In all of the temples that I have seen, only males serve as priests. I don't remember seeing any women priestesses. Though there are a few famous women devotees like Aandaal, Meera Bai, etc. there are seldom any women priestesses in our temples. Even in temples dedicated to Shakthi and Kaali only males serve as priests (as far as I know). Why are women restricted from priesthood?
Right from the Vedic times till this date, women are not prohibited from learning vedas. There have been many women purohits (priests who have expertise in rituals outside of temples) in the past and present.
However we rarely encounter women pujaris (temple priests) because of the following physiological and sociological reasons:
Puja should be done only with Sattva dominant body and mind During the menstruation period, there is "Rajas" nature dominant in female body (high emotional activity).
Due to this, on a women may not be able to perform temple duties on 4-5 days per month.
Naturally it becomes difficult to find a replacement priest for just 4-5 days
Also, not to forget that during pregnancy too, a woman would be unable to carry out daily rituals.
A Women/Girl should not be a Priestess because of 2 reasons.
- They are referred to be "Rajaswale". During the period of "Rutu Chakra" (menstrual cycle) they are forbidden to enter temples (I don't know the actual reason).
- Since the Priests job is to chant Mantras. All Mantras need to be pronounced in an order of increasing and decreasing voice (swara) sometimes need to hold breath to complete sentence perfectly, otherwise the result will be nil (or some miss spell will give bad results). This will produce pressure on the stomach (Nabhi) at same location where women/girls will have Uterus (Garbha Kosha). If this pressure applied continuously (priests need to chant daily) on it, this may lead to some pregnancy issues in them. Which is not good.
Women are allowed to perform rites of worship according to the Śāktāgama. Can't say with surety about the same in case of Vaiṣṇavāgama & Śaivāgama.
Vide 6th paṭala of Guptasādhanatantra as quoted in Prāṇatoṣaṇītantra
गुरुर्वा वा गुरुपुत्रो वा गुरुपत्नी च सुव्रते । आगमोक्तपूजने तु अधिकारी गुरुः स्वयम् । गुरोरभावे देवेशि स्वयं पूजादिकञ्चरेत्। गुरुपत्नी महेशानि यदि पूजादिकञ्चरेत् । बलिदानादिकं कार्यं तत्र होमं विवर्जयेत् । होमीयद्रव्यमानीय देव्यग्रे स्थापयेद्वुधः । मूलमन्त्रं समुच्चार्य महादेव्यै निवेदयेत् । तेन होमफलं जातं न वह्नौ होमयेद्वुधः ।
Translation: O performer of good vows! The guru himself is bestowed with the right of conducting worship as laid down in the āgamas. O Deveśī! In absence of the guru, the guru's son, the gurupatnī or one's own self shall do the rites of worship. If the rites are being done by the gurupatnī, then rituals like homa & balidāna should be forsaken. (In these circumstances) the wise should place the articles meant to be offered in homa (i.e the materials that were to be used as āhuti) should be kept in front of the Devī & offered to that great Devī by the utterance of the mūlamantra. The wise shouldn't offer them in the holy fire.
Vide 10th paṭala of Varadātantra as quoted in Prāṇatoṣaṇītantra
तन्त्रोक्तानि स्वकल्पोक्तकर्माणि स्वयमाचरेत् । गुरुणा कारयेद्वापि पुत्रवत्या स्त्रिया तथा । अन्यथानुष्ठितं सर्वं भवत्येव निरर्थकम् ।
The rites specified in one's own stream of tantras should be performed by one's own self. It can also be conducted by the guru & women bestowed with sons. Otherwise all rites that are conducted become fruitless.
Such an exceptional priviledge is obtained only after undergoing pūrṇābhiṣeka.
Vide unnamed Tāntrika texts quoted in the Puraścaryārnava
पूर्णाभिषेकसंयुक्तश्चण्डालोऽपि भवेद्यदि । स ब्रह्मर्षिर्महेशानि नात्र कार्या विचारणा । .... पूर्णाभिषेकयुक्ताणामधिकारो हि सर्वतः ।
O Maheśani! Even if the the bearer of the pūrṇābhiṣeka happens to be a caṇḍāla, he should be considered on par with the brahmarṣis, one shouldn't doubt this....The person endowed with pūrṇābhiṣeka is qualified for all (mantras)
Vide Merutantra as quoted in the Puraścaryārnava
रसेन्द्रेण यथा विद्धमयः सौवर्णता व्रजेत् । दीक्षाविद्धस्तथाह्यात्मा शिवत्वं लभते ध्रुवं ।
Just as the ordinary stone pierced by mercury becomes gold (as per Hindu alchemy), similarly the soul which has been pierced with the (pūrṇābhiṣeka) dīkṣā surely attains the state of Śiva.
Vide Kulārṇavatantra quoted in Puraścaryārnava
गतं शूद्रस्य शूद्रत्वं गता विप्रस्य विप्रता । दीक्षासंस्कारसम्पन्ने जातिभेदो न विद्यते ।
At the end of the saṃskāra of (pūrṇābhiṣeka) dīkṣā, caste distinction ceases to exist, gone is the śūdrahood of the śūdra (who has undergone it), gone is the viprahood of the vipra (who has undergone it) [for they know belong to the clan of avadhūtas].
Kamalākara Bhaṭṭa states in the Śudradharmatattvaprakāśa that whatever applies in case of śudras are also applicable in case of women.
Women are also eligible to receive pūrṇābhiṣeka
Vide 10th paṭala of Niruttaratantra
अभिषिक्तो भवेत् वीरो अभिषिक्ता च कौलिकी । एवञ्च वीरशक्तिञ्च वीरचक्रे नियोजयेत् । .... नाभिषिक्तो वसेच्चक्रे नाभिषिक्ता च कौलिकी । वसेच्च रौरवं याति सत्यं सत्यं न संशयः ।
The vīrasādhaka should undergo pūrṇābhiṣeka, the kulasādhikā should also undergo pūrṇābhiṣeka, only then should such a vīraśakti be invited in the viracakra sadhanā....The man who hasn't undergone pūrṇābhiṣeka shouldn't sit in this cakra, so is the kulasādhikā who also hasn't undergone pūrṇābhiṣeka. Truly, truly & undoubtedly, if they sit, then they go to the hell-pit named raurava
The qualification of a woman entitled to receive pūrṇābhiṣeka is described in the 11th paṭala of Niruttaratantra
निर्लोभा कामनाहीना निर्लज्जा दम्भवर्जिता । शिवसमागता साध्वी स्वेच्छया विपरीतगा । चतुर्वर्णोद्भवा रम्भा प्रशस्ता कुलपूजने । .... नानाजात्युद्भवानाञ्च सा दीक्षा कुलपूजने ।
The woman who belongs to one out of the 4 varṇas, is devoid of greed, desire, bashfulness & pride, who has taken shelter of Śiva, is holy by nature & willingly indulges in the opposites is suited for the kūlapūjā....She who belongs to one of the various castes (i.e not excommunicated) is to be initiated into the kūlapūjā.
So it is clear that women who have undergone pūrṇābhiṣeka are entitled to perform rites of worship according to Śāktāgama procedure, in a manner similar to brāhmaṇas.
But this extraordinary exception has been granted only for the purpose of sādhanā, not to earn money or to make a societal statement.
Contray to popular reverence, the profession of a temple-priest has been highly villified in the śāstras.
वृत्त्यर्थं पूजयेल्लिङ्गं लोकस्य हितकारकम् । षण्मासं यो द्विजश्चैव स वै देवलकः स्मृतः ।। यथा देवलकश्चैव स भवेदिह वै तदा । देवलकश्च यः प्रोक्तो नाधिकारो द्विजस्य हि ।।
Transliteration: The dvija who resorts to worshipping the world-benefactor Shivaliṅga for money for 6 months is known a a devalaka (temple-priest). A temple-priest becomes similar to Devalaka (who is described in the following verses to be a brāhmaṇa named Sudarśana who performed the worship pertaining to Śivarātri without performing bath after copulating with his wife) & isn't entitled to (privileges) enjoyed by other dvijas. [Śivapurāṇa:4:13:17-18]
यज्ञार्थका देवलका नाक्षत्रा ग्रामयाजकाः । परदाररता नित्यं पञ्चैते ब्राह्मणाधमाः ।।
Transliteration : He who performs yajña in exchange of money, a temple-priest, an astrologer, a village-priest (i.e one who officiates at ceremonies organised jointly by all the villagers of a single village), one who is always indulges in adultery with others' wives - these 5 are considered as the vilest of the brāhmaṇas. [Padmapurāṇa:1:47:12]
शूद्रसेवी शूद्रयाजी ग्रामयाजीति कीर्तितः । तथा देवोपजीवी च देवलः परिकीर्तितः ॥ शूद्रपाकोपजीवी यः सूपकार इति स्मृतः । सन्ध्यापूजनहीनश्च प्रमत्तः पतितः स्मृतः ॥ उक्तं सर्वं मया भद्रे लक्षणं वृषलीपतेः ।
Transliteration: (The brāhmaṇa) who serves śudras is termed as a śudrayājī, same is in the case of a grāmayājī. Similarly one who earns through serving the devas is known as a devāla. He who earns by cooking food for śudras is known as a sūpakāra. The degraded person who is devoid of sandhyāvandanā is known as a pramatta (lunatic). O gentle lady! Thus I have told you all the signs of a Vṛṣalīpati. [Devībhāgavatapurāṇa:9:43:89-91.01]
Regarding Vṛṣalīpatis, Devībhāgavatapurāṇa states
यदि शूद्रा व्रजेद्विप्रो वृषलीपतिरेव सः ॥ स भ्रष्टो विप्रजातेश्च चण्डालात्सोऽधमः स्मृतः । विष्ठासमश्च तत्पिण्डो मूत्रं तस्य च तर्पणम् ॥ न पितॄणां सुराणां च तद्दत्तमुपतिष्ठति । कोटिजन्मार्जितं पुण्यं तस्यार्चात्तपसार्जितम् ॥ द्विजस्य वृषलीलोभान्नश्यत्येव न संशयः । ब्राह्मणश्च सुरापीतिर्विड्भोजी वृषलीपतिः ॥
Transliteration: The vipra who indulges in sex with a śūdrā is considered as a Vṛṣalīpati. He is excommunicated from the vipra community & is considered to be more degraded than a caṇḍāla. Piṇdas offered by him are equivalent to faeces & tarpaṇa offered by him are considered equivalent to urine. Devas & pitṛs don't accept anything offered by him. Whatever merit a dvija had obtained in his crores of previous lives (which propelled him to be born as a brāhmaṇa) & by the virtue of serving the deities & performing austerities (in this life), undoubtedly gets destroyed by his greed for (indulging in sex with) a vṛṣalī (i.e a śūdra woman). A brahmaṇa who is addicted to alcohol is considered as a feeder of faeces (since alcohol is considered to be the metaphorical 'faeces' of edible food) & a Vṛṣalīpati. [Devībhāgavatapurāṇa:9:34:72.02-74]
मिथ्यावादी देवगृहे देवलः सप्तजन्मसु ॥
Transliteration: He who speaks lies inside a temple is reborn as a temple-priest for 7 consecutive births. [Devībhāgavatapurāṇa:9:35:44.02]
चिकित्सकान् देवलकान् मांसविक्रयिणस्तथा । विपणेन च जीवन्तो वर्ज्याः स्युर्हव्यकव्ययोः ॥
Transliteration: Physicians, temple-priests, meat-sellers & those who earn through trade - these (brāhmaṇas) should be avoided in ceremonies pertaining to havya (i.e worship of devas) & kavya (i.e śrāddha) [Manusmṛti:3:152]
The commentator Medhātithi explains
These two (healing people & attending upon icons) are prohibited only as means of living. Healing and serving icons, when done entirely with a righteous motive (and not as a means of living), are not reprehensible.
- Prāṇatoṣaṇītantra: This is a Tāntrika compendium on a wide range of topics, (perhaps the last of its kind), composed in 1820 by Rāmatoṣaṇa Vidyālaṅkāra, a 7th generation descendant of the famed Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgiśa, with the patronage of Prāṇakṛṣṇa Biśwāsa, a religious-minded zamindar of Khaṛadaha situated to the north of Kolkāta. (Even to this day, a series of 14 Śiva temples built by him at Khaṛadaha by the banks of the Gaṅga stand alongside the 12 similar Śiva temples built by his father Rāmahari at Ramahari Biswas Ghat Road)
- Puraścaryārnava: This is a Tāntrika compendium composed jointly by unnamed paṇḍitas, who attributed it's authorship to their patron, King Pratāpasiṁha Śah of Nepāla (1774-77), son of the great Pṛthvinārāyaṇa Śah.
Women can be priests too. In Ancient India, girls graduating out of gurukul(yes!) either chose to become Brahmavadinis(seekers of knowledge) or get married. In vedic tradition, there is nothing like wife following the husband... as it preaches equality and friendship between the partners. (So, please, do some thorough reading than blindy following hear-say interpretations of "dharma." Knowledge is meant for mankind - the human race. Jnana and Vairagya - both these journeys are carried out independently by every individual. Simple!