Blurring divides

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Yadu Krishna, the Dalit priest, on the day he took charge at Valanjavattom Siva Temple near Thiruvalla. Photo: COURTESY: MANU VISWANATH/DESABHIMANI

Yadu Krishna with his guru K.K. Anirudhan Tantri and temple administrators and devotees outside the temple. Photo: RADHAKRISHNAN KUTTOOR

Kerala makes a silent revolution by appointing Dalits and other non-Brahmins as priests in temples.

NEARLY 130 years after Sree Narayana Guru challenged the injustices of the caste system in 19th century Kerala by consecrating a rock and calling it “Ezhava Siva” for worship by the backward classes who were then not even allowed to go near temples, the formal entry of Dalits as main priests in Hindu public temples has just become a reality in the State.

Keezhcherivalkadavu, a village near Thiruvalla in central Kerala, celebrated one such event on October 9 when 22-year-old Yadu Krishna, who was born into the Pulaya Dalit caste and is well versed in rituals and was properly trained in a Vedic school, took charge as the melsanthi (main priest) of the 150-year-old Manappuram Siva Temple run by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB).

To the credit of the entire State, local people accorded a stirring reception to Yadu Krishna when he reached the temple along with his guru, K.K. Anirudhan Tantri of the Sree Gurudeva Vaidika Tantra Vidyapeetham at Moothakunnam near North Paravur in Ernakulam district, who himself was born into an Ezhava backward class family and achieved renown as a religious scholar and teacher.

The local people took the new melsanthi to the temple in a ceremonial procession with an ensemble of temple music and “vanchippattu”, the rhythmic songs of the traditional oarsmen of the region.

Five other Dalits and 30 other non-Brahmins have also been appointed priests along with Yadu Krishna by the Devaswom Recruitment Board (DRB), a body established by a State law on the recommendations of a Kerala High Court committee and is meant to bring in transparency in devaswom recruitments in the State.

Yadu Krishna, an M.A. (Sanskrit) second-year student who began his religious education at the age of 12, and is considered a dedicated student, was ranked first among the Dalit candidates, 42nd in the merit list and fourth in the rank list for final appointment prepared after the first-ever examination and interview conducted by the recruitment board. Of the total 62 persons in the merit list (which has a validity of three years), more than half are non-Brahmins. Among them, the majority belong to the Ezhava community, which was, incidentally, the main focus of emancipation activity by Sree Narayana Guru, who is best known for his over a century-old social reform creed, “One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man”.

Incidentally, the entry of Dalits into the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu priesthood with government and legal sanction occurred 81 years after the last maharajah of Travancore issued a proclamation in 1936 allowing the entry of all classes and sections of Hindus inside public temples in his orthodox Hindu state, a region that now constitutes the entire southern part of Kerala and parts of southern Tamil Nadu.

“This is not the first time that people belonging to the backward communities have become temple priests in Kerala. But this is the first time that [32 per cent] reservation norms applicable in State government services have been applied also in the appointment of priests in Devaswom Board temples in the State,” DRB chairman M. Rajagopalan Nair said.

Recruitment of temple employees

There are more than 15,000 temples in Kerala, many of them run by the different devaswom boards or management committees under the control of the State government and others run by private trusts or individual families. As per the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1950, all temples in Kerala except private temples are under State ownership and are run by devaswom boards and officials appointed by the government.

Until recently, appointment of temple employees, including priests, was done by the respective devaswom boards or committees on the basis of their own separate rules. But over the years, several such appointments were challenged before the courts in Kerala. In one such case relating to the Travancore Devaswom Board, the High Court ordered an inquiry by a three-member committee led by former Supreme Court judge K.S. Paripoornan. After a detailed study, the committee recommended the establishment of a recruitment board to make appointments in State-run temples transparent.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front government constituted a six-member Devaswom Recruitment Board through an ordinance in 2014, and an Act was passed in 2015 to formalise it. However, before the board could start functioning, elections were announced and the Left Democratic Front came to power in the State. The new government reconstituted the board with just three members in December 2016, and the current spate of priest recruitments is the first such exercise of the new body.

In many other States, temple management and priesthood still remain largely a preserve of the Brahmin community, even though the legal position has been made clear in several judgments by courts in India, including the apex court. The courts have mainly held that (a) freedom of religion is not confined to doctrines and beliefs but extends to “essential practices” done in pursuance of that faith; (b) “denomination”

(of a person) and “usage” and many such traditional principles of appointment of priests ordained by age-old religious treatises by themselves would not amount to a violation of the right to equality, but such treatises should necessarily conform to the constitutional mandates; and that (c) the inclusion or exclusion of a person from priesthood should not therefore be based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameters.

In a prominent instance, pertaining to the controversial appointment of K.S. Rakesh, son of a well-known tantric scholar and a person belonging to the Ezhava community, as the chief priest of a temple in North Paravur in Kerala in 1993, a complaint was raised by N. Adithayan, a Malayali Brahmin devotee. In an all too familiar vein, the petitioner claimed “the appointment violates the long followed mandatory custom and usage of having only Malayali Brahmins for performing poojas in the temples” and that “it denied the rights of worshippers to practise and profess their religion in accordance with its tenets and manage their religious affairs as per Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution”.

The Supreme Court, however, upheld the appointment and made significant observations that laid down the law with no room for doubt. It said: “If traditionally or conventionally, in any temple, all along a Brahmin alone was conducting poojas or performing the job of santhikaran (priest), it may not be because a person other than the Brahmin is prohibited from doing so because he is not a Brahmin, but those others were not in a position and, as a matter of fact, were prohibited from learning, reciting or mastering Vedic literature, rites or performance of rituals and wearing sacred thread by getting initiated into the order and thereby acquire the right to perform ‘homa’ and ritualistic forms of worship in public or private temples. Consequently, there is no justification to insist that a Brahmin, or Malayala Brahmin in this case, alone can perform the rites and rituals in the temple.”

The court further held that “as long as anyone well versed and properly trained and qualified to perform the puja in a manner conducive and appropriate to the worship of the particular deity is appointed as santhikaran dehors his pedigree based on caste, no valid or legally justifiable grievance can be made in a court of law”.

It also rejected the petitioner’s demand stating that “there is also no plea or proof of any custom or usage specially created by the founder of the temple or those who have exclusive right to administer the temple”; and that, “nor does the temple belong to any denominational category with any specified form of worship peculiar to such denomination or to its credit”.

Following this judgment, the State government issued directions asking all devaswom boards to fine-tune their recruitment processes and ensure that there was no discrimination based on caste, and subsequently tried to leave all such appointments to the State Public Service Commission. However, despite the acute scarcity of properly trained Brahmin priests, with very few from the community opting to join the traditional line and instead opting to seek other jobs, several temples in Kerala, including those under the devaswom boards, have shown a reluctance to appoint non-Brahmins, let alone Dalits, as priests.

State Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran described the introduction of reservation norms in the appointment of priests as a “silent revolution”. “We must not fail to see the social context in which Dalits and other backward community members are being appointed as priests in devaswom temples in Kerala,” he told Frontline. “It is happening in a country where Dalits are being attacked for sporting a moustache; where people belonging to the Scheduled Castes are forced to eat human excreta, or are being killed for eating beef. Even in Kerala, there are protests against the appointment of the Scheduled Castes for even menial jobs in private temples.”

It is, however, too early to say whether Kerala’s Hindu society has imbibed the spirit of this “revolution” wholeheartedly. “There are stray instances of protests against the government decision, for example, by members of organisations such as the Yogakshema Sabha, which had leaders like E.M.S. Namboodiripad and V.T. Bhattathiripad, who fought against orthodoxy within the Brahmin community. But it is a sign of the evolution of Kerala society that though people may have protests in their hearts, it is embarrassing or not easy for them at all to express it openly today,” the Minister said.

Yadu Krishna told Frontline that he started learning to be a priest at the age of 12, and so far in over a decade, the last seven years of which were spent doing poojas in private temples, he has never felt his caste come in the way of his education or work. “My guru knew that I was a Dalit only when I showed him my appointment order. He never asked me about my caste. At the Vaidya Tantra Vidyapeetham, where my guru taught me, at any given time there were nearly 50 students belonging to all castes who used to eat, bathe, sleep and learn together. After I got the new appointment, the local people have all treated me well and have been very cooperative,” he said.

In contrast, just two months earlier, a major controversy arose at the Chettikulangara Devi Temple at Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district, a prominent temple under the Travancore Devaswom Board and run by an administrative body with representatives from 13 surrounding “karas” (or villages), when an Ezhava youth named Sudhikumar was transferred and posted there as keezhsaanthi (assistant priest).

Trouble started when the posting was objected to by the tantri (the hereditary chief priest of a temple who is by tradition the deciding authority in all religious matters concerning it) and the local administrators, represented by the Sreedevi Vilasom Hindumata Convention, on the grounds that his appointment went against established customs “because many of the important rituals of the temples should by tradition be done only by Malayala Brahmins”.

Counter-protests too arose, threatening to mar the peaceful atmosphere of the temple, and soon after Sudhikumar approached the State Human Rights Commission, quoting the 2002 Supreme Court verdict among other things, his appointment was formalised.

A representative of the convention told Frontline on condition of anonymity: “This is not an issue of caste at all as outsiders may want to believe. Every temple has a tradition and as per the tradition of this temple, which is run by people from 13 karas, many rituals are to be conducted only by Malayala Brahmin priests. Each locality and each temple has its own customs and traditions, and decisions on them should be taken only by the tantri and the people of the locality. But when it comes to Hindu temples, everyone has an opinion. That is not the right way. During February to the end of April, the major festival season in the temple, for example, the assistant priests mostly are in charge of many of the rituals that take place in the 13 localities. The festival agenda is so tightly scheduled that even a delay of an hour will lead to trouble in its conduct. Objections can be raised by anybody who wants to insist on tradition and customs and the whole programme would go haywire.”

There have been other isolated reports too in the recent past of non-Brahmin applicants being rejected or not allowed to function properly by temple authorities, who claimed that their appointment went against established temple traditions.

Opinion divided

A top functionary of the Kerala Yogakshema Sabha said that opinion was sharply divided in the organisation on the issue. “One group is taking extreme positions and wants the organisation to react strongly. Many want to approach the court. Another group wants all to see the reality of the changing times but are regarded as villains,” he said.

Subramanian Namboodiripad, Thiruvananthapuram district secretary of the Yogakshema Sabha, was quite vocal in his criticism of the government policy: “Politicians now say that a man can become a Brahmin through his deeds but are trying to put down people who are already Brahmins by birth and by deed. If a man can become a Brahmin by learning the job, then what is the rationale in applying reservation norms in the appointment of priests? Why can’t merit be a criterion at least here? One can convert to another religion, but is there a way in India for a person to convert from one caste to another? Will we also be eligible for reservation benefits in other fields then? We are a community that suffered the most when land reforms were introduced in Kerala by the communist governments. Now only 10 per cent of the community still works in temples. Many seek jobs in the IT industry, do you know why? The pay is good and there is no reservation there.”

According to him, the government is trying to gain political mileage by projecting “one Yadu Krishnan, who is a capable, able person whose knowledge we respect. But can the authorities ensure that all those who are recruited as priests through the reservation system are equally capable? Moreover, new recruits want only plum postings and do not want to work in the hundreds of temples where the daily income is almost zero and board pay is extremely poor.”

“It is not the Brahmins who are against such reforms. In fact there are several instances of people from the community taking the lead to impart training to people of other castes,” said Akkeeramon Kalidasa Bhattathiripad, national vice-president of the All-India Brahmin Federation, an apex body of several Brahmin organisations in the country. “However, we should not forget that it is a job that requires a lot of dedication, interest and discipline. It should not be seen as just another job or like a trade union system. We have a belief system and if we are careless in how we handle it, our spiritual world will become distorted and will lead to a lot of trouble. That is the concern. We are not questioning the right of any person to become a priest if he has the training and the knowledge and capability for it. We accept merit as a criterion. But introducing reservation in the spiritual world, without ensuring quality, would only lead to its corruption and eventual destruction. Reforms should be introduced with care and only with good intentions. They should not be merely for propaganda or scoring political points,” he said.

He also said the Devaswom Board treated its priests only as Class IV employees, and so it was no longer considered a dignified job, like being a priest in other religions. “Men from the Brahmin community are finding it difficult to get brides, also because priesthood is not a paying job and it demands long, hard hours. The Brahmin community had helped preserve and sustain such Hindu heritage all this long, without any vested interests and with a lot of dedication and personal hardships. But government policies now tend to ignore them completely. They should not be treated like enemies and the job should not lose its sanctity. It should not become just another government job.”

Recruitment Board Chairman Rajagopalan Nair, however, said that in the interviews conducted by a three-member board, with a tantri as the subject expert, several Dalit and non-Brahmin candidates performed better than candidates who belonged to Brahmin families with a tradition of worship in temples.

Asked about the concern that reservation in temple priest recruitment would lead to dilution in the scheme of things, he said similar concerns were there earlier too, for instance when the Temple Entry Proclamation was made, but it seemed more like a fear about losing privileges. “It would all depend on the system used for selecting the right candidates. If we stick to a model that ensures transparent assessment of candidates, only suitable candidates will be recruited.”

While earlier efforts to recruit non-Brahmin or Dalit priests used to meet with vehement opposition from caste Hindu lobbies in Kerala, the recent recruitment process has progressed rather smoothly at least in its initial stages. The Devaswom Board’s backward class recruits in the late 1960s were never even allowed to settle down in the job, left on their own volition or were forced to seek other posts in the board. In 1993, a backward class aspirant who passed a common examination had his appointment challenged in the courts and eventually gained employment through a Supreme Court order nearly a decade later in 2002. But in the recent instance, when Kerala passes another milestone in its long journey, the resistance seems to have mellowed out a lot.

Anirudhan Tantri, the man who taught Yadu Krishna and runs a respected vaidika tantra school, is, however, “hundred per cent certain” that irrespective of the caste of the candidate, if a person gets good training as the new breed of educated recruits have obtained, then “that is the way forward for temple reform in an educated, enlightened society like Kerala”. “Caste bias and prejudices are everywhere. But the opposite also is true, and after experiencing the magnanimity of several Brahmins who helped me in my life and education, how can I say one community alone is at fault?

“I was born an Ezhava, and in the late 1970s, when I was young, my guru Puthanmadathil Venkata Raman, an orthodox Brahmin, took me into his fold and gave me education and helped me in my life without any reservations. On his deathbed, my guru took my hand and said: ‘Only my body is leaving you; my spirit will always stay with you.’ It is that spark that sustains my institution today and allows me to teach students like Yadu Krishna and many like him, without ever wondering about their caste.”

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