Perspective: One City, Many Faiths: Woman with a Purpose and a Heritage-Rich Status; in the Last of Our Series on Faith Leaders in the City, Jyotsna Thanki, Chair of the Hindu Council of Birmingham and of the City's Hindu Women's Network, Talks to Jo Ind

Article excerpt

Byline: Jo Ind

Hooray, a woman at last! That was what I thinking as I met the leader of Birmingham's Hindu community.

After meeting an orthodox Rabbi, a Buddhist monk and Muslim and Sikh chairmen, it was cheering to find Jyotsna Thanki at the end of the trail.

She might come from another continent and have a different faith from mine, but when she talks about the importance of female deities and the difficulties of combining her career with caring for her family, we are on sisterly ground.

Jyotsna, aged 45, is the chair of the Hindu Council of Birmingham and of the city's Hindu Women's Network.

The Hindu Council of Birmingham is an umbrella organisation that represents the various groups in the city, including the eight temples.

She is therefore the spokeswoman for Birmingham's 50,000 Hindus, most of whom came to Britain from India in the 1950s and 60s and from East Africa during the mass exodus in the 1970s .

'There is a misconception in the Western world about the status of women in Hinduism,' she says.

'In Hinduism, women are on a par with men. We don't see that women are lower than men. We had a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

'And we worship the female form. The festival of Diwali is devoted to the goddess Lakshmi. There is another festival in Navratri, which is dedicated to the worship of the eternal light of the mother goddess.

'We have to educate the Western community about women in Hinduism. It is up to us to assert ourselves.'

Hinduism is the oldest of the world religions. It's name is derived from the people who settled by the Indus river in India in 5,000 BC.

When Jyotsna is talking about her faith, she communicates that ancientness. She evidently feels a part of her ancestors, a sense of belonging to a primeval civilization.

In understanding Hinduism, it is important to grasp its richness as well as its age.

Where some religions have one scripture, Hinduism has many sacred books. Where some faiths do not believe in making an image of God, Hinduism has shrines and representations of many different deities.

Just because Hindus have shrines to deities like Shiva, Rama, Ganesha, Krishna and Sita, however, it does not mean that they believe in more than one God.

In Hinduism, there is only one God, Brahman, the ultimate reality from which everything comes and to which it returns.

The different deities are different faces or representations of the one God, in much the same way that Christians think of God in terms of father, son and holy spirit.

What all this adds up to is a rich, colourful religion in which nothing is rigid and there is plenty of choice.

'We don't have a standard of rules,' explains Jyotsna. 'Hinduism is a way of life. It's a very open religion. It has many different scriptures that you can be guided by.

'It's up to individuals to make what they want of it. No one is forced to do anything. It's up to you how you practice it.'

Within Hinduism, people are divided into castes, which are analogous to social classes in Britain.

Jyotsna, who works in recruiting and retaining West Midlands health professionals, is a Bardai Brahmin.

Bardai is a mountainous region in India, from which her family came. Brahmin is the caste which includes priests and scholars. When pressed, Jyotsna admits to being one of the 'posh ones'. But a theme that comes up time and time again in conversation with Jyotsna, is that none of the rituals or distinctions of Hinduism is rigid.

'Gandhi was totally against the caste system,' she says.

'In India at the moment there's a positive move towards getting people from the lower castes into universities, which is very similar to the positive moves to recruit people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds into positions of authority in Britain. …