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Theology Thursday: Temple Affairs - End The Degrading Caste System And Untouchability

The socio-psychological life of a great majority of people in India is still conditioned by the religious principles they profess, beliefs they adhere to and the customs they follow. The temple traditions and practices preserve and perpetuate the unequal and discriminatory character of the Hindu social order. Periyar saw the need for abolishing those traditions and practices when he began his dedicated struggle to ensure equal human rights for all through radical social transformation. The communities in the lower strata of the caste hierarchy were not allowed to enter into the temples or even to use the streets around them. Periyar’s leading role in the famous Vaikom Satyagraha and his persistent efforts to win equal rights for all believers to enter into temples contributed a lot to remove those degrading and discriminatory socio-religious traditions. There were times when education and the administrative posts, particularly the higher ones, were the exclusive preserves of upper castes. Here again Periyar’s struggle for communal representation based on the principle of social justice brought about a basic change, ensuring educational and job opportunities for all.

While the discriminatory aspects of caste are abolished in almost all the public spheres, it still persists in the sanctum sanctorum or Garba Graha of the temples. There are two types of Hindu temples, the ordinary and the Agamic. Those in small villages and in areas inhabited by poor people are ordinary temples. They have meagre income. Those in towns, cities and pilgrim centres are Agamic temples. Any Hindu can be a priest in the ordinary temple. But only Brahmins are permitted to become the priests or Archakas of several hundreds of rich and popular temples consecrated according to the rules of Agamas. So Varna Dharma, the fountain-head of caste and untouchability, is still preserved in the form of the exclusive privilege enjoyed by the Brahmins as priests or Archakas. It is in this context that Periyar, who was determined to put an end to the stigma of Shudrahood and untouchability by abolishing caste system, demanded equal rights for all believers to get trained and be appointed as priests in all sorts of temples. To fulfil his wish, the DMK government under Kalaignar M.Karunanidhi enacted a law in 1971, enabling all qualified people to become Archakas irrespective of their birth in any Varna or caste. But the Sanathanists (the orthodox Hindus) obtained a Supreme Court verdict that made the enactment inoperative.

Periyar announced in December 1973 the launching of his last agitation to make the 1971 ‘Archaka Act’ operative as a measure to ensure socio-religious equality. It was in consonance with the famous answer he gave to a question put to him by a Brahmin, when he addressed a public meeting at Chidambaram in 1928. (“If the Mantras have the efficacy of making a stone divine, why don’t you recite them on lower caste people and make them eligible to enter into the Sanctum Sanctorum as archakas (priests) of the Agamic Hindu temples?") It may be noted that Periyar’s view on the appointment of Archakas was shared by Baba Saheb Dr. B.R.Ambedkar in his book, Annihilation of Castes, and advocated as one of the recommendations of the Ilayaperumal Committee appointed in late 1960s by the Union Government to suggest ways and means to uplift the Scheduled Castes.

Subsequent to the passing away of Periyar on 24 December 1973, Dravidar Kazhagam continued his struggle organising several demonstrations, protest rallies and picketings. Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, late lamented M.G.Ramachandran appointed a Commission headed by late Justice Maharajan and an experts committee under Krishnasamy Reddiar. They recommended appointment of priests from all castes after the candidates qualify themselves by undergoing proper training. When Ms. Jayalalitha was the Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996, she gave the assurance on the floor of the Legislative Assembly that her government would establish an institute to train the candidates for the job of priests, making provision for reservation of seats for BCs, MBCs, SCs and STs. But neither during her first term in office, nor during her second term from 2001 to 2006, did she carry out her promise.

Followers of Periyar are greatly disappointed by this failure to honour the serious commitment in a vital area concerned with equal rights and human dignity. Now DMK that leads a coalition of parties for the ensuing general elections for the State Assembly has specifically mentioned in its manifesto that necessary steps would be taken to give equal status and opportunity to all without any discrimination on the basis of caste. Dravidar Kazhagam appeals to all voters to seize this opportunity and vote for the DMK led coalition of parties to achieve the goal of social equality.

Critics say that atheists should not be concerned about temple affairs. But the criticism is superficial. The issue here is not people’s faith, but their dignity and human rights. So it is the concern of every self-respecting individual and responsible citizen.

This editorial appeared in The Modern Rationalist.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

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