The rise of women in religious spaces
PRIESTS have been religious pillars in Hinduism for centuries. These spiritual leaders are highly regarded and are oftentimes seen as pillars of their community. For years, these pandits, as they are called in Guyana, have been leaders and guides to the people who trust in them. With beliefs and values rooted stronger than most people, they have been tasked with guiding their people for millennia. For much of history, this has been the case, and it still is today; however, there are some changes happening within the realm.
Although the word pandit conjures up the image of a man holding the title, there are also women taking up the mantle. Although few, Guyana does have panditas, female Hindu priests. Dhanrajie Haimraj is a mother and dedicated pandita. She is part of a movement that is dedicated towards the development and further engagement of women in religious spaces.
She believes that religious and cultural spaces will benefit from diversity; as she pushes forward with her mantra, there is nothing a woman cannot do.
The power of knowing
Dhanrajie Haimraj is a mother and Hindu priestess living in the community of Windsor Forest along the West Coast in Region Three. Known locally as Dolly, she is somewhat of a rarity and pioneer. Born and raised in the community of Windsor Forest, Dolly has a profound love for her home and her faith, which she came into as a child growing up in Windsor Forest. The 59-year-old spoke to the Pepperpot Magazine as she explained her views on women in religion and people’s role in welcoming them.
Dolly has moved to quite a few places in the community of Windsor Forest but has never left the village. The love for her community is on par with her love for her faith. She explained that although she has seen much of Guyana and the beauty it offers, her love for Windsor Forest has never faltered. As she stated, “I was born in Windsor Forest, I grew up here, and my love for the village is right here. When I started moving out, I saw beautiful places, too, but Windsor Forest is always close to my heart. Because this community is a very loving one.”
Religious ties run deep within her family, with her husband also being a priest. Dolly is a part of a movement coined Arya Samaj, which bears the meaning ‘a noble society’. Society advocates for education to be brought in all forms and to everyone. This belief is what drives the new addition of female Hindu priests, the idea that knowledge, even religious teachings, can be taught to and by everyone, even women. Dolly shared that “Arya Samaj propagates education to the highest. And I always look forward to women and young girls being educated.”
Dolly and countless other women who are a part of the movement stand on the belief that with the education of women comes the education of the next generation and generations to come. As Dolly explains, “Women are said to be the first teachers of a child. And once the mother or women is educated, we will have a well-educated and beautiful society.”
Dolly’s belief in emphasising education is driven by her religion, and it extends beyond women’s education and empowerment. Dolly and other Arya Samaj members take part in social work and outreaches, believing that not only should women be educated, but so should everyone; even those in more unfortunate circumstances.
The captivating aspect of Dolly’s work is primarily found in the rarity of a Hindu priestess. There are very few around the world and even less in Guyana. The road and requirements to becoming a Hindu priestess are difficult and trying in their own unique way. According to Dolly, the Arya Samaj’s emphasis on education takes an entirely new step when a woman takes up the mantle of the priesthood. Vast knowledge and in-depth understanding of a wide array of topics need to be studied and understood to gain the title of priestess.
As Dolly states, “In the Arya Samaj movement, they put women on the highest pedestal. We do not discriminate or differentiate. As long as you are able and have the necessary knowledge.” She added, “To become a priestess, you must know the basic knowledge like Hindi and Sanskrit.” Carrying the title of priestess is, on its own, a commendable accomplishment, even more so with the added weight of people’s perceptions. Dolly admits that there have been instances where people displayed hesitance towards a female Hindu priest. But she has worked tirelessly to ensure that people see priestesses for who they are – just as capable as a priest.