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Insistence on representation of every caste among the Temple trustees: A colonial idea that endangers Temple tradition

Caste division is a tried and true, time-tested colonial strategy to crush any prospects of Hindu unity. We must be careful not to take the bait so readily.

In the ongoing discussion about state entrenchment in Hindu Temples, we come face to face with the question of what the alternative system would be, were the State to make a long-overdue exit, and whether it would be duly “democratic”. In our previous article, we spoke about how the democratic process that is being proposed may be counterintuitive to the values of Hinduism and what makes our temples truly sacred for devotees.

However, another issue that has come up in this discussion is that question of caste representation among the Temple trustees to avoid caste-discrimination.

Coming to issue of caste representation among Temple trustees, an insistence upon due representation by way of members of every caste being elected to administrative roles would be an error of gargantuan proportions. A Temple is not a public or parliamentary body, to ensure equal representation. 

On the ground, elections are often won by those that enjoy the most political and financial clout, and Temples would turn into a second Lok Sabha. Besides, there wouldn’t be much distinction between the current system of government appointees handling Temple affairs and this proposed system – and we’ve seen with our very eyes how disastrous it has proven to be. 

In essence, the restoration of traditional systems of administration, or certain communities having control particular religious institutions doesn’t necessarily amount to discrimination, but in fact, contributes to the preservation of the identity, legacy and continuance of the character of that particular Temple. 

Interventions in the name of social justice cannot be made at the cost of ancient traditions. This would mirror the current paradigm of the Indian state, in which there is superimposition of the principles of a secular state or western constitutional ideals onto already pluralistic and henotheistic religious institutions. 

Even the contention of exacting individual rights over those conferred upon an individual by virtue of being a devotee, in the name of egalitarianism, would amount to a disservice to the systems of governance, administration, and public policy that have existed in Bhārat well before the advent of colonialism. In this vein, the secular modern Indian state needs to maintain an equal distance from Hindu religious institutions, just as it does to those of other faiths, in the interest of protecting India’s pluralism and diversity.  

Temples, once free to administer themselves, must also be granted the unconditional right to employ any and all means in order to adhere to their sampradāya. Only if every jātivarna, village or religious denomination reserves the right to propagate unchanged, their particular “brand” of Hinduism in any manner they deem fit; only then will we be able to protect the collective diversity of our faith as a whole.

Therefore, while every Hindu has certain basic rights with respect to every Temple, when it comes to demanding a role in their management, there are multiple caveats. Ideally, the administration must not be monopolized by any one individual or members of a certain caste. Anyone should be able to partake in rituals or ceremonies, yet meritocracy and quality are a priority and must not be compromised. An injection of social justice where unwarranted can result in a loss of the sanctity and specificity of the Deity’s rituals, and irreparable damage to the heritage of the institution. 

It would be quite simplistic, or one might even say reductionist, to apply the same equalizing principles that are ordinarily applied to secular institutions, uniformly to thousands of Temples across the Hindu fold, which are immensely pluralistic and heterogeneous. We have Temples with unique traditions as old as time, and it is imperative to respect and preserve each tradition by applying the appropriate principles on a case-by-case basis, in the most integrated manner possible.  

Apart from jāti-specific religious practices, jāti-held traditional knowledge is also dependent, to some extent, on the survival of the birth-based or hereditary system. Temples customarily provide a large inter-reliant ecosystem that facilitates the preservation of Temple-dependent or Temple-sanctioned trades (such as florists, classical musicians, mahouts, etc.) and indigenous art.

Skilled artisans involved in this auxiliary system are tied with the health and prosperity of the Temple – for example, the craftsmen with the traditional knowledge of metal sculpture, or those with ultra-niche skills as in the case of the parrot-maker of the Srivilliputhur Temple (that makes, each day, a parrot with leaves and flowers from the Temple garden, used to adorn the goddess Andal every evening).

The survival of many jātis and the unique knowledge they possess is, in many ways, linked to Temples, and making make blanket statements about prejudice based on caste is not constructive. There is a need to safeguard the existing ecosystem rather than fantasize about utopian alternatives that do not do our Temples justice.

There are hundreds upon thousands of Temples set up in our country by local groups belonging to a multitude of jātisvarnas, and tribes, some with syncretic and some with traditionalistic structures. An innumerable portion of these is owned and operated by non-brahmins. They collectively subscribe to a set of ideas and establish shrines or charitable institutions based on their beliefs. 

The individuals that fund the construction of the Temple are generally placed in charge of the trust. Must these Temples also be subject to “caste equality” or “dismantling of caste identity”? Especially in such cases, pressuring a community to divorce their identity from the Temple, which they have the legitimate right to retain, would result in an irreparable dilution of the very spirit upon which it was conceived.  

In the case of Temples that are several thousands of years old, with a certain richness of heritage, bequeathed with substantial immovable properties, whose history of administration has been long-winded – changing hands multiple times over the centuries, the situation may not be so straightforward, for where there is considerable wealth, there will always be a special interest in its management.

These Temples were historically patronized by local kings under whose jurisdiction the Temple fell, and were administered through certain appointees or ministers of the king; while at the core, the bearers of the hereditary sampradāya, the archakas, presiding acharyas etc. remained largely unchanged.

While we are not a Hindu monarchy anymore, the situation has turned a 180 – with the state actively leeching off Temples, treating them as cash cows instead of funding them with benevolence worthy of our country’s dharmic legacy. Administrative decisions, both financial and religious, are often placed in the hands of “secular” government appointees.

The politicization of Temple control, members of successive political parties whimsically entering and exiting Temple trustee positions every election cycle, and using Temple trusteeship as a bargaining chip for political power has been the norm for the past few decades. 

Government appointees to Temples, with utter disregard for the heritage of the Temple and the Deity, operate solely for personal, financial, and political gain. This has resulted in the loss of agency and authority of those that are responsible for adherence to Temple traditions and genuinely concerned with the fate of the Temple – inadvertently resulting in moral deterioration and a grave injustice to the Temple’s founding principles.  

It is entirely possible to retain each of Bharat’s Temples’ unique traditions by simply reverting to trustee control, yet buttressing it with appropriate checks and balances. Financial transparency could potentially be guaranteed by conducting frequent audits through outside agencies and publishing all financial information related to the Temple periodically.

While priesthood* must, to some extent, be democratized, it mustn’t come at the cost of compromising integrity. In Temples across Tamil Nadu, hundreds of Temples have non-brahmin priests, and of course, this is completely acceptable as long as they are adequately trained in the intricacies of that sampradāya.  

*Here, state role in impoverishing priests and disincentivizing priesthood as a viable livelihood must be mentioned. A majority of priests in state-managed Temples across the country are grossly underpaid, disrespected, and hence are understandably disenfranchised. Veda pathasalas have already been dealt the worst possible hand, and have virtually no takers while income prospects from such a traditional education are so grim. The priesthood has essentially been devalued both in society and monetarily when in actuality, it should have been immensely funded and treasured.   

To the state, Temples aren’t just about money but also about the exertion of political will through control of Hindu institutions. As long as Hindus are functionally castrated without free access to their own resources, they can be manipulated by political parties. Driving wedges amongst Hindus over trivial caste issues is the agenda of the “left”, that seeks to suppress our efforts to regain control of Temples and destroy what we’re desperately trying to build.

Unfortunately, caste division is a tried and true, time-tested colonial strategy to crush any prospects of Hindu unity. We must be careful not to take the bait so readily. 

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Sai Priya Chodavarapu
doctor, writes about Indian history and polity in her spare time

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