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Cast Away Prejudices

In a progressive move, the Madras High Court said that temple priests cannot be appointed based on caste. Instead, knowledge and dedication to religious practices will be the criterion

In a significant attempt towards encouraging inclusion and breaking down caste boundaries, the Madras High Court has ruled that pedigree based on caste will have no role in the appointment of Archakas (priests in temples). Priesthood in Indian temples has been strongly influenced by the rigid caste system, with appointments often based on an individual’s birth into a particular caste rather than qualifications or capabilities. This deep-rooted practice perpetuated social inequalities and hindered progress towards a more inclusive society. The Madras High Court’s ruling aims to disrupt this discriminatory tradition and open up opportunities for individuals from all castes to serve as temple priests based on their knowledge and dedication to religious practices.

The Sthanikam (priest) of Sri Sugavaneswarar Swamy Temple, Salem, filed a writ petition before the Court challenging an advertisement by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department inviting applications to fill up the position of Archakas at this Temple. The Sthanikam contended that his family had been performing poojas from time immemorial and the position was his hereditary right. Therefore, the advertisement calling on others for the position of Sthanikam infringed on his hereditary right.

The Sthanikam relied on registers maintained under Section 38 of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act dated August 7, 1933, where it was specifically mentioned that there is a hereditary right to perform Abhishegam, Archana, Deeparadhana, Pooja, etc., and the person performing it was not entitled for any maanyam (remuneration).

On the other hand, the Special Government Pleader explained that even though the Sthanikam had been performing poojas in his line of succession and it was done on a hereditary basis, he can no longer be appointed on this basis by virtue of Seshammal and others vs State of Tamil Nadu, 1972. In this case, the Supreme Court had distinguished between secular and religious functions of a temple. This was a significant ruling as it reaffirmed the constitutional rights of religious minorities in India. It emphasised the principles of equality and non-discrimination in matters of religious freedom and property rights.

The judgment laid down that state regulations should be fair, non-discriminatory and sensitive to the religious beliefs and practices of all communities. The Supreme Court held that the Act should be amended to ensure that it treats all religious institutions, irrespective of their denomination, in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. It stressed the importance of maintaining the secular character of the state while upholding the rights of religious minorities. Therefore, in the matter of appointment of Sthanikam, the rule of next-in-line of succession cannot be insisted and a trustee is not bound to make the appointment on this sole ground.

Recently, there was another case in this regard—All India Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam vs State of Tamil Nadu, 2021—where the division bench comprising Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice Nm Mala of the Madras High Court held that a temple or group of temples constructed as per the Agamas would be governed by the custom and practice, not only in respect of the worship of the deity, but in all respects, which includes the appointment of Sthanikam and not by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2020. 

But the Court clarified that this judgment would not be applicable to temples which were not constructed as per the Agamas (collections of Hindi scriptures). It further observed that “while the Apex Court recognized the right of a doctrine or belief guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution of India, it left it open for the individual to challenge the appointment of Archakas in the temples which were constructed as per Agamas”. The Court directed the state government to form a five-member committee, chaired by M Chockalingam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, to identify temples built in accordance with Agamas.

The Sri Sugavaneswarar Swamy Temple is governed by Karanagama (one of the Agamas belonging to Saivasiddhanta [Shiva]) and those trained to perform poojas as per the prescription given by the Agama will be appointed as the Sthanikam.

After considering all the facts and circumstances, a single judge of bench of Justice N Anand Venkatesh while discussing whether the temple was Agamic or non-Agamic said that “in case it is an Agamic temple, to which Agama it belongs. It is not necessary for this Court to get into this issue in the above writ petition where there is no dispute on the Agama that governs the subject temple”. Further, it was made clear that the Sthanikam appointed should fall within the definition as under Rule 2(g) of 2020. The Court said that “it is made abundantly clear that the pedigree based on caste would have no role to play in the appointment of Archaka if the person so selected otherwise satisfies the requirements”.

The Court reiterated that “the prescription provided by the Agamas gains significance only when it comes to the performance of the religious service. Consequently, any person belonging to any caste or creed can be appointed as an Archaka provided he is a well-versed and an accomplished person in the Agamas and rituals necessary to be performed in a temple”.

The Court’s decision firmly establishes meritocracy as the guiding principle in the selection of temple priests. It asserts that a person’s proficiency in religious texts, rituals, and traditions should be the sole criterion for their appointment, rather than their caste background. 

In 2002, in N. Adhithayan vs Travancore Devaswom Board, the Supreme Court dealt with an issue where a right was claimed under a custom which said that a priest can only be a Brahmin. The apex court, reiterating the principle of secularism, held that it was not compulsory that a Brahmin alone can perform the rites and rituals and that it can be performed by anyone who is well-versed, properly trained and qualified to perform the pooja. 

By prioritising merit and qualifications over social hierarchies, the Court’s ruling recognises the importance of expertise in religious texts and rituals. This move not only breaks down discriminatory barriers, but also empowers individuals from all castes to contribute their knowledge and dedication to the spiritual welfare of their communities. Progress lies in embracing change and upholding the principles of meritocracy to create a more harmonious and united society. 

—By Ritika Gaur and India Legal Bureau

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