Newly ordained female priest sees the recognition as a sign of changing timesInitially there had been criticism of a woman being appointed a priest but that has gradually died down. Her ancestors had been pujaris at the temple for generations.
On Monday, Sahanshila Jha Sharma, who was officially appointed as a priest of Annapurna Temple in Ason by Guthi Sansthan on Friday, sounded comparatively relieved as the negative comments that had been made after her appointment had died down.
“It came down because I got massive support from different sections of the society, including academia,” said 48-year-old Jha .
While there had been criticism over the appointment of a woman as a priest of a Hindu temple, which is rare, many have hailed the decision as well.
Women’s right activist Amrita Lamsal was happy to know of Jha’s appointment as a priest by Guthi Sansthan.
“I was really happy because this has a great positive impact and will set an example for the future generation,” said Lamsal.
For Jha, taking up the role of a priest is nothing new. She was brought up seeing her father Hutta Raj Jha Sharma, who passed away 24 years ago, conducting puja at the temple.
“As a kid, our whole family used to go for puja in the temple when my father performed the ritual,” said Jha.
The ritual puja at Annapurna temple is conducted three times a year—once during Krishna Janmashtami and two times during Dashain.
After her father’s death, her brother Pramod performed rituals for three years but then went to the United Kingdom to take up residency there. Then she and her mother Sabitri, 82, gave continuity to the puja.
“It was okay for everyone, because there was no one to take up our ancestral responsibility,” said Jha.
Jha said her grandfather’s father was a tantric priest during the Rana regime, and her family had been living in the area in harmony with the Newar community performing the pujas annually.
“It’s only our family who knows the ingredients that are needed for puja. We do not need to wear any special clothes or ornaments to conduct it,” said Jha.
A month after the nationwide lockdown imposed in the country on March 24, after consulting her family members she applied to the Guthi Sansthan, the government body that oversees religious sites and rituals in the country, for the position of a priest, as performing puja at Annapurna temple has been her family’s ancestral responsibility.
Nine months later, on Friday, the Guthi Sansthan officially appointed her the priest at the temple at the centre of Kathmandu for a maximum of five years with a one year probation period.
Anthropologist Suresh Dhakal welcomed the decision to appoint Jha, saying this is a symbol of breaking feudal thought.
“Appointing male priests is a traditional practice that started hundreds of years ago and that structure as an institution would naturally support feudalism. And feudalism would support those religious institutions as the state would be directly linked with it,” said Dhakal. “But with time, institutions such as guthi or other religious bodies have come out from such a feudal mindset and are getting more liberal.”
Such institutions have started to give some recognition to new trends in the society, and Jha’s appointment is an example, according to Dhakal.
Many people on social media hailed Sharma’s appointment as a progressive move while others have condemned it as a malady imposed in the name of embracing progressive ideology.
Regarding the criticism in society about Jha’s appointment, Dhakal said the criticisms were a reflection of the attachment of people with the same feudal values.
“Outwardly, it seems that it’s their religious protest. But if we see it minutely, it shows that some people are unwilling to accept the change and they want a status quo,” said Dhakal.
But Jha is unfazed by what critics are saying.
“I take it as a matter of pride despite all the negative comments,” said Jha talking to the Post at her office. “This should be taken as a handover of culture to the next generation in this changed situation.”
Hari Prasad Subedi, chief of the Guthi Sansthan, said some people are giving negative comments on social media showing her personal issues.
“This should not be the case here, because there are other women priests performing puja,” said Subedi. “We got a letter from the ward office to approve her as a priest as she and her mother have been conducting the puja for years. There should not be any issue in this regard.”
Jha, the third daughter among four sisters and one brother, didn’t like the discrimination the society made between sons and daughters. Even in her own family, she had seen the discrimination as her brother was sent to a boarding school while all her sisters were sent to a government school in Kathmandu.
“I didn’t know that was a case of discrimination until I was in school, because that was what the society used to do and we used to feel that our brother will look after the family,” said Jha, who was born in Naradevi.
Jha runs an organisation, Media House, in Laltipur which she established 18 years ago with her sister Sharmila. The organisation offers job-oriented training. Being a professional working woman, she believes in equality.
“Our focus was to give journalism training and other job-oriented skills for women. But very few women showed up, so we later made it inclusive,” said Jha.
She started her career as a journalist in Himalaya Times and Nepali Patra weekly.
“As a working journalist, I always wrote on the issue of women empowerment and always questioned the patriarchy which is too dominant in our culture,” said Jha.
She is not happy with the negative comments that are countering on her appointment. She blames some narrow-minded people for making it a ‘political issue.’
“This is a step ahead in breaking the patriarchal mindset of the society and a breakthrough for other women to carry the task because it’s all about equality and inclusiveness,” said Jha.
But while running her office and empowering women, she had one question on her mind—if performing puja at Annapurna temple had been done by her family for generations, why not make it official as the position of the priest had been vacant for years after her brother left the country.