Our editorial team did not originally plan to fly 5,000 miles from Hawaii to Pennsylvania to attend the short (day-and-a-half) First Hindu Mandir Priests Conference, April 27-28, 2012. But a last-minute examination of the program convinced us we needed to be there. Thirty-two priests and 40 adult and youth delegates representing over 20 US and Canadian temples explored the conference theme, "The Role of Priests in Sustaining Dharma in America," from four disparate viewpoints: temple management, Indian priest tradition, Caribbean and other diaspora pandit traditions and Western-raised youth. The conference was a project of the yearly VHP-organized Hindu Mandir Executives' Conference and was organized with the local support of Pittsburgh Hindu Jain Temple and the Sri Venkateshwara Temple.
This is not a comprehensive report on the conference, but an examination of two key issues it addressed: 1) the employment and treatment of the priests and 2) the evolution of Hindu temples in the West as they move beyond the functions of the typical temple in India. Dr. Sheenu Srinivasan, founder of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society, stated the latter issue succinctly: "While we have succeeded in building temples with attractive architecture and sculptures and staffed them with priests on visas, we have failed in the more important aspect of organizing these temples as centers of authoritative learning and spiritual support."
Pandit Chandrashekar Kashavajjala of the Bharatiya Hindu Temple, Columbus, Ohio, was given the task of enumerating all the problems faced by priests who come to work in America. In a good-natured manner, he explained the gulf between what the priests thought would happen in the US, and what actually did happen--the inspiration for our editorial cartoon at right. It was a rare moment for the priests to "get everything off their chests" before an influential group of temple trustees.
Chandrashekar's list of issues was extensive, including low salary, low yearly raises, poor housing, overwork and inadequate health insurance. In particular, the priests resented management's holding their passport--which is actually illegal under US law. Some temples have restricted priests from marrying within a certain number of years, usually two or three, after commencing work--and once they are married, temples have failed to provide housing for the couple or health insurance that covers the wife. Sometimes priests have been used as pawns in disputes between trustees, making them insecure. Finally, said Chandrashekar, "proper encouragement and appreciation needs to be given to the priest at a regular interval or after performing major rituals."
Forty-three percent of Hindus in the US earn more than $100,000/year. Most temple trustees are in this category, while the priests might be offered as little as $23,000/year to start--a huge disparity. Several speakers explained the priests want to attain the same standard of living as most of the temple devotees--to be able to "take care of their families," including providing a good education for their children. A priest at Tirupati temple in India, one of the richest religious institutions in the world, earns $3,600/year. He can be forgiven for thinking $30,000/year is a decent salary in the US. In fact, it is barely above the poverty line--$24,000--for a family of four. This income disparity was clearly an important issue for the priests, both practically and emotionally.
Such a disparity does not exist for Christian pastors, who are regarded in US communities as professionals on the level of lawyers or doctors. The average salary of a pastor is $85,000/year as of 2012. He or she usually holds a master's degree and has extensive responsibility for the church's operation.