The COVID-19 pandemic has gone from bad to worse and affected people from all walks of life. Even places of worship and priests have not been left out of this. With no rituals happening and temples being closed owing to the pandemic, our pujaris/bhadjis are staring at oblivion. Summer usually is business time for them as a lot of marriages take place, but this year nothing of that sort happened.
In fact, the auspicious Hindu month of Shravan is usually a busy month for priests as a lot of families perform rituals and pujas under their guidance. However, due the lockdown and decrease in such rituals priests are worried about the drying sources of income and finding it difficult to make ends meet.
Throwing light on the current condition of the priests who are full-time into performing rituals, Yadnesh Kulkarni says, “The earlier versions of lockdown cut down a sizable amount of pre-arranged rituals. The summer season is packed with marriages, vaastu shanti and also Satya Narayan pujas. But due to the surge in cases, everything has come to a standstill. I am fortunate to have generous clients who helped me in these months of lockdown. They all took turns to keep a check that everything was fine at my home. I have been a priest and performing rituals for the last 13 years or so and hence I have a good number of clients who are helpful and always co-operate. Unfortunately, not all are that lucky. Also, those who are new and young in this field are facing tremendous hurdles.”
A few who anticipated the stretched dry season have returned to their ancestral homes and are helping their families in the farms or even managing the small village temples. A priest who did not want to be named said, “I have returned to my village in Konkan and have started giving lessons about Sanskrit and basic verses to the young kids in the locality. In return I do not have to worry about food as every day I am provided with a decent meal. Money wise, however, I have to rely on the milk business my family does.” The priest stated that around 75 percent of the income of priests has dried up due to the pandemic.
Most priests are older and for them the fast-paced modern world is way to ahead to catch up with. Vishnu Shastri, a Satara-based priest who is in the late 60s, says, “I used to have a simple mobile which helped me make calls, and manage my schedule. The current world is all about smartphone and WhatsApp. Only recently I adjusted to Whatsapp and am still learning the nuances of it. Now, if I have to learn all those video conferencing apps, I have to turn to my son or grandchildren. They are busy with their work and though they are helpful, asking them for help every now and then is embarrassing for me.”
With people turning to digital mediums and asking their family priests to adapt to the new normal, Shailesh Shelgaonkar feels that in the process the whole motive of the ritual might turn into an event. Explaining his point Shelgaonkar says, “Our culture is full of traditions and not events. Going digital might be a temporary solution in the current case, but it should not be the permanent. I am not very keen on going digital as it nullifies the whole motive of the ritual itself. The presence of priests and closed relatives of the host creates a totally different environment. With digital medium used, will the same environment be created is a very tricky question. It will only lead to people performing rituals just for the sake of it, without understanding the cause, the process and the outcome. Digital medium might also cut down the costs and thus impact the remuneration of the priests.”
A few associations of priests have tired to seek the attention of the State government for its help in securing the livelihood of priests, but their call fell on deaf ears. Also, there are hosts who press on the presence of their regular priest and are not willing to have a substitute or someone through references. Such cases have to be handled sensitively without hurting feelings.
While some have unwillingly accepted the harsh reality and are struggling to live by it, younger priests like Yogesh Kelkar have easily adapted to the technology. Kelkar, a priest at a private temple in Thane explains, “Usually I look after the morning rituals at the temple and am free for the rest of the day when I used to provide guidance for rituals. Those who used to start their day with a visit to the temples are now performing online darshan to start their day. As a part of my job, I stay in the vicinity of the temple. During my morning rituals, we have stated making use of cameras so that the devotees can watch the rituals on their cell phones. A wide-angle camera is placed on the ceiling of the sanctum sanctorum to give a continuous top-down.”
He has urged his fellow priests to adapt to the technology and even demonstrated how easier it is, but has not got a sizable response. “I am hoping that the things change or else we will be forced to choose alternatives and that will not be easy,” points out Kelkar.
Given that things will not be changing any time soon and the crisis will have a long-term impact on the revenues of places of worship and priests. The trusts that run the temples will have to alter their revenue models to stay afloat. The longer the restrictions continue, the longer the devotees will be forced to stay away from their much-loved religious traditions.