Agra/Mathura/Vrindavan, Oct 2: It’s that time of the year when pious Hindus pray to their ancestors. The fortnight-long ‘pitra-paksh’ began this week but an acute shortage of priests – with the younger generation no longer interested in carrying on this vocation -has forced families to bring them from other places in the country.
Traditionally, Vedic hymns are chanted and religious rites performed through the fortnight in honour of one’s ancestors. There is an elaborate feast that marks pitra-paksh. Family and friends are invited, and pandits too are fed on the occasion.
Many of those who observe the rituals believe that observing pitra-paksh in honour of one’s forebears ensures peace and prosperity in the family, explains Surendra Sharma of the Brahmin Maha Sabha.
Over the years, however, even finding a priest to feed for pitra-paksh has become quite a task. The shortage of Karma-Kandi pandits, who perform the ceremonies and are offered a meal, is acute in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh.
Anurag Shukla, president of the Agra Panditya Maha Sabha, told IANS: “The new generation of Brahmins here is no longer interested in this panditgiri (working as a pandit). It is not lucrative, and the social status accorded to a pandit is not attractive either.”
Shukla, who comes from a family of pandits, says the demand-supply gap is now being met through “outsourcing of pandits from the eastern districts of UP, from Bihar, Bundelkhand and parts of the country that are economically less developed”.
“The institution of the family purohit is all but dead. New entrants rarely know the ABC of Vedic rituals, but who cares? Clients (traditionally called ‘yajmaans’) are hardly interested in the elaborate exercise of ‘shraadh’ (the ritual propitiation of ancestors) which could take hours. A mere formality is what people are now interested in completing. Many families pay a temple pandit a lump sum and ask him to feed a certain number of pandits,” says Shukla.
Kashi Pandey, from Sultanpur district, said that most of his middle class clients pay him only Rs.21 or Rs.51. Each shraadh takes at least two hours. “In big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, a pandit could expect Rs. 500 for a single shradh,” Pandey added.
Rakesh Sharma, convener of the All India Brahmin Mahasabha and editor of www. brahmantoday.com, told IANS: “Agra district has a Brahmin population of around 500,000. In the absence of proper guidance and directions, the younger generation is not being attracted to traditional practices. It’s not that there is no market for the Karma-Kandi pandits, we receive inquiries even from abroad for trained hands. But there is no proper mechanism for updating and training professionals.”
Pandit Hari Dutt Sharma, who abandoned his family vocation as a priest to work as a school teacher, says, “Many more people would probably serve as pandits if there were round-the-year economic activity to support them.”
“Many of the younger people in our family have left for greener pastures, including the IT sector. My younger brother and I now have to service a big clientele,” says Mahesh Chandra Sharma, director of Jeevan Shodh Sansthan.
Agra University, some years ago, started a specialised course for producing Karma-Kandi pandits, as there was reportedly great demand for them abroad. There were not enough students interested in the course, leading to the closure of the programme.
At Vrindavan and Mathura, pilgrims at Yamuna ghats make a beeline for trained hands to conduct the shraadh, according to Acharya Jaimini of Vrindavan.
“Since pandits cannot be found to be fed on the day, many have now taken to feeding beggars, orphans or cows instead, on the day when shraadh is supposed to be held,” Jaimini said.
“It used to be an elaborate ritual feast, and family and friends used to be invited to it. Now, for health reasons, people avoid eating food high in fat and sugar. The ‘imertis’, ‘mal puas’, ‘kheer’, ‘puri’ and ‘kachori’ are thus not so popular, and even pandits these days have become fastidious and more selective. What we do now is just to give the pandit some money, so that he can eat what pleases him,” says Sudhir Gupta, a resident of Vijay Nagar Colony in Agra.
The few priests willing to eat the ritual meal find themselves inundated with food on pitra-paksh. “Bookings are heavy,” Mahesh Shukla, a priest in Agra, told IANS. “We sometimes have to eat at three different places, in a gap of one hour,” explains Shukla whose family has been specialising in performing shraadh rituals at the Yamuna.
And there is a gender problem too: “For the shraadh of a dead female, a female panditayin (woman pandit) has to be fed, and educated young girls or newly married ones don’t like to perform that role,” explained Prem Shankar of Loha Mandi, Agra.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)