Pundit meets Uncle Sam

For a SSC passed preacher from Girgaum, Mumbai, flying to US was not even a dream.

Last Updated: May 22, 2011, 12:11 PM IST

Charuta Bapat

For a SSC passed preacher (a Pundit in Hindi or “Bhataji” or “Guruji” in chaste Marathi, who guides, performs religious ceremonies and rituals) from Girgaum, Mumbai, flying to US was not even a dream as he considered it beyond his limits financially and also culturally as he knew no English. But as luck would have it, what he did not even dream became a reality, thanks to Maharashtrian Diasporas’ cultural and religious needs in USA.

“I am too excited to fly abroad. I have never imagined this in my dreams,” reacted 59-year-old Shreeram Deodhar, who had received an invitation from a Maharashtrian family in California to perform a religious ceremony.

Like many of his other colleagues, Mr. Deodhar is an expert in his field with a rich 35 years’ experience of conducting religious rituals. A product of ‘Vedpaathshala’, the school which teaches chanting of the mantras in the proper way and explain the meaning and importance of customs, he has no formal education beyond fourth standard and hence no knowledge of English.

But his expertise and so many years of profession brought him into contact with Palade family in Mumbai. Normally, when a family invites a “bhataji” to conduct rituals and ceremonies, he becomes a permanent “guruji” of that family and is always called for almost all religious ceremonies. The tradition even passes on to next generations.

Mr. Deodhar got lucky when the Parande couple went to US to their daughter, who is settled there and were in need for a “bhataji’ to perform their ‘Sahastrachandra Darshan’ (a religious ceremony performed on the 80th birthday of a person assuming that in his/her 80 years’ life he/she has witnessed moon thousand – sahastra- nights). It was a pleasant surprise for him when Mr. Parande sent an invite with return ticket.

The trip was a pleasant experience for Mr. Deodhar and he sounded very pleased. “In California, a church has been converted into Lord Ganesha’s temple, where my speech on “Indian culture, Hindu rituals and their importance in Hindu lifestyle” was organized by Mr. Parande. Americans too attended in large number to hear my views and they liked it,” he said.

When asked about the language problem he faced, he smiled and said, “People abroad are different than Indians, that’s my observation. They give chance to weaker ones to improve on their shortcomings. They adjust with new people who wish to learn about their languages and culture. They didn’t laugh at me for not knowing their language. They provided a translator and tried to understand what I wanted to say.” Interestingly, a newly married American woman listened to his speech and felt very happy on touching his feet and seeking his blessings. She admitted that this Indian custom of touching elder’s feet and seeking blessings is amazing. It gives a lot of inner power and calmness.

With unprecedented advancements in technology, particularly in US, the Maharashtrian Diaspora has been steadily growing due to more opportunities for science graduates, a sizable chunk of the Maharashtrian population. There are about 3 to 3.5 lakh Maharashtrians in the US followed by England, Gulf and Australia and New Zealand. These Marathi families wish to inculcate their culture, traditions and rituals into the next generation.

“We are interested in passing on our traditions to our children, who have become complete foreigners and have no knowledge of our customs. We also want to celebrate our weddings and festivals in a typical Maharashtrian way. But the absence of ‘bhataji’ is a problem,” said Mandar Joglekar, a techie settled in Philadelphia for last few years.

Prasad Lokhande, who is in UAE for last four years with his brother and sister-in-law, faces a similar problem. “Both of them are very religious and brought here the statues of our Indian gods and goddesses. But, the sister-in-law is not satisfied as a proper religious ‘Pratishthapana’ of the idols has not been made,” said Lokhande.

Some families depend on technology. They download the files of Sanskrit “mantras” by searching them on Google. There is however a flipside that it does not give the same satisfaction and happiness of actual chanting of the ‘mantras’ by a “bhataji”, according to Lokhande.

“Many states in USA issue specials ‘Religious VISA’ for the Pundits from Asian countries, who travel to US for religious purposes. And this makes the best opportunity available to Pundits to come here and spread our customs and rituals. But most of our people are not aware of this,” said Ajinkya Deodhar, who was studying in Virginia for three years and recently returned to India.

He claimed many foreigners like our rituals and they are interested in studying them. Surprisingly they are even willing to spend a lot of money for that.

The demand for such culture specialists is going to grow further. Maybe this opens up new doors of cultural and business vistas in this newly globalised world for the locally educated but heritage rich individuals.