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’d always found something mysteriously attractive about Hinduism’s link to astrology and its suspected ability to recognize our past and predict our futures. When such predictions could be offered by someone in a position of Hindu authority, their appeal became more tantalizing. What will I be when I grow up? Who will I marry? Will I have children? It seemed that such questions could only be answered by looking at the lines and stars.

But I had gone to East Africa to study a more scientific subject: psychology. I was in Tanzania collecting data for my doctoral dissertation in educational psychology. In my first week there in September, I visited the Hindu temple for two reasons. First, I knew that it was a holy place, and I wanted to be a part of a community that felt like home. My second, less transcendent motive had to do with the fact that the priest’s wife provided packed vegetarian lunches for a small fee; an attractive option for a kitchenless grad student.

I visited the priest with my friend Seleman and met the priest’s wife, who promptly told me she’d charge me 4,500 TZS (about US $3.66) for each meal, on account of my being a rich Canadian with “pesa nyingi” (lots of money). The priest then took me to the temple, all the while asking for donations. Every time he asked, I obliged, considering it my duty to make an offering. He took me to the mandaps and sat down on the bench, telling me to sit beside him. He told me that, as a Hindu priest, he knew how to read palms. And so he offered to read mine and tell me all about what the future held in store for me.

Because he was a priest, I was convinced that his palmistry skills could reveal unexpected details about my future. I believed in his implied promise, his authority, his holy faith. I was 28 and single, optimistic about my future but uncertain about its course. And so I eagerly agreed, hopeful and curious. Yet I couldn’t have known that while my palm might hold my future, the hand that grasped it competed for the power.

Because he was a priest, I was convinced that his palmistry skills could reveal unexpected details about my future. I believed in his implied promise, his authority, his holy faith. I was 28 and single, optimistic about my future but uncertain about its course.

I gave him my right hand, which he squeezed a little too hard and placed in his lap. I could not break my hand free from his grip and, before I knew it, he planted my hand in his crotch, where I could easily feel the presence of a slightly hard penis.

As he read my palm, he drew his loose arm around me and pressed into my chest. He thirstily examined my skin, his fingers prodding my body for specific birth marks that would guarantee prosperity. I averted my gaze; he continued to predict. I panicked inside; he continued his prophecies. I sweated through my clothing, pulled, pushed, uttered, “No, please, I have to go.”

He asked for my address in America. I don’t know why I gave it to him, but I just wanted to get the hell out of there so I did what he asked of me. In my mind I kept reminding myself that he was not impure; how could he be—he was a Hindu priest! He asked me again if I had any birth marks on my body, as they are a sign of good luck. I told him I didn’t have any. He asked me to raise my sleeves so he could check; his hands roved over the back of my neck, my ears, my arms, touching me too close for comfort each time. He wrapped a stiff arm around my back, very forcefully. I was uncomfortable. I wanted to leave.

Disgusted, violated, but still somehow faithful, I left the temple conflicted. Bewildered, I convinced myself I was only imagining. Perhaps such actions were tolerable in this culture of which I knew little; he was a Hindu priest, someone I was meant to trust and look to for faith.

In my mind I kept reminding myself that he was not impure; how could he be—he was a Hindu priest!

I visited the temple again in October with a group of friends for the Diwali celebrations. In the midst of hundreds of other celebrating Hindus, the priest neither acknowledged my presence nor seemed to intentionally ignore me; he carried on his Hindu duties as usual. His nonchalance somehow assuaged my doubts about his previous behaviors. I convinced myself that I had imagined all that had happened just a month earlier.

Months later, I decided to return to the temple in my last week to thank god for the miracles performed in my data collection and my travels within Tanzania and to ask for god’s blessings for a safe journey back home. The priest was there and again offered to read my palm. I declined. He insisted—forcefully. I began to feel the sense of overwhelming, uncomfortable heat and violation all over again. He took my right hand, repeatedly telling me that I would have a very good life, very good fortune, very good husband. He predicted that I had two brothers. But this was not true. He predicted that I was a doctor. Again, this was untrue. These botched predictions were more than enough proof that his so-called palmistry was nothing but a farce, nothing but a horrible and disgusting ploy to attract the hands of innocent women into his dirty crotch.

I returned to the apartment where I was staying. The priest called me on my cell phone and told me he had a gift for me; could I please come back to the temple? I told him I could not come back, but he insisted. Finally, after he said he would bring the gift to my home, I agreed to meet him at the temple.

There, the priest asked me to come into his home (which was situated behind the temple). I asked if I could just stay outside while he retrieved my gift, but he insisted that I come in. Being a foreigner and a cultural outsider provides particular uncertainties, one of which is the fear of offending someone who appears to be a gracious host. It sounds absurd now, but I did not want to offend him by not entering his home. I made sure the house girl was still there when I went inside. But of course, as soon as I went in, he asked her to leave.

Disgusted, violated, but still somehow faithful, I left the temple conflicted. Bewildered, I convinced myself I was only imagining. Perhaps such actions were tolerable in this culture of which I knew little; he was a Hindu priest, someone I was meant to trust and look to for faith.

I sat on his couch, and he locked the outside door. After opening the inner door to his bedroom, he brought out a plate of snacks. Pulling a book off his shelf—something about Hinduism—and taking a seat, he grabbed my hand again. This time, without pretense, he fixed it in his stiff crotch. I could not pull my hand away, despite all the strength I felt I was mustering; his hold was too strong, too forceful. He gave me a necklace with a pendant featuring an emblem of Lord Shiva. I held it in my hand, not wanting to put it around my neck. He insisted on putting it on me, and as he did, the pendant lay squarely between my breasts. He grabbed and prodded the area, telling me how beautiful it looked and that Lord Shiva would forever bring me good luck if I continued to wear this necklace. I pushed his hands away, fake smiling the whole time. I told him I had to leave, and I stood up. He stood behind me and rocked the front of his body into the back of mine, pushing me toward the wall where there were pictures of his daughter. He wanted to show me his daughter. Yet he continued to rock his front side into my back side. I pushed back, removed his arms from my shoulders, said goodbye and left.

And never, ever went back.

* * *

After I returned to Boston, my detachment to those upsetting events faded, and so too did my patience with myself for not taking appropriate action while I was still in Tanzania. I realized that “appropriate action” might simply have involved permitting myself to voice my panic and confusion. Being heard, believing my fear and not doubting my experience might, with any luck, follow. And while I say “simply,” I know that the fear and doubt, the time needed to process the experience, and the possibility that nobody will believe you make “appropriate action” more arduous than it ever should be.

Despite my nagging doubts and fears about whether I might inadvertently turn a series of seemingly small events into a large, sensational spectacle, I began a long process in which I would reprimand the priest for his actions, insist on his deportation and assert publicly his dirty behavior. Again hopeful in the Hindu institution, I reported the events to the chairman of the Hindu council in Tanzania. When I heard that my experience with the priest was neither the first nor worst of its kind, I felt comfortable exercising my right to speak on behalf of myself and those who might be rendered even more voiceless than I had ever been. I’d been fortunate to have a supportive family, friends and a socio-economic background that gave me the privilege to be heard, even if it was to the compromised degree women in our society are allowed. And so I persisted, hoping for solution, change, understanding.

I was persistently blamed for the violations because I had continued to visit the temple knowing the priest was there. I was scolded by members of the temple—including women—for not having reported the cases earlier. I was asked to refrain from publicly announcing my experiences for fear that I would spoil the name of Hinduism.

Instead, I was persistently blamed for the violations because I had continued to visit the temple knowing the priest was there. I was scolded by members of the temple—including women—for not having reported the cases earlier. I was asked to refrain from publicly announcing my experiences for fear that I would spoil the name of Hinduism. I received a note from the council outlining the priest’s apology and the council’s forgiveness; the note ended with, “Priya, you cannot clap with one hand,” suggesting the enduring two-sides-to-every-story justification.

While this story and the council’s reaction should not be surprising, what is surprising is that even with my “allowed” empowerment, I doubted, hesitated and feared my own voice. I am loath to render myself a martyr, but I am stunned to realize my own disempowerment. Years of prestigious schooling and opportunity still can’t entirely trounce obvious patriarchy there, or supposed clandestine sexism here.

Do I still believe in Hinduism? Of course. But did I waver? Sure. The power and manipulation inherently possible in such institutions unfortunately left my faith damaged, stolen. What became clear was that the priest used religion to manipulate, coerce and control, and that it was not the fault of religion. And that is what offers me some comfort.n

Priya N. is a graduate student living in Boston.
Published on May 21, 2007.
Photography: Anjali Bhargava.
Comments are closed.
  1. May 21, 2007, 12:20 pm Priya

    Priya, I’m sorry you went through this experience. I wonder if his wife knew what was up. It has to have been difficult writing this… I applaud your bravery.

    I haven’t yet figured out my complete reaction to this piece. In some ways, for the first time, I can identify with my Catholic husband and his reaction to all those stories of abuse that came out a few years ago. Along with the disgust comes a feeling that no, my religion is not this perverted twisted faith of the priest.

    I do worry that this piece might be used to prove to the world what a crazy religion Hinduism is, especially in the West, where it doesn’t get very good press.

    But in the end, it’s been good to read this.

  2. May 21, 2007, 1:21 pm Aarti

    Thanks for such a courageous, honest piece of writing.

  3. May 21, 2007, 3:06 pm Roshni

    Wow … I applaud your bravery. I to encountered such a awkward meeting but with a professor at my school. It wasn’t as bad as yours, but bad enough for me to report it.

  4. May 21, 2007, 4:14 pm Aarti

    It was disheartening for me to read this article… but what was more disappointing was the reaction from the council and the women at the temple. How dare they blame you.. and their attitudes are just despicable! Alas, we live in a society where women are barely being empowered… I commend you for writing this article. . I’m sure it must not have been easy. Thanks.

  5. May 22, 2007, 12:41 pm Similar

    a friend read this article, and we’ve been having a discussion about it. given how sex-related topics are so taboo in indian society, are men really to blame? it seems perverse, especially for a patriarchal society, to conceal sex. but, do men know what it means for sex to require consent? of course the priest is at fault here…and i’m not suggesting that men ought to be excused for such violations. i just wonder what messages this society is sending to men, too. if sex talk is repressed, might it make it more tempting for men to perform these violations?

  6. May 23, 2007, 6:13 am Jay

    I am an atheist, who was born into a Hindu family.
    Now that disclaimer out of the way – please forgive my skepticism when I query, Why shoud we believe you, Priya?

  7. May 23, 2007, 7:37 am WalkingFire

    You certainly don’t have to believe this. When one can relate to and identify with these vivid emotions, images, and sensations, the article becomes generalizable; that is a basic tenet of empiricism.
    Besides, even if it weren’t true, the *possibility* that such stories are true ought to evoke a sense of alarm, and a motive to be proactive in preventing a “true” occurrence.
    This is not to say that the story like this needs to be presented for shock value. I believe this story and have absolutely no reason to discount the authenticity of the feelings within it.

  8. May 23, 2007, 6:55 pm Megan Tatachar

    In regards to the comment “Jay” made about not believing this story, how can you be so judgmental and misogynistic ? Maybe if you had actually experienced something similar you would understand the trauma she went through.

  9. May 24, 2007, 3:26 pm katrina

    Priya, thank you for sharing your experience in such an eloquent piece. We can only hope that speaking out about this brings some peace to your mind about this very troubling experience in addition to providing some comfort to other women who have been something very similar.

  10. May 26, 2007, 12:33 pm Abera

    Priya, I think what you did was very brave and although you may or may not feel, I don’t know is that you are lucky-and that is because it never went as far as rape. Some years ago a woman from a temple near our house in London(IN LONDON) was rape repeatedly by the main priest, who claimed she was his wife in a past life. Not only this but she became pregnant both times after the attack and although she was against abortion herself, she decided to go through it, also considering the fact that she was married. However, unlike in your story, the man was jailed for I think 30years in prison for the crime. Like many people here when I hear this stories I do feel my faith waver. But the way I see it is this, in every religion there will always be someone who gives their religion a bad name and although I am disgusted by both these men, I cannot put my faith to blame for this and hope they will be punished in their next lives for their crimes.