.

Kaumandi, Tejaswini’s classmate from Nepal, already has her own take on what it takes to be a Brahmin. “Brahmins aren’t just born, they are made, too.” Her teacher, Suryadevi Chaturveda, smiles approvingly. “She’s right. Brahmins have to learn and grow in a proper culture to be known as one,” says the 40-year-old.

Predictably, Panini Mahavidyalaya’s efforts have raised the hackles of conservative Brahmin leaders. Batuknath Prasad Shastri, a senior priest at Viswanath Temple, has written to teachers at the institute saying Hinduism doesn’t permit women to wear the holy thread, recite shlokas, pronounce Om and perform yoga. And, in no way does it allow them to become priests. “It is not wise to let women work as priests for they have handicaps in carrying out pujas,” Shastri argued.

The response, some made through journals, has been more than quick. “We have sent Shastri rejoinders, which have been printed in a Sanskrit magazine. We have told him that if women have some handicaps, so do men. They also fall ill and might become impure not to be able to perform puja,” Suryadevi said.

Other teachers in Varanasi, home to many Vedic schools imparting lessons in Sanskrit, are also outraged that the institute has allowed backward castes in Vedic studies.

The institute is undaunted. Brushing off objections, it recently proposed a Panini Memorial, with all the scholar’s 4,000 grammatical aphorisms inscribed on its walls. “We are planning to bring some soil from Panini’s birthplace in Pakistan (he was born at Shalatula, near Attock, in 520 BC) to lay the foundation,” says Arya.