Tamil Temple Priests: Supreme Court Should Be Applauded For Its Verdict

Tamil Temple Priests: Supreme Court Should Be Applauded For Its Verdict

In 2006, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu passed a government order stating that any person with the requisite qualifications can be appointed as a priest in temples in Tamil Nadu. Yesterday (17 December), the Supreme Court, while upholding the right of the state government to appoint priests, ruled that the appointments must be made in accordance with the agama sastras. This has led to the allegations from some quarters that the Supreme Court’s verdict is anti-equality. Here is Aravindan Neelakandan on why that allegation doesn’t hold. 

Predictably, the Supreme Court judgment on the appointment of temple priests in Tamil Nadu has created a storm. The Dravidian parties as well as the ‘progressives’ have declared that the Supreme Court has favoured the ‘untouchability’ that exists in the sanctum sanctorum of the temples. The reading of the actual judgment, however, provides a completely different picture. What the text of the judgment relevantly says is that the exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as ‘Archakas’ would not violate Article 14 (right to equality) so long such inclusion/ exclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other Constitutionally unacceptable parameter.

Interestingly enough, the Agama stream of Hindu tradition itself is seen as an early democratic movement in the Vedic religion when ritualism was viewed as related to high philosophy and threatened to alienate the masses. PTSrinivasa Iyengar, while acknowledging the presence of ‘other elements’ points out that ‘the Agamas like the Upanishads were the ultimate development of the Brahmanas’. Agamas are also considered Tantric. Swami Vivekananda points out this aspect when he says that ‘apart from the srouta and smarta rites all other rituals being observed from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin are drawn from the tantra and they dominate the worship of the Saktas, the Saivites and the Vaishnavites and all the others.’

Tamil Temple Priests: Supreme Court Should Be Applauded For Its Verdict

In fact in Kerala, where in a much harsher environment, the most bitter battles were fought for social emancipation via ensuring temple entry, the traditionalists and reformers have converged successfully to bring the education and practice of temple rituals to the masses. It was not a sudden state-enforced imposition or a racial-binary based narrative that brought this change.

It can be traced to the mammoth work of spiritual giants including Chattampi Swamigal, Sree Narayana Guru, Mahatma Ayyan Kali, etc. and it was subsequently taken up in the form of a silent yet robust movement that disseminated spiritual education for all Hindus who hankered for it. When Viswa Hindu Sammelan (VHS) was conducted in Ernakulam in 1983, the presiding chief Tantrik was an Ezhava and his assistant was a  Namboodiri.

In 2012, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) filled up 50 out of the 100 posts for pujaris (priests) with non-brahmins, who could perform the rituals in shrines assigned to them among the 2,000 temples under TDB. Tantra Vidya Peetam, Aluva, is the institutional force behind this systemic change. Krishnan Nambudiri, general secretary of TVP, pointed out that while caste was no bar for becoming a shanti (priest), TDB, it was necessary for the applicant to have an elementary knowledge of tantra-shastra, Sanskrit and a certificate from a Board-approved tantri. (Times of India,  12 March 2012)

Incidentally, the force behind the TVP was a senior RSS pracharak and the certificates for those who were trained—irrespective of their caste—were issued by none other than Jayendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham with the seal of his math. Hence, for those who want to democratise Hindu traditional institutions, the Agamas are more a helping tool than a hindrance and should not be considered as pitted against genuine reforms.

So, the question is what prevented Tamil Nadu from achieving what Kerala had achieved despite Kerala starting the reform movement from a worse condition?

It is not that Tamil Nadu lacked spiritual giants like Narayana Guru: In fact there is a long list: Ayya Vaikundar, MC Raja, Swami Sahajananda, Kavyakanda Ganapathi and Swami Chitbavananda. Yet, the failure to initiate a genuine social reform in Tamil Nadu was because the reform movement was dominated by a racial hatred which viewed Brahmins as aliens and even parasites – a discourse which parallels that of Nazis towards Jews. If one scratches any Dravidian ideologue, one can find a Nazi who substitutes a Brahmin for a Jew. The hatred is not just restricted to Brahmins but to anyone who spearheads the Hindu cause. Though it is absolutely ridiculous to view seers in terms of the Brahmin and non-Brahmin divide, DMK had the opportunity to sit in dialogue with seers and scholars who defined the Hindu discourse in Tamil Nadu and who were non-Brahmins, like Swami Chitbavananda, Thiru Muruga Kirupananda Variyar, etc.

Alas, DMK not only ignored the idea of entering into a dialogue with them but DMK storm-troopers and Dravidian black shirts, physically attacked Variyar Swamigal. Even the odd Kuntrakudi Adigalar who was pro-DMK could not bring the DMK to see reason.

Thus, unlike in Kerala where social reform was a genuine flowering of a spiritual movement, in Tamil Nadu it was an imposed ‘reform’, a result of a pseudo-scientific and racist hate agenda. It smacks of cultural illiteracy and ignorance of Tamil history.

In addition, there is also the inevitable paradox of demonising Hinduism as an obscene Brahminical conspiracy on the one hand, and trying to wrest control of the sanctum sanctorum of the very same Hindu temples through state power on the other. What renders the DMK move further suspicious is the display of an uncultured, anti-Hindu spirit by its leaders like never wishing Hindu citizens on the eve of their festivals – a basic courtesy shown by all political leaders, and labeling Hindus with racially derogatory terms of Arabs or Persian invaders like ‘Hindu means thieves’, etc.

Tamil Temple Priests: Supreme Court Should Be Applauded For Its Verdict


Hindus naturally suspect subversive motives in any move the Dravidian establishment makes towards their temples. Many Hindus feel that the Ghaznavi raids of Somnath were child’s play in comparison to the desecration and looting Hindu temples have been made to suffer under the Dravidian establishment.

The Supreme Court judgment has actually given the Dravidianists an opportunity to look inwards rationally. Today MK Stalin, son of DMK supremo Karunanidhi, is trying to reshape the DMK image and is giving confused signals to the Hindus: retracting issued greetings on a Hindu festival and then telling DMK is a party of Hindus and then DMK ideologues justifying their anti-Hindu stand in TV shows, etc. One wishes Stalin makes use of this opportunity to take a clear stand. Instead of further down-spiraling themselves into hate speeches against Brahmins, he and his fellow Dravidianists can take a leaf out of the Sree Narayana Guru movement and initiate a genuine reform of Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu.

Towards this end he and his party should publicly declare that they have renounced the pseudo-scientific race theory of the Aryan-Dravidian binary and that they value Hinduism as a religion and an integral part of Tamil life. Then they should start not by replacing the Brahmin priests but with cleansing the Hindu endowment board and see ways of handing over the Hindu temples back to the Hindus.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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