India now boasts of nearly 600 Hindu priestesses – women who have questioned the age-old tradition of rituals being conducted by priests – but how many of them go beyond the rigmarole to explain the philosophy and mythology behind each ritual? How many of them turn motivational speakers to spread rationality amongst the devout? Navi-Mumbai based Anagha Mooley does just that. Moreover, she even teaches and grooms women interested in learning the religious texts.
Not only does she write on relevant topics to push positive and rational thinking but also speaks eloquently when invited to seminars. No wonder, her appointment diary is full.
Puja manje pudhe jane (puja means going forward), she states. Karma puja (labour) is the highest form, she adds. “Such a calamity should not have happened at Kedarnath since it is a pious pilgrimage spot. We must follow our conscience and do what is right instead of following rituals and superstition blindly,” she insists.
During festive days, Mooley is invited to households, even non-Maharashtrians, to conduct pujas. From rituals for engagement, marriage, conversion, house warming, ancestor worship to last rites, Mooley knows it all. At an age of 63 years, she remembers the Sanskrit vedic chants (shlokas) for each ceremony like the back of her hand. Mooley is busiest during Ganesh Chaturthi, when she has to hop from one home to another for installation of the idols (murti).
“The good part about priestesses is that they will not simply sit and give instructions to family members but get involved in the minutest part of preparation. Women are punctual. I always carry ingredients for back-up and even volunteer to draw rangoli or prepare prasad, if needed,” said Mooley.
This charming, graceful and elegant woman insists that no Hindu scripture prevents women from assuming the role of a priest. Pune-based Thatte’s Shankar Seva Samiti and Jnana Prabhodini are two leading schools that train women to become priestesses. Mooley, however, studied at late MP Vidvan’s school in Nagpur. Students study Sanskrit, learning by heart all the verses from vedic texts and are trained to conduct ceremonies efficiently.
Originally from Jabalpur, Mooley shifted to Nagpur after marriage, which explains her ease with both Hindi and Marathi. She always conducted puja at home and was inclined towards spirituality. “After my son grew up, I had time so I joined the school. Simply learning texts by heart defeats the purpose. One has to get involved and understand the logic behind each ritual. I don’t charge any fees to teach. Ultimately, faith makes all things possible and keeps our mind calm. Puja keeps the atmosphere at home pleasant,” she pointed.
Mooley believes urban educated women don’t lack talent and are willing to change and adapt. Their religious thoughts too have undergone a sea change with changing social and economic status.
A male bastion, entry of women in this field has been time and again questioned by priests. Reasons vary from menstrual cycles to cheap publicity. Mooley clarifies, “Gone are the days when our children would blindly follow our words. They need a justification for everything. If women understand the vedic scripts, they will be able to pass on the knowledge to their respective families effectively.”
Mooley too faced opposition in her early days. “Families invite home a priestess only when they don’t find a priest. Thanks to the support and encouragement from my family, I could continue,” she said.
While male priests today may not understand the meaning of the mantras they recite or bother to explain well, the women are trained well. It is observed that Hindus are increasingly turning towards God but there is a shortage of priests. “So what is wrong in women sharing the responsibility?” asks Mooley.