I belong to a Hindu Saraswat Brahmin family which comes from a small village called Murdeshwar near the temple town of Shirali in North Kanara District of what today is Karnataka state in India. The town of Shirali is host to the religious seat or the "Mutt" of the Saraswat Brahmin community. The head of the Mutt is known as the Muttadhipati or The Swami. The fact that there has been a strong agnostic streak in my family is, by Saraswat standards, merely an aberration, an eccentricity to be ignored as though it does not exist. It does not lead to anything more than mild disapproval from the elders. In this sense "blasphemy" has no real equivalent among Hindus and much less so among the Saraswats.
It is a small community of perhaps no more than about twentyone thousand in all, that guards its exclusivity jealously particularly in view of its high levels of education and achievement. And inevitably it has spread, thinly perhaps in view of its small numbers, but all over the globe. Quite a proportion have made a home for themselves in America. Since they are brahmins, or the priestly caste, and owe allegiance to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and Music, they have carefully carried and preserved their religious tradition and ritual wherever they have gone. This, despite their learning and exposure to the modern world.
While all Saraswats are from the priestly caste they depend upon the services of professional priests from within the community for routine intercessions with the Almighty. This is because it is only the professional priest who is trained in the arcane arts and the complicated rituals that are involved in Hindu ceremonies. These are rituals that have evolved and become more complicated over thousands of years of performance to the increasing edification of the devout. The professional priest has therefore become over time, an indispensible necessity at weddings and other ceremonies, quite apart from the more mundane religious services that people are wont to perform at the drop of a hat. Inevitably, too, the population of Saraswats in the big metropolises like Bombay and Bangalore find less and less time to devote to religion and ritual than they did in earlier times.
These two developments - the fact that a large number of Saraswats live abroad and have no access to the services of a professional priest, and those that live in the big cities have neither the time nor the ability to perform their own ritual themselves, have resulted in something typical of the infinitely elastic adaptability of the typical Hindu Saraswat.
Enter the Electronic Priest. This device is not as ambitious as it sounds. It consists of little more than a tape cassette. It is the invention of a professional priest better known in the community as Ullal Bhattu or the Priest from Ullal (near Mangalore in South Kanara). I noticed that his achievement had received international recognition when I read a book written by V.S.Naipaul (A Million Mutinies Now) in 1993 at the Long Island home of my sister. Naipaul apparently was told about the Electronic Priest by the wife of a Bombay journalist who is herself a journalist and, you guessed it, a Saraswat.
The human priest not merely recites the entire service from memory, but tells the person performing the service what ritual action he should do next - from pouring out a spoonful of holy water (teerth) into the hollow of his palm and drinking it to sprinkling grains of rice or a spoonful of clarified butter on to the holy fire, while the chanting goes on amidst general hubhub from those gathered around to watch the procedure. Not that it is anything new. They have seen it done, before, throughout their lives. But the antics of the priest and the absolute nonsense of the actions that the worshipper is supposed to perform - like tapping the side of the nose or holding the nose with one hand while pulling an ear lobe with the other or standing up and rotating on his heel thrice, not too fast, it makes his head spin, are actions that never seem to pall. To the Saraswat the entire procedure is suffused with beatitude. To the uninitiated it looks like a rather slow circus performance.
What the Electronic Priest does is replicate his human counterpart. He not only recites the entire service but also intersperses its recitation and incantations with carefully timed instructions in Konkani,( the language we speak at home),on what the performer of the services should do in terms of ritual action. He even gives instructions on the taking of the ritual bath before the service and the clothes that are to be worn at the service. Electronic Priests are now available for all the different kinds of services that are ritually performed - from weddings to engagements, to thread ceremonies (which is akin to a Jewish Bar Mitzvah), to twelfth day mourning ceremonies and blessing invocatories. Since almost all Saraswat ritual takes place at home and not at the local temple, the Electronic Priest comes in handy - literally. He is available when you need him. He does not complain about the money you paid to buy his services. He does not fall ill. He does not need to be given ritual gifts. And he is portable.
Temples are only visited when a special pact has to be made with the local diety. It can range from a bribe offered - make my son do well in his examinations and I will break eleven coconuts at the temple as an offering. No wonder Hindu society is as corrupt as it is. We bribe anybody and everybody - even God. And typically the bribes offered to God are derisory. Somewhere at the back of his mind the practical Hindu knows that his bribe goes to the priest, not to God. Why give the priest more than he absolutely must?
Temples are also visited more theatrically, when the Almighty has to be given a flea in his ear as a lesson in good behaviour by the hero of a film. A relation of mine, as agnostic as the rest of us, once remarked that Hindu Gods are worshipped because everybody knows that the idols are not alive. If, by some miracle, one of them started to move the first thing the devout Hindu would do would be to get a stick to thrash the idol with.
The original idea of the Electronic Priest was to help those who had no means of engaging the services of a real live one in the performance of a Hindu religious service. With the coming of the Electronic Priest who can easily be carried in the pocket and has to be paid for just once, the professional security of the real live human fellow is beginning to look a little threadbare. He gets called that much less often. But then he has to eat, as has his wife and family. It has therefore become necessary for him to hike his fees. The hiking of the fees along with the general inflation has added to the economic burden of the Learned Saraswat who finds it getting increasingly difficult to make ends meet. So out pops the Electronic Priest - with increasing frequency - to the chagrin, of course, of the performing priest. The real live performing priest is slowly but surely pricing himself and his services out of the market.The Learned Saraswat refuses to give up and goes about it with the devotion of those born to perform ritual - which in every sense he is - as a Saraswat Brahmin.
Meanwhile this invention of Ullal Bhattu which is making inroads into the profession of the performing priest has been responsible for making Ullal Bhattu the target of muttered curses ad infinitum from his fellows in the profession. That does not deter him. He has given up priestcraft and gone into the business of selling his cassettes of the Electronic Priest, full time. At last count he had already become a millionaire. That is what I call business sense with the blessings of the Almighty.