In-Depth

Duty and the Priest: A legal barrier?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that appointment of archakas (priests) in Tamil Nadu temples should be done as per the restrictions prescribed by the age-old Agamas (treatises), upturning the amendments to the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Endowments Act put in place by the then DMK government in Tamil Nadu in 1971.

The court also further reiterated that the fundamental right to freedom of religion was not confined to doctrines and beliefs but extended to “essential practices” done in pursuance of that faith.

The Hindu tracks the issue from its beginning in 1971, the various legal tangles it got itself into, till the current judgement.



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Agamas in Sanskrit mean “that which has come to us.”

There are two kinds of Agama texts, Agama and Tantra, the former practised in Saivite and Vaishnavite temples, and the latter in Sakthi temples. Agamas expound a variety of subjects and they are really the stylebook, on which Hindu rituals are based While some Saivite temples practise Tamil Agamas too, rituals in Vaishnavite

temples are based on Vaikhanasa Agamas and the Pancharathra Agamas, or the Five Nights. Pancharathra Agamas, considered an esoteric subject, is believed to have been taught by Lord Vishnu himself to the sages over five nights.

The total number of works, generally called the samhitas, exceeds 200, according to lists available in several works, though only a few are available in print.

Who can be priests?

According to Mr. Parthasarathy, head priest of Sri Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, Chennai, anybody who did not wish for material wealth, and sacrificed his life for the purpose of the Agamas could be a priest.

But priests practising Vaikhanasa Agamas got the right by birth.

Not all Brahmins could be priests or were allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of temples.

>The story so far
1971 The then DMK government under Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi amends the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Endowments Act to abolish the concept of hereditary appointments for priests (Archakas) in temples in the State and allow all, irrespective of caste, to become priests. The move to amend the Act in 1971 was inspired by the findings of the Elayaperumal Committee formed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1969.
1972 The Seshammal case: Twelve write petitions are filed alleging that the amendments made in 1971 violate Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution — Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, and freedom to manage religious affairs Subject to public order, morality and health. The court upholds the validity of the amendment.
2002 The Adhithayan case: The Supreme Court holds that there is no justification for insisting that persons of a particular caste alone can conduct temple rituals.
2006 DMK government issues fresh Government Order making all persons with "requisite qualification" eligible for appointment as priests. The Order is challenged again in the Supreme Court.
May 2015 Supreme Court reserves judgement
Dec 2015 Supreme Court strikes down 2006 order, says priests can be appointed only as per the Agama Sastras

Analysis

>SC backs appointment of priests as per Agamas

The court held that appointment of archakas in TN temples as per the restrictions prescribed by the Agamas is not a violation of the right to equality.

>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.

>'Exclusive right to enter sanctum sanctorum not untouchability'

The Bench referred to a century-old ruling, which explained that the exclusion prescribed in the Agamas was not on the basis of caste, birth or pedigree.

Also read

>Reforms in the house of God

The need for state intervention in temple management was realised during the temple entry movement, which stressed the importance of treating temples as public spaces.

>Freeing temples from state control

What is scandalous is the corruption after the takeover of temples as politicians and officials loot the temple’s wealth and divert donations from believers to non-religious purposes.

>Broken promises shatter lives

The TN government has not only abandoned its project of appointing temple priests without caste discrimination, but has also dumped the 207 young men it trained, shattering their lives.

>Aspiring priests battle caste, gender bias

Youngsters, part of the first batch of students trained by the government, have been left in the lurch without employment opportunities in view of the pending case.




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