There can be no denying of the fact that the priest-system in Hindu temples has become stagnant over centuries and hence has degenerated. It is in urgent need of reforms.
The Karnataka Government is mulling over the appointment of ‘Non-Brahmins’ as temple priests as per the recommendation in the sixth annual report of the SC/ST welfare legislature committee. The committee is headed by legislator K Shivamurthy who stated that the government should introduce a reservation policy in the recruitment of temple priests, in order to provide equal opportunities. Further the committee had stated that the denial of non-Brahmins the opportunity to become temple priests, violates Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution.
One wishes that whatever decision that the Karnataka government takes does not go the DMK way. Already in 2006, DMK tried to bring a similar act and was thwarted by the Supreme Court. Both the clan chieftain of DMK as well as the present Chief Minister of Karnataka, are considered anti-Hindus. While DMK supremo has a consistent track record of insulting Hindus at every opportunity, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has also exhibited anti-Hindu prejudice. The ‘Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill’ 2013, which he tabled is a classic example of pseudo-rational Hindu hatred masquerading as ‘scientific temper’.
These attempts by politicians who are perceived by people as anti-Hindu, to change the temple priest system would only result in more bitterness and confrontation than genuine reforms. Both DMK and Karnataka Congress make ‘non-Brahmin’ priesthood as the basic axiom of their approach. This in itself leads to misunderstanding of the problem in hand and improper handling of the much needed reforms.
There can be no denying of the fact that the priest-system in Hindu temples has become stagnant over centuries and hence has degenerated. It is in urgent need of reforms. In many temples the hereditary priests are underpaid, and irrespective of the payment, they are totally ignorant of the history, mythology as well as philosophical and spiritual insights embodied in the temples. Sometimes families are totally attached to the temple for generations. Let us not forget that the hereditary ‘Brahmin’ priests have also undergone horrible sufferings and atrocities in the hands of invaders and protected the temple idols. Further hereditary priesthood is not limited only to the temples served by so-called ‘Brahmin’ castes alone. There are many wealthy, popular temples were ‘non-Brahmins’ serve as hereditary or community priests. Usually only members of that community alone serve as priests there.
One can be sure that all such legislations which aim at employing ‘non-Brahmin’ priests at the temples where Brahmin-priests serve, will provide us with the irony of their silence as to employ priests of all communities in temples where ‘non-Brahmin’ priests of a particular community serve, that the Brahmin-bashing pseudo-secular forces attempt to legislate on temple priests should not, at the same time make us forget the need for reforms in the present priest system in the Hindu temples which need urgent and radical reforms.
From a Hindu Sanghathan point of view, appointing priests through a democratic, worth-based instead of birth-based process is good for Hindu society. Dr Ambedkar in his ‘Annihilation of Caste’ envisioned such a priesthood – where the aspiring priests would undergo a standard education and training process designed by the government. He states that the state should come out with a single book for all Hindus and make it the only scripture accepted by law. To make the solution of Dr Ambedkar possible, the State should shed its secular nature and make itself officially Hindu.
It should be remembered that Dr Ambedkar was for the homogenisation of Hindu society. He saw Hindus as hopelessly divided in a hostile atmosphere of civilisational clashes and attributed the fragmentation of Hindu society to caste. So to destroy caste he wanted to start with the institutions of religion, the aim of the annihilation of caste being the strengthening of Hindus. The good doctor has diagnosed thus:
So long as caste remains, there will be no Sanghatan and so long as there is no Sanghatan the Hindu will remain weak and meek.
However Hindu temples are highly localised and connected to the sacred geography and lore of a specific place from villages to a specific linguistic region and so on. So in implementing the scheme of Dr Ambedkar, one has to take into account almost infinite regional and cultural diversity that the Hindu spirit has nurtured through millennia. The challenge is hence Bhagirathian. History shows that the Hindu Sanghathanists have been able to make considerable progress in this direction than the pseudo-seculars. The reason is simple, a united Hindu society is a must for the Hindu Sanghathanists while a fragmented Hindu society provides the pseudo-secular politician with vote banks. For a Hindu Sanghathanist, Hindu social harmony forms his or her political base while for the pseudo-secularist mutual distrust among the Hindu communities provides the vote banks much needed for his survival. As South Indians social reformer M.C.Rajah rightly pointed out, ‘before talking of Hindu-Muslim unity, what needs to be achieved is Hindu unity.’
Naturally Hindu Sanghathanists have taken the idea of Dr Ambedkar which looks, so utopian, and at the surface looks like the ‘Semitisation of Hindus’ – much criticized by the likes of Asish Nandy. However Hindu Sanghathanists have been careful enough to take regional variations into consideration while democratising Hindu traditional institutions.
Kerala observed situations where the caste inequalities had reached such a crescendo that Swami Vivekananda called it a ‘lunatic asylum’ in 1983, the Vishal Hindu Sammelan opening Puja was conducted by the Chief Tantrik who was of Ezhava origin, a once marginalized caste and his assistant was a Namboodri, belonging to the traditional hereditary priesthood caste. Late senior RSS full-timer P Madhav had founded Tantra Vidya Peedam – a school that trains students irrespective of their caste to become priests. Today priests trained in this school are being accepted as priests by the State-controlled temple management board. But what is interesting is that even before the State started recognizing these trained youths as priests, people of all castes have started getting their services for their house rituals. The fire ignited by the Sangh work has started spreading and already the very famous, Tirumala temple has started running courses for training people of all castes as priests. The RSS has also suggested in 2006 itself that to remove caste-ism, trained priests from Scheduled Communities should be appointed as head priests in all major Hindu temples. In 2013 Modi then Chief Minister made special budgetary provisions to train the erstwhile manual health-workers to be trained in Gujarat, Vedic rituals in eminent institutions like Sola Bhagvat Vidyapith and Somnath Sanskrit University. Apart from being priests in temples, Modi encouraged using these trained priests to officiate Hindu marriage ceremonies and family rituals so that the sin and crime of untouchability would quickly vanish from the society and Hindu society will be free of the stigma.
Hence there can be no two opinions, that the temple priest system which Hindu society endures today needs to go. It needs to go because it has become stagnant and degenerate. It need to go and in its place a worth and merit based system needs to come so that it will also accelerate Hindu unity at all levels. Let us do this with mutual respect and spirit of fraternity rather than as a means to further divisions and animosity in the society