Hyderabad, June 19: Beads of sweat form on priest Vedantacharya’s forehead as he struggles to pronounce the words on the sheet before him.
“Hi, how do you do'” he chants as if reciting a Sanskrit shloka. “Good morning, nice to meet you.”
Knowledge of the Vedas and Sanskrit are no longer enough for ambitious priests in Andhra Pradesh — the ability to speak English has suddenly become just as important.
It all began in March when job offers at Hindu temples in the West started appearing in newspapers, Telugu television channels and websites. An estimated 4,000 pandits’ positions are vacant in US, British and Australian temples, built mostly by the 50-odd NRI Telugu associations.
Hundreds of priests in the state have since then made a beeline for spoken-English centres. The rush has led several vedic schools, and even temples, to offer crash courses in the language.
“The priests will be conducting the rituals in Sanskrit, of course, at the American temples,” said Dantu Nagarjuna Sarma of Imprint Astrological and Vedic Research Centre here, “but they must be able to speak English if they are to live there.”
That, and a lot more. The priests are being taught to send emails from PCs and text messages from mobiles — in English, of course. Acharyas who have never looked beyond the dhoti are being groomed in the art of slipping into casual shirts and trousers.
“We advise the pandits on how they should dress abroad while travelling to and from a temple or a religious function,” Sarma said.
“Hindu priests have been known to be detained for indecent dressing because they were wearing just a dhoti. We tell them they must never step out bare-bodied.”
The syllabus includes the low-down on how to find vegetarian food. The pandits are informed not only about canned vegetarian meals, but taught to pick their way around the various kinds of meatloaves that might be mistaken for a chunk of cheese.
Scores of pandits and mahants aged between 35 and 50 -- with bushy pigtails, shaved scalps and bright tilaks on their foreheads – can be seen at Sarma’s institute every day, listening to their English teachers or poring over their reading material.
“We have difficulty in pronouncing the words correctly, and also in spelling them,” said Vedantacharya, 48, priest of a Balaji temple who has been offered a job at a Pittsburgh temple provided he picks up enough English.
The vedic schools’ decision to start the courses has come as a boon for elderly priests like him, who are too embarrassed to sign up with the usual spoken-English centres.
He has learnt the rudiments of how to browse websites on Hindu religious practices, and has been filled in on passport, visa and work permit norms.
The training period is short – often for about a month. With the jobs already advertised, the priests cannot afford to wait too long.
At the end of the course, a priest receives a certificate saying he is proficient in the various rituals and can converse in English.
“The opportunities for us to go abroad is now very good,” said Sarma, a priest himself. “Other than NRIs, many Americans are turning towards Hinduism (for spiritual solace). They are also keen on astrology and yoga.”
Even the priests’ families now want to learn to speak English. Sarma plans to open a course for the wives and children soon.