December 11, 2019
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The Jetsetting Purohits

Pronto pujas and instant mantras speed the new age priest on his way to the NRI faithful

The Jetsetting Purohits
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Shlokas in suitcase, vedas and visa in hand, the purohit with the passport is God's gift to Indians overseas. And it is for the greater glory of God that they fly. One of theyoungest flying maharajs is probably Rajesh Sharma, 28, a priest who, by renouncing the world, has gained more access to it than other mortals. Manila, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Hamburg.... Rajesh has delivered sermons everywhere. Except possibly in deep Africa.

The modern day purohit has his perks. Rajesh has a Flying Dutchman (FD) Blue Wing card. Which means he can earn valuable FD points each time he flies with KLM, Northwest Airlines, Air UK and Transavia, as well as when he chooses to rent a car from Avis or stays at places like Holiday Inn, Corden Tulip, Inter-Continental and Sheraton hotels. He will be entitled to free tickets and may eventually move up to the Silver Wing and then on to the exclusive FD service level, Royal Wing.

This is a far cry from the traditional ban on Brahmins travelling across the seas. But Rajesh has his justification for the voyages: "The Hindu gods are very patriotic. They don't ever talk about going to London, Paris or New York. It has no meaning for them. But the idea is to spread the word to people abroad, to provide guidance to them. Even Ram had to cross the sea to get to Lanka."

 Rajesh embarked on his spiritual journey at the age of 15 when he learnt Sanskrit, science and the scriptures at the Kashi Vishwa Vidyalaya. Little did he know then that life would mean sermonising out of a sleeping bag. "I don't have a place of my own in Miami," he says of the city where he spends most of the year. "Miami has a lot of Indian families who invite me and then rent a place for me to stay. I go to perform one puja and then stay on for other religious needs which people want ful-filled." Rajesh has even won over a couple of firangs to the faith.

However, preaching abroad does have its problems too. Just as aero-planes have cut down travel time, second generation Indian kids prefer pronto pujas. Also, the word—of themaharaj and the Maker—is not so sacrosanct anymore. "The children there have a questioning mind. Anyway, NRIs are a confused lot. They are half Indian, half western and that makes the entire family unit go haywire," he remarks.

And to cater to the different lifestyles, the purohit needs to be flexible. "In Frankfurt, the Indians are more westernised than those in Miami. They smoke, drink and do their own thing, even in front of their parents. They don't believe in the science of rituals. And even if they do, they want to get it over and done with in short-cuts."

Laxmanan Sharma, 35, agrees wholeheartedly. "Livelihood and subsistence are the primary considerations abroad. Religion is flexible and ceremonies are conducted at convenience. Sometimes essential ingredients are missing and one has to make do with substitutes and the amountof time given to rituals is minuscule."

 A degree holder in commerce, an automobile engineer and computer management specialist, Laxmanan chucked up all three professional lines to pursue the path of his ancestors—priesthood. His travels abroad began when the Shiva Vishnu temple, a religious-cultural centre in Washington, offered him the post of senior priest for a year-and-a-half. The centre was run on the lines of a corporate set-up and Laxmanan missed out on the full-blooded interaction with the people as the concept of family priests does not exist. "Since the priest getsa monthly salary from the temple, he is sort of leased out and it is the temple that gets paid by the people," he explains. It, however, entailed experiences which had their own fair share of heavenly delights.

Laxmanan recalls: "A Christian priest and I once co-conducted the 13-minute marriage ceremony of an Indian girl from a conservative Hindu family and a Seventh Day Adventist boy. It was a mix of both cultures; she wore a wedding gown, minus the train, because of the Hindu fire offerings. Six hundred guests were present and the ceremony was held under a maple tree. For another NRI Hindu couple, I held an elaborate marriage ceremony from 5.30 am to 1.30 pm."

Though Laxmanan has a multiple-entry visa to the US—"a religious visa being given high priority"—and has been offered a green card, he does not want it. With the dollars earned abroad, he has bought an expensive address at Powai—one of Bombay's booming areas. He plans to jetset once again to pick up his Malaysia-born Brahmin wife. And then he just might accept an invitation to teach the Puranas to his US flock.

Back home, another avatar of the high-fly-ing pundit marks the changing times. Clad in white dhoti and green shawl, with thick strands of holy thread across the chest, sandal paste and vermillion smeared copiously on his forehead, a Motorola pager tucked into the dhoti-fold, and hands firmly on the wheel of a gleaming Maruti Omni, R.V. Sarangapani, 53, one of Bangalore's busiest and most popular priests, has his feet set firmly on the changing contours of the Indian soil. He keeps an 18-hour day, rushing from a wedding to a shr -adh to a naming ceremony, "guiding people to abide by tradition as they live the significant milestones of life".

 "A purohitor brihaspati (priest) is one who has been ordained to rightfully conduct religion and his spiritual job," explains Sarangapani, a fourth generation priest and a diploma holder in mechanical engineering. He had worked in the production department of a popular English daily in Bangalore till 1988. Having learnt the Vedas and religious rites from his father, he became a full-time priest after the regular night shifts at the press got too tiresome and he was given a transfer out of the city.

While Sarangapani did conduct religious ceremonies during his newspaper job too, turning into a full-time priest introduced a routine many an executive in his 30s would find diffi-cult to follow. Rising at four in the morning, Sarangapani squeezes in anhour-and-a-half of puja, an hour of exercise, and then conducts at least four different ceremonies and a wedding in the evening before he retires at 11 in the night.

Still, the move towards a religious career has paid off. A glitzy house to call his own, an imported television and VCR, a CD player and, of course, the Maruti and the pager, all of which Rajesh and Laxmanan still don't have access to. "These are not things to show off nor are they luxuries," says Sarangapani. "Some of them are necessities for the family. The van is used to transport the food which people ask us to distributeas charity as part of some ceremony." The pager, of course, is to ensure he does not miss an appointment.

Though he performs ceremonies mainly for Iyengars, Sarangapani says he does not distinguish between families based on their status. "I perform weddings for Rs 300, sometimes for Rs 500 and for Rs 3,000 too. I do not demand money from people who cannot pay. But if the Haves act stingy, I don't hesitate to demand," he adds. Priesthood has certainly become a paying profession these days. While 13 years ago Sarangapani's father's highest-ever fee for a ceremony was Rs 500, Sarangapani's minimum fee today is normally Rs 500.

But wealth has not changed his lifestyle, says Sarangapani. He does not touch a drop of water outside home and returns for lunch at four. Nor does he travel, go to the movies or socialise. "The sanctity of the jobwe are doing is very significant and has to be safeguarded. Only discipline and purity in speech and behaviour ensure our ability to guide people."

While that discipline has created a trust among his clients which forces them to change mahurats to suit Sara-ngapani's busy schedule, the priest feels there is a decline in the degree of faith among people mainly due to the pressures of modern life. "The mantras my father used to recite and get people to recite for four hours, I do in an hour. And often, people are content to listen to the mantras without wanting to follow me," he says. But he is sure the faith will endure. "Our culture and traditions are so strongly rooted in us that future generations cannot just do away with them."

And on this rests the importance of the new and 'improved' messengers of God. With no time, no social life, no need for earthly pleasures—so they claim—they do, however, accept the use of a pager and the need to fly on borrowed wings. n

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