Nathuram Verma has been a highly sought-after Dalit priest in Kota, Rajasthan for 10 years, providing much needed spiritual leadership in a community shunned by high-caste Hindu priests.
In Hindu culture, priests perform numerous community rituals. But Brahmin priests often refuse to do so in parts of India where Dalits live in marginalised society.As a solution, some enterprising Dalits have learned to perform the Hindu rituals and begun serving their own community as priest
“I wanted to show them that we can do without them…and finally I became a priest,” Nathuram Verma of Kota, Rajasthan, told Khabar South Asia in a telephone interview. In Kota’s 50,000-strong Dalit community, Verma is now known as “Pandit Nathuram”, or “Priest Nathuram”, and he conducts all the rituals his Brahmin counterparts do among non-Dalit Hindus.
“Valmikis and other Dalit communities invite me to perform rituals related to birth, death and wedding ceremonies. I also perform all Vedic religious ceremonies including puja (worship) rituals and havan (fire sacrifice), according to people’s needs,” Verma said. Satyanarayan Tamoli, a Dalit businessman in Kota, said it feels good not to depend on Brahmin priests for family and community rituals.
“Although we are Hindus, we were not able to perform the rituals simply because of non-cooperation by the Brahmin priests, most of whom still consider us untouchables and do not want to step into our house,” Tamoli said. “So, when Nathuram Verma decided to become a priest, our community supported him.
“Now we can perform all our rituals the way we want.”
Verma – who also works as a clerk in a government office – is also held in high regard because unlike most Brahmin priests, he does not quote any fee for his services, Tamoli added.
Slowly gaining acceptance
Verma belongs to a Valmiki community traditionally identified as manual scavengers. Once he decided to learn how to perform the job of a Hindu priest– traditionally reserved for Brahmins–most Brahmin priests he approached refused to take him as an apprentice because he was Valmiki, Verma said.
“I read several books that the Brahmin priests usually read to learn the skills,” the 58-year-old priest said. “I got one Brahmin priest who agreed to mentor me, after I impressed him with my knowledge on how to perform some rituals and Sanskrit.
“He taught me how to perform several rituals the way he did. I accompanied him on several of his assignments and read several books and scriptures to master the skills of a priest.
“In fact, in the past couple of years some local upper-caste Hindus and Jains too called me to perform rituals in their home. I consider it a great honour for me because I am a Dalit,” Verma said.
A priestly legacy
He believes the Indian Dalit community needs more priests, and started an informal priest-training school in his house a few years ago. He has already trained five Dalit men who are now serving as priests in Kota and neighbouring districts.In many parts of India, Verma said, Dalits will continue to remain victims of social discrimination “at least for some more generations”, but the community should learn to be self-dependent.
“I have six trainees under me now, and I want to raise at least 100 Dalit priests before I die. I am training them very well and many of them will be able to groom other Dalits as priests in future, and the crisis of Hindu priests in Dalit society would be solved.”
By Akhtar Ali for Khabar South Asia in Kolkata