Keeping the Faith
One of South India's finest priest schools rekindles the fires of devotion
For every ancient Hindu spiritual practice that survived the test of time, there was at least one person like Pichai Sivacharyar who helped make it happen. Today, at the turn of yet another century in Hinduism's near-infinite history, this 53-year-old Hindu priest lives his life for the perpetuation of tradition through the propagation of the Vedas and Agamas. Such work seems simple enough. What else would one expect a good priest to do? Yet Pichai does it well. He does it so well he inspires others to do the same. Pichai is becoming a legend because of the exceptional quality of his work. During my preparation of this story for Hinduism Today, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of this fine man. I will never forget it.
In 1980 with only five students and no place but the open air to gather for class, Pichai formed the Sri Karpaga Vinayagar Vedaagama Vidyalaya (SKVVV) to teach young men the meaning of the Vedas, especially the Yajur Veda, and the performance of Agamic temple ceremony. Today the SKVVV is one of South India's most successful priest training schools.
Five years later, in 1985, Pichai formed the Siva Neri Kalagam (SNK), another facility on different property, to provide more housing for the young men and a few more programs for the general public. These institutes together comprise Pichai's padasala, a priest's training center for young boys, located in Pichai's home town Pillaiyarpatti, Sivagangai, in Tamil Nadu.
Many of Pichai's students are the sons of priests. Just as lawyers send their children to Harvard to study law, many priests send their sons to Pichai to learn their craft from a priest of priests.
Pichai's program is unique in that it accepts nonbrahmins, most of whom come from Malaysia and Singapore. As I write this article, 70 nonbrahmin students from overseas have passed Pichai's course and 35 more are studying. All together, more than a thousand priests have graduated from the padasala. Many currently serve in temples in Malaysia, Singapore, United Kingdom, Canada, Sri Lanka, USA, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Mauritius and France as well as in India.
Although Pichai's students receive food, lodging, books and training free of charge, they pay for their education in a most interesting way. Working closely together as a mighty band of apprentice pujaris, they assist their teacher and his staff in performing grand ensemble pujas, abhishekams and homas for local Hindu temples and homes. For these uniquely thespian presentations they sometimes receive great sums of money. Although according to the tradition they so meticulously strive to preserve, they never formally charge for their services, they do accept dakshina (donations). And dakshina flows freely and abundantly when well deserved, which it always is with Pichai and crew. All funds earned in this way go toward the training of the children, as well as the continued development and maintenance of the padasala.
It's a win-win situation from every angle. The students and the teachers are all workingÑeven the youngest among themÑand being paid well for it in a most traditional way. Everyone is learning. The patrons are delightfully happy to be blessed by a sacred chorus. And the tradition they all vow to perpetuate continues in a manner befitting its prestigious heritage.
This practice is a living validation of scriptural procedure. According to the Vedas, ceremonial worship can be done in grand style. The number of priests required for any given ceremony is determined by the number of mantra repetitions stipulated in scripture for that ceremony. For instance, the Vedas say that the proper performance of a traditional Ganapati Homa (See photo pages 50 and 51), requires 21 peopleÑ16 to recite the correct number of mantras and five to perform the intricate ceremony around the homa kundam (fire pit). There is at least one very practical reason for this: Time! With many to intone the myriad mantras, the ceremony can be finished in a single morning.
Here is another example. For the proper execution of the famous Ati Rudra Maha Yajna, in accordance with strict Vedic injunction, there should be eleven priests around each of eleven homa pits chanting the sacred Sri Rudram mantra eleven times daily for eleven days to complete the necessary 14,641 mantra repetitions. Since Sri Rudram takes 30 minutes to chant once, this is only about 60 hours of real ceremony time if the 121 priests are chanting for five and a half hours a day. By comparison, it would take one person about 4,393 hours to complete the same number of repetitions by himself. At five and a half hours a day, this would take a little over two years.
The padasala functions in two locations; one at the Pillaiyarpatti Temple where there are 70 students, the other 50 yards away at the Siva Neri Kalagam, a one-acre, dormitory/school complex that houses 150 students. Six highly qualified teachers work at both centers. Ganesa Ganapadigal and Vydhyanatha Ganapadigal teach the ancient Yajur Veda. Jayakumar gives instruction in basic Sanskrit grammar and literature. Thirumoolanatha Gurukkal teaches astrology and the performance of Agamic ceremony. Oduvar Kannayiram and Tamil Scholar Arumugam lead devotional singing classes. Pichai Gurukkal himself spends as much time as possible with the young men in all areas of study.
Many of the foreign students can only get two-year visas into India. To accommodate this restriction, Pichai has designed his teaching program so that one certificate of completion may be received after two years of intensive study while another may be obtained for further accomplishment after the five-year course has been completed.
The first four years of Pichai's five-year program are dedicated to detail. During this time, students learn the building blocks of their craft. These are auspiciously impressionable years when young minds are fresh and open. It is now that great priests are built from the ground up. Quickly, thoroughly and easily they comprehend and commit to memory great volumes of information to be assembled and used later. The fifth year is spent putting all of these details together in practice and learning the flawless execution of the ceremonies they will be performing the rest of their lives. Those who finish two years are given the title Sivachariyar. Those who finish the five-year course are called Siva Agama Ratnam.
Training occurs ten months out of a year. Of the four Vedas, the Yajur Veda comprises the primary study, as it contains most of the important mantras required for temple puja and homa. At the conclusion of the study, students must perform a number of intricate ceremonies in the presence and to the satisfaction of qualified scholars. This is quite an ordeal, but one which must be endured successfully for the completion of training with Pichai.
The students dress according to ancient tradition, wearing a single rudraksha bead on a thread, a cotton veshti (a wrap-around waist robe) and a shawl to cover the upper torso. Their given names are not used while they are being trained. Instead, they are called by the name of the place from which they have come. They are not allowed to watch TV and are taught cooking, which includes cutting vegetables, dish washing and serving food with grace and humility. Austerity is a fundamental part of their training. "[Pichai] has taught us that we should be ready even to starve," says Tiruppuvanam Rajesh, a graduate of the program.
All ceremonies at the very popular local Pillaiyarpatti Temple are exclusively performed by Pichai, his staff and students. Ganapati Homa, which I personally witnessed and will never forget, is a greatly favored ceremony there.
When he was 12, Pichai began serving as a priest's assistant. His father, Krishna Gurukkal, was his teacher. Although he founded his padasala at the age of 30, he spent much time serving as a priest in England, Malaysia, Mauritius, Canada, Germany and France. To date he has performed Kumbhabhishekams, a ceremony which takes several days to complete, in over 1,300 temples around the world.
Pichai and his wife, Saroja, have three children. Sridhar, their son, helps with the school. Sudha, the oldest daughter, lives in London with her husband Ganesa Gurukkal, who was one of Pichai's students. Ganesa serves as a priest in the Mariamman temple there. Karpagam, the other daughter, is a computer science student.
Although Pichai Gurukkal is relatively young in a sage's world of slowly earned respect, his reputation is saintlike. I found this to be true, even after deep investigation for this article. Not one person I talked to had an unkind word to say about him. Certainly, as I sat in his presence, I could feel what others feltÑthat he is special. He lives in benign peace, proceeding day by day into a future apparently untainted by even the faintest thought of failure. Even his greatest adversary, that so frequently denounced materialism of our technological age, seems to step aside as he passes by.
For further information write:
Dr. K. Pichai Sivachariyar, Pillaiyarpatti, Sivagangai, Tamil Nadu, India
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