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In a progressive move, the state has appointed members of marginalised communities as temple priests. But is it an attempt to sustain Brahminism which is fast fading away?

~By Naveen Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

“I did not launch the temple entry movement because I wanted the depressed classes to become worshippers of idols which they were prevented from worshipping or because I believed that temple entry would make them equal partners and an integral part of the Hindu society. I started temple entry satyagraha only because I felt it was the best way of energizing the depressed classes and making them conscious of their position.’’

—Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar in Nashik in 1930

Many decades after Ambedkar made this statement, Kerala has shown the way forward. While the doors of India’s temples were opened almost three-quarters of a century ago to marginalised sections of society, God’s Own Country in an un­prece­dented move has decided to get Dalits closer to gods.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which controls the majority of temples in Kerala, has shortlisted names of 36 non-Brahmins to be appointed as priests in the state. Hailed as a path-breaking move, second only to the temple entry proclamation of 1936, this step is significant as it comes after more than 15 years of discourse following a Supreme Court order in 2002. The order had clearly stated: “The eligibility of priesthood should only be the knowledge of rites and traditions and not caste.’’ In spite of such clear orders, there was no organised effort to do away with the Brahminical hegemony in the running of temples in the state.

BREAKING TRADITION

The Devaswom Board, therefore, needs to be applauded. It invoked relevant sections of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in state government jobs during the appointment of these priests, allowing 32 percentage quota for them. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president, Travancore Devaswom Board, told India Legal, “This is the first time we are actually bringing reservation into the picture. Over the years, we have always had a Dalit here and there joining the ranks purely on merit. But this time, we had a consensus in the Board that the time has come for us to bring in reservation just like any other government job.”

Photo: UNI
Photo: UNI

Out of the 36 non-Brahmins, six are Dalits and the rest from other lower sections. Yadu Krishna, 22, from Pathanamthitta district was the first Dalit priest to be inducted in Kerala through the quota system. Krishna who was born a Pulayan, a Scheduled Caste community, did his training from the age of 12 at Tantra Vidya Peedam, an institution that teaches Hindu rituals. Hailing from Thrissur in central Kerala, Krishna holds a postgraduate degree in Sanskrit and has been a priest at a local temple in Kochi. For him, it is all par for the course. “There is nothing new about this. It is just that I am now under the Board which gives you more job security. I have been a priest since I was 15,’’ said Krishna.

He recollects the years he spent at Valiyakulangara Devi Temple as a priest and said he never faced any sort of discrimination in the name of caste. “Such issues are created by a few vested interests. Most of the devotees whom I interacted with were always very cordial in spite of knowing that I am not a Brah­min. In fact, many were sad when I told them that I am moving out to another temple,’’ added Krishna. He has been appointed a priest at the Keechirival Siva Temple, where he perfor­m­ed his first puja on October 9.

BRAHMINICAL CODE

Amidst the debate on non-Brahmins conducting rituals in temples, there are many who say that it is the wrong under­standing of the concept of a Brahmin that is leading to such disputes. Rahul Easwar is an activist who hails from the family who are the custodians of the Sabarimala shrine. Easwar’s grandfather is the “thantri” or the custodian of the Lord Ayyappa deity at the world-famous Sabarimala hill shrine. He put the entire argument in perspective by drawing on history. “We are always taught that you are never born a Brahmin but you become a Brahmin from your actions. The Vedas are believ­ed to be the authentic text for all this. But who compiled the Vedas? Veda Vyasa, the son of a fisherwoman. Look at Valmiki who wrote Ramayana. He hails from what we now call a Scheduled Tribe. Even Lord Krishna was believed to be a Yadava, an OBC. So, in actual terms, in Hinduism, it is always believed that Brahminism can be attained by anyone at any time. This makes any argument about Dalits as priests immaterial,’’ Easwar told India Legal. He said those who took pains to learn religious texts and had the knowledge required to perform the rituals should be accepted. This was the only path to social reformation.

Not everyone agrees with that line. Many activists believe this move only serves the purpose of upholding Brahminical practices in temples which are heavily caste-oriented. They say that learning the rituals and scriptures, and then making that a requirement for becom­ing a priest, only helps in maintaining the status quo.

Social activist CR Neelakandan said: “At the end of the day, Dalits still feel that all the temple rituals are Brahminical in nature and that is why they oppose it. Why should a non-Brahmin be made to wear the sacred thread before doing the puja? Why should he dress like a Brahmin? If it is social equality that you are aiming at, why insist on such rules in attire and way of life? That is why most people think this is just a farce and an effort to sustain Brahminism which is fast fading away.’’

This argument would certainly hold water as the Board itself has often expressed apprehension that Kerala Brahmins, or Namboodiris as they are called, are a fast depleting lot and that it would be tough to find them to conduct rituals for every temple.

Perhaps the biggest test of this decision will come when the question of big temples such as the Sabarimala shrine, the Padmanabhaswamy temple here and the Parthasarathy temple at Aranmula arise. They follow very rigorous rules when it comes to the appointment of priests. And the Board is silent on this matter.

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