The Education of Hindu Priests in the Diaspora: Assessing the Value of Community of Practice Theory

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Jan. 01, 2010

This article was published in Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol 26 number 1,
Author: Michele Verma, "The Education of Hindu Priests in the Diaspora: Assessing the Value of Community of Practice Theory", Pages 11-21, Copyright Elsevier (January 2010).

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The utility and limitations of Lave and Wenger's social theory of learning can be evaluated through specific case studies which enhance our understanding of how education proceeds in diverse contexts. Here the author provides an ethnographic case study of the training of Caribbean-born Hindu pandits (priests) living and working in Queens, New York.


In Queens, New York the author interviewed eight different middle-aged male Sanaatanist pandits. Seven of these pandits were Guyanese-born, and one was Trinidadian-born.
All were between 28 and 50 years of age.
Amongst this sample, two had completed schooling up to 14 years of age. Four had completed secondary education at ages 17 or 18, one had an associate's degree in business and one had a bachelor's degree in economics.
Each of these pandits practiced panditai (priestly duties) before migrating to New York City; therefore their narratives of panditai education drew on their experiences in Guyana and in Trinidad. Seven out of eight are presently married with children.
Two of the pandits in the sample are full-time pandits with no other source of income.


The current system of educating pandits is highly decentralized, distributed across institutions, and still embedded in traditional one-on-one apprenticeship relationships. Becoming known as a pandit involves all kinds of activity, including participating in worship services, being initiated through life-cycle rites, and displaying knowledge of a Hindu code of conduct. In Queens New York there is no single authoritative body which can grant a person the status of pandit. Rather, it is a continual process of ratification by others of one's performance and one's qualifications by laypersons, officials of the State of New York City, and others.

The learning of panditai is structured in and through peripheral participation through practice, self-directed curriculum, and one-on-one study with gurus. Contribution to actual ritual work moves pandits-in-training through a common curriculum.

Not only do institutionalized bodies exercise some control over who is recognized as a pandit-in-training or a pandit, but lay Hindus themselves have tremendous power to confer or deny a person's status as a pandit. Mothers, fathers, uncles, elders at the temple also are involved in processes that educate and recruit the next generation of pandits. They mobilize discourses of tradition, caste and gender requirements, in order to inform and justify their processes of selection.

There is evidence that priests can negotiate lineage requirements, but there seems to be less room to challenge gender requirements. The author did not encounter any female Sanaatanist panditas. Within the Sanaatanist tradition women are not eligible to undergo the upanayana sanskar, a precondition for priestly work.

Implications for future research

Caste and gender requirements for panditai are vigorously debated in Queens among Indo-Caribbean Hindus. Furthermore, there is a great deal to be learned about the production, change and transformation of the Hindu priesthood in the context of migration and settling.

Lave and Wenger, 1991 J. Lave and E. Wenger, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1991).

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
Case studies | Community of practice | Ethnographic study | Immigration | Religious education