Indian women breaking down barriers to religious leadership

Source: Religion News Service

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.

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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.

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