Temple Priesthood: The Fallacy of Egalitarian and Meritocratic Arguments

The recent event of DMK government in Tamilanadu appointing 24 government trained people as archaka-s in Hindu temples has been advertised as a move to open the opportunity of priesthood to everyone irrespective of the caste which will end the monopoly of Brahmins on priesthood. In India, citing the reason of reducing the dominance of Brahmins has become an acceptable reasoning to destroy the Hindu traditions due to prevailing hatred against Brahmins in Indian polity. Unfortunately, TN BJP didn’t protest against the move either which indicates that BJP is fine with it. People like Harsh Madhusudan have been arguing what’s the problem in appointing the trained candidate if he is the best to perform the duty vis-a-vis hereditary priests. I will seek to dismantle the argument of selecting the best possible candidate amongst the candidates interested in the work.

In every sphere of appointment including the public offices and private organizations, the method of appointment is on the basis of what variable is being tried to optimize in the process. Due to this, there is no uniformity in the method of appointment for the different posts. For example, the PM of India is appointed on the basis that he should be the leader of the party which commands the majority in Loksabha. Does this method of appointment guarantee that the best possible candidate who has all the necessary skills of leadership and administration to be chosen for the post of PM? The answer is clear no because the focus here on optimizing the element of public support due to which the one whose party has got the maximum vote, gets the opportunity to be the PM. In contrast, a private corporation seeks to maximise its profits and its method of choosing the next CEO/MD is based on the consideration that the prospective CEO should be able to optimize this variable. If we take another example of appointing the ministers of union government, it’s based on the factors such as loyalty of the person towards the party and PM, caste and religious considerations, regional factors and so on and skill of administration is the last factor though it should be the first.

In the case of temples, what we tend to forget is that before the government took over, there was an owner of the temple depending on its nature. The owner was usually the royal family in the case of bigger temples and the local community for village level temples. However, they were cognizant of the fact that they don’t get to decide on the rules related to rituals being performed as they’re elucidated in Agama Shastras which had to be followed. Within this context, they chose certain people for the role of archaka-s who transmitted the duty of serving the deity from one generation to another generation. Being an archaka is not a job where you’re maximizing profit or anything similar, that we have to select the best candidate from the available talent pool. Serving the deity is a duty towards the ancestors who had done the same and this sense of duty can’t be captured within either utilitarian or meritocratic framework. At the worst, we can accuse some of the traditional priests to be not doing their duty properly but it’s true for all the systems in which nobody performs impeccably in their job irrespective of the method of selection.

There was another argument of asking what’s the problem in case one has the calling to be the archaka and serve the deity. It’s a completely reasonable possibility that one may have such calling but this calling shouldn’t necessarily include the demand of serving the deity in only famous temples. If I’ve the calling of serving Bhagwan Vishnu or Shiva, I don’t need to be the priest in Sri Ranganath Swamy temple or any jyotirling to do so. I can get the pran pratishtha done of the deity in my own temple as per the rules and serve the deity without interfering into the existing traditions. A temple doesn’t need to have majestic shikhara or gopuram to be called a temple. Another possible way is to approach the current archaka-s who have been serving in the deity to know if there exists any such possibility of being trained within the traditional framework in the existing temples.

The system of traditional duty can be balanced with a few exceptional indovidual cases but when the state makes it a political issue to dismantle the Hindu practices, it becomes a red herring which needs to be opposed. Lest anyone comes with the argument that I’m asking for reserving the temples only for Brahmin priests, I’m asking for letting traditional priests do their duty without any interference. There are many temples where the archaka is a non-Brahmin as per the tradition and I support the right of all such priests to serve the deity. What I oppose is government going after the Hindu traditions for the myth of Social Justice with ulterior motives.

Note: The words ‘archaka’ and ‘priest’ have been used synonymously in the article for brevity, though they’re not technically similar.

Published by Satish Verma

Read. Contemplate. Write.

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