Updated: June 19, 2021 10:37:52 pm
Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) Minister P K Sekar Babu recently announced that Hindus of all castes would be appointed as priests in over 36,000 temples under its department. He also said women could also be appointed as priests in temples following stipulated training. The minister also said the government will take measures to provide appointments to qualified priests before the newly elected DMK government completes 100 days.
The announcements, particularly regarding temples opening doors to women priests, have triggered heated debates in the state.
While social activists have welcomed the move as they aim at gender and caste parity, there are others who feel the government should not interfere with agama sastra — a manual for temples that has norms related to pujas and other rituals in temples besides guidelines on structure and construction of shrines.
Tamil Pe Maniarasan, president of Tamildesa Podhuudamai Katchi, said the initiative to appoint non-Brahmin priests in temples began during the era of social reformist and rationalist Periyar E.V. Ramasamy when he launched the ‘Koil Nuzhaivu Porttam’ (temple entry agitation) to eradicate discriminatory practices against non-Brahmin priests.
“In 1971, Kalaignar Karunanidhi amended the HR & CE Act to abolish the hereditary appointment of priests which paved the way for non-Brahmins to become priests. Many outfits challenged the Act and later Kalaignar informed the public that the Supreme Court had struck down the amendment. In 2006, the DMK government again issued an order where it mentioned that any Hindu possessing requisite qualification and training can be appointed as Archaka in temples. It was again challenged by many outfits, including Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam, in the Supreme court. The case continued for many years, and in its judgment in 2015, the court didn’t strike down the DMK’s order but allowed any qualified Hindu to be appointed as priest in Hindu temples while ruling that the appointment of archakars will have to be made in accordance with Agamas,” he said.
After the DMK government passed an order in 2006, as many as 207 men including many from SC/ST communities were trained for priesthood in major temples.
After the first batch graduated from as many as six schools, the programme was shelved. Till date, only two of the government-trained non-Brahmin priests have been appointed in temples.
Shanmuganthan (37), who hails from Turaiyur in Trichy district, was one of the priests who graduated from the training programme in 2007-08. He said as many as 15-20 people have gone to other countries and the rest have taken other government jobs.
“It has been a long wait. We are hoping that the government will provide appointments to us soon. We haven’t received any notification from the department, we just came to know through the minister’s announcement. We don’t know whether there will be another round of interview, as we were already chosen for the programme after undergoing theory and practical tests,” he said.
Murali Battar from Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple in Srirangam said appointment of non-Brahmins as priests was already in practice in the DMK regime. “This is already in practice in temples like Siruvachur Madhurakaliamman temple, this is nothing new. The government didn’t specify whether they would implement this in temples run as per Agama Shastras. If that is the case then we do have a difference of opinion because you cannot go against tradition. We will take it up legally,” he said.
A priest from Chidambaram whose family had been involved in temple services for more than three decades said tradition is different from rules. ““There is no rule that women cannot become priests. However, rules are different, traditions are different. Women priests already exist in our state. In Siru Theiva Vazhipaattu Thalangal you can see a lot of women priests. In many instances, when the male priest is not available, his wife or his daughter do puja in small temples in villages. We have not appointed women as priests so far owing to practical difficulties, security reasons being the main among them. For early morning puja, the priest has to reach the temple by 3 – 3:30 am to make necessary arrangements. If women are appointed, then there will be security concerns.,” he said.
Arjun Sampath, the leader of Hindu Makkal Katchi, too, reiterated that it is against tradition to appoint women priests.
“We have to say just one thing, the government doesn’t have the right to get involved in internal matters of the temples. Sun rises in the east only, you cannot change that. Similarly, you cannot change traditional practices that have been in place for over thousands of years. HR and CE can concentrate on maintaining the temples, making necessary arrangements outside the temple. Non-brahmin priests are already working in many temples, Tamil archanais are done in temples, many women are giving arul vaaku and doing puja in many amman temples. DMK just wants to divert attention from the current Covid-19 crisis, they want to separate Hindus and Tamils. The traditions which the temples are following have been in practice for thousands of years. True god-fearing women themselves won’t be willing to enter sanctum to do the rituals. Will you allow women to enter Sabarimala temple? It is similar to that,” he said.
Few people noted that there are some temples that follow Shaivite and Vaishnavite traditions function under a few Aaddheenams and Samasthanams and have their own set of rules and if the government calls representatives from such temples and reach an amicable solution, then there won’t be much of an issue.
While there has been opposition from some of the Hindu outfits, the BJP Tamil Nadu unit president L Murugan welcomed the move. He said that from ancient times, women have been priests in temples. He cited Adiparasakthi shrine at Melmarvathur as an example.
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