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Indian Polity

Madras HC: Merit over Caste in Temple Priest Appointments

  • 30 Jun 2023
  • 5 min read

For Prelims: Agama Shastra, Agama Principles, Article 15

For Mains: Tradition vs. Modernity in Temple Priest Appointments, Legal aspects related to temple priest appointments in India.

Why in News?

The Madras High Court has recently made a significant ruling that highlights the importance of meritocracy and equality in the appointment of temple priests.

  • The court's decision comes in response to a writ petition filed in 2018, challenging a job announcement for the post of Archagar/Sthanigar (temple priest) in Sri Sugavaneswarar Swamy Temple, Salem (TN).
  • The petitioner argued for appointments based on traditional guidelines mentioned in the temple's Agama scriptures and the hereditary rights of long-serving priests.
    • The court ruled in favor of merit-based appointments, rejecting the petitioner's claim.

What are the Legal and Historical Aspects of Temple Priest Appointments?

  • Legal Aspects:
    • Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
      • It states that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on these grounds in matters of employment or access to public places.
    • Also, states have the authority to regulate religious institutions and their affairs, including the appointment of temple priests. State legislation may prescribe qualifications, procedures, and eligibility criteria for such appointments.
  • Historical Aspects:
    • In many Hindu temples, the tradition of hereditary appointments has prevailed, where temple priesthood is passed down within specific families or castes.
      • Temples often follow Agama scriptures that provide guidelines for temple rituals and practices.
      • This practice is often based on the belief in ancestral knowledge and purity of lineage.
    • However, in some regions open competitions or selection based on qualifications are also prevalent.

What are the SC Judgements regarding Temple Priest Appointments?

  • Seshammal & others vs. State of Tamil Nadu (1972):
    • The SC held that the appointment of an Archaka (temple priest) is a secular function, and the performance of religious service by the priests is an integral part of the religion.
      • The court differentiated between the secular and religious aspects and stated that the prescription provided by the Agamas (scriptures) is significant only for the performance of the religious service.
      • Any individual, regardless of caste or creed, can be appointed as an Archaka if they are well-versed and qualified in the Agamas and the rituals required for temple worship.
    • Based on this decision of the SC, the Madras HC in this case has held that ancestry based on caste will have no role to play in the appointment of Archaka if the person so selected otherwise satisfies the requirements.
  • N. Adithayan vs. Travancore Devaswom Board (2002):
    • The SC rejected the customary claim that only Brahmins (in this case Malayala Brahmins) can perform rituals in temples.
    • The court ruled that trained individuals qualified to perform the puja in an appropriate manner can carry out the rituals.
      • The SC emphasised that the restriction of only Brahmins performing rituals in certain temples was due to historical reasons, such as limited access to Vedic literature and sacred initiation.

What is Agama Shastra?

  • Agama Shastra is a manual for worship, rituals and construction of temples in Hinduism. In Sanskrit, agama means “handed down by tradition” and shastra refers to a commentary or treatise.
  • Agamas expound a variety of subjects and could be called the guides to a huge range of Hindu practices. They contain:
    • Manuals for deity worship, religious ceremonies, festivals etc.
    • Methods for salvation, Yoga
    • Devata, Yantra
    • Prayogas using various mantras
    • Temple Building, Town planning
    • Iconometry
    • Domestic practices and civil codes
    • Social/Public festivals
    • Holy Places
    • Principles of Universe, Creation and Dissolution
    • Spiritual Philosophy
    • Worlds
    • Austerities
  • Agama Principles emphasize the importance of following precise rituals and procedures to maintain the sanctity and spiritual efficacy of the temple.
    • The Agama texts are considered authoritative and hold significance in the appointment and training of temple priests.

Source: IE

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