Print edition : September 24, 2021

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin hands over the appointment order to an ‘archaka’ in Chennai on August 14. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Trained ‘archakas’ garlanding a statue of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in Tiruvannamalai town in 2010. They were protesting against right-wing forces that blocked their appointment as ‘archakas’ even though they had completed their training in 2007 itself. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Justice A.K. Rajan, chairman of a panel on imparting ‘archaka’ training to persons from all communities, presenting the panel’s report to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, in Chennai on November 23, 2006. Photo: V. Ganesan

In a historic decision, the Tamil Nadu government appoints several non-Brahmin priests to perform rituals in Vedic temples, but casteist elements try to derail the move by challenging it in court.

It is no surprise that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government’s far-reaching decision to appoint archakas (priests) from all castes in agama-based (Vedic) temples across Tamil Nadu in line with the Dravdian ideal of social justice has kicked up a controversy.

The decision was met with hostility and aggression by a powerful lobby as it strikes at the heart of the tradition of appointing priests in Vedic temples on the basis of birth, an exclusive preserve of the Brahmin community. Agama is a manual for worship, rituals and temple construction, among other things, all within the traditions of Hinduism. It is believed to have been “handed down by tradition” as scripture and serves as the guideline for details related to religious practice.

Another reason for the resentment is the government’s decision to introduce Tamil as the language of prayer and worship in the sanctum sanctorum, where Sanskrit had reigned supreme hitherto.

These radical decisions, which the DMK had promised in its Assembly election manifesto, have irked purists who fear loss of control over the temples, many of which are significant moneyspinners.

Radical move

On August 14, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin distributed appointment orders to a batch of 24 candidates trained as archakas at schools run by its Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department. The government has also appointed another batch of 34 candidates from private Vedic schools at temples controlled by the HR&CE Department, taking the total to 58. The candidates appointed include othuvars, or reciters of Tamil devotional hymns.

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Of the newly appointed archakas and othuvars, 16 hail from the Backward Classes and eight from the Most Backward Classes, while five belong to the Scheduled Castes and 29 to Other Castes, including Brahmins.

Protest against reforms

Terming the government’s decision as sacrilegious, a few bodies, including the Madurai-based Adi Saiva Sivachariyars Welfare Association, which once resisted the historic temple entry of ‘untouchable’ castes into the Sri Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai in 1939, have gone to the court against challenging it. They have contended that only Sivachariyars and Bhattachariyars within the Brahmin community have the birth-based right to perform pujas at Saivite and Vaishnavite temples.

For nearly a century now, any attempt to introduce temple reforms in Tamil Nadu has invariably been met with legal opposition, although the State is known for being a pioneer in introducing many social justice measures.

Whenever the DMK was in power, it attempted to ensure social justice in temples. In the 1970s, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi too faced severe backlash from the casteist lobby against his attempts at reforms.

However, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the other major Dravidian party in the State, has only paid lip service to the cause of temple reforms. Apart from appointing a few candidates from the Backward Classes as archakas at two small temples in Madurai in 2018 following a High Court direction, it did not show any interest in addressing this crucial issue wholeheartedly. It neglected the ‘Veda patasalas’ (Vedic training schools) run by the HR&CE Department under the Karunanidhi government for training archakas from all castes, and even closed some of them.

Entangled in legal battles

The issue of appointing of non-Brahmin archakas in Vedic temples has been mired in legal controversies ever since the social reformer ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy declared in 1971 that he would enter a sanctum sanctorum with people from all castes. He refrained from doing so it at the request of Karunanidhi, who was the Chief Minister then.

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Karunanidhi later amended the the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable and Endowments Act, 1959, abolishing hereditary appointments. Aggrieved parties moved the Supreme Court challenging the amendments.

Crucial verdict

On March 14, 1972, the apex court’s five-member Constitution Bench comprising Chief Justice S.M. Sikri and Justices A.N. Grover, A.N. Ray, D.G. Palekar and M.H. Beg, gave an ambiguous verdict in Seshammal and Ors vs State of Tamil Nadu. The bench, while upholding the amendments as ‘secular’, ruled that the appointment of priests should be made as per the agama norms of the respective temples.

The amended Act, 1959, came into force on January 8, 1971. The government, which had amended Sections 55, 56 and 116 of the Act, told the court it was a step towards social reform on the recommendation of the Committee on Untouchability, Economic and Educational Development of the Scheduled Castes in 1969. It argued that it had decided to abolish the principle of hereditary the practice of appointing all office holders in Hindu temples, as it violated the tenets of Article 17 and Part III of the Constitution and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. But the petitioners contended that “by purporting to introduce social reform in the matter of appointment of archakas and pujaris, the State has really interfered with the religious practices of Saivite and Vaishnavite temples and, instead of introducing social reform, it had taken measures that would inevitably lead to defilement and desecration of the temples.”

The original Section 55 of the Act decreed that in cases where the office or service was hereditary, the person next in line of succession of the incumbent would be entitled to the job. However, the amended section said that no person should be entitled to appointment to any vacancy merely on the grounds that he was next in line of succession of the last holder of office. The petitioners argued that the amended provisions abolished the hereditary right of succession to the office of archaka even if the proposed successor was qualified under Rule 12 of the Madras Hindu Religious Institutions (Officers and Servants) Service Rules, 1964. They added that the amendment violated the fundamental rights of hereditary archakas under Article 25(1) and Article 26(b) of the Constitution.

The bench observed that it was a “part of the religious belief of a Hindu worshipper that when the image is polluted or defiled, the Divine Spirit in the image diminishes or even vanishes. Pollution or defilement may take place in variety of ways. According to the agamas, an image becomes defiled if there is any departure or violation of any of the rules relating to worship. In fact, purificatory ceremonies have to be performed for restoring the sanctity of the shrine.” It added: “As already shown, an image becomes defiled if there is any departure or violation of any of the rules relating to worship, and this risk is avoided by insisting that the archaka should be an expert in the rituals and the ceremonies.”

Although the bench said that these ideas could not be “dismissed as either irrational or superstitious”, it also held that the amended Act, “as a whole must be regarded as valid,” since it was “essentially secular”. Despite terming the amendments secular, the bench, ruled that the appointments so made, even if they were non-hereditary, should conform to the practice prevalent in the temple, allowing the practice of “denomination, sect or group” in the appointment of archakas in agama-based temples.

It ruled: “If any such rule is framed by the government, which purports to interfere with the rituals and ceremonies of the temples, it will be liable to be challenged.”

Response to verdict

The verdict came as a shock to progressive-minded people in the State. On March 16, 1972, Periyar wrote an editorial in Viduthalai (Freedom), the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) mouthpiece, in which he contemptuously referred to the verdict as “Operation success; patient died”.

He wondered how a court could observe that the theory of ‘defilement’ was not irrational and superstitious, and said that he also wished to know where it was stated in the agama scriptures that only members of a particular caste should become archakas. “And if so, how could it apply to the Brahmin caste alone,” he asked.

A case from Kerala

In 2002, in N. Adithayan vs The Travancore Devaswom Board and Others, a case on the same issue, came up before the Supreme Court’s two-member bench of Justices S. Rajendra Babu and Doraiswamy Raju. It was to decide on whether the appointment of a person who was not a Malayala Brahmin as ‘santhikaran’ (priest) of a temple in Ernakulam district of Kerala “is violative of the constitutional and statutory rights of the appellant”.

The petitioner claimed that according to custom, Namboodiri Brahmins alone were allowed to perform pujas and other daily rituals by entering the sancta sanctorum of temples in Kerala. However, the Travancore Devaswom Board had opened a ‘Tantra Vedanta’ school at Tiruvalla on May 7, 1969, for the purpose of training students, irrespective of their caste and community, in performing the role of ‘santhikarans’. From 1969 onwards, the government had appointed non-Brahmin candidates who had successfully graduated from the school as ‘santhikarans’.

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The two-member bench, in its verdict on October 3, 2002, observed that “any custom or usage irrespective of even any proof of their existence in pre-constitutional days could not be countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights when it was found to violate human rights, dignity, social equality and the specific mandate of the Constitution and law made by Parliament”.

It ruled: “No ‘usage’ which is found to be pernicious and considered to be in derogation of the law of the land or opposed to public policy or social decency can be accepted or upheld by Courts in the country.” The verdict was forthright and did not circumvent the core issue of social justice and its constitutional validity. It also resurrected the practice of appointing non-Brahmin archakas from cold storage.

Karunanidhi’s second attempt

In 2006, when a DMK-led coalition won the 2006 Tamil Nadu Assembly and Karunanidhi became Chief Minister once again, he decided to fulfil Periyar’s cherished ambition of eliminating caste discrimination in temples by passing a Special Government Order (G.O.) no. 118, dated May 23, 2006, decreeing that any person with “requisite qualification and training” irrespective of caste and creed, was eligible to be appointed as an archaka.

He followed it up by announcing a training programme and establishing Veda patasalas, in the Kerala model, which imparted professional training in Saivite and Vaishnavite agamas and rituals to aspirants from all castes.

In an overwhelming response to the first training programme, nearly 1,000 applicants sought admission for an 18-month certificate course. The first batch saw 120 candidates successfully complete the course.

However, the Adi Saiva Sivachariyars Welfare Association resurfaced after a gap ot nearly eight decades and challenged the G.O. through a writ petition before the Supreme Court in 2006 (Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal vs Govt of Tamil Nadu & Anr).

In its verdict on December 16, 2015, a two-member bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N.V. Ramana, said that “if the agamas in question do not proscribe any group of citizens from being appointed as archakas on the basis of caste or class, the sanctity of Article 17 or any other provision of Part III of the Constitution or even the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 will not be violated”.

It said that the G.O. allowing any Hindu possessing the requisite qualification and being trained to be an archaka to be appointed in temples had the potential of falling foul of the dictum laid down in the Supreme Court judgement in the Seshammal case, which ruled that a priest’s appointment had to be as per the agamas governing the temple and that any deviation from the age-old custom and ‘usage’ would be an infringement of the freedom of religion.

The bench said: “What is found and held to be prescribed by one particular or a set of agamas for a solitary or a group of temples, as may be, would be determinative of the issue. The necessity of seeking specific judicial verdicts in the future is inevitable and unavoidable; the contours of the present case and the issues arising being what has been discussed.”

Legal experts’ opinion

Legal experts told Frontline that the judgments in the Seshammal and Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal cases had blurred the line between social legitimacy and religious obligation. Article 25 ensures social welfare and reform while Article 26 ensures that a social denomination is free to manage its own affairs insofar as matters of religion are concerned, subject to public order, morality and health. Article 25(2)(a) regulates or restricts any economic, financial, political or other secular activivity that may be associated with religious practice, thus implying that the state can make laws on it.

In both the cases the court mainly focussed on interpretations of religious freedom and the right of social denominations in the context of the Constitution. It ruled that the contravention of agamas would be a violation of religious freedom under Article 25 and the right of a denomination to manage its own affairs under Article 26(b). In the same breath, the verdicts had upheld the G.O. on appointment as ‘secular’. But the State had argued that by upholding the amendment of 1970, the court had annulled the exclusive right of appointment of a particular group. The experts said: “Hence, an unambiguous verdict alone would solve the vexatious issue in future.”

Despite government orders and Supreme Court verdicts, the hostility to temple reforms remains unabated in Tamil Nadu. A temple reforms activist in Madurai said: “They [those who oppose reform] are furious because they are afraid. The priesthood in big agama-based temples is no longer a service but a profession. It has been a rewarding post. Along with usual privileges and benefits, the priests of today in such temples have been enjoying rich endowments, such as swathes of fertile lands that were once gifted to their predecessors by kings and queens under the ‘inam’ classification.”

He added that in places like Madurai, a few priests of the present generation had even sold the lands and some of them even faced legal problems. According to him, the core issue was that major temples, whether they are agama-based or not, had become entities collecting significant revenue. He said: “Why should Brahmin priests work in many non-agama temples in Tamil Nadu? No one has asked the question so far. Why should a traditionally appointed Brahmin priest oppose a newly appointed trained archaka, who also is a Brahmin?”

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The activist pointed out that Kerala had no issues when the government decided to appoint archakas from all castes in 2017. He said: “Traditional archakas there, unlike in Tamil Nadu, have accepted their government’s progressive decision. But a tiny regressive casteist lobby has been opposing any reform under the ruse of tradition. A society should not languish in its unsubstantiated practices and continue to rot.”

Official position

J. Kumaragurubaran, Commissioner of the HR&CE Department, told Frontline that nowhere in the agamas was it mentioned that a particular sect or denomination alone should be allowed to perform rituals at temples. He said: “The courts had not ruled that a particular sect or denomination should be made priests. A priest can be a Brahmin, a person from a Backward Class, a Most Backward Class or a Scheduled Caste. Those who oppose the decision do not understand what agamas say and preach.”

“There are temples of Saiva agama and Vaishnava agama. A person born in Saiva kula [clan] and trained in Saiva agama from a recognised institution can be appointed at a Saiva temple after receiving ‘theetchai’ (initiation) from a Saivite scholar, while a Vaishnavite trained in any Vaishnava school after receiving ‘theetchai’ could be appointed at Vaishnavite temples. Agama prohibits a Saivite priest from performing rituals at a Vaishnavite temple and vice versa. That is all.”

Kumaragurubaran reiterated that there was no agama violation in appointing archakas from all castes, since they were trained as required in the respective agamas. He said: “The government is running four schools for Saiva agama and two for Vaishnava agama. Each school has a specific set of curricula and training as per the respective agama rules. Many private institutions and gurukulas too run agama schools, where they admit all candidates.”

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