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This post will:

1. Briefly take you through the development of my relationship with Institutionalised Prayer

2. Offer a view of a remarkable factory-style temple operation

 

Since I was a child, I have lived in contradiction as far as my relationship with Religion and Puja (Hindi for Prayer) is concerned. I hated the idea of praying to God everyday- I would, as most kids are wont to, pray to him when I needed to. When I did pray, I would pray imagining myself to be the little cow-herd from the parable who forced the Lord to drink milk by by his earnest praying, crying and even begging.

 

I found visits to most temples hollow- I took an instant dislike to greedy priests, dirty corridors and the 5-second-blink-and-you-miss-God darshans before you were pushed along by the security-guard. I prayed best when I sat in silence, remembered my forefathers and God.

 

I was mesmerised by rituals- the sound of a smashing coconut (and the laughter when its watery contents emptied themselves onto my Father), the incantations (I memorised lots of the sanskrit shlokas) , the smell of camphor, the beautiful chunari my mother would wear and of course, the chum-chum or barfi that would come after.

 

Over the years, Visits to the Madurai Temple, Salasarji outside Jaipur, Tirupathi in the South, Sidhivinayak in Mumbai, Pushkarji (again outside Jaipur) and Dwarkaji near Mithapur in Gujarat confirmed my disenchantment with priests and their money-making ways. God is nobody’s pillion-rider. Prayer is not a covenant but a loving two-way relationship. I disavowed Puja and prayer for the new-fangled spirituality, good old personal prayer in new clothes.

 

But the contradiction still continues. I am still fond (not mesmerised any more) of rituals. I still like the camphor, flowers and festive atmosphere but have grown to detest the average pandit. What really binds me to rituals are the mantras, sutras and shlokas. I believe that the ancient texts (vedas and the upanishads) and rituals derived from these represent a body of experience and thought of the philosophers and prophets of the past essential for our continued survival. To ignore them would be conceit and to blindly take them on, foolishness. These texts are, even today, expressed in their own contextual syntax which is indecipherable to the average person and an ignorant or worse, a calculating pandit will misinform, misguide and confound him even further.

 

I like to embrace these texts with intuition, intellect and a good dictionary as guides.

 

It was with trepidation then that I visited the Trimbukeshwar Temple, fours hours from Mumbai, this morning to perform a 4-hour Puja ceremony. I hoped that it would be devoid of squabbling about money (just eight weeks ago when at Haridwar I had come face-to-face with an ugly display of naked greed by the priest performing Granny’s last rites) and be personal, a little one-on-one with God.

 

 

(Above: The main temple at Trimbukeshwar. Image courtesy Dharmesh)

Reaching Trimbukeshwar at 5 a.m. we were accosted by a drunk man en route to the sanctum sanctorium and even at that early hour had but a fleeting glance of the Idol. This was followed by a 2 hour wait for the priest who was to do our Puja, a period that saw the devotees standing in wait swell to the hundreds.

 

When we actually got to the Puja, I realised that this was going to be a community affair. The devotees were segregated by language ability into different lines and led to one of several large halls where all the ingredients and paraphernalia of the puja had already been placed by the team of coordinating pandits.

 

A senior Pujari led the proceedings in every hall, taking rows of gathered devotees through a series of synchronised actions and rituals, culminating in the final havan (sacrificial fire) in each devotees’ personal, portable kund (vessel).

 

At first, this batch processing of the devotees interfered with my conception of what pujas should be like. But as the puja went on, I saw that this factory manner was a very effective and efficient way to run the process.

(Above: Devotees wait before the start of the Puja. This picture represents a fourth of the hall. There are several halls of this size with pujas happening simultaneously)

1. The dakshina or fees for the Puja were spelt upfront- all ingredients for the Puja were included, no extra was asked for and there were no hidden costs.

 

2. The pandits had organised every conceivable item to be used in the Puja before-hand. All one had to do was sit down and start the puja. This ensured that no time was lost due to the devotees getting different (or incorrect) ingredients and misplacing or mishandling them.

(Above: flowers, milk, curd and various other items to be used in prayer)

 

(Above: Representations of a selection of the pantheon of Hindu Gods through nuts and wheat)

3. The pandits did their best to explain the rituals – as well as one could expect a hall full of devotees to be talked to anyway. If you wanted to understand the rituals in detail there was a provision to visit the temple the day earlier and speak to a member of the coordinating team in advance. It was perfect- they had discriminated between those who wanted information and those who did not- to the convenience and satisfaction of both.

 

4. There was no distinction based on class or income, everyone was treated in exactly the same way. This was a welcome change from temples where there are VIP or Express queues for those willing to make a payment for quick access to God.

 

5. The rather teacher-like Pujaris ensured silence and were quick to admonish any errant behaviour. This ensured that one got time for a little quiet one-to-one with God before, during and after the Puja.

 

6. From a demand-supply point of view, the small number of designated Pujaris managed to mediate the Puja for several devotees in a small amount of time. If this same Puja were to happen for each devotee individually, it would place an enormous strain on time and resources of the temple management.

 

(Above: The Puja in Progress at Trimbukeshwar)

 

7. Throughout you dealt with one main organiser so you didn’t have to take the trouble of finding the right person to answer any questions. As for the rituals- the Pujaris were available after the Puja to answer any questions and queries and to offer advice.

 

Most devotees gathered there after the Puja left satisfied. They had completed the Puja they had come for, been given all details upfront, avoided greedy pandits and ignorant ones and returned home in quick time.

 

It was simple. It was standard. It was quick. It got the job done. Ray Kroc would have probably nodded in approval.

As for me, the fascination with rituals continues.

 

Just before I started this post, I paid my regular visit to Charu’s blog and came across her nice post on rituals, inspired by Krish’s Priestly Matters, his account of his tryst with a Priest and Rituals at his Wedding. You must read both.

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