A few years back I began learning Sanskrit, and our classes would be on the premises of a ShriVaishnava temple. There, I noticed the purohit, Shri Dikshita ji, would conduct Vedakakshyaa. I always found that listening to Vedic chanting brought me into a meditative state very quickly, so I wanted to learn it (and for other reasons also). I went up and asked Dikshit ji, who is as traditional as can be, having grown through a dozen years of Veda payhadhala, plus a PhD in Sanskrit.
After introductions, his immediate response was to refuse, since “the class is only for those who have sacred thread”. I wasn’t sure whether he meant I should first have upanayanam, or whether it was just caste, so I inquired. He said it was caste, and kindly suggested I go learn the Bible in this life, since I was born Christian in his view. He became rather emotional, and said that according to Purushasukta, brahmins were by birth only, there was no two ways about it. However, very defensively, he ended by saying that if I wanted I could sit at the Vedakakshya, but as far as he was concerned, I was not part of his class.
I humbly accepted his refusal, but found his last disclaimer confusing. I didn’t want to go plonk myself in the back row if it was going to vitiate the atmosphere. I later found out that the previous year this had become an issue with the temple board, which got into trouble because some brahmin women who wanted to learn Veda were denied, and threatened to have the temple licence revoked per American law which mandates non-discriminatory services to get some tax benefits. So the temple board had told Dikshita ji to not be so point blank in his refusals. Thus the disclaimer. He was saying I could sit in, but between himself and God, he would not consider me his pupil, in fierce defence of what he considered Vedic Dharma.
I deeply appreciated his principled stand,and made it clear that I had no intention of vitiating the atmosphere, and would sit in only if he would not be upset by it. Somehow, it appears he did not expect this attitude or reaction from me, and he calmed down and seemed to become affectionate. He said it was not about being upset, as long as we were clear that he did not consider me a pupil.
After I was certain that no one would br upset, I began to sit in the VedaKakshya from the following week, in Veshti and angavastram, and with tilakam, as per the rules. It was fantastic, loved it. Previously, during my Islam immersion, I found that I loved listening to and practicing Qur’an recitation, and a Turkish friend of mine was a haafiz (memorized the whole Qur’an) and also a qaari (reciter according to proper scales and tones). That person had explained to me the “science” or qira’at and meditation, and it fascinated me. I wanted to dive into it, even more so with Veda. So I was enjoying it.
In initial classes, Dikshita ji completely ignored my presence, and at every class end when students would proffer abhivaadanam and dandavat pranaams, I would only prostrate in awkward by grateful silence because I didn’t have any traditional abhivaadanam!
Gradually, class by class, Dikshita ji developed an open fondness for me. Partly because I was learning Sanskrit and so we would chit chat in Sanskrit, and partly because I was able to follow and reproduce the chanting with minimal error. I grew up speaking languages like Hindi and Gujarati, and had recently begun learning Sanskrit, so the phonetics were easy, whereas most of the othet students were Tamil speaking, with no Sanskrit training, and so they struggled with the phonetics. The telugus among the lot did far better, naturally.
What perplexed me was that Dikshita ji was actually surprised that I would be even capable of getting it right – because I was not brahmin. He even asked me a couple of times again whether I was brahmin, or what my ancestors were before they became Christian, as if my pronunciation had everything to do with genetics. Another Telugu brahmin friend told me that non-brahmins could not recite Veda even if they tried because, being meat eaters, their tongues were thick and not flexible enough to pronounce Sanskrit. He did his PhD in atomic computing.
All the while, I could see that Dikshita ji’s (and the other students’) identification with brahmin caste was the main and often sole driver for them to invest their time and energy in duplicating this culture and keeping it alive. In Dikshita ji’s case, his whole life eas dedicated to it. If it were not for pride in being of brahmin lineage, I guess most of them would not have been there.
Over time, if I had to miss a class, Dikshita ji would even ask for me – showing that his ideology was nothing personal but rather just based on his understanding that has been transmitted for some time now, and which ‘traditionalism’ wishes to “protect” at any cost. He did his very best to keep high standards of practice.
I see people like himself as precious assets in revitalizing Veda-based civilization. But I doubt they can be thought-leaders,for various reasons.
The above were stories related by various friends. jAti-pride is useful in conserving the ideals of the sages. But jAti-exclusivity can be counter productive, exceptions have to (ideally) be made for exceptional cases. People like PV kANe or shatAvadhAnI gaNesha or kevalAnanda sarasvatI can grasp at the essence of tradition (with little or no real compromise), while lesser folk sacrifice the essence for the periphery -alas frustrating the intentions of the sages who they claim to follow.