Sacred Rights

The legal and social battles over hereditary priesthood

Some government-endorsed archaka institutes welcome aspirants from across the caste spectrum. singam venkataramana / the hindu
01 January, 2015

ON 17 SEPTEMBER THIS YEAR, a 30-year-old man named Renganathan was arrested for sitting in protest inside Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple, close to the sanctum sanctorum. Renganathan had been shouting slogans demanding that men from all castes be considered for appointment as archakas, or temple priests, not only in the Meenakshi temple but all over Tamil Nadu.

Renganathan is one of hundreds in Tamil Nadu trying to draw attention to a relatively little-known case pending in the Supreme Court since August 2006. It concerns a decades-old dispute between the Government of Tamil Nadu and orthodox Hindus over the question of hereditary succession in the appointment of temple priests. The case, brought by an association of orthodox Brahmin priests and contested by activists from Tamil Nadu’s anti-caste movement, challenges the legality of a 2006 state-government ordinance that abolished the hereditary appointment of priests, and instituted a qualification-based selection process instead.

This decree would have allowed men from backward and scheduled castes to become archakas for the first time in modern history. But what should have been a straightforward act of social reform has become the subject of a drawn-out legal battle around the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. For much of modern Indian history, caste-based discrimination has been thought of, and defined, in terms of the unequal treatment of backward castes in educational institutions and workplaces. Reservation policies have, accordingly, sought to provide some marginalised classes with access to education and jobs. But, by and large, governments have turned a blind eye to discriminatory practices engrained in the religious rituals and orthodoxies of the Hindu faith. In doing so, it appears the constitutional mandate to check social inequality has been halted abruptly at the temple gates.

For centuries, orthodox Hindu customs permitted only the sons of Brahmin priests to be appointed archakas in Tamil Nadu’s biggest temples. This was adopted into modern law when temples were brought under the control of the state through the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959. The 2006 ordinance looked to end the Brahmin monopoly over these positions.

The case now pivots around the question of whether the government has the authority to legislate on the appointment of archakas in temples, or whether such decisions must be protected under the conditions of religious freedom. The legal debate comes down to the interpretation and application of Article 25 of the constitution, which grants Indians the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion. It also empowers the state to make laws “regulating any secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” This leaves a significant category of religious functions outside the state’s purview—and opens a debate over whether particular processes in the administration of temples are secular or “essentially religious.” In a landmark 1997 case, Bhuri Nath vs State of Jammu and Kashmir, the petitioners argued against an official order to create a government-nominated board to administer and manage the Vaishno Devi shrine near Katra. Speaking through Justice Ramaswamy, the Supreme Court observed that the constitutional protection of freedom of religion only applies to those functions which are “essentially religious” in nature. That same ruling found the role of an archaka to be a “secular part.”

State intervention in temple affairs has a long, contentious history in India. Through 1924 and 1925, the erstwhile state of Travancore saw a series of agitations known as the Vaikom struggle. Led by Periyar EV Ramasamyand Sree Narayana Guru, and endorsed by Mohandas Gandhi, the agitations demanded freedom for lower-caste Hindus to use a road adjoining the local Shiva temple, which was previously closed to them. That right was won when the state relented and withdrew the prohibition. A decade later, the Temple Entry Proclamation also lifted a ban on lower-caste Hindus entering temples throughout Travancore. Other parts of the country followed suit: in 1939, Dalits were, for the first time, legally permitted to enter the Meenakshi temple in Madurai.

The precedent of depressed classes gaining access to temples on the back of state intervention in those early decades is powerful, as these acts came at a time when Indians had neither a constitution nor fundamental rights. The early laws became harbingers of the rights-based constitutional principles which were followed, in their turn, by other movements for temple access.

In Tamil Nadu, the struggle to end caste discrimination in priestly appointments took serious root in January 1970, when a 90-year-old Periyar, then the leader of the Dravida Kazhagam movement, announced protests against the discriminatory provision in the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. Periyar viewed this as unfinished business left over from the Vaikom struggle. That same year, the government of Tamil Nadu, led by M Karunanidhi and his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, amended the law to stipulate that temple trustees were no longer under any legal obligation to appoint a priest’s heir as an archaka. Concurrently, the government began to endorse institutes teaching the agamas, or Hindu rituals, and trustees were left free to appoint any person trained and ordained through them.

But before the law could be enforced, in 1971, twelve writ petitions were filed against the amendments in the Supreme Court. In what came to be known collectively as the case of Seshammal vs State of Tamil Nadu, the petitioners—all priests in Shaivite and Vaishnavite temples from across Tamil Nadu—claimed that the amended law violated Article 25. The counsel arguing for the petitioners, Nani Palkhivala, held that archaka appointments were essentially religious in nature, since archakas performed an entirely religious function. A law regulating their selection, he cautioned, would herald the entry of the state “right in to the sanctum sanctorum.”

In 1972, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the amendment, and so declared the appointment of archakas to be a secular function. However, in the same judgement, the court also observed that if archakas were “forced on temples from denominations unauthorised by the agamas” it would “inevitably lead to the defilement of the image and the powers thus taken by the Government under the Amendment Act would lead to interference with religious freedom guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution.” In other words, the court felt that any neglect of agama principles in selecting archakas would be constitutionally invalid. In one blow, it blocked the implementation of the very law it sought to uphold.

The Dravida Kazhagam-run newspaper Viduthalai summed up the judgement thus: “Surgery successful; patient dead.” Periyar was infuriated by these legal complications. He wanted to organise demonstrations against the court’s decision, but he was taken ill in December 1973 and died that very month. At a meeting commemorating his birth centenary, in 1977, Periyar’s wife, Maniammai, said that he died with a “thorn embedded in his heart” because of the issue.

For thirty-five years afterwards, the status quo went unchallenged in temples across Tamil Nadu. Then, in 2002, the case of Adithayan vs Travancore Devaswom Board came before the Supreme Court. It dealt with the appointment of a non-Brahmin archaka in the Shiva temple in Kongorpilly, in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. The petitioners contended that only “Malayala Brahmins” had historically conducted pujas in this temple, and so any deviation from this custom would offend their fundamental right to maintain religious tradition. Eventually, the court reaffirmed that the appointment of archakas was a secular act. Further, it held that it would be constitutionally unacceptable, and a violation of fundamental rights, to insist that archakas come only from a particular caste. This offered a way out of the constitutional quagmire of the Seshammal judgement. In 2006, within days of being elected, a Karunanidhi-led DMK government passed a new ordinance abolishing hereditary appointments, and went about setting up six institutes to train and certify those who wanted to become archakas.

Renganathan, the Madurai protester, enrolled in the Thiruvannamalai Shaivite Training Centre when he was twenty-three years old. He is an ardent devotee of Shiva, he told me when we met in Delhi; he spoke proudly of performing the role of god in numerous plays back home. Renganathan trained in the agamas and ancient temple rituals for eighteen months, only to be informed that the Supreme Court had passed a stay order and that final exams had been postponed. Renganathan and 205 other young men from backward castes across Tamil Nadu were effectively left in no man’s land: they had completed their training but were not certified to be archakas,and so the government was prevented from recruiting them into any public temples.

A committee appointed by the Tamil Nadu government in 2006 found that the Seshammal case judgement was “misunderstood by all.” AK Rajan, the former Madras high court justice who headed the committee, told me that the Supreme Court had actually “upheld the original Tamil Nadu law, and has subsequently reiterated this position on the archaka appointment issue.” Rajan said he failed to understand how an established constitutional position could be subverted “time and again” by motivated religious interests.

The Indian constitution rarely speaks of crimes. It focuses instead on rights, duties and principles. But in Article 17, it states: “The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” No investigation is required to establish the immense importance that the makers of the constitution placed on outlawing and abolishing all forms of caste discrimination. Yet the matter of hereditary appointments for priests seems to throw up new disputes every time it comes up, and some key legal questions about the protections guaranteed by Article 25 are yet to be conclusively settled.

The Supreme Court may now go into the question of whether the state is empowered by the constitution to curtail age-old religious customs in order to carry out social reforms; or, on the contrary, if freedom of religion is so sacrosanct that the state should not be allowed to interfere in temple affairs even when it comes to discriminatory practices. Either way, its decision will have significant bearing on what constitutes essential aspects of religion, the separation of government and religion, and the balance of social policy against traditional religious customs.

Upon being released after his arrest for protesting in the Meenakshi temple, Renganathan went straight to a statue of Periyar to garland it. He now earns a living working in a web design studio in Thiruvannamalai. He has not given up hope, he says. There is a long history of caste reform in Tamil Nadu, and this has given rise to a vibrant political movement centred on marginalised classes. In Madras Presidency, the first employment reservation policy for non-Brahmin castes was legislated by the Justice Party—the predecessor of both the Dravida Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—in 1921, almost a century ago. In our sixty-seven years of independence, we have had a president, a prime minister and chief justices from backward castes. It is time to have more archakas, too.