Taking a vow of chastity was possibly the most difficult part of becoming a priest for Faryad Ansar, a second-year student at the National Catholic Institute of Theology in Karachi. He recalls having other passions in life before he made the decision to serve God.
“I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to marry and have a life like others…but it just wasn’t written,” says the 26-year-old who will graduate in two years.
Ansar, who hails from Sialkot, is among the 35 students studying for their Bachelors in Theology at NCIT. The national seminary trains students from all over the country and is the last step towards becoming a priest.
Once they become priests, the Church provides for all their basic necessities from the donations they receive from the community. Apart from this, they receive monetary gifts at religious occasions, weddings and baptisms.
The formative years are spent at a minor seminary affiliated with one of the seven archdioceses in Pakistan. This five-year training is followed by a two-year course in Philosophy in Lahore and finally, the students are required to attain another four-year degree in Theology from the national institute in Karachi.
The ‘vow’ factor
“These 11 years of vocation are both instructional and spiritual,” explains Father Augustine Soares, rector at NCIT. “Becoming a priest requires serious preparation, patience and soul-searching. It is a commitment to serve God for the rest of your life. The students who have made it to the NCIT have proved that they are dedicated.”
But achieving the ‘gift of celibacy’ is not easy for all. Men with different dreams and aspirations find it tough to come this far.
Abstaining from women and making that final choice between marriage and priesthood has preoccupied them. “We have had many students who leave during training and we never stop them,” Fr Augustine says. “In fact, we keep reminding them that they are free to go whenever they want, if they have the slightest doubt that they may give in to any worldly temptation.”
However, most of them choose to stay. “To tell you the truth, it is not the individual’s choice to become a priest. It is God who chooses you and the commitment gets stronger with each passing year,” is what Brother Noman Arif believes. “Once you surrender yourself, there is a mysterious power that consoles you.”
When young Christian men take this decision, it is not just them but their parents as well who have to give it serious thought – but for different reasons. For instance, in Nasir William’s case, his father was not quite that excited about his son’s decision to join a seminary because of his lack of interest in religion.
“My father thought I was too secular and would be a hopeless misfit at a seminary,” says William, who hails from Sargodha. “He predicted that I’d be kicked out after the first year and since the label of an ex-seminarian would stay with me for life, he was against my decision.”
Turns out, however, that his father was not wrong. After a year of initial training, William left the minor seminary to achieve “other goals in life”. But soon after, he fell ill.
“I was infected with hepatitis B and later fell into a coma for nine days,” he recalls. In fact, doctors feared he would die so his family had called the priests perform the last rites at the hospital. That is when one of the priests said: “If William recovers, you should make him a priest.” His father promised and a day later, William was back to life.
“That was a sign for my family and I decided not to turn them down this time,” adds William, who will be able to hold his final Bachelors degree in two months.
Yet others have faced financial pressure from their family. Adnan Ghani, a student from Lalamusa in Gujarat, is the only son from three children and was initially forced by his uncle to leave the seminary for the greater good of the family. “That was the Devil’s first attack,” he says. “But I had taken a decision and was content.”
There is a reason why the course is 11 years. Almost the same amount of time it takes to become a doctor. “The idea is to make them steadfast,” says Fr Augustine. There can be no turning back.
Modern Mahraj, ancient tradition
Unlike for priests, a pundit doesn’t have to give up ‘worldly temptations’ and can go to university, get a job and have a family. All he needs to do is spare a few hours of his day to visit his community members during their religious ceremonies.
Avinash Sharma is an 18-year-old Brahmin who is being trained by his parents to become a pundit. Being a Brahmin is a prerequisite, and Avinash’s father is also a pundit.
Since there are no religious schools for Hindus in Pakistan for Brahma Vidhya (spiritual attainment), Avinash’s parents and uncles are imparting his religious education.
Apart from dealing with the stress of studies as a student of Computer Engineering at Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology, Avinash has memorised a substantial portion of the Vedas, along with the corresponding rhythms and melodies for the mantras for weddings and funerals.
His mother Mangla Sharma says she is proud to have three sons who will take the legacy of her husband forward. “There are not many Brahmins in Karachi, which is why my husband and sons are always busy,” she says.
“The pressure does get to me at times,” admits Avinash. “But my parents’ happiness makes the effort seem worthwhile.” Although Avinash had always been part of the religious functions his father attended, he was formally introduced to the Vedas and the mantras two years ago. “I have memorised most of the mantras, but in about a year’s time I will be able to handle religious functions independently,” he tells The Express Tribune. He doesn’t say it but his mother knows that he avoids the wedding mantras. “They make him blush,” she laughs.
The ritual of touching a Brahmin’s feet also makes him uncomfortable. “I am only 18. It’s quite awkward when people twice my age bow before me to pay their respects,” he says.
The label of a ‘Modern Mahraj’ doesn’t help him either. Traditionally, a Hindu priest is expected to wear a dhoti, but Avinash prefers a kurta and pyjama with the traditional yellow cape on his shoulders.
Once he graduates to become a Maharaj, apart from earning respect, this job would be financially rewarding as well. “From cash to gold and clothes to our monthly ration…we almost never have to pay for anything because my husband is a Maharaj. It is a religious tradition to give away gifts to Brahmins on various occasions or when your wish is fulfilled. It is very kind of our community members to keep the tradition alive.”
The Sindhi Hindu family hails from Shikarpur but several years ago they moved to Karachi where Avinash is now expected to live his life as an engineer in the day and a Maharaj by night.
In the name of God
Saad ur Rehman looks surprised when asked why he opted for a job inside the mosque. “It’s the closest I can be to God,” he promptly replies.
The 28-year-old is a final-year student at Darul Uloom in Korangi. Once he graduates as an aalim, he will return to his neighbourhood mosque in PECHS where he will be trained to lead his life as an imam. “It was my father’s desire that I become an Imam,” he tells The Express Tribune. “He shared this with me soon after he returned from his first Hajj in 2002. And since I am the only Hafiz among my four siblings, he suggested I put my knowledge and interest in religion to good use and help the rest of the community.”
Rehman, who belongs to a Sunni Muslim family, received his basic education at a madrassah of his locality where he was also trained to become a Hafiz. In the meantime, he continued with his formal education till Class VIII as well. “Once I became a Hafiz, I continued with my education till Intermediate.”
Rehman aspired to be a pilot, he says and had decided to move to Dubai to enroll in an aviation college. “My elder brother was there and he was happy with my decision too, but my parents had other plans.”
He admits he was initially reluctant and only agreed to become an imam because he did not want to disappoint his father. “Now when I look back, I realise how childish I was. I don’t think I would find a more fulfilling job than this”
As a final-year student of Daura-e-Hadith, Rehman recalls a Hadith he recently read: ‘When Allah intends to do good to a person, Allah gives them understanding of deen (religion) that helps him or her stay firm.
In about a year’s time when he is familiar with the job of an imam, Rehman will be able to lead the five prayers and other congregational prayers at religious occasions. His job would also include delivering the Friday Khutbah (sermon), solemnising weddings, leading funeral prayers and creating awareness about Islam and its practices, while the mosque administration and community takes care of his financial needs. “The renumeration would merely be to fulfil my wordly needs and that of my family. The actual reward of an aalim will be from Allah in the Hereafter.”
Apart from this, Rehman can also take up a part-time job in Islamic Studies at a school or college or teach students at a madrassah.
Leading a community is a big challenge, especially in a country like Pakistan, where the majority of people are quite religious and tend to rely on aalims to solve their problems. “That is where I think my role as a responsible religious leader comes in. The course has been extended to eight years so we are able to refer to all kinds of religious texts and interpretations.”
As Rehman prepares for his final assessment, he adds that the end of this year will be marked with his marriage to a cousin – a match arranged by his parents. “So yes, the end of my student life and the beginning of a new married life are the two things I look forward to at this point,” he confesses.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 18th, 2010.