Divergent Paths - Brahman Computer Programmers Ponder Their Future

Article excerpt

On the sandy bank of the Yamuna River in northern India, a wizened old man dressed only in a loincloth sits on a low wooden platform. He is chanting a mantra over the head of a pure-white cow. A thin, shabbily dressed farmer from a nearby village holds the animal's tail. The old man places his hand on the cow's head, then touches the farmer's head. The mantra finished, the old man waves the farmer away and motions to the family waiting behind him. They approach shyly, the mother herding a flock of wide-eyed children, the father handing him a hundred rupee note. The priest tucks it under the jute mat that covers his platform and begins to chant. The father grasps the cow's tail, and the ritual is repeated.

The priest is a pandaram or "panda," a member of the Brahman caste, and he blesses pilgrims who come to bathe at this holy spot. He has much to do. It is the first week of the two-month festival of Kumbh Mela, the holiest and most popular of all Hindu pilgrimages. The faithful have come from across India to bathe at the Sangam, the confluence of the sacred Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. Ten million people are camped in an immense tent city nearby, with millions more expected.

Tradition requires that before bathing, the pilgrim must be blessed by a panda. The Brahman records the pilgrim's family details. From then on any of his descendants attending future Kumbh Melas will go to the pandaram's descendants. Some families have used the same dynasty for centuries. Pandas make money by performing these ritual purifications at the Mela, but this is not their only source of income. The Puranas, ancient Hindu scriptures, say that giving a cow to a Brahman is an act of great merit. Since most people can't afford one, the pandas hit upon an idea. People can buy a cow from a pandaram at the Mela for a small sum and then give it to the nearest Brahman--the panda.

Raghvendra Rajpet, a twenty-year-old student at a local computer school, looks on, shaking his head. "India cannot be a modern society until we do away with such superstition," he says.

Life split between worlds

Rajpet's comment reflects a common refrain heard among the university students who wander the riverbanks and tent city at this giant festival. Most have come out of curiosity, not reverence, and their attitude toward the pilgrimage shocks the millions of faithful who have gathered here. But for Rajpet to make such a statement is even more startling. Like the panda, he is a Brahman, a member of the Hindu religious caste, and as such he is considered bound by tradition to sustain the Vedic rituals that make up the priests' stock-in-trade. Rajpet, however, has different ideas. "Jobs are very good in the information technology sector," he says. "When I graduate, I will get a position in New Delhi or maybe Hyderabad. Someday I'd like to go to England."

Does Rajpet consider the priesthood, I wonder? His uncle is a priest in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, overseeing rituals at a temple dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. "No," Rajpet replies, shaking his head and chuckling. "That's not for me."

He is not alone. Increasing numbers of educated young men and women are casting off traditional ways to embrace what they see as more modern lifestyles. Many of the students at the festival were plainly embarrassed by the intricate and obscure rituals taking place around them.

"Only the uneducated go on pilgrimage," says Dharmin Kumar, another local university student, conveniently ignoring the rich men in business suits stripping on the banks of the Sangam.

The students are bemused by the large numbers of journalists and Western spiritual seekers who flock to Kumbh Mela.

"Nearly every article you see in the press is about religion," says Kumar. "It is either that or poverty. India is more than this. We have great progress in the sciences. Indian researchers are conducting their work at the best universities in the world. …