As control of Hindu temples by the government gets more widespread, temple priests find it harder and harder to continue their ancestral occupation.
Sri gurubhyo namaha!
“…Āditya Hṛudayam Puṇyam Sarva Śatru Vināśanam….”
Although he did not have to, Seetaraama Sastry Chief Archaka of the oldest surviving Surya Devata temple in the land, decided to dress his lord for the last time. The one in charge of this duty was brusquely told to go and fetch the requisite garments and garlands and various other accessories that would adorn Suryanarayana today while the Chief Archaka himself made sure that he anointed the deity with the best of oils, fragrant with natural essences. His hands trembled while they massaged the stone as though he was afraid to hurt a frail man or a very important personage. Who can hurt the god of health himself! What a foolish thought! I must not let any negativity come my way today he told himself. He had not consulted his wife or children about this sudden life-changing decision of his which would cause furore not just in his household, but statewide, he was sure of that. Maybe even a nationwide stir, given how news carried far and wide these days so quickly. No, I will not let anything or anyone change my decision. For now, let me serve my lord with devotion one last time.
Knowing the hymns and verses by rote, having learnt them even while he was in the womb, he took his time bathing and anointing and then carefully wiping down every droplet of milk, curd, ghee, honey, and water off the body off the one who had been in his safekeeping all these years. What a privilege it has been for a poor braahmaNa from Undi Agraharam to have made it to this level. Sought after by devotees, by politicians, by bureaucrats and bigwigs, he had managed to carve out a name for himself amongst the very people who looked down on his community and poked fun, at the slightest pretext. Between the lack of wealth and lands, between the lack of power and pelf, the lot of vaidikas was pitiful. He had grown up in near poverty, sleeping hungry every second day, and he had been mocked and derided for being who he was, for his family background, for his shikha, for his vegetarianism, for his daily habits of bathing in the river, doing sandhyaa, his japa, his various vratas. He had braved them all had he not, all the insults that are reserved solely for braahmaNas.
Filled with helplessness and anger against a society that targeted him mindlessly for the supposed or imaginary sins of his ancestors, Seetaaraama Sastry had become a hard man, tough to crack, and quick to rise. There is no point in being soft and kind, the world does not appreciate such warm hearts he told himself and his family, every chance he got. And somewhere along the way, he lost his humility that must accompany any great knowledge. If he had been a humble purohit would he have been appointed Chief Archaka at such a young age? Of course not! The world respects only those who are go-getters, people who fix an aim and take that shot. He had done exactly that. And his Suryanarayana had helped him in this endeavour. Now he was planning to give all that up. He would be leaving his mentor, friend, guide, and god. For he could not take it anymore. He put out his hand expecting his subordinates to lay the clothes of the day into his palm, which they did. The ornaments, the accessories, the numerous flower garlands in various varieties, shapes, and sizes, were all handed to him one by one. He was deliberately slow in his proceedings, while the queue outside the doors kept growing. After dhoopa, deepa, naivedyam, and all the sixteen steps and more were completed as per the Agamas, with a final touch of fixing the kumkumam on the deity’s forehead, applied with great finesse and flourish, and offering of flowers, he announced that he was done. “Hmm, teravanDi” – Open the Gates.
His beloved Surya was now ready to receive his devotees. And they came by the hundreds. Yes, today is a good day to leave all this behind me thought the middle-aged Sastry, a paunch now evident from all the sitting and conducting of ceremonies. His once frail body was now filled up with age and lack of exercise. Fair in the face and fast in gait despite the excess fat in his belly, he tied his tuft of hair once again in a top knot tightly so that it would not come off easily. Tucking his dhoti high above his ankles he navigated the neighbourhood naalaa with ease. Cyclists passing by the purohit residences, vegetable cart vendors, children playing on the street, all of them wished him reverentially. Some out of genuine admiration and love, some out of grudging respect and fear. “namaskaaramanDi!” they would say and he would nod hardly smiling but acknowledging “challagaa unDu”, that was enough for many of the housewives who came out just to be able to wish him and take his blessings. This was an area full of his admirers. Had he not been the only one who would pay their children’s fees, their husband’s salaries, and offer his wife’s brand new saris if the women had a wedding or a function? After all, what could these poor families afford with the paltry almost non-existing income from the Endowments? But for his largesses, they would have given up their lives out of hunger and shame. Thus Sastry had no friends or equals or peers except for one, and that one he mostly disagreed with.
He walked past his home via a long-winded narrow kutcha road towards his friend Swami Tattvavedananda’s house. While the crowds behind him went ooh! and aah! in the temple, falling over one another to catch a glimpse of the sun rays falling at the feet of the murti. This happened only once or twice a year, an architectural wonder that is common to all Surya temples in Bharat. Today being rathasaptami, the Sun-God was celebrating his own birth, as though. Sastry had been upset for a while. All the interference from the Endowments Officer, the lack of funds, the misuse of money, the mismanagement of the temple logistics, the very reason for the EO to be there in the first place was defeated. He was unable to pay attention to his main duties of serving the Lord without constant nagging of the bureaucrats and constant visits of politicians. The security cover that was provided each time when some big shot landed here for taking blessings for a campaign or an election caused insurmountable pain and inconvenience to the devotees. You could accuse him of being haughty but not of being impervious to devotees’ needs. That is how he was able to survive so long in this mad jungle. No one could kick him from his position knowing that the whole town would go up in arms against this decision.
So they made his life very difficult and he was sure to leave voluntarily one day, and that was today. “You should not take it to heart pantulu, the EO maybe Christian but he is not anti-Hindu, some others are not so accommodating …you must let him take some decisions, if not it will become a fight every day, do you want that, so much unpleasantness?” his friend had warned him sometime back. “But how can I watch some kaun kiska fellow who knows nothing of shaastra with absolutely no bhakti in his heart to take charge over our temple, our traditions, our land..don’t you feel any sense of loyalty to our dharma?” Sastry had been most upset with his friend’s nonchalance than the Christain EO’s un-Hindu behaviour. When our own people have no understanding of the dangers facing our kind, what to speak of others! He had wanted to say more but had bit his tongue. His upbringing did not allow him to deride a sannyasi, especially someone as erudite and as disciplined as this one. Swami TV as he was affectionately called by his students had always been so. Brusque, gruff, and quick to cut you off when you said anything remotely emotional. It was all about buddhi with him, you could not make an appeal of the heart in his company.
It had turned out just as he had predicted, a daily battle and tussle of power. “But how can they anDi? How can they trample over our beliefs and feelings this way? 228 temples and murtis desecrated! And that is the official number, the reality must be very scary even for them. So much hate they have filled against us. How long will we keep quiet, why should we keep quiet! Do we have any say in their Church matters? Will they even listen if we interfere? Don’t you think it is unjust? How can you smile at me like this…my blood is boiling…no no don’t give me your Vedanta please!” so saying Sastry had left his friend’s humble residence in a huff last time.
The door was open as usual as is the paddhati in these parts, but Sastry did not want to barge in. Last time he was this familiar with his childhood friend and classmate he was made to wait almost three hours, while Swami vaaru completed his correspondence, his japa, his dhyaana, his….unable to take this insult any longer, being used to the hangers-on and junior archakas scampering about in his presence, Sastry had shouted aloud turning away from the house, “saray anDi, I got the message, you have no time to see me, you could have told me kadaa, instead of treating me so poorly, like a stranger”, from behind him a gravelly voice retorted from the grilled window, “when you know that I meet people only after my evening coffee, why do you show up unannounced…like a stranger!” There was no remorse in that voice nor any anxiety. Plain and straight talk.
That was the problem with these Vedanta types, no emotions only. Everything was about their saadhana and how one must dance around it. What if it was an urgency, would he still have sent me away from his doorstep so unceremoniously? Thank god for these old fashioned houses, one could sit outside on the gaTTu. So Sastry sat and waited while steaming inside. It was cool weather for January, yet his head and heart had been on fire ever since his only son had started frequenting Swami vaaru’s Vedanta classes. Their friendship had started to sour just as Anjaneya had started to question the various prayers, rituals, customs, that were meticulously followed by his father. I could have easily found him a job as an archaka in a good temple till he got enough experience to assist me at Arasavalli, but no. Karma, karma….look at him now serving Swamulavaaru day in and out, as if I am dead. Don’t I need some assistance too?
Everyone but my own son has high regard for me thought Sastry ruefully fanning himself in the easy chair on the verandah, where he made himself comfortable and waited for it to be 4.00 pm. The clock tower from across the street showed it to be quarter to, so another fifteen minutes to go, he took a deep breath and sunk deeper into the cloth, which was almost like a hammock under his weight. Too lazy to check his cell phone which showed signs of life with incoming messages, he called out to the man across the street taking his bullocks all decorated, from house to house…”aenvoyi Sankranti is over, you are still going around with those bulls of yours…did I not give you enough for a whole year….one should not be so greedy….”, the turbaned man came running towards Sastry with folded hands, “ayyiyo ledayyaa, they wanted Shiva and Nandi for a film shooting ayyaa…I told them to put some donation in the temple Hundi, I don’t need payment…you are there to look after the likes of us…please don’t misunderstand..” having thus assuaged Sastry the man sat down at his elder’s feet massaging it. “saray saray, don’t put any money in the Hundi..your hard-earned money will go to some Christian or Muslim, can’t trust these officials…give it to Swami vaaru, he will come out at 4.00 pm. He has hardly anything to his name…he will say no…but you must force it …saray na?”
Anjaneya had informed Sastry of the dire straits that his friend was in. A sannyaasi needs to be fed and looked after by the householders, but if the householders around him had all but converted to a different religion, taught to hate and mock their parent culture, Swami TV’s fate was obvious. Sticking to some honour code of the sannyaasis, he never sought food from beyond one kilometre of his residence, hence Sastry could not be of much help on a daily basis. Many a time the Swami slept hungry. But he was never angered. If this is what eeshwara wants.. he would say with a smile which exasperated Sastry. Although upset at his friend for not helping the Hindu cause and for weaning his only son away from him, he was not oblivious to the plight of an honest sannyaasi in this day and age. Serves him right, how many times I have offered him to come and take classes for the EO, for the political bigwigs, to meet and greet….he does not listen…
And then he remembered, in his hurry to quit and resign from that hate-filled situation of the daily encumbrance in dealing with a Christian EO, he had forgotten to bring along the de-husked coconuts that had come from his farm. How could he come empty-handed to meet a man in ochre even if it is his childhood pal? He must get them before the doors opened, he could not be caught unawares. ..pramaadam...such inadvertence on my part….all this is that EO’s doing, he has put his evil influence on me. “idigo…go to my house…you know where it is….ask ammagaaru to give you the coconuts that have come from Tanuku, they are in a gunny bag on the gaTTu, tell her I asked for it….go go run, run…and come back as quickly…don’t loiter and smoke a beeDi...” so saying Sastry thrust himself out of the self-made hammock gently nudging the turbaned man away towards the gate. “I will keep an eye on your bulls, don’t worry”. With the figure of the running man receding in the corner of his eyes, he turned his attention to the bulls.
Walking over to them in his trademark quick gait, he stopped before them with a start when one of them, Shiva or was it ..what was the other one’s name..snorted a warning. Oho! Even these animals do not respect me anymore thought Sastry! The world has lost all propriety, there is no sense of order anymore, everything is falling apart. Even animals do not behave the way they are supposed to. How many times have I fed your master and you, in fact it is because of me that you are surviving. Sastry was upset at all the ingratitude around him. Not even the bulls showed any affection towards him. His only son was not his anymore, his daughter now all womanly and distant, while his wife had no time for him from all her household work and poojas. Who could he turn to for advice, for support, for an easy banter where he could unburden himself.
“They don’t know you are the Chief Archaka of our famous temple pantulu, don’t be upset at them poor mute beings!” The door to moksha had opened unbeknownst to him while he was in his reverie and there he was, Sastry’s only recourse, a vision in saffron.
Just as Sastry turned his head and was crossing the street to make way to his friend’s meagre lodgings Shiva and Nandi’s owner came jogging along out of breath carrying a heavy sack over his shoulders. “Where should I put them ayya?” he asked Sastry, who took the heap from him quickly and dropped it near his friend’s feet. “Teach your bulls some manners, they don’t seem to know who I am..” so saying he started to cross the threshold into the local gurukulam. “Ammagaaru gave me these”, panting the turbaned man showed up a carry bag with 2-3 coconuts. “Hmm Hmm ok…remember what I said..no Hundi”
Swami TV looked at his friend with deep affection and asked jokingly, “I look forward to the day when you will come to me empty-handed! Do you have to bring something every time, this is what I keep warning about, this blind adherence to some shaastra, some injunction, I would prefer it if you came here with more viveka and vairaagya….with your type of shraddha…you would not need to worry about the likes of the EO anymore..” He followed Sastry inside the old fashioned tiled house with a courtyard in the centre. They sat down in the far right corner on two old and worn rickety cane chairs gifted by a student. “And I wait for the day when you get some worldly wisdom in you, if we are not careful we will fall from these and break our bones!” retorted Sastry who was in no mood for jokes. He was also upset noticing how the table heater was working. “So Anjaneya has been helping you repair this…there are a thousand things at home that need fixing but he will not touch them….” Swami TV stopped his friend’s complaining with a gentle touch on his hand and smilingly said, “bring them all here, whatever needs repairs, your son will work here in peace and I will make sure to send them back to you..”
“You should allow someone in to do the cleaning at least, look how everything is so dusty. How do you wash your clothes? And all those vessels with so many students streaming in every day at all odd hours…” Sastry looked very concerned at the condition of Swami’s residence cum gurukulam. “You know what happened last time is not going to be repeated, not all women will try to file a case against you and claim crores” he added gently. It was a well-known fact in town that a maidservant working at this place had filed false harassment charges against Swami TV and the non-bailable warrant under the SC/ST Act was somehow squashed at the last moment with great difficulty due to the good offices of Sastry, who had used all his Chief Archaka powers and network to get that woman to drop her ill-intentioned case. She had taken a fancy for Swami who would not entertain her base desires, so this is how she had repaid his naivete. Given that his small abode sat on prime land it gave enough impetus to other unsavoury elements to join forces with the maid in making his life miserable. But for Sastry, Swami would have been in jail now. Was he thankful though? Not at all! Look at him, no iota of gratitude despite everything and he continues to tell me that my ways are wrong, are false. Where would he be without me and the power I carry with me. Now that too is gone.
“As long as I am physically able, let me look after this body, I will come to you only when I can no longer support myself, don’t worry”, Swami TV said from the kitchen. “I am making coffee for you also, don’t run away!”
“I have resigned anDi” Sastry stated matter of factly, although he was searing within with heartache and unresolved issues. “Good” so saying Swami TV went back to pouring the filter coffee into two cups after a brief pause. He did not ask his friend for more details but continued while bringing the two cups in his hands and offering one to Sastry, “you should have done this long ago, or you should have kept your ego in check, you cannot have it both ways..like the monkey that has to let go of the nuts, to get his hand out from the pot, or else its fist will get stuck in the pot…let go..let go…”.
Sastry who was already upset since morning flared up, “ego, me! ego! This is dharmayuddham that I am fighting anDi..what do you know sitting in this corner day after day teaching everything is mithyaa. People like us are facing so much injustice from the converts, from other kulas, you yourself had to face so much, yet you tell me I should not fight and sit at home like you?” Pacing angrily up and down with a coffee cup in hand, avoiding the puddles of water that had formed due to the untimely rain, he looked questioningly at Swami TV. “You and I both studied the same thing, have you forgotten? We are not the body, nor the mind, we are the aatmaa which is the one and only, there is no other, how can you expect me to see duality where there is none?” Swami answered gravely and kept looking serenely at Sastry until the latter calmed down a bit. Then he continued, “with your bhakti and jnaanam you can take care of your own family temple, why all this tension for you at this age. Your son is a mature man, he does not depend on you, if you agree to your daughter’s match, what else do you need? Tell me!” Sastry gulped down his coffee and almost singed his throat, “my son is not mature enough, this is no age for Vedanta, he should marry and settle down, he should continue our family line like a good son, he refuses to even talk to me about it, and my daughter wants to marry a Reddy, you want me to agree to such a preposterous idea?”
“Come, come, sit here” Swami TV called to his friend gently, “listen, is not the Reddy boy Hindu, what would you do if he was a Muslim or Christian, and she was proper enough to tell him to talk to you, instead of announcing her marriage like other young girls. He is a devout sincere man, visits the temple and comes here daily to learn more. He asked me to help him do sandhyavandanam too, recording the mantras to practice, how many of our people are following these customs? And please don’t underestimate Anjaneya, he reminds me of myself when I was young..such a sharp brain, if you think my life is a waste then…what can I say…look you love Suryanarayana..he rises and sets daily and is answerable to no one…..you are free to go to the river like always and offer arghyam to him…who will stop you? No EO can. Do your daily nitya karma, and take care of your ancestral temple. What else do you need? What is power? Here today gone tomorrow..if you want it so badly, play by the rules of the game…show some humility and cooperate with the EO then…wanting peace of mind in this world is laughable Sastry!”
Continued in Part 2