He did not remember when the transformation took place, nor what the trigger was. No one looking at him would guess the turbulence raging across his mind. He was sitting in the verandah of the temple leaning against a pillar. He looked so serene - a fifty year old man, chief priest of that famous temple, displaying the appropriate accoutrement of his religion and venerated by those who visited the temple. The courtyard had a few trees - the neem tree was his favorite. He had seen it growing right from when he was a young boy and used to accompany his father to the temple. The fragrance of the neem leaves and jasmine flowers wafting in the gentle breeze lulled his senses and took him back to bygone days.
His father was the priest then and till his adolescence he would enjoy tagging along with his father during his school holidays. His teachers said he was a brilliant boy and that he would go places. During his teen years he stopped visiting the temple - his studies and cricket with his friends occupied most his time. When the time came to enter college he chose to study Physics as it was one subject that never ceased to fascinate him.
And then one day his father died. That was it. The family had no means of survival. He had to take up the responsibility and well-meaning family friends advised him to follow his father's footsteps to take up the readily available mantle of the priest. It was god's plan, they said. All that he knew was that he had to earn money to keep his family going. So he became the priest of the temple. Slowly he lost contact with his friends and went deeper and deeper into himself. His natural intelligence and talent for organization came to the fore and he invested all his time and energy in the temple. Slowly the temple grew and attracted devotees from far and near. There were 'more gods' in the temple now catering to the needs of the people and on festive occasions it was difficult to control the crowd. He became the chief priest and there were 3 or 4 junior priests under him.
Before he knew, years rolled by and he was already 50 years old. All that would happen in the life of a normal Indian male had happened and now his son was studying Physics in a College. To everyone he was a person to whom they could go for counselling, clarify whether a day was auspicious or not, to learn what was the appropriate puja to appease a god and so on and so forth. His calm demeanor and soft voice was soothing to the regular devotees of the temple. But inside he was highly agitated by his growing self-doubts and uncomfortable questions.
He tried to remember when the seeds of doubt about the existence of god was sown in his mind. Probably when the arrogant village headman who enjoyed trampling on those who worked under him showed keen interest in adorning the deity with gold and silver. Or when the corrupt bank officer insisted on making a large donation for the upkeep of the temple. Or when the other priests distributed 'prashad' dripping with ghee to the well-fed devotees when the village urchins stood outside the temple and watched longingly. Or maybe when he started studying his son's books and was intrigued enough to stay awake night after night studying when everyone slept.
Whatever it was, now he no longer believed in a theistic god who answered prayers, who enjoyed particular foods, who demanded offerings for appeasement and who was whimsical in doling out favors and was quite tolerable about misdeeds. The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient and beneficent god did not ring true given the happenings around him. He turned agnostic and was repulsed to see people everyday who acted as if they were the centre of the universe and prayed for petty things selfishly. He loathed getting up in the morning and having to go through the motions of adorning the deity, paying obeisance to it and performing pujas. He hated it when people came and requested him to perform a puja for their new car. He could not stand it when women - young and old, in shimmering silk sarees approached him to ask about the auspicious time to break their fast. Some days all he wanted to do was scream and shriek.
Torn between his conscience and his economic necessity he was at a loss to decide what he could do. Unfortunately he had not gained any employable skills other than learning a few sanskrit verses. But going through the charade was killing him slowly every day. He wondered how many more were there like him in the small temples dotted across the country as well as in the huge money spinning temples. He was resigned to his state and decided to perform his duty with a sense of detachment. When a group of noisy devotees entered the temple 'the agnostic priest' got up with a sigh and entered the sanctun sanctorum to perform the role he was supposed to execute. No time to think now; he would do that later. And he wondered where his thoughts would lead him....