Note: This article first appeared in The Frontline as a cover story.
WHAT is good for the market is proving to be good for the gods in India. The more material acquisitions the middle classes make, the more pujas and homas they feel compelled to perform. Every vahan (vehicle) must have its puja, as must every tiny plot of bhoomi (land) before anything can be built upon it. Every puja, in turn, must have an astrologer or two and a vastu shastri, too. And then, every astrologer and vastu shastri worth his/her name must know how to work a computer, speak in English, and be “scientific” about it all.
Watching India’s thriving god market, one cannot help asking a simple question: where are all these seemingly modern pujaris, astrologers, vastu shastris and other retailers of rituals coming from? How does the supply of ritualists keep pace with the bottomless demand 21st century-Hindus have for religious rituals of all kinds?
Deemed universities have always served as crucial links in the supply chain that runs from traditional gurukuls and Vedic pathshalas to the homes, temples, offices, shops and even corporate boardrooms of the middle classes in India, going all the way to NRIs. The diplomas and degrees conferred by these universities, the majority of which are funded by taxpayers’ money, are actively “modernising” Hindu priestcraft and turning it into an economically comfortable middle-class occupation.
The University Grants Commission’s (UGC) infamous decision in 2001 to introduce jyotir vigyan and karma kanda into post-secondary education breathed a new life into the already existing Sanskrit institutions which had been deemed to be universities. In addition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government created a new network of deemed universities which continue to provide direct and indirect support for training Hindu ritualists. Even if the BJP were to stay in political wilderness for years to come, its objective of promoting traditional Hindu sciences will be well taken care of by the institutional infrastructure it put in place when it was in power.
When the UGC in 2001 decided to introduce astrology courses in higher education, three national-level institutions well known for their jyotish and karma-kanda courses had already been deemed as universities. They are: Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth in New Delhi, Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth at Tirupati, and Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya in Haridwar.
These institutions specialise in shastric learning, which includes advanced courses in jyotish, purohitya and yoga, both as a part of the regular course of study in Ved-Vedang and for special diplomas and certificates. They saw considerable expansion after the UGC (and later the Supreme Court) gave the green light to astrology. Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, for example, bought new equipment for its Department of Jyotish and set up a horoscope bank during the Tenth Five-Year Plan period (2002-07). It also expanded its reach by starting part-time diploma and certificate courses for astrology and purohitya. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.
In May 2002, the New Delhi-based Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan (RSS) was deemed to be a university. This old and venerable institution (founded 1970), which for so long had taken care of old Sanskrit manuscripts and Sanskrit scholars, was given the authority to create new syllabi, offer new courses and confer degrees.
All 10 of its campuses (in Allahabad, Puri, Jammu, Trichur, Jaipur, Lucknow, Sringeri, Garli, Bhopal, Mumbai) are deemed as universities, meaning that each one of them is authorised to design new courses (within the already permissive UGC guidelines) and hand out degrees and diplomas. The Sansthan serves as the nodal body that coordinates all the various campuses, along with the activities of the two vidyapeeths in New Delhi and Tirupati mentioned above. It is a part of its mandate to give out grants and financial aid to non-governmental gurukuls and Vedic pathshalas. It also grants stipends and scholarships for vocational courses in jyotish and karma kanda meant to improve the employability of those with Sanskrit degrees.
To round up the story so far, mention must also be made of two institutions recently deemed to be “yoga universities” that are not directly involved in jyotish and karma kanda but are still relevant to maintaining an adequate supply of priests.
They are Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYAS) in Bangalore, which was recognised by the UGC in 2001, and Bihar Yoga Bharati in Fort Munger, Bihar, which became a deemed university in 2000.
There are two more strands in this tangled web of priest-training institutions:
The Central government funds the Ujjain-based Maharishi Sandipani Rashtriya Veda Vidya Pratisthan, which acts as an accrediting and funding agency for non-governmental Vedic pathshalas and gurukuls that are cropping up all over the country. This agency is supposed to set the standards for gurukuls and conduct examinations for budding pujaris. Recognition from this agency has become a selling point for gurukuls.
The State-level UGC-approved universities, over and above the deemed universities mentioned earlier, form a category that includes well-known universities such as Mahesh Yogi’s university in Madhya Pradesh or the Kavi Kulguru Kalidas Sanskrit University in Ramtek, Maharashtra. These institutions do not have the status of university conferred upon them later by the UGC, but were established as full-fledged universities by their respective State legislatures and later granted recognition by the UGC.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Vedic Vishwavidyalaya was established by a unanimous vote of the Madhya Pradesh State Legislature under Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in 1995. This was done to honour Mahesh Yogi as a native son of Madhya Pradesh. This institution has become one of the best-known sources of advanced degrees (including PhDs) in all kinds of Vedic sciences. Many of its graduates have gone on to establish profitable businesses and/or academies as vastu shastris, astrologers, gemmologists, and so on.
These State-level, UGC-recognised universities and yoga universities serve as finishing schools for smaller, less well-endowed gurukuls and Vedic pathshalas that are cropping up all over the country. Many of these priest-schools take in young indigent boys (girls are not allowed) and train them in traditional karma kanda. But since they do not have the authority to confer academic degrees, they channel their students into any of the deemed or accredited State universities that specialise in yogic or Vedic sciences – loosely defined to include everything from astrology to yoga. This improves the marketability of their students as pujaris and other ritualists in India or abroad.
It is true that Sanskrit education is deeply intertwined with the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism and the two are often hard to tease apart: learning to perform a yagna or a puja is only the practical, hands-on aspect of mastering Yajurveda for a degree in Sanskrit. But rather than try to draw lines between teaching the religious literature written in Sanskrit and teaching rituals, the Indian educational establishment has gone the other way: it is using the cover of teaching Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy to use public money and resources to promote Hindu rituals.
Can India really call itself a secular republic when it pours public resources into promoting the majority religion through deemed universities?
Meera Nanda’s new book, The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu, will be published in August by Random House.
You can read all her previous posts on Nirmukta here.