Once struggling Hindu priests now turn a profit in southern India | Asia Pacific

Once struggling Hindu priests now turn a profit in southern India

Once struggling Hindu priests now turn a profit in southern India

Updated 16 August 2012, 22:12 AEST

A shortage of Hindu priests in India has seen members of the religious caste start to benefit in very material ways.

And many who once travelled abroad to service the congregations of the Indian diaspora are now deciding it's much more worthwhile to stay at home.

This has become very apparent in Tamil Nadu, the cradle of Dravidian culture.

Correspondent: Murali Krishnan

Speakers: T K Ganapathy, retired professor, R S Subramani, retired bank officer cum astrologer, Priest Sundaram and junior priest Sriram

SFX: Strains of the Nadaswaram, the South Indian wind instrument…

KRISHNAN: Celebrations are on in the south Indian city of Coimbatore where in a large hall relatives have gathered to observe the 80th birthday of the head of the family.

It is an elaborate religious ceremony that runs for two days. According to tradition, 11 priests chant the Vedas, which are a large body of Sanskrit texts based on sacred scriptures. The entire ritual can last upto six hours. At another corner of the hall, a special "havan" or fire ceremony is being performed by the priests on a raised platform.

SFX: Vedic chants. Hymns, Prayers

The city-based Brahmin priests, who are performing the rites have transformed the over 7,000-year-old ritualistic tradition into a lucrative enterprise. They cater to all classes of people desperately pursuing materialistic goals like wealth and success.

T K Ganapathy, a retired professor explains the success of these priests.

GANAPATHY: The priests who are performing rituals, they are few and far between. And when there is a great demand for priests, they are not able to cater to those who want and therefore they demand more. Some of them fly to other countries but there are still some priests who stay back in India and they say what they would earn in foreign countries, they are able to earn here because of the limited supply.

KRISHNAN: R S Subramani, an astrologer, who is well acquainted with the Hindu scriptures, makes clear why south Indian families are willing to pay more.

SUBRAMANI: The Brahmins are willing to pay the priests whatever they demand. They do the religious functions rightly. That is why the priests are rich now. Because we are willing to pay more and they do their duty well. We are satisfied with their performance as priests. That is why.

KRISHNAN: For a fee ranging from a few thousand rupees to heftier undisclosed amounts, the priestly class has hit pay dirt.

Since the mid-90s, growing urban affluence has seen more people spend more money on rituals in south India. In turn the priests have become better-off, and some have also found new earning opportunities in temples in the West.

Chief priest V M Sundaram says there is a new found interest among young priests to learn scriptures of Hinduism.

SUNDARAM: I have noticed there is a desire now for many to learn Vedic scriptures. When we begin to master this, it will beneficial. We can go abroad but we can also earn well living here. But we must be sincere.

KRISHNAN: More priests' sons now study in religious schools where they learn authoritative Sanskrit ritual texts by heart, and overall educational standards have noticeably improved. Many are trained to perform the rites of the temple and are often trained from a very young age.

Sriram, is a 16 year-old Vedic student.

SRIRAM: I did not like studies in regular school. That is why opted to study Vedas in a town in Salem. I developed an interest and now I have learnt quite a bit. I like it.

KRISHNAN: The growth of Hindu nationalism in India as well as the Tamil Nadu state government's favourable religious policies have also contributed partly to the success of Brahman temple priests.

It is now a vocation that many have taken to. Considering they are in short supply, priests have become more "professional" and modern-minded while also insisting on the legitimacy of tradition.

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