Our Priest

Priesthood is a family tradition for Vignesh Mahadevarahalli, the priest at the Hindu Association of West Texas.

His father, grandfather and ancestors were all priests, passing on the customs and traditions from generation to generation. Mahadevarahalli has been priest of the Hindu temple in Midland since early 2008.

Growing up in a small village in Karnataka, India called Mahadevarahalli (his last name is that of his native village, a common tradition in India), he learned basic priestly traditions from his father. At age 12, he left home and moved nearly 200 miles away to begin his formal priest education at Maha Vidyalaya, a school in nearby Mysore, India.

The course took 13 years to complete. He spent five of those years learning “agama,” the practical methods of priesthood, and seven years at a temple in Bangalore, another city in the state of Karnataka. Every morning at 5 a.m., he and his fellow students would rise and shower with cold water. Their days were filled with learning Sanskrit and “mantras,” the sacred words of chanting.

“The rules were a little difficult for our smaller age, but it was good to learn,” said Mahadevarahalli with a smile, recalling his schooling. “We didn’t feel much difficulty.”

Both men and women can become Hindu priests, though Mahadevarahalli’s classes were filled mainly with boys. He began his years of schooling with 20-30 other students; by the time he graduated 13 years later, only two or three were left. Some came from families with priest backgrounds, and others were simply interested in becoming priests, he said.

Of Mahadevarahalli’s three brothers and one sister, he is the only one to become a priest.

After graduation, he worked in an ashram, a place of learning and worship for Hindus. The ashram routinely sent its priests to temples in need around the world. That’s how Mahadevarahalli embarked on his first voyage to the U.S.

He landed in Flint, Mich., where he worked at a Hindu temple for four and a half years.

“I was young, 25, when I came,” he said, remembering how he came to the U.S. by himself, experiencing the cold weather in Michigan. “The first time when you got snow, we really enjoyed that.”

Through a relative of a devotee in Michigan, Mahadevarahalli learned about a new temple being built in Texas that needed a priest. He arrived in Midland in April 2008 to become priest at the Hindu Association of West Texas, which recently celebrated its temple’s sixth anniversary.

“I felt good with the temple and all the community,” he said. “The people are also good here.”

About 400 Hindu families live in the Midland/Odessa area, which keeps Mahadevarahalli, the only Hindu priest in the Permian Basin, quite busy. Along with his everyday temple duties, he travels as far as San Angelo, Lubbock and Big Spring to conduct “pujas,” or religious rituals, at families’ homes. He performs pujas for housewarmings, new cars, weddings, newborn babies, naming ceremonies, after-death rituals and many more. It’s a culmination of all the knowledge he learned during his years of schooling in India.

Every morning at dawn, Mahadevarahalli enters the Hindu temple at Midland Drive and Cardinal Lane to bathe the idols and offer fruits, milk and sweet rice.

“We feel that God is here always, and we have to take care of them,” he said.

He performs pujas for devotees who attend the temple, as well as special weekly and monthly pujas for Hindu holidays, festivals and traditions. In the evening, he “puts the God to sleep” with a special prayer, praying for the health and well being of the country and people, he said.

“On a daily basis, our priest performs strict ablutions and disciplines to prepare himself for his sacred duty,” said Padmaja Patel of the Hindu Association of West Texas. “Before the puja, he ritually purifies the atmosphere, then he beseeches the God to indwell the image, to accept the prayers of the votaries and to shower blessings and love on all.”

Patel stressed that the duties of Hindu priests are unique.

“... they are God’s servants, tending his temple home and its related duties, never standing between devotee and God,” she said. “They do not preach or address congregations or attend to the personal problems of devotees, and thus, they have a very unique role in our temples. Most of them are well-trained from early childhood in the intricate liturgy; they are fully knowledgeable of the metaphysical and ontological tenets of the religion and learn hundreds of mantras and chants required in the ritual worship.”

For Mahadevarahalli, the main difference between serving as a priest in India and the U.S. is the diversity he sees here. He smiles as he speaks about celebrating holidays with the Hindu community in Midland — the next festival, Makar Sankranthi, will be celebrated this weekend.

“In India, we will stay in one place and everyone will speak the same language,” he said. “In this country, we meet people from all over India, all of the states. Here, we have to communicate with different people.”

Because of the diverse population of people who attend Hindu temples in the U.S., Mahadevarahalli is fluent in many languages — Kannada, his native tongue; Sanskrit, which he learned in school; Telugu, a language of India and English. He also speaks and understands Hindi, Tamil and many other languages of India.

These days, he spends his time with his wife and twin 4-year-old daughters. He and his family visit India, where all their relatives live, about every two years.