Can Non-Brahmins be priests in a society that’s still the prisoner of the past?

The appointment of 36 non-Brahmin priests from traditionally backward societies and Dalits by the Travancore Devaswom Board in Kerala has elicited mixed reaction.

Published: 25th November 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th November 2017 06:08 PM   |  A+A-

The appointment of 36 non-Brahmin priests from traditionally backward societies and Dalits by the Travancore Devaswom Board in Kerala has elicited mixed reaction. Though most of the political parties have welcomed the move, there have been dissenting reactions from many corners. The Yogakshema Sabha, which claims to represent the Nampoothiri society, had announced protests against what they believe to be an encroachment on their birth rights. They have demanded the first Dalit priest, Yadu Krishnan, to be dismissed. Their contention is that his appointment is against tradition. In the famous Chettikulangara Temple in Alleppey district, priest Sudhikumar, an Ezhava community member, had to take the help of the Kerala Human Rights Commission to enter the temple and resume his duty. Those opposing his entry claimed they knew Bhagawati, the presiding deity of the temple, was angry with a non-Brahmin priest.  

It may appear strange that an educated and socially forward state like Kerala took so long to embrace this change. There are Dalit and women priests in many parts of the country for many decades or even centuries. Gorakhnath Temple, the one the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister is the Mahant of, has a nine-century-old tradition of having non-Brahmin priests. Basaveshwara in Karnataka started the movement of allowing his devotees to be priests irrespective of their gender or caste. However, the trend has been reverse in Kerala. Even the non-Brahminical temples such as Parassinikadavu have slowly become Brahmanical over the years. The offering of toddy and fish has given way to tea and chickpeas. What we are witnessing now in India as a whole and Kerala in specific is the conservative forces regaining strength they had lost in the wake of the freedom struggle and renaissance movement.  

We can see that Kerala has a deep-rooted conservatism hidden under the veil of modernity. In any temple in India—be it Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Banaras or Kamakshi Temple of Kanchipuram—the devotee and the deity are in the same plane. The priest will only assist you to do the puja. There is no concept of the priest or the idol getting impure by the devotees’ mere touch.  In many Jyoti Peethas and Shaktisthalas, the devotee can do the abhisheka. She can do the puja or she can touch the idol etc. In Kerala and in a few temples across the border where they follow the the state’s tradition, the situation is different. The idol is kept inside a dark room, inaccessible to the devotee. The priest acts as a barrier. He chants his mantras with the doors barred. He comes out and throws the prasada into the devotee’s hand from a distance. His greatest fear is impurity by mere brush of devotee’s fingers when he is condescendingly throwing the prasada. The lord or the goddess, it seems, is a prisoner of the priest. If god forbid, some little child accidently touches the priest, let alone the idol, the parents will have to pay through their nose for a purification ritual of the entire temple premises. These are just vestiges of an era that followed untouchability. The state may have succeeded in eradicating this evil to a large extent, but this ghost is still lurking in the dark corners of many temples.

One can understand the need for a decent dress code, but the insistence that people should dress only as per 18th century while visiting the temple is unique to Kerala. The temple uses all the benefits of modernity; there will be microphones and loudspeakers, electric lights and air-conditioners, but in case of dress no modernity is allowed. The same Vishnu or Shiva—used to blessing their devotees in trousers, shirts or churidars in Dwarka, Badrinath, Kashi or Kalahasti—are turned to intolerant gods who cannot stand any devotee wearing anything other than Kerala mundu. Even wrapping a piece of cloth around trousers is enough to fool the deities. What could be more insulting to the great gods of Hinduism and the tradition of this great country? There are no religious texts sanctioning such idiosyncrasies. If there are any obscure texts that are only known to priests of Kerala and not to the priests of Vrindavan or Somnath temples, it is time to change them. In a state where astrologers are capable of reading the Lord’s mind with the help of a few cowry shells, anything can be made true by claiming that it is the Lord’s will.

The state had won a hard-fought battle against the crippling caste system through what is now called the Kerala Renaissance movement or Navodhanam. The work of Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, V T Bhattathiripad, Kelappan, Sahodaran Ayyappan etc had triggered a social revolution that resulted in the temple entry proclamation. No privileged class has thrown away their privilege without a fight. The reform movements usually start from within, in most cases by a rebel who dares to question the tradition. But without the interference of the state, even such movements are bound to fail. The example of Guruvayur Satyagraha is before us. While Vaikom Satyagraha achieved its objective because the King could sense the mood of the people, the temples in Malabar had to wait to reform till we gained Independence. Without the support of the British government, neither Raja Ram Mohan Roy nor Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar would have succeeded in their reform movements. Considering such historical contexts, the move of the Kerala government is indeed a bold and welcome one.

Anand Neelakantan

Author, columnist, speaker

India Matters


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