Getting their Sanskrit right

2,000 priests attended a refresher course on pronunciation and puja rituals in a 10-day workshop in north Kolkata.
Priests preparing for puja in Bagnan, Howrah.(Sandip Mazumdar)
Priests preparing for puja in Bagnan, Howrah.(Sandip Mazumdar)
Published on Sep 29, 2016 04:39 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, Kolkata

Sanskrit, the original ‘Deva Bhasa’ or language of the gods, often poses problem for believers when it comes to correct pronunciation. So, when ‘shlokas’ from Hindu scriptures are recited at community pujas or even homes, those with a discerning ear look for priests who have perfected the diction.

This Durga Puja, Bongiyo Purohit Sabha, the largest association of Bengali Hindu priests in India, is trying to ensure that the gods and goddesses are addressed in perfect Sanskrit. The Sabha recently conducted a refresher course for high priests, the primary aim of which is to get the pronunciation right. The course was also supposed to ensure that priests get valuable tips on dress code and diet to be followed during the auspicious days.

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“Traditionally, priests in Bengal perform rituals the way their ancestors had done. But community Durga Puja in Bengal is fast getting corporatised, prompting many people to join the profession for the first time. Therefore, we decided to impart special training on how to pronounce Sanskrit words, how to dress properly, what to eat and what to avoid,” said Shankar Shastri, secretary of the Sabha.

Shastri gave an example of how mispronouncing even a single word in a mantra can have “negative effects.”

“Chanting Om Namaha Shivaya is meant to invoke Lord Shiva. But if a priest mispronounces it as ‘Om Namaha Shivahu,’ he is invoking the followers of Lord Shiva instead. These followers of Lord Shiva are essentially ghosts and spooks. Shivahu means his followers and not the Lord himself,” Shastri pointed out.

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“The workshop started on August 24 and continued till September 2. More than 2,000 priests took part this year,” he added.

The Sabha came up with the idea in 2010 when its members observed that a large number of priests in Bengal were not getting the dictions right. Also, many of those who had recited the same mantras for years were found to be inadequately trained in performing rituals associated with pujas offered to different Gods.

President Pranab Mukherjee at his ancestral village in Birbhum district. Every year he makes it a point to be present during the pujas to perform chandipath himself which consists in chanting shlokas. (HT photo)
President Pranab Mukherjee at his ancestral village in Birbhum district. Every year he makes it a point to be present during the pujas to perform chandipath himself which consists in chanting shlokas. (HT photo)

“Durga Puja is an elaborate affair that involves numerous rituals and recital of mantras. The crash course has already worked wonders. In 2011, only 4,000 priests came for the grooming. Later, the number touched almost 7,000,”said Shankar Shastri.

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“One of the important aspects of this year’s course is the restriction imposed on smoking. No priest should smoke in and around pandals while Durga Puja is on. In fact we have advised them that it’s better to totally avoid bidi and cigarette on all four days,” Shastri added. Last year, a number of puja committees complained that priests were found smoking inside pandals but they could not be asked to stop since they were performing the puja.

The Sabha has also roped in priests from the neighbouring states of Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand for the special tutorials. The organisation also offers placement during the festive season.

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“Those interested must become members of the Sabha following which they can attend the course for free. Candidates successfully completing it will be considered certified purohits. We are also offering placements by introducing them to puja organisers,” said Shastri.

The course also imparts training in rituals, such as hom, mahaboli and mahasnan. “The priests need to have detailed knowledge. They cannot perform these mechanically,” said Shastri.

The association has also advised priests to avoid fizz from the diet. Consumption of fruits in large quantities, though, is a must to preserve energy through the five days, starting from Shasthi.

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Till the evening of Shasthi, the purohits should be on fast for most part of the day. Dinner should comprise only dal and rice. “On Saptami and Ashtami, it may include mashed potato, rice and green banana. Drinking milk twice a day is a must,” Shastri said.

Non-vegetarian food is strictly banned on the first two days. Meat or fish can however be consumed only on Navami but the dish cannot be rich in oil and spices.

Yoga and free-hand exercise are also a must for staying fit. Priests have been asked to drink boiled water with a pinch of salt and lemon to keep their throats clear. After all, reciting mantra on high pitch for hours does take a toll on the throat.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Arpit Basu is the senior reporter of Hindustan Times. He writes on crime, railways and transport.

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