Another caste hurdle goes in Tamil Nadu

  • Date / 30 May 2006

In the second of his new series of articles The Human Angle, Babu Gogineni turns his attention to the abolition of the caste bar to priesthood in India. This will have far reaching consequences for the unequal social order that orthodox Hinduism promotes.

Recent elections
The recent elections in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu were a curious spectacle of rival Dravidian parties trying to outbid each other in the unsustainable promises they were making to the electorate: free colour televisions, free computers, writing off of loans that farmers owed to Cooperative banks were only some of them. It was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which won the electoral first-past-the-post race through clever political alliances and intelligent exploiting of caste vote banks. Both the parties claim to be inheritors of the legacy of Tamil Nadu’s rationalist movement of the early 1900s, but this is not entirely convincing: the outgoing government of All Indian Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) had the indignity of being led by a Chief Minister who visited temples, performed rituals as well as modified her name on the advice of astrologers and numerologists. Neither party has ever shied away from corruption or from nepotism.

Social Reform
However, obscured behind the circus of election campaigning was a manifesto promise of the DMK which went largely unnoticed, until immediately after the elections. The government decided that caste would no longer be a bar to a person wishing to become an archaka – a priest – in the state’s Hindu temples. The government also abolished VIP treatment for politicians and other dignitaries at temples. The new Chief Minister, the octogenarian Karunanidhi, announced that by implementing its election manifesto promise of creating equality of opportunity ”to all the trained persons from all castes to act as archakas in the temples” they were fulfilling one of the late Periyar E V Ramasamy’s unfulfilled wishes. One of India’s great rationalist icons, Periyar Ramaswamy is founder of Dravidar Kazhagam – the Dravidian Self Respect Movement – which is an IHEU member organisation. The state cabinet also decided to do away completely with VIP treatment for politicians and other dignitaries at temples.

As per orthodox Hindu traditions, priesthood is reserved for those who were born into the Brahmin caste; temples are reserved for those born in the upper castes, while temple entry itself is barred to the so-called untouchables – the Dalits. Of course, not everything in contemporary India fits with this stereotyped image of the caste system: discrimination against Dalits is today a crime, several lower castes have empowered themselves thanks to education, and priesthood itself is in decline. Today’s Brahmin priests in small temples live on subsistence wages and their children are desperate to move to other professions. Also, it should be noted that for several centuries several small temples have been employing non-Brahmins as priests and it should also be mentioned that not all temples bar entry to Dalits. But major temples with their extraordinary riches have always been under the control of a powerful clique of Brahmins.

Previous Attempts
The present move by the government takes further a previous DMK government’s 1970 amendment to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act aimed at ending discrimination on the basis of caste in a state where Brahmins form just 3.5% of the total population of 60 million.

It may also be mentioned that Tamil Nadu’s progressive measure comes nearly 20 years after a similar law was passed in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state. In Andhra Pradesh the then government formed by the Telugu Desam Party created a great furore by abolishing the centuries-old trusteeship rights of the 12 Mirasi priestly families of Tirumala Tirupati temple. The temple at Tirupati is the world’s second richest religious body, ranking next only to the Vatican and the Mirasi families were entitled to a 21.6% share of the temple’s earnings from sale of holy offerings (typically the share was equivalent to one million US dollars then)!

After a ten-year court battle with the government, the Mirasi families lost when the Indian Supreme Court confirmed that the legislature was competent to define qualifications for archakas and to conduct examinations for selecting priests as well as other temple workers. In another case, in 2002 the Supreme Court of India also held that all non-Brahmins including the so-called untouchables were eligible to function as temple priests if they were ‘well-versed and properly trained’ in temple rituals. The 2002 judgement also clarified that such appointments were not violative of Article 25 which guarantees the freedom of religion to all Hindus.

What next?
The impatient Humanist may desire that rather than be a priest in a Hindu temple, a Dalit or a lower caste Hindu should boycott Hindu religion itself altogether. But practically speaking one would say that to the extent that Hinduism is made to accept equality, to tha extent this ancient religion would humanise itself.

It appears that the next step should be that women are also given an opportunity to become priests in a religion and a society which has subjected them to extreme discrimination.

The ultimate goal of a society based on Human Values is far away in a country where caste is playing a more active role in politics. But the steady march towards Humanism, aided by literacy, rights education and technological advances is slow but sure.

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