Justice GR Swaminathan of Madurai bench Madras High Court on February 3, set aside the appointment of two non-Brahmin priests of Arulmighu Subramaniya Swamy temple at Kumaravayalur of Srirangam taluk in Trichy, on the ground that they do not come under the denomination of ‘Adi Saivars’ or ‘Sivachariyars’ or ‘Gurukkals’ and therefore are ineligible to be appointed in the agamic temple, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court directed the fit person of the temple to consider appointing Brahmin priests K Karthick and S Parameswaran to the posts.
The court passed the order on the petitions filed by Karthick and Parameswaran challenging the appointment of the non-Brahmin priests S Prabhu and S Jayabalan.
The Tamil Nadu Government issued a GO, followed by an amendment in the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959, to the effect that any person who is a Hindu and possesses requisite qualification and training can be appointed as Archaka in Hindu temples. But Justice Swaminathan noted that the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition filed by Sivacharyargal Nala Sangam in 2016, had opined that the said GO has the potential of falling foul of the dictum laid down by it in one of Seshammal’s case.
He pointed out, “In Seshammal’s case, the top court had held that “…failure to appoint ‘Archaka’ from a specified denomination, sect or group in accordance with the directions of the Agamas governing the temple, would not only be contrary to Section 28(1) of the HR and CE Act but also interferes with a religious practice,”.
However, the judge said that this does not amount to a breach of Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability) of the Constitution of India as even Smartha Brahmin (a sect of Brahmins) are not eligible to be appointed as ‘Archaka’ as per the ‘Kamika Agama’, which governs the aforesaid temple. “A Smartha Brahmin cannot enter the sanctum-sanctorum. If persons belonging to the Scheduled Caste community alone have been disqualified, then such an agama will have to be ignored as unconstitutional. Such is not the case here. On the other hand, this is a question of upholding the fundamental rights of a denomination,” Justice Swaminathan observed.
Also noting that the petitioners, though not formally appointed, have been working as ‘Archakas’ in the temple for more than a decade, the judge said there is no justification for not considering their case. “Only Adi Saivars or Sivachariyars or Gurukkals, who have gained knowledge in the agamas, are eligible and qualified to be appointed as Archakas for the said temple.In hundreds of temples in Tamil Nadu, Archakas are performing their religious duties even without getting any salary. They were never appointed in the first place. These are matters of tradition, custom and usage”. The judge directed the trustee or fit person of the temple to consider and take a decision on appointing the petitioners as Archakas within two months.
Last August, a bench of chief justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and justice N Mala said, “The appointment of Archakas (priests) in the temples constructed as per Agamas would be governed by the Agamas and for that, the Rule under challenge would not apply”. It cited Article 26 of the Constitution, which allows every religious denomination the right to establish, maintain and manage its own affairs in the manner provided in the religion.
The judges said Saivite temples were governed by 28 Agamas, with the most important of them being Kamikagama, Karanagama and Suprabedagama. Similarly, Vaishnavites also had their Agamas, with the principle among them being the Vikhanasa and Pancharatra. Therefore, the appointment of Archakas must be strictly based on such Agamas they ordered.
They gave this direction while disposing off a petition by the All India Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam, which sought quashing of rules brought in by the state government, called the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2020, regarding qualifications and appointment of temple priests.
The trouble started after the DMK Government came to power. Keeping its poll promise, the DMK Government has appointed trained aspirants from various castes as temple priests in Tamil Nadu in August 2021. Of the 208 appointees, CM MK Stalin handed over appointment orders from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR & CE) Department on March 4 to 75 personnel who had completed ‘Archagar’ training.
Several Brahmin priests, it is alleged, were being evicted for the new appointees to begin work. A priest, in a video that went viral, is heard saying that priests from Kalahasti Temple and Kabaleeswarar Temple are being evicted with nowhere to go. Many viewed this is an attempt to tinker with the Hindu temple management practices with an ulterior motive of diluting it to weaker one so that Hindus would slowly lose interest and worshipping.