Priesthood must be open to all Hindus

Priesthood must be open to all Hindus

Last week’s Supreme Court judgment which says that a Hindu person cannot be restricted from carrying out priestly duties at a public place of worship on the basis of caste is welcome, as it apparently does away with a traditional notion of priestly privilege, limited to Brahmins.

The court has said that such a restriction is against the constitutional provisions which guarantee equality before the law and ban discrimination and untouchability. But the judgment does not go far enough to translate in practice the ideas of equality and non-discrimination in all cases. This is because the judgment also allows agama shastras, which are traditional norms to guide the appointment of priests, if they are applicable in individual cases. The court views the agamas as not proscribing any citizens from being appointed as archakas on the basis of caste or class. But this is not the case in practice.

The judgment is similar to an earlier judgment of the court in 1971 when it had held that ‘denomination’ and ‘usage’ are important in the appointment of priests. The then DMK government in Tamil Nadu had brought in a law which allowed all persons, regardless of caste, to become priests in Hindu temples. While the court abolished hereditary rights for priesthood, it said that ‘usage’ and ‘denomination’ can also be factors to be taken into consideration.

The TN government continued to pursue its proposal and the latest judgment is in response to the legal challenge to the government’s move. The court has said that the right to practice agamas is part of the right to practice one’s religion and manage religious affairs, if it does not impinge on the right to equality. This has been seen as striking a balance between freedom of religion and other basic rights and between tradition and the non-discriminatory ethos of the times. But the problem with this position is that the agamas are often exclusionary in practice.

It is argued that the agamas do not discriminate on the basis of caste, because even some groups of Brahmins, who do not belong to a particular denomination, cannot be priests in some temples. It is argued that gothras, which are not castes, may be considered for appointment as priests. But in practice, this would exclude Dalits and many other non-Brahmin aspirants as they will not be able to prove that they belong to a particular gothra, which is a lineage from a rishi. Ideally, priesthood should be open to all Hindus who are trained in priestly duties, without conditions.

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