Opening up of temples and the priesthood to all castes is part of the fight against discrimination based on birth.
ON JULY 8, 1939, a few Dalits entered the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and were given prasadam and honours due to any devotee. This sounds like an everyday event until we remind ourselves that it was the first temple in the Madras Presidency that allowed Dalits entry. The Hindu then reported that leaders such as Gandhi and Rajaji were ecstatic over this. Subsequently, the Temple entry Authorisation and Indemnity Act was passed in August 1939.
Temple entry for Dalits was achieved after a long campaign. In the case of Madurai, it started as early as 1874. It, however, was not accepted easily. Priests in Madurai boycotted the temple. Some left its service and rejoined only in 1945. In Cuddalore and other places incidents of stone-throwing were reported. A few women's groups vociferously resisted this. A visit to these temples now reveals that neither the faith in their sanctity nor the crowds thronging them has waned. If anything, they have only increased manifold. Resistance, it appears, was vigorous only at the threshold of change.
It is important to recall this the context of the recent developments in Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Government recently passed an order allowing qualified persons irrespective of caste to become temple priests. The order challenges what is considered the last preserve of the Brahmins. It has received opposition from certain sections and has raised issues about the waning sanctity of temples and disrespect to tradition, texts, and practices. Questions have been raised as to whether matters relating to religion and worship can be changed? What role does the state have in interfering in such matters?
It is important to view the present order as a part of a long corrective process. Discrimination based on birth is fundamentally flawed. The privileges and hierarchy built around a discriminatory worldview have to change. If temple entry for Dalits was the beginning of such rethinking, opening up of priesthood for them can be taken as its conclusion.
The idea of appointing Dalits as priests finds place in the 1969 report of a Government of India-appointed committee headed by Elayaperumal, a prominent Congress leader from Chidambaram. This committee studied the economic development of the underprivileged, from 1965 onwards, and submitted its report in the Lok Sabha. Among other things, it suggested the abolition of hereditary priesthood and replacing it with an "ecclesiastical organisation of men possessing the requisite educational qualification" as priests. It also stated that the priesthood could be open to anybody regardless of caste and creed. The appointment of Dalits as priests was considered an important step towards social justice and development of the underprivileged.
In 1971, the DMK Government abolished the hereditary rights of the priests and paved the way for people of all castes to be appointed as temple priests. A few criticised this for allowing "all and sundry" to become priests. Subsequently, a stay order was obtained against the decision in the Supreme Court. In 1982, M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister, appointed the Justice Maharajan Commission to look into the reforms of temple practices. This committee too recommended appointment of priests from all castes after undergoing proper training. In 1984, as a follow-up to these recommendations, announcements were made for starting an agama college for all communities in Palani. The All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government soon dropped this idea, but revived it in 1991 only to drop it again.
In October 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a Kerala High Court judgment that allowed non-Brahmins to officiate as priests. The Bench, comprising Justice S. Rajendra Babu and Justice Doraiswamy Raju, observed that any custom or usage, irrespective of its existence in pre-Constitution days, cannot be countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights when it is found to violate human rights and social equality. It also remarked that if traditionally Brahmins alone had been performing the jobs of priests, it might be because a person other than a Brahmin was prohibited from doing so. Hence it observed: "There is no justification to insist that a Brahmin alone can perform the rites and rituals in the temple as part of the rights and freedom guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution."
The pride of the Constitution is that it does not allow any form of discrimination. The state is within its right to challenge and correct all forms of discrimination. The state and the judiciary can look at not only what a "religion was" but also "what it can be." In such a pursuit, traditional texts and practices are subservient to social objectives. This might not sit well with the traditional idea of a secular state, but we have our own histories and social trajectories to deal with rather than worry about a perfect fit. Marc Gallanter's Law and Society in Modern India shows that the broad constitutional mandate disposes of the notion that the law might confine itself to ascertaining and respecting a preordained religious sphere. Instead, it has an overall arbitral role to perform. In this particular case, it has arbitrated the issue of discrimination and social justice.
Religion and worship have evolved. The evolution includes modification of viewpoints, incremental changes, and flowering of new thoughts as witnessed in temples.
The temple as an institution flourished in the bhakti period. The bhakti movement, which was centred in south India, moved away from ritual orthodoxy and laid emphasis on devotion. It deified people of varying caste backgrounds as saints. Both the Vaishnavite and Saivaite traditions have deified non-Brahmin Alwars or Vaishanava saints and Nayanmars or Saivite saints. Not only have they been deified, there are temples and festivals commemorating their devotion. These accommodations did not severely challenge the then social set-up. But they showed the need to change religious practices and make them inclusive on the basis of devotion, not on the basis of birth.
Culture of inclusiveness
Contemporary temple practices too have undergone changes. Temples have taken to simple offerings, local language, and social inclusiveness. Temples expanded in scope and scale because they drew larger participation. They now own property, runs colleges and hospitals. Ritual patterns are conveniently chosen at a few places and changed at a few others. Hinduism has accepted temples built overseas and priests and acharyas visiting them. If we were to go by texts and their prescriptions, this could be unacceptable. We seem to have come to terms with the new diasporic conditions.
If we define tradition only through texts, then practices such as opening of temples to Dalits and abolition of the Devadasi system can be viewed as going against the agamas. The presence of fans, tube lights, and air conditioners in temples can also be seen as being against agama injunctions. The Maharajan committee too warns us against this.
Opening up of temples and the priesthood to all castes is a fight against discrimination based on birth. What is required is to expand the definition of discrimination and include women in it. It is time for the question: when will women be allowed to become priests?