A New Calling: Freelance Priests

March 26, 2008

Author: Karin Brulliard

Source: The Washington Post


On a dark Sunday morning in a slumbering Ellicott City neighborhood, Bhaskar Sastry, freelance Hindu priest, drove down a private drive toward his 6 a.m. assignment. A stone-front colonial came into view, its porch light revealing a large family waiting in the drizzle, parkas over their vibrant silk saris and kurta pajamas. It was move-in day, but they could not proceed without Sastry.

Soon Sastry, 44, was cracking a white pumpkin on the stoop and chanting prayers to a Hindu goddess, his deep voice piercing the pre-dawn silence. Once inside, he sat cross-legged on the floor and adorned an altar with fruits and flowers. He lit a fire in a roasting pan -- modest enough to abide by fire codes -- and led mantras beseeching deities to ward off evil and bless the new home.

It was just another day in the life of Sastry -- and, increasingly, in the wildly diverse Washington suburbs, where in some places Hindu rituals seem as ordinary as cookouts and kickball.

As the region's Indian population swells, so soars the demand for Hindu ceremonies -- baby-naming services, engagements, blessings for new cars -- that are traditionally performed outside the many priest-staffed temples that dot the area. So, for eight years, Sastry has kept busy as one of the region's few freelance Hindu priests. He navigates suburbs where Indians have bought houses, bringing ancient Hindu rites to modern American landscapes.