Even as the BJP and the CPI(M) leaders spar over political killings in Kerala, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Vijay Sampla, has come out in support of a decision taken by the CPI(M)-led government in Kerala—appointing people from the Scheduled Castes as priests in certain temples in the state. Said Sampla, to THE WEEK, “This is a good step. According to Hindu traditions, knowledge is considered important and not caste. The traditions of the temple should be respected while working there. If a person from the lower caste has enough knowledge about the rituals, nothing should prevent his becoming the priest.”
Sampla said that such steps can be followed in other states as well. “In this case, the government has nothing much to do. People themselves have to adapt to such changes. The mindset of the people will change slowly, I am sure,” said Sampla.
A few days ago, the Kerala government appointed 36 non-Brahmins, including six dalits, as priests in temples in the state that are run by the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body comprising members nominated by the government and the community. The TDB manages more than 1,000 temples in Kerala, including the famous Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala. The candidates, who underwent a challenging course in Hindu rituals, had to clear a written examination and interview conducted by the state public service commission. Some of the requirements fixed for the candidates included the knowledge of temple rituals, expertise in Sanskrit and a certified course in Tantra Vidya.
22-year-old Yadhu Krishna, a dalit, made history by becoming the first dalit to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Manappuram Lord Shiva Temple in Thiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district of the state. He studied tantrik rituals for a decade before clearing the exam.
Actor Kamal Hasan praised the decision taken by the Kerala government. He tweeted, “Bravo Travancore Devaswom Board. Salute to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for appointing 36 non-Brahmin priests. Periyar’s dream realised.”
Said Kadakampally Surendran, state Devaswom minister, to THE WEEK, “We are planning to introduce an ordinance so as to include even more temples where we can appoint dalit priests. This will include temples in north Kerala” He said there was no resistance from the Brahmin community in the state on the government’s decision. “People from the Brahmin caste are doing well in all professions. This will only help them as they can concentrate on other things. They need not always stick around temples,” Surendran said.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad welcomed the decision. Said VHP joint secretary Surendra Jain to THE WEEK, “The appointment of dalits in temples is a welcome step. The VHP has been doing similar work for many years. We train people from all castes to become priests, even women. According to our philosophy, priests should not belong to a particular family or caste.” Jain said such a decision should not be taken by force. “The views of people from all communities should be factored in. People who run the temple on a daily basis should be consulted. At the end of the day, nobody is going to oppose such a decision,” he said.
The Supreme Court, in 2015, had ruled that there was no justification for insisting that persons of a particular caste alone can conduct rituals in temples. A bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that inclusion or exclusion as per the religious code should not be based on the criteria of caste, birth or other constitutionally unacceptable parameter.