For my daughter’s naming ceremony a few years ago, we had requested the presence of one of the priests from the Ayyappa temple, a genial fellow a little younger than me, to do the puja/homam. It is a nice ceremony though the religious element of the ceremony isn’t something I particularly care for either way. However, I am loath to impose my beliefs on the rest of the family – and so I end up accepting my parents’ wishes in such matters. Tradition perpetrates itself through traditional norms of behavior, eh. During and after the namkaran, I chatted briefly with the young priest, or truth to tell, my mother did and I listened to their conversation – my mother, like many other women of her generation, has the uncanny knack of asking the most personal of questions to people without making them feel particularly uncomfortable about the interrogation. Maybe they do feel uncomfortable, but don’t express themselves, respecting her age and her geniality.
He was a Kannada brahmin, (affiliated to the Madhva sub-sect if I recall correctly), and had moved to Bangalore just over a year before. Prior to that he had been in Mumbai, and then he added something more about his family. More than enough information I would think, but my mother wanted to know why he moved to Bangalore from Mumbai. After all south Indian Brahmin priests are probably more in demand in Mumbai than here – at the back of her mind, maybe she was thinking, was this guy really any good? No, just kidding. As it turned out, it was a rather good question to ask for his answer wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought he would say that he missed Karnataka, or life was difficult in Mumbai – too much crowds/travel etc, but all he said was that he feared for his life. He had been there during a couple of the several bomb blasts that have plagued the city, though nowhere near the vicinity of the blast itself. After a point, he had begun to feel that it was simply not worth the risk to live in such a hard city, and he just longed for an easier life for himself. Ergo, bag and baggage, he had moved back to Bangalore.
The general rough and tumble of everyday life in a city bursting at its seams are difficult enough to navigate, but it is something that becomes second nature soon enough and we only spare a thought about it during cribbing sessions over coffee and/or beer. The unshared sense of foreboding about a bomb blast, except in the immediate aftermath of the event, had been a more cancerous fear for this particular priest, gradually eating away his peace of mind. He seemed happy enough when he spoke with us, and much more at ease with a slower, gentler Bangalore, bad traffic notwithstanding.
He is still with the temple, seemingly happy in his little corner. From my short interaction with him, I imagine he is probably one of those “consistently meets expectations” sorts without ever wanting to “significantly exceed expectations” (if you know what I mean). Nevertheless, I do wonder what sort of ambition burns in him, and more pertinently, in those priests who have stronger ambitions.
- Is it money? Used to charge Rupees Thousand for a Namkaran, but shall no longer attend to such minor functions – contact me only for expensive weddings, that sort of thing.
- Is it visibility and growth? Enough of being the ignored priest making do with the Devi idol in the corner – need to make it to head priest. What after that?
- Is it an entrepreneurial spirit? Should run my own temple some day with the backing of some mining baron. Sorry, ignore that bit about the mining baron.
- Is it prestige? Should be in the panel discussion of the All-India priests association.
- Is it scriptural knowledge? Know the Bhagavata Purana in and out, but need to figure out the Garuda Purana. Given there are so many religious texts, this path is a never ending one, and I fear someone who takes this route will become like that wonderful quizzer who knows everything but understands little. I don’t mean that in a bad way though.
- Is it to be a seeker? I wonder how many priests think of their lives as a spiritual quest for true understanding. But I suppose that is not even expected of a priest, for in many ways that does conflict with the requirements of being a householder who needs to materially provide for his family.
It would be nice to know what burning ambitions the priests at the Ayyappa temple harbor.