Archakas verdict: a glaring overlook of reality

The fact that priestly functions of an Agama temple will now remain in the hands of a few is the ultimate outcome of this verdict.

December 16, 2015 06:49 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST - CHENNAI

In this April 29, 2013, the Archakar Training Centre at Dhanappa Mudali Street in Madurai — one of the six institutes established by the Tamil Nadu government across the State — lies in shambles. Photo: G. Moorthy

In this April 29, 2013, the Archakar Training Centre at Dhanappa Mudali Street in Madurai — one of the six institutes established by the Tamil Nadu government across the State — lies in shambles. Photo: G. Moorthy

The Supreme Court has delivered a verdict of far-reaching consequences on Wednesday which practically determines who gets to enter the sanctum sanctorum of an Agama-protected Hindu temple as a priest, commenting exhaustively on the various Constitutional questions that arose with the Government Order of 2006 passed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime in Tamil Nadu. In essence, the apex court has reiterated its own judgement of 1971 in the Seshammal case, which upheld the importance of “denomination” and “usage” in the process of appointing a priest to such a temple.

In doing so, the court seems to have given little consideration to how the Agamas have been implemented historically and the current reality that exists in the Indian social framework dominated to a good extent by the privilege of caste.

A little history might help place the matter in context. The legislative attempts to ensure that all persons, regardless of caste background, could become priests in Hindu temples date back to 1971 when the then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, introduced amendments to the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. The exclusion of non-Brahmins from priestly functions was alluded to as a “thorn in his heart” by the social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramasamy.

The legislation was seen as the fulfillment of the radical reformist ideas the Dravidian movement stood for in its early days. This amendment though was struck down in the Seshammal judgement. While the apex court abolished the hereditary factor in appointment of Archakas, it upheld the authority of the Agamas and its rules, which laid stress on “usage” and “denominations” in determining who should be appointed.

However, after the Supreme Court judgement in the Adhitayan case, where it was reiterated that caste cannot be a factor for appointments to religious positions, the DMK regime in 2006 passed an ordinance giving fresh life to the reform. An executive order was issued as also an ordinance. But since certain aspects of the ordinance were challenged before the court, these were left out of the law that was ultimately passed.

‘Denominations not on basis of caste’

The findings of the current judgement written by Justice Ranjan Gogoi could be summed up as follows: the denominations the Agamas have laid out, such as the descendants of particular rishis, are not on the basis of caste and therefore do not violate Article 17; and that the 2006 GO which allowed the “blanket fiat” of any “qualified” person to become priests will fall foul with the earlier findings of the court.

Justice Gogoi has relied on a catena of past judgments to support the findings of the bench. One such is the “minority opinion” in the Jagadishwarananda case, which states that “freedom to act and practice in pursuance of religious beliefs is as much important as the freedom of believing in a religion” as long as it does not violate other provisions in Part III of the Constitution.

In crux, this means that an essential practice, like a ritual, in pursuance of religious beliefs, is a critical aspect of the faith itself and that freedom of religion encompass this aspect. Further reliance is based on what the bench calls the “unnoticed” provision of Article 16 (5), which states that “nothing in this Article shall affect the operation of any law which provides that an incumbent of an office in connection with the affairs of any religious or denominational institution or any member of the governing body thereof shall be a person professing a particular religion or belonging to a particular denomination.”

Agamas against Article 17

Then comes the logical deduction. Since denomination as eligibility as prescribed in the Agamas is not based on caste and does not violate the provisions of Part III, it becomes an essential element of freedom of belief. This same logic is applied to questions raised by the respondents, the non-Brahmin Archakas who argued that since sections are kept away from touching the idols by invoking the concept of defilement and pollution, the Agamas purportedly violate Article 17, which abolishes untouchability.

However, the court also cites, again relying on past judgements, the fact that “there is some amount of uncertainty with regard to the prescription contained in the Agamas” and that there was “lack of easy availability of established works and the declining numbers of acknowledged and undisputed scholars on the subject”.

In conclusion, the Bench, while not completely striking down the GO, however, states that it has to be applied on a case by case basis. “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.”

While the Court has fulfilled its duty of interpreting the law and facts and has come out with its conclusion, there is an evident and glaring overlook of reality.

Take for example what is considered as the valid denomination for appointment of priests in Vaishnavite temples governed by two Agamas-Vaikanasa and Pancharatra. The petitioners who challenged the GO said in their submissions that descendants of particular rishis (sages of yore), in other words ‘Gothra’, alone could be appointed as priests and so this is not restricted to the Brahmin community. Brahmins who do not fulfill this rule cannot touch the deity.

While this might be the claim, it is a recorded fact that most Agama temples with any considerable history have Brahmins alone as priests. In fact, even after 1971, when the same claim of denominations being beyond caste prejudices was made before the court, the important Agama temples, like Srirangam and Triplicane, have had only Brahmins as priests.

The simple fact is that it is mostly Brahmins and few others high in the caste hierarchy who still know which ‘Gothra’ they belong to and might have documented evidence to prove their case. What would be the status of Dalits who want to become priests? For a community that was for long treated as outcastes and practically kept away from all functions of the religion, is there any chance to remember the rishi they descended from? A better question would be if any of them descended from rishis at all. If they did not, the stress on denominations such as these would keep them away from the sanctum sanctorum forever.

Another important problem the judgement creates is who would determine if a person fulfilled the eligibility to become part of a particular denomination given that the court itself has admitted the difficulty in finding experts in this field. Do the Agamas allow women to don the role of priests?

While it has kept the doors of the judiciary open in case of a dispute, the fact that the priestly functions of an Agama temple will now remain in the hands of a few is the ultimate outcome of this verdict.

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