A new addition to the syllabus of World Literature in my university is the play Abhijnana Shakuntalam by Kalidasa. In it, Shakuntala finds a husband in Dushyanta by Gandharva marriage. This kind of marriage is precisely our present day live-in relationship. The marriage was wholly acceptable to the society and there was no termination of marriage by law, though there might be estrangement.
I came across this type of marriage in the Indian tradition as the direct opposite of the need for the employment of an officiating priest in a ceremonial marriage. There is provision of special marriage in the Indian government where two adults can register their union. I have observed that the registration of marriages is primarily in the interest of the offspring, the dependent status of a partner and also to avoid exploitation and/or molestation of women. In this way, for all practical purposes, the employment of a priest is optional.
I have always opposed the reservation of seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in India. Every year when I officiate over college admissions in the first year I have noticed that the cut-off scores of the reserved seats is much higher than that of the general category. Once the seats are filled up, we have to ask the rest of the students to go to the general pool and take admission. It is at this juncture that the unfairness of the reservation system is distinctly observable.
Those who get into the reserved seats with high scores are actually from well-off families. Two or three of their forefathers have been well educated. The others are also from well-off families and they are reluctant to go to the general pool. The reason is, reservation has a few ad-on privileges that they do not want to forego. They are not satisfied with getting the seat in the college. They are not at all happy that they have scored equally well as students from the general stream. They want an entry into the college with all the other privileges of the reserved category. They want to wear their caste certificate issued by the District Magistrate like a badge.
This powerful badge entitles you to free books and stationery, scholarships, fee waivers, educational loans, financial support from NGOs and in future, low cut-off percentages in many competitive exams, qualifying tests and government employments, including extended age limits. This badge is useful in getting house and land through government subsidy schemes.
It would be foolish to forego this badge and all the privileges associated with it.
The mass of general caste population in India despises the reservation system. It is common in schools to teach little children the religious identities of the world. In the name of Indian history schools teach about the varna system as much as the ashram system. The ashram system has been completely overlooked. In teaching the history of the caste system we fall into the cycle of generating awareness of caste based identities in little children and then asking them to forget it. By the time children reach college level, the antagonism between the general and the reserved simply grows deep.
I belong to a family which could not afford the privileges of this beautiful badge. I could not flaunt it and demand attention to my needs, say, for a scholarship or protection of rights and complain of any kind of caste based abuse. I could only thank my stars that still, in the vast competitive world I have procured a job strictly on the basis of merit.
I have been subjected to caste-based prejudice all my life. I have been called an ‘exploiter’. I have been shunned when I offered brilliant ideas to someone who was struggling to accomplish a task. I have been verbally abused and shut-up when I spoke of the evils of greed. Most often, for no badge to show, I have been called ‘privileged’.
Following the same argument, I was asked why only priests have the privilege of performing ceremonial prayers. Well, my answer is, no. Priests have no such privilege. Priesthood is a thoroughly optional vocation. In a marriage ceremony, the priest asks the men to ‘repeat after him’, all the mantras that the men must offer in prayer to solemnize his marriage. It is similar to using the services of an advocate to fight a court case. If you are well versed in law, go ahead and do the advocacy for yourself. If you have learned all the mantras associated with marriage go ahead and recite them and get married.
As I said, in the special marriage act, no priest is required. You just need a few witnesses. In the Hindu marriage, registration is possible if you prove with photographs and an invitation card that your marriage took place on such and such date and place. The employment of the priest as a pundit, a knowledgeable person about the rites is wholly optional.
The vocation and income of the priest is completely at the mercy of his clients. It is a freelance activity and many men, after retirement from service, take it up as a source of additional income. So is with the funeral rites. If you can perform these rites without the help of a priest, if you know all the established codes of the ritual, go ahead and do it without him. Even if you do not know the mantras, as a layman, join your hands in prayer and God will listen to you.
Priesthood is a trust that runs the temples. For generations the family of priests has been dominating in the same temple. Hardly anyone from outside is recruited. It is vastly different from being a saint. I know of ashrams where a novice undergoes rigorous training in penance, renunciation and learning of slokas. In the present world where even foreigners are adopting yogic style of life, no caste bar prevents you from becoming a saint.
For a man who smartly wears the badge of reserved caste for material gains, challenging the profession of priesthood is hypocrisy to the nth degree. Throughout the history of India, priests have been examples of renunciation, living in humble huts, sleeping on the floor, bathing in ponds and roaming about on foot. It is one class of people who prided in the achievement of yogic powers. It is those achievements that people from the other castes hailed as remarkable.
If the priests are notorious today for insisting on purity, purity of vestment, cooked food, purity of breath, contamination by others, purity of water, havan samagri, well, can’t you see that it’s rooted in the Vedic scriptures?
Read those scriptures and emulate priesthood. Probably, by the time you have mastered the length and breadth of those texts, you’d reach your fourth generation. If you are inclined to abandon that badge of yours and walk that extra mile towards priesthood, no one dare stop you.
I can give a brand new example from our times. A peon in my college has learned astrology. Many people from all over the world consult him on the phone and pay him through paypal. He told me, ‘they call me punditji. They do not know my caste’ – no need, really. He is a pundit in his own right and people respect his expertise.