‘Caste considerations’ have no locus standi in appointment of temple priests
The SC/ST welfare legislature committee tabled its sixth annual report in the Karnataka legislative assembly on November 23, 2016, where it has recommended the government to appoint non-Brahmin priests  or archakas to the state-controlled temples by bringing a reservation policy in the recruitment of the archakas by muzrai department.
As the Siddaramaiah’s Congress government in Karnataka is mulling over accepting the recommendation, it struck me how easy it is for the state governments, legal panels, and NGOs to come up with one recommendation after another to take control over different aspects of Hinduism, especially those in public arena. The favorite target for many decades now has, of course, been the “Temples”, which have been reduced from sacred places dedicated to divinity to means for cashing crores of rupees into government treasury.
That India is a ‘secular’ state and hence, has no legitimate business in either running the temples or in appointment of the archakas is easily ignored by one and all. What is more striking is the ease with which caste and gender narrative, the equality discourse, is introduced into as commonplace an issue as the appointment of archakas. True, archakas are predominantly from Brahmin community. But, it is important to note that there are many temples where the archakas are not Brahmins. Most temples dedicated to Lord Shani that I have noticed in Mysore, for example, are maintained by non-Brahmin archakas. Many temples belonging to local deities are also maintained by local communities with archakas coming from the same community. So, if we take into account the entirety of temple system and not just government controlled temples, we find archakas from different communities, though Brahmin archakas may still be in majority.
But, does this mean, there should be a governmental interference on caste lines to change the caste demography among the community of archakas? Is it even morally correct or wise to do it? If non-Brahmins are to be given reservation in temples having Brahmin archakas, should not a reverse reservation be also given to Brahmins in non-brahmin maintained temples for fairness sake at least?
There is no denial of the fact that present condition of the institution of archakas is far from ideal and is in urgent need of reforms. One can witness how archakas in many temples are under-educated regarding mantra, tantra and agama, and some appear interested only in making money at the expense of devotees. On the other hand, it should also be noted that archakas are poverty ridden class of people, who are grossly underpaid and many of whom find it hard to even meet their basic necessities.
The question is, instead of addressing the above mentioned important issues, why is the government more interested in meddling with the appointment of the archakas that too under the pretext of addressing caste inequality?
Does this mean I am endorsing caste inequality? The answer is a clear no. Instead, the question I am raising is the locus standi of the caste narrative in determining who should be a temple archaka. To answer this, let us understand, who is an archaka and what his function is, so as to arrive at a proper understanding regarding competencies necessary to become a good archaka.
Role of archakas in a temple tradition
To understand the role of archakas, it is vital to have a clarity regarding the role of temple itself. For thousands of years, Hindu temples have been the centers of a village or town around which all important village/town activities like education, arts, science, economy and ecology flourished. Temples stood as best examples regarding how the mundane was considered only an extension of the sacred. To a Hindu, there is no artificial compartmentalization of the sacred and the mundane. To him, sacredness pervades everything, including the mundane. And a temple is the best example that demonstrates this Hindu worldview.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, temples are not simple places for congregation of people for the purpose of prayers in Hinduism. Instead, temples are the very abode of the deities, who are invoked in the idols using complex and intricate ritual procedures and are requested to take residence in the temples. In other words, the Murti constitutes the body and the temple itself constitute the home of the deities. Hence, temples are sacred energy centers, which are pervaded by the energy of the deity.
The central role of a temple, then is to facilitate the access of the energy and the essence of a deity to common masses. Devotees go to the temple for a variety of reasons like seeking solutions to daily problems, seeking inner peace, or simply to be in the presence of the deity and meditate upon Him/Her. Irrespective of the reason, the devotee connects with the essence of the deity and taps into the spiritual energy present in the temple by the process of “Darshana”- Seeing the deity. This facilitating of the “Darshana” of the deity to the people constitutes the very purpose behind the existence of a temple. And to accomplish this purpose, it is very important to make sure that the sacred energy and the essence of the deity continues to pervade the confines of the temple and the temple remains spiritually conductive for such inhabitation of the deity.
It is to accomplish this all important sacred task, that an archaka is appointed to a temple. In other words, the archaka performs the most critical task in the functioning of a temple. It is his duty to not only invoke the deity, when the temples are consecrated for the first time, but also to perform daily worship by adhering to all stipulations laid out in the shastras, including maintaining a very high level of Shaucha (ritual purity at levels of body, prana, and mind). These daily worships are critical because they not only reinforce the essence of the deity residing in the temple, but also restore the sacred energy within the confines of the temple. The subtle energy within the temple decrease with time if they are not restored. Similarly, they are susceptible to imbalance due to mix up with different kinds of energy that people visiting the temple may bring with them. Daily worship properly performed by a competent archaka aims to rectify this by restoring the lost energy and reinforcing the essence of the deity using the power of Mantra and ritual. Thus, the function of the archaka within a temple is sacred and not mundane in nature. Therefore, the competency required to become an archaka must also be with respect to the sacred and not mundane.
Competencies required to be an archaka
Manu Smriti [1.88] says learning and teaching of scriptures, giving and receiving of charity and performance of Yajnas for oneself and for others are the duties of Brahmanas. Since, Puja is a tantric counterpart of Vedic Yajna and both involve complex and intricate rituals for invoking and worshipping the deity with many parallels among them, Manu’s instructions could well be understood as being applicable to Tantrika puja. That is, it is the Brahmanas, who are competent to perform worship for others i.e. act as archakas.
Now, to properly understand the purport of the above statement, we may have to digress a little into what actually does the term ‘Brahmana” imply.
Unlike the loose usage of the term “Brahmin”, mostly as a reference to a caste community, which have for generations identified themselves as “Brahmanas”, the term “Brahmana” itself found in the scriptures have a very specific and technical meaning, which is often missed in both theory and practice. In the scriptures, the term Brahmana, like other Varna designations, is understood as a reference to the Svabhava/inner temperament of an individual and the corresponding duties to which he becomes competent because of that inner temperament [Bhagavad Gita 4.13, 18.41. Bhagavata Purana 11.17.13]. There is also a recognition of the fact that this Svabhava of the individual is inherent in him/her right from the birth, because it is the prarabdha karma (the fruits of actions performed in past lives that has become ripen to give results), which determines a particular birth. It is this final aspect regarding Svabhava or Varna being inherent from birth due to prarabdha that has been most misunderstood as a reference to “birth into a family”  and in the past had in turn given rise to distortions in the form of Jati system based on birth into a family, which was later reformulated into rigid caste system by the British . Towards this end, we need to make a difference between a person born into Brahmin caste and a person who is a Brahmana from Svabava (Varna) and Karma.
So, let us return back to the question, what does the term “Brahmana” imply and what makes one a Brahmana. From above, we gathered it is the Svabhava and Karma that makes one a Brahmana. Regarding the Svabhava of a Brahmana, Vajrasuchika Upanishad (verse 9) says he alone is Brahmana who has realized Brahman. Adi Shankaracharya in his commentary on Bhagavad Gita (18.41) says a Brahmana is one in whom there is a predominance of Sattva. Manu Smriti (2.87) says a Brahmana is one who befriends all. Bhagavada Purana (11.17.16-19), goes a step ahead and lists following qualities as defining a Brahmana: peacefulness, control of mind and senses, austerity, cleanliness, satisfaction, tolerance, simple straightforwardness, devotion to God, mercy, and truthfulness. Regarding the natural duties (Karma) that flow from Svabhava, we already say how Manu Smriti lists studying and teaching of scriptures, performance of Yajnas for oneself and others and giving and receiving charity as the duties of a Brahmana. Similarly, Bhagavad Gita (18.42) assigns: control of the internal and external organs, austerity, purity, forgiveness, straightforwardness, Jnana (Knowledge of the scriptures), Vijnana (experiential understanding of what is presented in the scriptures) and Astikyam (faith and conviction in God and scriptures and involves performance of proper worship and rituals) as the duties of Brahmana. Vadhula Smriti (verse 201) says the body of a Brahmana is not meant for enjoyment, but for great spiritual performing austerities. Kashinath Upadhyaya in his Dharma Sindhu says, one who is merely born in a Brahmin family, but is devoid of Vaidika Samskaras (Upanayana etc.) and does not practice study of Vedas and other duties, is an “Abrahmana” i.e. not a Brahmana. Similarly, he who is born in a Brahmin family and has undergone Vaidika Samskaras, but does not study Vedas and practice other duties, is designated as a Brahmanabruva i.e. Brahmana only in name.
In other words, only he who has Brahmana Svabhava i.e. inner temperaments listed above and who practices the Brahmana duties like study of Vedas, performance of Yajnas, worship etc. listed above, is to be considered as a Brahmana.
Caste Narrative has no locus standi
From the above descriptions, it is clear that an archaka must be someone who is a Brahmana by Svabhava and who is willing to practice Brahmana Karmas by adopting a Brahmana way of life. He or she should practice qualities like truthfulness, self-control, purity, forgiveness, etc. They must have intense faith and devotion and must practice intense spiritual austerities. They must be well-versed in Vedas, Tantras, and other scriptures and must also be well-versed in Puja, Yajna, and other sacred rituals. They must adhere to scriptural rules of purity-impurity while performing rituals. These are some of the spiritual competencies, so to speak, which are required for a person to be appointed as an archaka. Therefore it is clear that “caste considerations” have no basis as far as appointment of archakas is concerned and hence, the present attempt by the government is mischievous to say the least.
Does this mean, there is no problem in the current system of archakas and hence, there is no need for reforms? The answer is a definite no. There is indeed a deep necessity for such reforms, including addressing caste dimensions. But, such reforms cannot be undertaken by making caste narrative as the central focus. Instead, the reforms must stem from a proper understanding of the role of an archaka in a temple and of temple in the society as elaborated before. Here is an attempt to identify the key issues and address them in a holistic manner.
Key Issues in institution of archakas that needs to be addressed
Some of the key issues in need of reforms with respect to archakas:
- Financial concerns of the archakas, which is hampering their proper functioning.
- In many ancient temples with hereditary system of archakas, new generations of archakas not properly rooted in Brahmana Svabhava and Karma. They lack required devotion, dedication, austerity, and knowledge of the Shastras and temple traditions to carry out their duties.
- Archakas in general are not trained in Vedas and Agama shastras beyond the basic preliminaries required for day to day performance of Puja. A general disregard for the temperaments and attitudes required to practice the duties of archaka.
- Limited access to people with Brahmana Svabhava, but born in non-Brahmin families to undergo Vaidika Samskaras, study Vedas, and fully adopt Brahmana way of life.
Addressing the above concerns requires honesty and importantly a genuine recognition and appreciation of the job performed by the archakas. At present archakas are largely looked down as a burden to the society and have been reduced to a state of poverty. It is high time that the government takes up the financial welfare of the archakas by giving them sufficient remuneration in recognition of their enormous contribution to the spiritual health of the society. To tackle other issues, some have suggested ending completely the hereditary system of archakas, while others like the SC/ST panel has suggested reservations for non-brahmin castes.
Putting an end to hereditary system of archakas, especially in ancient temples, just because some among them are less competent amounts to cutting the head to remedy a headache. The only criteria in determining the suitability of a person to the job of an archaka must be his Brahmana varna and the allied competencies and it should not matter whether he is from the same family or a different. After all, there are clear merits of a hereditary system when implemented properly. The parents can pass over the knowledge, learning, and spiritual merit gained over many centuries to the next generation, including knowledge about the specific temple, its cultural and spiritual history, and the specific rituals and traditions associated with the temple. An easier and wiser solution would be mandating that every generation of archakas from the family must be trained in Vedas, tantras, etc. and must be well initiated into spiritual practice and Brahmana way of life. In other words, the hereditary archakas must be tested for their scriptural and spiritual competence before taking over the duties of the archakas. Of course, it is to be stressed here that such an evaluation cannot be conducted by a secular government (even a Hindu government, if ever it becomes a reality), which has no competency in the matter. Instead, it must be conducted by a group of well-learned senior archakas belonging to same tradition and/or Hindu Acharyas. Competency could also tested in terms of whether the candidates have successfully been trained in a traditional Gurukula. By adopting this approach, one can make sure that even in temples with hereditary system of archakas, only competent and deserving people are appointed as archakas.
Now, coming to the issue of providing access to interested people from non-Brahmin castes, as already noted any reservation in this matter has no basis and only trivializes the issue. Instead, a solution similar to the case of hereditary system of archakas can be adopted here. By facilitating more and more Veda, Tantra and Shastra Gurukulams to flourish, wherein children are trained in the Brahmana way of life from childhood (starting with performance of Upanayana to them), inner transformations within children can be facilitated. The key here is to not admit students into the Gurukulam based on caste or gender. Instead, admission criteria should be based on interest, aptitude, and a number of other factors, using which the Acharyas can determine suitable candidates. Only such a training of children for 12-15 years in the traditional environment will facilitate an inner transformation and adoption of Brahmana Svabhava and lifestyle. Such children can then be absorbed into the role of archakas in temples, for performance of Vaidika Karmas, and many other traditional roles. This inner transformation cannot be achieved by a six month certification courses, or a course concentrating on teaching day-to-day puja vidhi. Such appointment of only those archakas, who are traditionally trained and are rooted in knowledge and austerity will also address the issue of lack of these competencies prevalent in a significant section of archakas today.
This measure, if genuinely implemented, could have far reaching consequences in not only reforming the institution of archakas, but also in reforming the society. This could lead to a true reformation: creation of a new class of Brahmana Varna-people dedicated to upholding Sattva, dedicated to reviving India spiritually, cleaning up the spiritual degradation in society and most importantly, may form the first step towards moving away from the caste system rooted in politics and colonialism to modern Varna Vyavasta– a Svabhava based merit system.
- The term “Priest” is a misnomer here, since it is actually a Christian term referring to an ordained minister of the Church and hence, is not a proper term to refer to Hindu men involved in worship of deities in the temples. “Archaka” or “Pujari” is a proper term. “Archaka” means one who does “archana” to the deity i.e. worship the deity according to Veda and Agama Shastras, using the procedures like Panchopachara (using 5 items), Shodashopachara (using 16 items), etc. “Pujari” has a similar meaning- one who performs Puja.
- In the previous Yugas, the Svabhava, Karma, Prarabdha, and birth into a family were all in sync. In such ideal conditions, a person with Brahmana Svabhava could have taken birth in a family with Brahmana Svabhavas and Karmas and the person himself would have performed Brahmana Karma as he grew up. But, in today’s conditions, when there is no clear cut Varna Svabhava in individuals, with each person having a mixture of different Varnas in which any one or two could be dominant, Varna by prarabdha is no longer in sync with Varna of the families. Hence, it is important to differentiate the Shastric term “Brahmana” and Brahmin as a caste identity. The latter no longer has much correlation with Brahmana Varna, except in some cases.
- How the British reformulated Indian social systems and created the “caste system” prevalent in modern India is beyond the scope of this article. People can refer: Does ‘Varna’ provide a religious basis for the present Caste System?