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The recent High Court judgement on HR & CE rules will roll the clock back on DMK’s policy on archaka appointment in temples, says archaka activist V Ranganathan.

In 2020, the HR & CE department came up with new rules for appointing archakas including odhuvars and priests in temples controlled by it. The AIADMK was in power then.

Against some of these rules, the All India Sivacharya Seva Sangam office holders and temple protection activist T R Ramesh and others went to High Court separately. The petitions were clubbed and the high court gave a judgment on August 22.

The new rules were upheld by the court but ruled that in the temples constructed and following the Agama tradition, priests should also be appointed as per the injunctions in the Agama scriptures.

The power to appoint these priests were given to temple trustees and “Fit Persons” even as the court ruled that the HR & CE does not have the power to appoint these priests. The court also formed a five-member committee including retired judge M Chockalingam to list all the temples in Tamil Nadu that follow the Agama traditions. The court appointed Madras Sanskrit College’s N Gopalaswami to serve in the committee and asked Justice Chockalingam to appoint two others in consultation with the government. The fifth member will be HR & CE commissioner who will serve as the ex-officio member.

Archaka activist V Ranganathan said the court has taken the power to appoint priests away from HR & CE and this subverts the DMK policy on appointing priests from all caste groups as priests

The August judgement is only the latest in a series of judicial interventions in the DMK’s attempt to implement its stated policy of having people from all caste groups serve as priests in temples. And its moves have been met with appeals in courts. In general, priests in most temples are those born into the brahmin caste group. The DMK government headed by M K Stalin appointed 24 priests who were trained in archaka training institutes run by the government as part of its policy of having priests from other caste groups do pooja in temples.

V Ranganathan, archaka activist, says the new committee formed by the high court will only work against the DMK government policy of appointing priests from all caste groups

V Ranganathan, who was trained in this school but is now an activist advocating for graduates of these schools, says that the current situation of having only brahmins as priests in many temples smacks of untouchability. If temples can be constructed and administered by all communities, they should also get the opportunity to be priests.

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Students learning how to conduct poojas at the institutes started by the government

Though an atheist, Periyar had campaigned for inclusiveness in temple priest appointment. In 2006, then chief minister M Karunanidhi sought to implement Periyar’s ideas. His government started six schools to train archakas including in Tiruvannamalai and Triplicane. Some 207 students have graduated from these institutes so far and are eligible to be priests.

Ranganathan says for 15 years these students have been fighting to be appointed as priests and their efforts have often been thwarted by brahmin priests serving in the temples and others. He adds that even in the case of the 24 priests given appointment orders, many are facing stiff opposition from the priests there from entering the sanctum sanctorum and doing pooja. Interpreting the recent High Court verdict, he said the judgement has upheld the appointment of these 24 priests since it has refused to strike down the new HR & CE rules. This would have maintain status quo on priest appointment in 24 temples including Vayalur Murugan temple, Madurai Meenakshi temple and Samayapuram Mariamman temple.

In its reasoning, the high court had cited past judgements including of the Supreme Court that while striking hereditary priesthood they upheld the sanctity of Agamas in priest appointments. The sanctity of Agamas were upheld as per Freedom of Religion rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Ranganathan says that despite the judgments, priesthood in many temples continues to be hereditary. The judgement had cited a respondent’s argument that the Agamas injunctions are clear, citing how in some Vaishnavite temples only those coming in the tradition of four Rishis could be priests and other brahmins couldn’t become priests there. Ranganathan counters that invoking Rishis and other concepts only amounts to advocating untouchability.

In its reasoning, the high court had cited past judgements including of the Supreme Court that while striking hereditary priesthood they upheld the sanctity of Agamas in priest appointments. The sanctity of Agamas were upheld as per Freedom of Religion rights guaranteed by the Constitution

Ranganathan said already panels have given clear reports listing all the Agama temples, so why was there a need for a new committee? The five-member panel will only give a voice to the RSS, he said. He recalls how stridently people at various levels work to subvert a social reform. He says though Agama is officially the reason cited, a real target is those temples that are rich and receive many offerings including as cash from devotees. Temples that earn more are sought to be kept firmly under the control of hereditary brahmin priests, he said, adding the government should go on appeal against this verdict.

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