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Caste Prejudices And The Appointments Of Temple Priests: A Legal History

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In the Hindu religion, people who act as officials at temples conducting or assisting on worship, are known as ‘pujaris(priests)’. Their main duty is to act as intermediaries between the worshipers and god. These priests are supposed to be Brahmins—members of the highest-ranking caste group that have traditionally been priests.  They have traditionally been the final judge of purity and caretakers of temples. Only they could enter the inner sanctuaries of temples and invoke the deities there for puja.

The Debate Of Essential And Non-Essential Practice Of Religion

After the enactment of the Constitution of India, the issue that started coming before the Indian courts were, what is an essential and non-essential religious practice of religion. If a practice is an essential religious practice then the state’s right to regulate it becomes narrower as contrary to a non-essential religious practice which may be regulated under Art25(2)(b). The Supreme Court of India progressively elaborated the “essential elements doctrine” to ascertain which elements are fundamental for religious practice and which may be purged, considered as mere superstition, by the intervention of the State without infringing the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs.

Representational Image

Priests appointed in Hindu temples are traditionally Brahmins.

A very First Judgment of the Supreme Court known as the Shirur Math case i.e – The Commissioner Hindu religious endowments Madras v/s Sri Lakshmindra Tirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt,  In this case, Supreme court for the first time declared what is an essential part of religion, and it says that this shall be ascertained regarding the tenets and doctrines of that religion itself.  It is what some commentators have called what the religion internally considers it’s essential parts.

However, that’s not the only thing to see as the devotees of that religion may declare every aspect of it to be an essential part, but there is a judicial determination to determine whether indeed that practice is an essential part, because if it is an essential part the ability of the state to regulate it is considerably narrowed. It is dependent on grounds of decency, public order, morality, or other provisions of Part III  whereas if it falls under the non-essential or the secular part the ability of the state to regulate or restrict those aspects of the secular practices of religion are considerably broader.

In Md. Khanif Quereshi v/s State of Bihar, the first cow slaughter case that came up before the court, The Supreme Court held that the sacrifice of Cows and Bakris was not an essential practice of the Muslim religion and ruled that it could be prohibited by the state under 25(2)(a) and therefore it upheld certain cow slaughter laws.

In Acharya Jagdishwarananda Avdhuta v/s Commissioner of Police Calcutta, which is the first Anandmargi case and the question, in this case, was that a Tandava dance by the Anandmargi’s in public carrying Trishuls, Human skulls and bones is an essential practice of the Anandmargi cult or not. The apex court held that “this was not an essential religious practice and therefore order u/s 44 prohibiting such a practice in the interest of public order and morality was not violative of the interest of the Anandmargi’s”. The question that arises immediately in one’s mind, even if it had been an essential practice the right to regulate it undergrounds of Public order and morality would have not been there under article 25(1)?

This matter came up once again before the Supreme court in the Second Anandmargi Case, The commissioner of police v/s Acharaya Jagdishwarananda Avdhuta, and in this second Anandmargi case the Majority opinion of the Supreme court was delivered by Justice Rajendra Babu, The Supreme court in this case laid down a test for determining whether a practice was an essential religious practice or not and what it stated was that to determine whether a part of a practice is essential to a religion, what we need to find out is whether the nature of religion will be changed without that part or practice?

If taking away that part or practice would result in a fundamental change in the character of that religion or its belief then such a part would be treated as an essential or integral part of that religion. There can not be addition or subtraction to such a part because the very essence of that religion would get altered and its fundamental character would change and it stated that it is such permanent and essential parts that are protected by the Constitution.

Is The Appointment Of  A Priest Essential Or Non-Essential?

Whether the appointment of a Priest in a temple is an essential religious practice or not? If it is a non-essential religious practice and it is a secular practice then the state can easily regulate it and restrict it. In Seshammal v. State of Tamil Nadu a constitution bench of the Supreme Court was examining the validity of Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959 as amended by the amending act of 1970 and through this amendment “The Principle of Next in line in succession in the appointment of priests was abolished” i.e the Hereditary Principle was abolished, earlier before 1970, after the death or retirement of the priest, his son used to be appointed as the priest of that temple, This was abolished and what the statement of objects and reasons stated was that the hereditary Principle of appointment of office holders of the temple should be abolished and that the office of an Archaka i.e Priest should be thrown open to all candidates trained in recognized institutions of priesthood irrespective of caste, creed or race.

The trustee of a temple under this amended section 55 was authorized to appoint anybody as an Archaka in a temple whether it was a Shaivite temple or a Vaishnavite temple so long as he possessed a fitness certificate from one of the institutions which were referred to in one of the rules. Speaking for the Supreme Court D.G. Palekar J. examined the question of Priest or an Archaka appointed to perform some religious functions and he noted that once the establishment of temples came into being in the Hindu religion and the institutions of rituals were compiled and these compilations were known as the ‘Agamas’.

The authority of these Agamas is recognized in several decided cases and by this Court. In Sri Venkataramana Devaru v. State of Mysore Agamas are described as treatises of ceremonial law dealing with such matters as the construction of temples, installation of idols, and the conduct of the worship of the deity. There are 28 Agamas relating to the Saiva temples, the most important of them being the Kamikagama, the Karanagama, and the Suprabedagama. The Vaishnavas also had their own Agamas.

The Agamas also have rules concerning the Archakas ie the Priests for instance in the Shaivite temple only a devotee of shiva and one belonging to a particular denomination or group or sub-group is entitled to be an Archaka. If he is a Shaivite he can not be an Archaka in a Vaishnavite temple, he may go there to worship but he can not become a priest there. Similarly, a Vaishnavite Archaka has no place as an Archaka in a Shaivite temple.  The agamas prohibit the appointment of an archaka in a temple of a different denomination but the question in the case was –

Motivations Behind The Appointment Of Priests: Secular Or Religious?

The petitioner had contended that the appointment based on the hereditary principle or the next in line succession was usage and therefore the question was whether this usage was a secular usage on religious usage. If it is a secular usage obviously legislation would be permissible under the article 25(2)(a) and if it is a religious usage it would be permissible to regulate it if it falls within the social reform agenda under article 25 (2)(b). The Supreme Court in this case distinguished between an Archaka or a priest and the head of math or a Mathadhipati. The Supreme court noted that the Archaka or the Priest has never been regarded as a spiritual head of any institution.

He may be an accomplished person well-versed in the Agamas and rituals necessary to be performed in a temple, but he does not have the status of a religious-spiritual head. The SC also noted that the trustee of each temple can conduct inquiries into the conduct of such a servant ( temple servant ) and can dismiss a priest for misconduct. As a priest, he is subject to the discipline and control of the trustee as was amended by the 1959 Principal Act. That being the position of the Archaka the act of his appointment by the trustee is essentially secular. He owes his appointment to a  secular Authority.

The managers of a temple exercise essentially a secular function in choosing and appointing the Archaka. That the son of an Archaka or son’s son has continued in office from generation to generation does not make any difference to the principle of appointment and therefore no hereditary Archaka can claim any right to Office. The Supreme Court, therefore, held that the appointment of an Archaka and the doing away of the hereditary principle of appointment of Archaka’s and the legislation therefore in this respect did not interfere with any religious practice on matters of religion and therefore it is not invalid.

The Supreme Court Of India held that only authorized Pujaris can perform the actual worship of the deity.

The court also upheld the amendment and observed that as long as the actual worship of the deity is allowed to be performed only by authorized Pujari’s i.e people belonging to the correct denomination and not by those who did not have the necessary training,  no grievance can be made. So the takeaway from this judgment is that,  Any person who has got training irrespective of caste or creed can be appointed as a priest. The appointment of a priest is a secular function. The court upheld that but it reads this clause in it because the Aghamas have held that in the Shaivite temple a vaishnavite by faith should not be the Archaka i.e  The actual denomination in a denominational temple the priest must belong to that denomination and he must be well-versed and trained in The Agamas. So the state can appoint a priest irrespective of caste but keeping in mind the requirements of that denominational Temple that a person who is appointed as an Archaka should at least be a part of that denomination.

An Upfront Question Of Caste

In N. Adithayan Vs  The Travancore Devaswom Board and Ors. A Two Judge Bench examined a complex question,  here the question was upfront one of caste. The matter related to whether the appointment of a person who is not a Malayali Brahmin as shantikaran or pujari of a temple in question. In Seshammal’s case which was from  Tamil Nadu the expression used was Archaka here we are dealing with Kerala and the expression used is Shantikaran or The Pujari. This case dealt with the temple in Alangod village in Ernakulam district and the main grievance of the Petitioner in this challenge was the appointment of a Non- Brahmin shantikaran in the temple violates the allegedly long followed mandatory custom and usage of this temple of only having Malyali Brahmins for the Job of Performing Pujas in these Temples.

Therefore by interfering in the appointment of the priest the contention was that this denies the Rights of the Worshipers to practice and profess their religion following their tenets and to manage their religious affairs as secured under Art. 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India. The Court examined the contentions that “its not a grievance of a Malayali Brahmin Priest that his Right to be appointed as a Priest has been taken away, it says that by interfering in the appointment of Priest and allowing a person from another caste to be appointed, the state has interfered in the practice of worshipper’s and their Freedom of Religion because Freedom of religion is not just a matter of belief there is also practice and propagation and practice includes the rituals and observances and if these rituals and observances are not done as been done customarily in that temple state is interfering with the worshipper’s Rights”.

Another Contention was that under Article 26 the Ability of that time or that denomination to manage its affairs as it deems fit has also interfered. So there is a violation of Denomination Rights, There is a violation of Worshipper’s Rights and there is a legitimate expectation of the Priest to be appointed that is also been interfered with. The Dewaswom Commissioner Replied that since the Rules regulating the appointment do not say anything or restrict it that only a Brahmin should be appointed as a Shantikaran in the temple. In Fact, the Dewaswom Board had opened a training school for purpose of training shantikaran’s and as per the said scheme approved by the Travancore Dewaswom Board, the school was opened to impart training to all students irrespective of their caste or community.

In this Two Judge Bench Justice Doraiswamy Raju speaking for the Supreme court noted that of course only a qualified person who is well versed and trained how to do the Puja etc can alone perform Puja’s in the temples consequently there is no justification to insist that only a Brahmin or a Malayali Brahmin in this particular case alone can perform Rites and Rituals in this temple as part of the Rights and Freedom Guaranteed Under Art 25 and it’s also not legitimate to further claim that any deviation would tantamount to violation of such a guarantee under the Constitution.

The Court noted that Rights in Art 25 are Subject to the provisions of Part III of the Constitution and the Court held that the vision of the Founding fathers of the Constitution was to liberate society from blind and ritualistic adherence to mere traditional superstitious beliefs without reason or rational basis and this has found an expression in the form of Art. 17 dealing with Abolition of Untouchability and The Supreme Court stated that any custom or usage irrespective of any proof of their existence in the Pre-Constitutional days cannot be countenanced as a source of Law to claim any Rights if such a claim is found to violate Human Rights, Dignity, Social Equality and special Mandate of the Constitution or Laws made by the Parliament.

No usage which is found to be pernicious or considered to be in derogation of the Law of the Land or opposed to public policy or Social decency can be accepted and upheld by the court in the country. Meaning to say thereby even if there had been a custom or a usage that only a Malayali Brahmin can be appointed this will have to yield to the other provisions of this part and decency and Morality and appointment of priest irrespective of caste is something which is built in the mandate of Part III of the Constitution, the only requirement is that such a person should have got training or how to do the Puja and that has already been complied with by the Rules made by the Dewaswom Board. The Court also pointed out that temple does not belong to any denominational category with its specialized forms of worship peculiar to such a denomination and there was no question of violation of Article 26, it’s a question squarely falling under Art 25.

Therefore, once it is been established that the appointment of a priest has been trained for such a purpose there can be no argument that there is a violation because of any caste background which has customarily been practised basically the court, in this case, has gone beyond the law laid down in Seshammal’s Case to say that part III of the Constitution and the Mandate of Article 17 must prevail over any custom or any right to religion even if claimed and it could have been located in Article 25(1).

In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam and Ors. Vs The Government of Tamil Nadu and ors. A two-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court in 2016 was concerned by the government order issued by the gov’t of Tamil Nadu which states that any person who is a Hindu and who possesses the requisite qualification training can be appointed as an Archaka in a Hindu temple.

In this case, there was a new aspect that came into consideration that was not considered in Seshammal’s case and the Supreme Court here referred to Art 16(5) (which says { Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any law which provides that the incumbent of an office in connection with the affairs of any religious or denominational institution or any member of the governing body thereof shall be a person professing a particular religion or belonging to a particular denomination. } ) Art 16(5) was brought into play by this 2016 judgment and it indicated that art16(5) protects the appointment of an Archaka from a particular denomination if so required to be made by the Aghma’s holding the field.

The court went on to hold that all the conformity with constitutional mandates will have to comply with while looking at the appointment of a particular priest, meaning thereby the question of caste, etc is irrelevant the only thing that is relevant if we are drawing on Art 16(5) is that you must belong to that particular religious denomination.


The Supreme Court through the above-cited judgments makes it crystal clear that any Hindu irrespective of caste can be appointed as a priest in the temple provided he is well versed and trained how to do the Puja etc can alone perform Puja in the temples.

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