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HomeNewsEvery one including women can become Priests... is it?!

Every one including women can become Priests… is it?!

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# Sriram Seshadri

DMK has been raking up the issue of “Every one including women can become Priests (Archgar)” {அனைவரும் அர்ச்சகராகலாம், மற்றும் பெண்களும் அர்ச்சகர் ஆகலாம்}. This is not new but since 1967 there have been 2 attempts by the DMK and both times it’s a failure to do so.

Without realizing or knowing fully well TN BJP also has supported the move. If the support is only to neutralize the diversion tactics of DMK, they succeeded in that, but doing so they seem to lose the small support base that BJP has in Tamilnadu.

In the year 1969 the Committee on Untouchability, Economic and Educational Development of the Scheduled Castes has suggested in its report that the hereditary priesthood in the Hindu Society should be abolished, that the system can be replaced by an ecclesiastical organization of men possessing the requisite educational qualifications who may be trained in recognized institutions in priesthood and that the line should be open to all candidates irrespective of caste, creed or race.

Based on this commission report, Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959 was emended in 1971 to include several provisions. Important amendments were made to Section 55 abolishing the principle of next in line of succession of a priest in any temple. This is a right move no doubt, but the rules pertaining to the Act was also changed to effect that any one irrespective of caste, creed can become the archaka in any temple, including the temple protected by Article 25 and 26 that follow aagama principles (Sivaagama and Vaishnava aagamas Panchratram and Vaikaanasam).

The amendment came to be challenged before this Court which was considered by a Constitution Bench of the Court. In its judgment in “Seshammal and Others, Etc. Etc. Vs. State of Tamil Nadu” the Constitution Bench, while upholding the validity of the amendment, dealt with a further question, namely, though the principle of next in line was validly abolished, whether the appointment of office bearers or servants of the temples are required to be made from a particular denomination/group/sect as mandated by the Agamas.

The crux of the judgement by the Constitution Bench of the SC was

“In the course of a very lengthy discourse and after considering the works of learned scholars in the field; the law laid down by this Court in respect of Articles 25 and 26 till date and particularly the efficacy of the Agamas the Constitution Bench came to the following conclusion. “Any State action which permits the defilement or pollution of the image by the touch of an Archaka not authorized by the Agamas would violently interfere with the religious faith and practices of the Hindu worshipper in a vital respect, and would, therefore, be prima facie invalid under Article 25(1) of the Constitution.”

Original Amendment in 1971 was “No person shall be entitled to appointment to any vacancy referred to in sub-section (1) merely on the ground that he is next in the line of succession to the last holder of office.”
In 14th July 2006 an ordinance was brought by TN government to include subsection 2 to Section 55, the new ordinance Section 55 is as follows

“No person shall be entitled to appointment to any vacancy referred to in sub-section
(1) merely on the ground that he is next in the line of succession to the last holder of office.”
(2) “or on the ground of any custom or usage”

Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal belonging to Madurai Meenakshi Temple and Association of Archakas filed a writ petition challenging the amendment and subsequent GO 118 on 23.05.2006 (Before the ordinance was issued), the GO stated “Any person who is a Hindu and possessing the requisite qualification and training can be appointed as a Archaka in Hindu temples”.

This writ was heard by the SC bench (not constitution bench), comprising Justice Ranja Gogoi and Justice NV Ramana, they concluded and dismissed the writ because in the same year Amendment Act (TamilNadu Act No 15 of 2006) was introduced in the Assembly to amend the HR&CE Act which did include the original amendment in the ordinance and hence the writ challenging the GO based on the ordinance doesn’t hold good.

Yet the bench concluded that “Consequently and in the light of the aforesaid discussion, we dispose of all the writ petitions in terms of our findings, observations and directions above reiterating that as held in Seshammal (supra) appointments of Archakas will have to be made in accordance with the Agamas, subject to their due identification as well as their conformity with the Constitutional mandates and principles as discussed above”

At present there are around 44,000 Hindu temples under HR&CE control, of this around 4000 (give or take) follow the Sivaagama or Vaishana Aagama rituals. Nearly 40,000 temples have priests of various castes including women, but as upheld by the Supreme Court Constitutional Bench in 1971, these 4000 plus temples government can’t interfere thru the trustee to appoint any one other than the denomination/group/sect prescribed by the aagamas.

So, what’s the new issue about, unless the constitutional amendment to Article 25 and 26 are made to remove the protection given the religious belief and practices, the current practices can not be altered by Tamilnadu government. If either of the article to be amended then it will have to apply to all religious practices and not specific to one religion or way of life.

sriram seshadri

Sriram Seshadri :
Economic / Political Analyst & Critic, Television commentator.

Founder & Managing Partner Disha Consulting


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