Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
with presentations, round tables, and discussions, hosted by the Department of Cultural and Religious History of South Asia,

August 10 to 14, 2020

Changing Patterns of Women's Ritual Agency in Religious Traditions of South Asian Origin

The project “Changing patterns of women’s ritual agency” aims to analytically bring together several cases of radical changes regarding the religious and ritual agency of women in Indian religious traditions. Currently, the following two case studies are part of the project: Hindu priestesses in Pune and the emerging order of nuns in Theravāda Buddhism in the USA and Germany. It is remarkable that initiatives to re-institute the ordination of women into Theravāda Buddhist monasticism took off and is being pursued at the same time as the education of women as Hindu priests started. Yet a significant difference between these two movements is that the Buddhist nuns' activities are closely connected to the spread of Buddhism in the Western world, whereas the priestly education of Hindu women seems to have developed rather silently, without significant involvement of agents outside India.

Hindu priestesses (Strī Purohitā) in Pune

According to Brahmanic texts in Sanskrit, Vedic learning, initiation into priesthood, and the performance of rituals "for others" (parārtha) is the exclusive right of male members of Brahmin castes. Members of non-Brahmin castes, but also women are traditionally excluded from the right to even listen to the Veda, lest learn specialized religious / ritual theory and practice. While the details of the historical development of this specific conceptualization of religious and ritual agency remain to be explored, we witness a radical change in the contemporary practice in India: In spite of strong opposition from orthodox Brahmin circles, more and more women do in fact today receive training in Sanskritic knowledge and ritual practice. A very active center of female priestly education is in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and here especially the large city Pune. Here, a traditionally trained philanthropist and reformer, Mama Thate, started to train women in Vedic recitation and in the performance of life-cycle rituals (saṃskāra) in the late 1970s. Soon his female students started to teach classes themselves, and today there exist many small private training groups for women, some institutions that educate women in Sanskritic rituals, and many individual women who perform rituals for those who approach them.

At present, this still seems to be a largely upper middle class and urban phenomenon, mainly driven by the dissatisfaction with the services offered by the traditional male priests. Here, the lack of time, exorbitant prices, and the inability to explain the content of the rituals to the clients are mentioned as main reasons to shift from traditional male priests to woman priests. Some training institutions that educate women as Hindu religious specialists, however, see their role mainly in promoting social reform, campaigning against "superstition" and "blind belief". They often mention as an important part of their mission the scientific explanation of the purpose of the ritual services they offer to their clients. These groups do not focus on the religious and ritual empowerment of women alone, but to a similar degree on the empowerment of non-Brahmin castes. There are many more groups and individuals, with a broad range of motivations, from a wide variety of social and religious backgrounds, who are engaged in similar activities, although for very different reasons and with different agendas. All these activities, as different as they may be, are expressions of a shift in the religious and ritual agency of women in Indian Hindu traditions. Yet there is a strong urge among the women to emphasize their connection to, and continuation of the Sanskritic textual tradition.

The emerging order of nuns in Theravāda Buddhism in the USA and Germany

The historical Buddha is believed to have institutes the nuns' community not long after the monks' community. However, it seems that in only one Buddhist Vinaya tradition surviving today (the tradition using the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya prevalent mainly in China and Taiwan) the ordination of women continued uninterruptedly until today. In the other two traditions (Mahāvihāra and Mūlasarvāstivāda, prevalent in South-East Asia resp. Tibet) the order of nuns either never was established or ceased to exist many centuries ago. Today there are a number of local Buddhist communities and transregional traditions that respond to the increasing demand of women to revive "full ordination" (upasampadā) and to live as nuns in a formally established Saṃgha. At the same time, Buddhist women live in totally different worlds, embedded in fundamentally different contexts, and Buddhist women “renounce the world” for very different reasons. Clearly, becoming a Buddhist renunciant (with or without ordination) is received differently in predominantly Buddhist settings (where support systems exist, where cultural value is attached to renouncing, etc.) and in settings where this is perceived an “exotic” action. While all these issues are clearly interconnected, the story unfolds differently for different people. While the texts suggest uniformity, in practice there are many ways to become a nun, and importantly the general acceptance of a nun among lay people and among monastics actually never hinges at the textually prescribed procedure of her ordination. Yet the globally dominant discourse is entrenched in a language of monastic law, rights and egalitarianism, and the ideal picture of a nun is mainly guided by textual descriptions as found in the Vinaya, which however can translate very differently into practice. This project takes a close look especially at the recently established Theravāda nuns’ Sanghas in the San Francisco Bay area and in Germany.

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