Annihilation Of Caste

Of Priests and Politics

By a Correspondent

In a significant moment in the history of Tamil Nadu, 58 trained individuals from all castes were appointed as priests and archakas in temples controlled by the department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) on August 14. Six of the appointees belong to Scheduled Caste communities while a woman was also appointed ‘Odhuvar’ (one who chants hymns) by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government.

A number of political parties, chiefs of Hindu mutts and Shaivite organisations have welcomed the appointment, but right-wing groups have unleashed a hate campaign against the government and the newly-appointed priests.

The campaign was initiated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Subramanian Swamy, who also announced that they would take legal remedy for the appointment. Meanwhile, the Indu Makkal Katchi (IMK) continues to campaign against the appointment of priests from all castes, and held protests.

The struggle for such rights was initiated and led by the Dravidian and Communist movements in the state, which date back 100 years. The neighbouring state of Kerala implemented the scheme a few years ago, receiving plaudits from across civil society.

Even as support has poured in for the long-awaited move by the government, certain sections, particularly right-wing groups, continue to oppose the appointments. The IMK held protests in several parts of the state and claimed that the appointments made by the state government in the temples were illegal and against the ‘agamas’ (scriptures).

“Those who oppose the appointment belong to the Sangh Parivar outfits. The IMK and the Jeeyar mutt of Srivilliputhur, who speak of Hindu unity, are opposing Hindus becoming poojaris and archakas,” said Prof. Arunan, a writer and historian.

The IMK’s Twitter handle claimed that old archakas and priests were terminated to accommodate the new non-Brahmin appointees, but retracted the statement later after the Chief Minister M.K. Stalin issued a clarification.

Another organisation, the All India Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Seva Sangam has approached the court to restrain the state government from appointing priests in temples.

Aside from fringe right-wing groups and online trolls unleashing a campaign against the appointment, civil society and believers have accepted the appointment.

“The true followers of Hindu beliefs have welcomed the move. Thavathiru Ponnambala Adigalar and religious orator Sugi Sivam instantly extended support. But right wing forces, which follow religious fundamentalism are opposed to the move,” Arunan said.

The presidium chairman of the Indu Veda Marumalarchi Kazhagam, Siddhar Moongil Adigalar, termed the appointment of priests from all castes as revolutionary. “We call it revolutionary since the right of the Tamil speaking population to perform pooja inside the sanctum sanctorum has been restored after 2,000 years,” he said.

The right-wing has been propagating old videos and images from other parts of the country and claiming that the newly-appointed priests were disrespecting statues in the temples. Rumours also floated that the court stayed the appointment of the priests.

“The right wing has claimed that the appointment has breached the ‘ahama sastra’. We live in a democratic, secular country where the Constitution itself has been modified several times. With change being imminent, the ahamas can also be changed,” Arunan said.

Since the appointments, a demand for appointing women as priests has been raised. The Indu Veda Marumalarchi Kazhagam raised the demand for re-introducing archanas in Tamil after meeting the HR&CE minister.

“The ancient Tamil vedas insist on women performing pooja in temples. In a temple in Thiruvanaikaval, the male priests dress as women and perform pooja. After the introduction of Sanskrit and Brahminical ideologies, women were forced out of performing pooja,” said Moongil Adigalar.

The state government has also shown its willingness to appoint women as priests and the minister for HR&CE claimed that appointing women as priests in temples was part of larger social engineering.

The move by the state government to restart archanas in Tamil in the temples has also received appreciation.

“Tamil has again made it to temples after the government order. However, it is only for archanas offered by individuals. We expect pooja to be conducted in Tamil, which was an ancient practice,” said Moongil Adigalar.
The road to appointment of priests from all castes was not easy. The struggle against Brahminical hegemony in education, politics and temples dates back to the early twentieth century in Tamil Nadu.

“The domination of Brahmins was prevalent in the society then, leaving behind members of other castes in social development indices,” said Arunan. “The society suffered a lot due to casteism, varna and superstitious beliefs. Members of other castes were denied education and other rights. Politics was no exception. It forced Periyar E.V. Ramasamy to quit Congress and start his ‘Self Respect Movement’ in 1925,” he explained. South Indian Liberal Federation or the Justice Party was formed by leaders of forward castes against Brahminical hegemony in 1917.

“The Justice Party and self respect movement merged to form the ‘Dravidar Kazhagam’ in 1938, led by Periyar. The organisations strongly advocated social justice and equal rights. The Communist movement also played a crucial role in the struggle, which yielded fruit after almost a century”.

[Courtesy: Newsclick]

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Vol. 54, No. 13, Sep 26 - Oct 2, 2021