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END OF CASTE PREJUDICES IN PRIEST APPOINTMENTS

INTRODUCTION

The Madras High Court in a groundbreaking verdict declared that caste has no role in the appointment of Archakas (priests).[1] The judgement is significant as it laid down that merit is the only qualification for becoming a priest. Since the time of our independence, the Indian judiciary had embarked on a journey of reforming unjust religious practices. In a wide range of judgements, the Supreme Court as well as several High Courts have tweaked the scheme of priest appointments to reconcile with the constitutional values. An analysis of the precedents unfolds the gradual reform of the priest appointments.

PRIEST APPOINTMENT ACCORDING TO AGAMAS

Traditionally, the temples in India appointed priests based on the ancient caste system. As per the caste doctrines, the post of a priest could only be held by the “highest caste” which means a Brahmin. This followed from the concepts of pure and impure race which necessitated that the religious ceremonies, rituals, and worship services were to be performed by the purest persons belonging to the highest caste.  A person belonging to any other caste could not be appointed as a priest of Hindu temples. The tradition of hereditary priesthood prevailed.[2]

The religious appointments were according to Agamas. The Agamas are treatises that prescribe the theological basis for the construction of temples, installation of idols, religious appointments, rituals, and administration of Hindu temples. They contained authoritative rules for priest appointments. Temples have different Agamas based on the traditions of that particular denomination.[3]

CONFLICT BETWEEN RIGHT TO EQUALITY AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

After independence, the Constitution of India came into force which ended such caste-based social inequalities and envisaged the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Consequently, any kind of discrimination based on caste is a violation of the Constitution. However, the caste criteria for priest appointment persisted. Temples argued that the Constitution also provides the freedom of religion under Article 25(1)[4], It gives every person the right to freely practice, profess and propagate any religion. Moreover, Article 26[5] provides that religious denominations have the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. The State could not intervene in religious matters of temples unless their activities are opposed to public order, health, and morality. This implies that the power to make religious appointments was vested in the hands of the religious denominations. Thus, an inevitable conflict between the two fundamental rights namely: the right to equality and freedom of religion arose.

Article 25(2)[6] gives the State the power to regulate secular activities associated with religious practice. To determine these secular activities the Court had evolved a test known as the Essential Religious Practices test in the landmark Shirur Mutt case.[7] The State can regulate such secular activities which are not an essential part of a religion. The Court would determine based on the religious doctrines which practices are essential and which are non-essential[8].

TRANSITION IN PRIEST APPOINTMENTS

The issue of a priest (Archaka) appointment was raised for the first time in the case of Seshammal v. State of Tamil Nadu[9]. In this case, provisions of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (Amendment) Act, 1970 were challenged. By this Act, the trustee was entitled to appoint a fit person to perform religious service. He could also make rules prescribing qualifications for appointments in non-hereditary offices. According to the said rules, priests had to obtain a certificate of fitness for performing religious duties from an institution imparting instructions in Agamas. Further, the post of Archaka would not necessarily be hereditary. The petitioners contended that these provisions were against Articles 25[10] and 26[11] and they were interference in religious matters.

The Court upheld the amendment and clarified that the appointment of Archakas was a secular function and not an essential religious practice. Therefore, the government could regulate it. The Court validated that the appointment of a priest is no longer limited by hereditary rule as it was not an essential condition in the Agamas. The only essential requirement as per the Agamas was the appointment from a particular denomination. The Court observed that the appointment of a priest outside a specific religious denomination, irrespective of caste or expertise would defile the image of God. Any State action which permits the defilement or pollution of the image by the touch of an Archaka not authorised by the Agamas would amount to blatant interference with the religious faith of Hindus, and would, therefore, be prima facie invalid under Article 25(1)[12] of the Constitution. The authority of Agamas in priest appointments was recognized and allowed. Thus, the hereditary rule was abolished but the customary regulation of appointments by the Agamas continued.

In A. S. Narayan v State of Andhra Pradesh[13], a similar act passed by the Andhra Pradesh government was challenged on the grounds of violation of freedom of religion. The Act abolished the hereditary rights of the Archakas to regulate religious appointments. The Court followed the judgement of the Madras High Court and held that the hereditary right to appoint the priest is not an essential part of the religion.

The above pronouncements depict that while the courts were determined to alter the hereditary character of the priest’s post, the caste discrimination of the Agamas could not be eliminated. A turning point came from the case of N. Adithayan v. Travancore Dewaswom Board[14] in 2002. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the appointment of a non-Brahmin as a pujari in a temple. The Court held that a non-Brahmin can be appointed as a pujari if he has received proper training and has knowledge of the mantras and rituals. There is no justification in insisting that Brahmin or Malayali Brahmin alone could perform rituals in the temples as a part of the freedom guaranteed under Article 25[15]. Justice Raju made a significant observation:

“If traditionally or conventionally, in any temple, all along a Brahman alone was conducting pujas, it may not be because a person other than the Brahman is prohibited, but because those others were not in a position and, as a matter of fact, were prohibited from learning, reciting or mastering Vedic literature, rites or performance of rituals and wearing sacred thread by getting initiated into the order”

After this verdict, it became crystal clear that rights claimed solely based on caste are not protected under Articles 25[16] and 26[17]. However, the performance of religious services is central to Hindu religion. The authority of Agamas in ascertaining who must perform the services is also crucial and could not be disregarded.

The apex court gave its unequivocal assent to the appointment of a priest as per the Agamas in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam & Ors v.Government of Tamil Nadu.[18] The reasoning behind this decision is implicit in Article 16(5)[19] which protects religious appointment from a particular denomination if required by Agamas. A bench of Justices Gogoi and Ramana said that the appointment as ‘Archakas’ from specific denomination groups does not violate Article 14[20] (right to equality) so long such inclusion or exclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth, or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter.

In 2022, it was clarified that the above judgements would apply only to those temples which were constructed according to the Agamas. A five-member committee was set up to identify temples constructed as per Agamas.[21]

In the recent decision[22], a writ petition was filed by Muthu Subramania Gurukal in 2018, challenging a job advertisement for the post of Archaka in Sri Sugavaneswarar Swamy Temple, Salem. The said advertisement specified that the applicant is expected to produce a fitness certificate from the Chief Priest about his religious training. The Court relied on the judgements of Seshammal and N. Adithayan’s case and differentiated between the secular and religious portions. The appointment of Archaka to a temple is a secular function, and only the performance of religious service by those priests is an integral part of the religion. Accordingly, the Agamas could govern only the restricted area regarding the performance of religious service. Therefore, a person belonging to any caste or creed could be appointed as a priest if he is proficient in religious knowledge and rituals.

CONCLUSION

The verdict of the Madras High Court serves as a triumphant attempt at making a harmonious construction between the equality principle and religious freedom. Removal of caste-based priest appointments is not only the rectification of a historic wrong but also a step towards social mobility. Religious tenets need to be reformed in light of new social developments. A meritorious person who has a vivid knowledge of rituals and mantras would no longer be prevented by caste shackles to hold the post of a priest. The judgement is the true manifestation of the constitutional value of equal opportunity for all.

Author(s) Name: Ananya Tiwari (University of Lucknow)

[1]Upasana Sajeev ‘Caste Has No Role To Play In Appointment Of Temple Priests: Madras High Court’  (Live Law, 27 June 2023)  <https://www.livelaw.in/high-court/madras-high-court/madras-high-court-caste-no-role-appointment-archakas-231364> accessed 10 July 2023

[2] Vidya Bhushan, D.R. Sachdeva “An Introduction to Sociology” (45th edn 2018)

[3] Kanu Agrawal ‘Control Over Hindu Religious Appointments Is Outcome Of Wrong interpretation Of Ideals’  (Swarajyamag,  10 May 2016) <https://swarajyamag.com/politics/control-over-hindu-religious-appointments-is-outcome-of-wrong-interpretation-of-ideals> accessed 10 July 2023

[4] Constitution of India 1950, art 25(1)

[5] Constitution of India 1950, art 26

[6] Constitution of India 1950, art 25(2)

[7] The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments Madras v Shri Shirur Mutt (1954) AIR 282

[8] Essential Religious Practices: Court in Review (SCC Observer, 04 September 2017) <https://www.scobserver.in/journal/essential-religious-practices-court-in-review/> accessed 10 July 2023

[9] Seshammal v State of Tamil Nadu (1972) 2 SCC 11

[10] Constitution of India 1950, art 25

[11] Constitution of India 1950, art 26

[12] Constitution of India 1950, art 25(1)

[13] A. S. Narayan v State of Andhra Pradesh (1996) 9 SCC 548

[14] N. Adithayan v Travancore Dewaswom Board (2002) 8 SCC 106

[15] Constitution of India 1950, art 25

[16] Constitution of India 1950, art 25

[17] Constitution of India 1950, art 26

[18]Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam & Ors v Government of Tamil Nadu (2016) 2 SCC 725

[19] Constitution of India 1950, art 16(5)

[20] Constitution of India 1950, art 14

[21] ‘Madras High Court | Appointment of Archaka to be done as per Agamas’ (SCC Online, 26 August 2018) <https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2022/08/26/madrashighcourt-agamas-temples-custom-constitutional-legal-news-legal-research/> accessed 10 July 2023

[22] Muthu Subramania Gurukkal v The Commissioner, HR&CE Department and Ors (2023) LiveLaw (Mad) 175