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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The New Role of Pracharak in Hindu temples in USA

The New Role of Pracharak in Hindu temples in USA

I imagine a civic ceremony in your hometown that might be convened by a progressive mayor who wished to have as many representatives of the city's various religions as possible.

We can assume that there would be a number of ministers and priests of various Christian stripes, one or two Rabbi(s), and perhaps an Imam if there is a local mosque. But who would represent the Sanatana Dharma? Well, there might be several possibilities. If the community had an Ashram nearby, perhaps we would see a Swami on the dais.

Another option would be someone from the Board of Directors of the local Mandir. However, it is very doubtful that we would see the pundit of that temple. In most cases, the priests of local temples do not have a public face. Their duties are almost exclusively at the temple and, often coupled with a lack of proficiency in English, do not allow the kind of exposure to the general community that other clergies have. Many temple board members and other volunteers do a wonderful job representing their spiritual family in the context of the general community.

However, it is the opinion of the West Michigan Hindu Temple that we need to establish greater visibility and serve the cities and towns where we have a presence on a more formal level. About two years ago, a small group of devotees from the West Michigan Hindu Temple met to discuss a proposal that would create a position similar to what would be called a "Lay Minister" in Christian terms, or "Para-Rabbi" by Jews. These are trained individuals who assist their church or synagogue in a variety of ways.  

What differentiates them from others in their faith families is that they are ordained to perform certain sacramental functions. We decided to investigate the possibility of creating a volunteer position at par with what the clergy of other religions do: an Outreach Minister. We agreed that congregations (from all religions) made up chiefly of the first generation immigrants tend to be somewhat insular.

We wished to avoid this pitfall. So it was decided that a person in this post would be the "face" of the temple. It would be his or her job to operate media relations, connect with other clergies in inter-faith settings, be the point-person for lectures in schools, churches, etc., and also offer pastoral care in hospitals.

Another area that has been talked about is prison-ministry. While we are very proud to say that Hindus are "poorly" represented in jails and prisons, it is still important to have spiritual advisors available, not only for born Hindus, but also for those of other religions, or of no religion, who might wish to benefit from the teachings of the Sanatana Dharma.

One issue that was suggested is that the Outreach Minister be empowered to officiate weddings. This initiated a very healthy discussion, with interesting results. This move was in no way made to diminish the role of the pundit-in-residence. Official Hindu weddings would continue to be conducted by priests. But it was felt by some that we could offer a great service to the larger community in a unique way.

As you know, there are great numbers of Americans who are estranged from their religion of birth. Many of these have adopted Hindu practices such as Hatha Yoga, meditation, bhajan-chanting, guru-discipleship, etc., many without fully embracing the Hindu tradition. Some refer to themselves as "spiritual-but-not-religious." When the time comes for people like this to get married, a full-blown Hindu ceremony may not be appropriate for such couples. If neither party has Indian roots, the service would be completely foreign to both parties as well as their families. So it was agreed that the Outreach Minister would be able to perform marriage ceremony for people who had an affinity for Santana Dharma but are not "charter members" or not a Hindu in traditional sense. The wedding would include certain aspects such as prayers, chants, readings from the Vedas, a sermon based on our teachings and perhaps a short ritual with explanation. Most, if not all, of this ceremony would be conducted in English. The last thing that needed to be negotiated was a title. "Outreach Minister" is how the job was talked about as we hammered the fine points out, but there was strong consensus that we give this position a Sanskrit name. The closest we could come up with is Pracharak. When dealing with people outside the Hindu community, we often add Outreach Minister parenthetically.

It has been a year since a Shiva Abishekam Puja initiated my own work as the temple's First Pracharak. These past months have offered much opportunity for seva (service), and I am so grateful. Under the guidance of the Temple Board, I have officiated about half a dozen weddings; conducted a memorial service; led several churches, schools and other groups on temple tours; lectured at various churches, high schools and colleges; partnered with a church in hosting a Diwali celebration; and offered spiritual counsel to those who requested it. By all accounts, this noble experiment is fulfilling and exceeding expectations. It is our hope that someday more devotees will also be ordained in the role to answer even more calls from the community.

About the author

Fred Stella is President of Interfaith Dialogue Association, an adjunct instructor on the faculty of Muskegon Community College, and an actor for stage, film, TV and audio books. He has been a devotee of the Sanatana Dharma for over 25 years. He will gladly serve any Mandir that wishes to learn more about the West Michigan Hindu Temple Pracharak Program, and perhaps institute one of their own.

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Courtesy Vishva Hindu Parishad Digest

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