The Variety of Hindu Priests and Assistants: A Brief Introduction
Bradley R. Hertel
People in Western societies commonly think of religious communities as made up of clergy and laity. The clergy are experts who oversee worship services, counsel those in need of guidance, and in other ways provide leadership. The laity are seen primarily as receivers of these services. However, the boundary between providers and receivers is likely to be blurred by the contributions to worship made by lay people. For example, in Christian circles worship is directly or indirectly facilitated by lay people serving as Sunday School teachers, lay readers, and choir directors, and in other ways.
The present study is of Hindu functionaries, that is, the priests who comprise the core of Hindu clergy, and many other supporting positions that facilitate religious practices. In Hindu society, there are many gods. They vary greatly in the range of needs they meet for their devotees and in the geographic areas where they are worshiped. Some are sought for a wide range of concerns; others meet only a few needs. The major gods are worshiped throughout the Hindu world. Many local spirits are worshiped by a tiny handful of devotees. Some gods are worshiped with animal sacrifice, others with only vegetarian food offerings. This wide range of gods requires numerous functionaries to help the laity fulfill their religious obligations.
To help make sense of the many kinds of Hindu functionaries, I have organized this chapter in terms of clusters or complexes of related positions. Some of the ties are among functionaries who provide similar services. For example, astrologers and palm readers both predict the future. Other complexes consist of functionaries who provide different but complementary services such as the Brahmin household priest and the low-caste funeral pyre tender, both of whom are essential for death rites.
There are complicating factors that make it difficult to construct a complete list of Hindu functionaries. 1 The breadth of duties associated with any given functionary title tends to be greater in villages. The variety of functionaries tends to be greater in towns and cities. Being born into a certain caste is essential for