Hinduism is considered to be the world’s oldest living religion—with roots dating to 2000 B.C. The religion originated around the Indus Valley near the Indus River in what is now modern day India and Pakistan. “Most traditions within Hinduism share certain distinctive, core beliefs despite the absence of an identifiable beginning in history, single founder, central religious establishment, or sole authoritative scripture,” according to the Hindu American Foundation. “Two of these core beliefs are that of the oneness of existence (No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.) and pluralism (May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings experience prosperity. May none in the world suffer.).”
Until the last 45 years or so, priests in India traditionally were men who came from the Brahmin caste (which includes those in sacred and teaching professions). But this was not always the case. In the Vedic era (c. 1500–c. 500 B.C.E.) in India—during which the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, were composed—women enjoyed equal freedom to pursue knowledge and study the holy scriptures. According to the Vedas, “Men and women, being equal halves of one substance—are equal in every respect.” Women also appeared frequently in the Rigveda (a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns) in priest-like positions, composing/singing hymns and making sacrifices. Yet, despite the equality espoused in ancient Hindu texts and the fact that there is no scriptural constraint against women becoming priests, women have been strongly discouraged from becoming priests—especially in India. Other geographic areas have a tradition of female Hindu priesthood. For hundreds of years, females have been allowed to serve as priests in Bali, Indonesia.
In India, the restriction against women priests began loosening in the mid-1970s when a philanthropist named Shankar Hari Thatte first trained women priests in Pune, India. “He wanted to impart knowledge of the Vedic texts and learning, and chose children to begin with,” according to an article from the Inter Press Service International Association about the increase in the number of female priests. “But seeing their indiscipline and disinterest, he decided to teach their mothers instead.” Thatte established the Udyan Prasad Karyalaya in Pune to train the first class of women priests. The classes were free, and lasted four months. Pune continued to be a hotbed of training for women priests. In the early 1980s, Shankarrao Thatte, the owner of a marriage hall in Pune, launched the Shankar Seva Samiti, a school to train female priests. The Jnana Prabodhini School was also founded during this time in Pune to train female priests. In addition, temples and learning centers in Hyderabad (the capital of the state of Telangana) and Mumbai (the capital of the state of Maharashtra) have a tradition of being supportive of female priests.
Today, Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world with approximately one billion devotees (including 2.5 million in the United States).