Debating India


Equality of priestly opportunity

Friday 19 May 2006

The decision of the Tamil Nadu Government to allow all qualified persons irrespective of their caste to work as temple priests is an important victory in the continuing fight against the social curse that is India’s caste system.

In keeping with a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that non-Brahmins (including Dalits, of course) can function as temple priests if they are "well-versed and properly trained" in temple rituals, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government has expressly provided for the appointment of persons from all communities as archakas. Customs and hereditary rights, including those dating back several centuries, cannot form the basis for continuing practices that violate fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Any discrimination in the choice of priests militates against Article 15 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of equality to all citizens, and Article 17, which prohibits untouchability. The 2002 verdict, which the State Government now cites, clarifies the position in the context of a 1972 judgment of the Supreme Court that held the appointment of archakas not authorised by the agamas as violative of Article 25, which grants the right to freedom of religion. According to the 2002 ruling, even if traditionally a Brahmin alone conducted the pujas, this did not mean a person other than a Brahmin was prohibited from doing so. This has now provided sufficient ground for the Government to make another attempt - after the 1970 amendment to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act - to end the discrimination on the basis of caste.

But if the decision is not to end up as symbolism, the Government must actively promote the participation of people from different castes in the rites and ceremonies of the temples administered by the HR and CE department. Among the 38,000 temples that come under the department, many traditionally employ non-Brahmin archakas. But most of such temples are in the low-income category; and there is little incentive for qualified persons to work there. Traditionally, the recruitment of priests has been left to the local temple authorities. Without a new mode of selection and placement of archakas, the order "allowing" people from all castes to serve as archakas is unlikely to go far enough. Besides, there are several temples run by hereditary trustees that do not come under the department. It will be a challenge for the Government to bring about the radical change it envisages in these temples. It is important to emphasise that an earnest effort to end caste discrimination in priestly functions must involve a proper training process for those interested in taking up the profession. Although an informal system of training in agamas exists in some temples, equality of opportunity cannot be ensured in the absence of a recognised institute for training archakas. Clearly, the Government needs to follow up its socially progressive move with other practical steps.

See online : The Hindu

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