Govt. rules on appointment of priests will not apply to Agamic temples: HC

It orders the constitution of 5-member committee to identify temples built as per Agama Sastras

August 22, 2022 09:30 pm | Updated August 23, 2022 01:23 pm IST - CHENNAI

The Bench ordered that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Commissioner should be an ex officio member of the committee.

The Bench ordered that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Commissioner should be an ex officio member of the committee. | Photo Credit: K. PICHUMANI

The Madras High Court on Monday held that Rules 7 and 9 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service) Rules of 2020, which prescribe eligibility, qualification and age for appointment of temple priests, will not apply to temples that had been constructed and governed as per specific Agama Sastras (treatise on temple rituals).

Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice N. Mala also directed the State government to constitute a five-member committee, chaired by retired High Court judge M. Chockalingam and comprising Madras Sanskrit College executive committee head N. Gopalaswami, to identify temples that had been constructed as per Agama Sastras in the State.

The Bench ordered that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Commissioner should be an ex officio member of the committee and two other members should be nominated by the government, in consultation with the chairman, within a month. After the constitution, the committee should begin identifying the Agamic temples.

Pursuant to identification of temples that had been constructed as per a particular Agama Sastra, the appointment of archakas (priests) to those temples should be in accordance with the relevant Agama Sastra and not as per the statutory rules, which would apply only to non-Agamic temples, the first Division Bench clarified.

The judges said Saivite temples were governed by 28 Agamas, with the most important of them being Kamikagama, Karanagama and Suprabedagama. Similarly, Vaishnavites also had their own Agamas with the principle among them being the Vikhanasa and Pancharatra. Therefore, the appointment of Archakas must be strictly on the basis of such Agamas, they ordered.

Authoring the verdict, the Chief Justice recalled that the Supreme Court in Seshammal versus Government of Tamil Nadu (1972) and Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam versus Government of Tamil Nadu (2006) had held that the government’s rule-making powers should not interfere with the rituals and ceremonies of temples.

A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had highlighted that the Vaikhanasa Sastra permits only followers of four Rishi traditions of Brigu, Atri, Marichi and Kasyapa and born to Vaikhanasa parents to be competent to be a priest in Vaikhanasa temples of Vaishnavaites. Only they could touch the idols and perform the ceremonies and rituals.

“No one else, however high they were placed in society as pontiffs or acharyas, or even other Brahmins could touch the idol, do puja or even enter the Garbha Griha (sanctum sanctorum). That is the general rule with regard to all these sectarian denominational temples,” the judgment rendered by the apex court in Seshammal’s case read.

Holding that the view of the Supreme Court applies to the present case at hand too, the Division Bench wrote: “We need not emphasise the same reasoning and finding, rather for that purpose, we have quoted the relevant paragraphs of the judgments to make it applicable to the present case also.”

The Bench was dealing with a batch of writ petitions filed by the All India Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Seva Sangam, the South Indian Vaikanasa Archakas, the Sri Koonampatti Kalyanapuri Aadheenam and a few temple activists, including T.R. Ramesh, who had challenged various statutory rules pertaining to the appointment of temple priests.

The Bench upheld the validity of all rules, including the one which empowers government nominated Fit Persons to appoint the priests in the absence of trustees. However, when it came to Rules 7 and 9, the judges said they were not striking down them too because they apply not only to appointment of priests but also other temple servants.

However, after invoking the doctrine of reading down, the judges held that the statutory rules related to fixation of eligibility, qualification, age and so on for temple priests would not apply to temples governed by Agama Sastras alone and that they could be applied to non-Agamic temples.

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