Who's praying for us?

Faith It’s the thing that makes so many of us travel hundreds of kilometres out of this city, often on foot, to pay homage to revered saints and deities. With sparkly palanquins propped up on shoulders that refuse to tire, thousands of devotees flood the roads that lead out of Mumbai this time of year. In fact the human traffic will persist right until the next monsoon.

“A Hindu priest offers prayers to the rising sun on the banks of the Ganges at Benares. Pics/ AFP Photo

Entranced in religious fervour, the believers chant and dance and burn their bare soles on the hot asphalt as they trek the distance. Watch and you wouldn’t think there’d be a shortage of people to promote the powers that be. And yet, this city is facing a clergy crunch like never before.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman prays at the Hazratbal Shrine on the outskirts of Srinagar.

One year ago, a BBC article that chronicled the demand for child priests in Mumbai, estimated, “There are barely 3,500 (Hindu) priests in the city when it needs at least eight times the number.”

The shortfall is something that Saket  Singh of Bangalore recognised in 2010 when he started Gharkapandit (.com), a website that seeks to connect religious-minded people with priests, “as per their requirements,” he tells us. Even rituals are tailor-made to suit the needs of the laity, Singh tells us, pointing out that often people prefer condensed versions of religious ceremonies. “People seem to be having a hard time finding pandits in every Indian city nowadays,” says Singh.

A Dastoorji — Parsi priest in front of a marble plaque of religious scripture at a fire temple in Mumbai. Pic/ AFP Photo

Thirty four year-old Acharya Mithlesh from the Aarya Samaj centre at Jawahar Nagar agrees, saying that the dearth is most apparent during the wedding season. He is due to preside over a wedding ritual in Goregaon shortly, but he takes the time to share, “Hindu priests are especially hard to find during festivals. Frequently we have to turn the yajmaan (a person who seeks to perform a yajna or religious ritual) away.” But this state of affairs doesn’t surprise him. Here’s why.

Indian Catholic priest Madanu Maria Shekar offers prayers during an Ash Wednesday service at Saint Mary’s Church in Secunderabad, in February. Pic/ AFP Photo 

Not lucrative
Picture this — a child is born in a Hindu household. It’s a happy day and a priest is called in to perform the Jatakarma Sanskar and welcome the new soul into the family. Blessings are sought from the moon, the sun and all the deities during the ritual that combines Sanskrit incantations with symbolism to leave a lasting impression on the minds of all in attendance. The priest takes the family through the prayers, reminding them of their duty towards the newcomer and delineating right from wrong. In return for sharing his knowledge of the Vedas, and for his time and efforts, the priest will accept whatever the family offers.

Seen here performing a wedding in Goregaon. Pic/ Atul Kamble

“Twenty years ago families paid about Rs 250 for such a ritual,” says Acharya Mithlesh, “Today, those families still pay Rs 250 for the same ritual...less than what they would pay for a single movie ticket at a multiplex. Expenses are rising and pandits are entirely dependent on the generosity of others. Understandably, the new generation is hesitant to enter this line of work.”

Firoza Punthakey Mistree, a researcher of Zoroastrian studies and co-editor of A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art Religion and Culture also associates economics with the shrinking numbers of Parsi priests. “It’s largely the fault of the laity,” she says, “Parsis have treated priests very badly and even today, in this modern age, a pittance is paid for rituals.” Mistree can understand the reluctance to commit to the religious vocation. “If I was the mother of a child who could be a priest, why would I encourage him to opt for priesthood when the salaries are not comparable with those available in careers in the modern world? A mother would prefer her son to be a banker or an accountant, to have a better life.”

Mohammad Hanif Alam, trustee of Darul Uloom Hazai Ghaus madrasa, concurs. He believes vacancies at the Trombay madrasa are an indication of changing perspectives of parents, who, eager to steer their children towards more lucrative career prospects, encourage Western education and jobs in the mainstream or in government organisations. “Fewer people train to be Maulvis and Maulanas as parents guide them away,” Alam theorises.

Training is a must
The problem isn’t limited to Indian shores either. An August 2012 article in The Economist that focuses on the financial troubles of American churches, many of which face bankruptcy, reads, “The fact that far fewer Catholics are answering the call to become nuns, monks and priests (the minor seminaries, once the first step of the recruitment process, are almost empty) adds to the pressure. It saves some current costs, but reduces in perpetuity the pool of very cheap labour that the church has relied on.”

Bishop Agnelo Gracias, Rector at St Pius Archdiocesan Seminary (Goregaon), however, says the problem here isn’t as severe. “Compared to 50 years ago when I joined at the age of 14, the numbers of priests may be less, but we used to admit very young boys earlier without screening,” he says, stressing that the new approach is healthier. “Now, graduation is a must before training for priesthood,” says Bishop Gracias, “and most men who join now have worked in different streams for a number of years. They make a conscious choice to become priests, so the dropout rate is also reduced now. Numbers are relatively smaller, but the vocational pattern is better.”

Offering a rough estimate, Father Vincent D’Cruz at the 400-year-old St Andrew’s Church in Bandra estimates that, “On an average, about five Roman Catholic priests are ordained every year, though in some years the number could go up to eight or 10.”  Bishop Gracias adds, “The numbers of nuns in city are rather few...very few,” a scarcity which, in agreement with Alam’s point of view, the priest would also attribute to a shift in urban priorities. “The nuns’ life is far more rigid and most women (in cities) today enjoy more freedom so this vocation doesn’t appeal much to them.”

Reiterating the same point, 62 year-old Father Gerry (who has been a priest for 33 years) of Vashi’s Sacred Heart Church, says, “We have seen a change over the last 30 years in the Christian community. People look at life differently nowadays. If you suggest life in the convent to a city girl today, she’d say ‘Oh my God! That’s not my kind of life! What are you trying to do?’”

Faith is declining
They must be on to something, for, with no rigid obligations imposed upon their priests, Sikhism doesn’t appear to face the same problems. Speaking to us on Guru Nanak Jayanti, a festival that had 50,000 Sikh people gather at the Vidya Bhavan grounds in Ghatkopar, Surinder Singh, sewak at Sri Guru Singh Sabha, a registered Gurudwara in Ghatkopar, tells us, “Sikh priests are not required to renounce the world.” In fact, he says, “The Gurbani lays down that one must have the courage to live and work hard to find happiness.” Granthis (readers of the Guru Granth Sahib) are not required to leave their homes, Singh assures us. “In fact Sikh priests must be married and have children.”

Anuvrat Arya, Secretary, Acharya Ramprasad Vedalankar Nyas, whose group trains Vedic priests at the Tapovan Aashram (Dehradun) however, doesn’t believe this alone is why people are withdrawing from priesthood. His observation is that faith itself is facing a decline. “Many priests today are unqualified, so they cannot explain the significance of rituals. They cannot connect the dots between science and religion. The result is that people perform rituals as per tradition to please their families but they don’t really care about the mantras or what they mean.”

Arya believes a change in the trend can only be achieved by reversing the mindset of the populace. Acharya Mithlesh too recognises that faith is spiralling downwards. “Based on the negative approach of a handful of priests who tarnish the profession, many people now believe the money they donate to religious organisations won’t be directed to the right avenues.” Although he doesn’t believe Christians will lose faith, Fr Gerry too does admit, “Misgivings have risen that money is not being utilised properly or wisely administered. People have begun questioning — and I believe everyone has the right to.”

Bleak numbers
Though in the absence of an organised system or clergy registry, Acharya Mithlesh does not have access to accurate statistics, he offers indicative numbers to highlight the decline of Hindu priests in this city. “We have about 30 priests for every 100 required, I’d estimate,” he shares. 

Predictably, the numbers are even bleaker in the Parsi community. “The Dadar madrasa which was established in 1919, the only surviving Parsi priestly school in the world today, has less than 30 students, and each year, no more than two or three children become full-time priests,” Mistree points out. She adds, “In the last 10 years, it has produced 25 full-time priests.”

A similar scenario exists at the Darul Uloom Hazai Ghaus madrasa, Alam tells us. “The madrasa currently has only 38 students, despite a capacity of 150,” he shares. Of those currently being trained, Alam says, “Only seven intend to be Maulvis and Maulanas. The others are Hifz students, who will learn to recite the Quran entirely from memory.”

Consequently, almost across the board, through religions, the clergy now comprises people who are middle-aged or older. “We are associated with 70 priests across the country,” says Saket Singh of Gharkapandit (.com), “But of these, less than 30 per cent are aged 25 to 38. The rest are much older,” he tells us. The population of Parsi priests is also an ageing one and due to the shortage of priests in nearby towns and cities, these elderly priests must often journey to attend to rituals though part-time priests or Para-Mobeds now perform many of the day to day rituals.

“We do have one or two younger scholar priests, but you can count them on your fingers,” Mistree rues. “What will happen in the next few years when the aged priests are no more is anyone’s guess.”

What lies ahead
Cognisant of the gravity of the situation, the Parsi community however, is making efforts to reverse the trend. “There are moves within the community to create a trust for the priests so that they may be paid according to ritual skills and their level of learning and, this, we hope, will encourage young people to become priests,” says Mistree. “There are also proposals being considered to give the families of priests substantial amount of moneys every month.”
Faced with extinction of their priests, Hindu religious authorities approach the problem differently. Though, just as in Zoroastrianism, in Hinduism too, priesthood was originally limited exclusively to those who hailed from priestly bloodlines, today, a Hindu priest is anyone who is conversant with the Vedic scriptures.

“If you can read the Vedas, you’re a Pandit,” summarises Acharya Mithlesh, telling us that female priests are not uncommon. In fact women do sign up for Vedic priest training programmes at the Tapovan Aashram in Dehradun, says Anuvrat Arya, Secretary, Acharya Ramprasad Vedalankar Nyas whose group conducts such sessions. “Swami Dayanand associated people with karma rather than birth, so you don’t have to be a Brahmin to be a priest,” he says. “Of 10 students, who we selected from 50 to attend the fully-sponsored training sessions we held about two years ago, only seven joined for training and six were able to complete the course,” shares Arya, telling us that even of these, only a few will serve as priests. The others — “some were engineers, others doctors,” — merely had an academic interest in the Vedas.

To assist those who are torn between mainstream careers and the vocation of priesthood, Fr Gerry tells us, “The Christian church conducts workshops in which spiritual guides help discern whether one should give priesthood a chance. It’s the same scenario in the case of nuns.” But to Arya, the only solution is a change in the attitude towards religion. “The truth in the Quran, the Vedas, the Bible must be understood for religions to be appreciated,” he says.
Mohammad Salim Engineer, Chief Editor, Jamat-e-Islami Hind, concurs. Asserting that he has not observed a decline in the number of priests, Engineer says, “First of all, this is not a career to earn money or that has worldly objectives. It’s a social service and a matter of pride if someone gets the position of becoming a scholar of religious studies to reform society.” However, Engineer does believe, “It is the responsibility of society to take care of the people who have committed their lives to preach morality and teach people about religion.”  The good news, Engineer emphasises, is, “There are still people who do this — the respect they  earn being their primary goal

Number crunching
>> Acharya Mithlesh estimates that there are about 30 priests for every 100 required
>> The Dadar madrasa which was established in 1919 and is the only surviving Parsi priestly school in the world today has less than 30 students and
each year, no more than 2 or 3 children become full-time priests. In the last 10 years, it has produced only 25 full-time priests, rues Firoza Punthakey Mistree
>> Currently, the Darul Uloom Hazai Ghaus madrasa has only 38 students, despite a capacity of 150. Of those currently being trained, only 7 intend to be Maulvis and Maulanas, says Mohammad Hanif Alam
>> Although Gharkapandit (.com) is associated with 70 priests across the country, less than 30 per cent are aged 25 to 38. The rest are much older, says Saket Singh  

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