In 1971, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu gave legal shape to a social reform that had been a key demand of the Dravidian movement for long.
Through an amendment to the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, the State paved the way for abolishing the practice of hereditary >appointments of priests to Hindu temples, implying that the sanctum sanctorum of temples was now open to non-Brahmins.
But this reform was stopped in its tracks within a year. The law was challenged before the Supreme Court. While the Court upheld the State’s decision in the Seshamal judgement, declaring appointments of priests a “secular function”, the five-member Constitution bench nevertheless added that non-hereditary appointments should also conform to “usage” prevalent in the particular temple. This practically meant that the Agamas, and its dictates on who should don the role of a priest, remained intact for several decades subsequently.
In 2006, the reform was given a new lease of life by the DMK regime, which, relying on a 2002 judgement of the apex court in the Adhithayan case, issued a government order enabling “any person” with "requisite qualification and training" to become a priest. As expected, the order was challenged again. The Supreme Court reserved its judgment on petitions against the order’s validity in May this year.
The idea of discrimination
Those backing the State government's move have relied on two important provisions in the Constitution — Article 25 (2) (b) and Article 17 — to argue their case. The former mandate throws open Hindu religious institutions to all classes and sections of Hindus while the latter forbids untouchability. The argument holds that by claiming that a particular category of persons alone can touch the deity, and by invoking the concept of “pollution” if this rule is breached, Article 17 was being violated, they said. The Constitutional stand of equality should take precedence over claims of religious usage and hence any tradition that violates the principle of equality should be abolished.
But it is interesting that while those arguing from the plank of social justice demand caste and class equality in temples, there is very little noise made on the issue of gender in these religious spaces. In the instant case, it is important to note that the non-Brahmin archakas who have knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court have all been, without exception, men. In fact, when the DMK government established training centres for non-Brahmin priests following the 2006 ordinance, it exclusively recruited men though the general ordinance used the term “any person” and remained gender neutral.
In Tamil Nadu, priests who officiate at ceremonies have mostly been Brahmin men — not only in temples but also at weddings and other important religious ceremonies. While the struggle from temple entry to the abolition of hereditary appointments for priests has been long-drawn, scarce attention has been paid to the role of women in temples, and voices calling for the appointment of >women priests in Agama temples have been feeble.
Scriptures neutral It is important to note that Hinduism by itself does not ban the practice of women becoming priests; there is no scripture that disallows it. In fact, in ancient Vedic times, women have been known to enjoy equal freedom in the pursuit of knowledge as men did: they also studied the Vedas.
“Brahmavadini was a woman who studied the Vedas after the Yajnopaveetam, and either married or stayed a spinster in further pursuit of Vedic knowledge,” says Dr. Nandita Krishna, social historian and professor at the University of Madras. “In fact, Panini in his Ashtadhyayi , refers to Kathi as female students of the Katha Shaakha of the Vedic school. He also refers to Bahvrichi as female students who were well-versed in many hymns of the Rig Veda.” Many Vedic hymns are also attributed to women.
Apart from being upadhyayis (teachers), women in the past also played a crucial role in ritual worship of deities. Devadasis (servants of God) or temple dancers dedicated their whole life to the worship of deities, and were considered respectable, auspicious and fertile (nityasumangalis ) women until the nationalist movement sought to purge the sacred public spaces of them, when their art was linked with prostitution.
But there are subtle distinctions between Hindu temples where Brahminical Agama rules prevail, and other local temples, specific to communities, where, even if they are not priests, women have set themselves up as religious mentors, points out social historian V. Geetha. She recalls Subramania Bharathi’s story of a widow from a weavers’ caste as an example. “She worships a shamanic trident, is considered highly spiritual, and is a defender of women's rights. So, it is possible to find women spiritual mentors, including those who preside over private shrines,” she says. But just as the brahminical creed considered scriptural and spiritual knowledge a preserve of the brahminical males and disallowed others, the so-called shudras and panchamas, it also kept women away , she points out. It is this very control of knowledge that made for male authority and hegemony.
Dr. Geetha’s point is best explained in the case of the idol of Mother Adhi Parasakthi in Melmaruvathur, probably the best-known example of women enjoying the right to perform pujas in the sanctum sanctorum, in Tamil Nadu. Built in the 1970s, the temple about about 50 miles from Chennai, teems with women in red clothing, symbolising the colour of blood that flows through all bodies, irrespective of caste, class and ethnicity. “Oru Thai, Oru Kulam” (One mother, one family) is the private temple’s slogan. That menstruating women are also allowed in the temple is a huge step, since women have been turned away from temples most often for this very reason. In Melmaruvathur, there is no concept of purity and pollution, as menstruation is considered a fact of nature.
Similarly, women priests are also frequently found in rural Amman temples in the State, belonging to the Most Backward Classes or Scheduled Caste communities. However, men often take over these roles, even wearing sarees to supplant the women, Dr. Krishna says.
But when temples become larger, they frequently become “Brahminised” and prefer to take on male Brahmin priests.
But why the staunch objection to women serving as priests? Apart from menstruation, there are also other factors. First, there is the social intimacy between the yajamana and the purohita — the tying of the sacred thread or kankanam as a prelude to most rituals cannot be done by a man to a woman or vice-versa unless they are married. Added to this, the yajamana gives gifts to the purohita , and the acceptance of gifts by a married priestess would be considered adultery.
Second, while women and men seemed to have enjoyed equal status in the distant past in religious ceremonies, patriarchal norms have become more entrenched with economic progress. Along with control over the economy, men also sought to gain religious and spiritual power.
Third, the process of studying to become a priest/priestess itself takes several years. As women were expected to get married early and start a family, this was seen as an obstacle to their duties.
Thus, despite historical evidence that there were 30 women Vedic scholars to whom the hymns of the Rig Veda were revealed, that there were rishikas and sadhvis , women remain absent in important roles in Agama temples today.
Ban across religions But this exclusion of women from important priestly functions is not restricted to Hinduism alone. Progressive women in Islam have for long been fighting for appointment as Imams, which would give them the power to lead prayers in mosques. In fact, many mosques still do not allow entry of women, and those that do, segregate them to separate spaces for prayers. It is pertinent to note here that in many places, all-women congregations among Muslims are indeed led by women, which means many of them do study and master the scriptures. Some even take specific courses and are accorded the title of Alima. But given the patriarchal power play, women are barred from leading mixed congregations or issue religious injunctions.
“When I was appointed Chairman of the Wakf board, there were protests across the State as the position involved a role in managing Islamic religious institutions,” says Bader Sayeed, former legislator.
The Catholic Church has remained stubborn in not allowing women to go through the ordination ceremony to become priests.
If the Supreme Court upholds the 2006 order of Tamil Nadu, it would indeed be a landmark judgement for social equality. What is to be seen is if the court would go the extra mile on the subject of gender and categorically clarify on appointment of women as priests in temples, something that could pave the way for reforms, even if not State-initiated, in other faiths as well.
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