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A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Indian Women Breaking Down Barriers to Religious Leadership
By Priyadarshini Sen   |  May 18, 2018

PUNE, India (RNS) — Wearing a single piece of unstitched cloth and a grass girdle around his waist, 8-year-old Harshal Kulkarni chants Vedic mantras. A sacred fire is kindled to initiate him into his second birth at a villa in Pune’s old city.

Harshal, a highborn Hindu in the social hierarchy, is set to transition from childhood to student life in the Upanayana, a ceremony reserved for the three higher groups in India’s caste system that traditionally marks a Hindu boy’s coming of age.

But Harshal’s rite of passage varies from tradition in one surprising detail. The celebrant behind the blazing hearth-altar at the center of Harshal’s Upanayana is Neela Khadkikar, a 65-year-old priestess dressed in a dark green sari who leads the incantations. For more than a decade, Khadkikar, one of a growing number of Hindu priestesses, has solemnized marriage, birth and death ceremonies for Hindus in India and abroad.

“If women are taking strides in other professions, why can’t they in the spiritual sphere?” asks Khadkikar, smearing the boy’s forehead with vermilion.

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