The Tamil Nadu government has announced that women who want to become temple priests in the state can apply and get trained for the job. This announcement from HR&CE Minister Sekar Babu came as he declared that the state government led by the DMK will appoint priests from all castes within 100 days. The move to appoint persons from various castes, and not just Brahmins, as priests in temples managed by the government was a poll promise of the DMK, and was set in motion many years ago. In 2006, Kalaignar M Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and passed an order to train and appoint priests from various castes in temples across Tamil Nadu. However, so far, only two non-Brahmins have been appointed as priests in the state, when the AIADMK was in power.
The announcement that women too can enter the profession in Tamil Nadu has, predictably, seen praise and denunciation from various quarters. Critics of the move say that this hurts their religious sentiments; they point to the fact that women are not allowed inside even the kitchens and pooja rooms of their home while menstruating, and are not allowed to enter temples, forget the sanctum sanctorum to perform rituals. Supporters of the decision however believe this is a decision well made, and rightly timed.
Lauding the move to appoint women as priests, writer Ja Deepa recalls the history of Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu which has led to this moment now. â€śToday in Tamil Nadu, anyone can enter a temple â€” which is not the case in many north Indian states, where caste based discrimination in temple entry still exists,â€ť she says.
Deepa says the objections raised for why women cannot be priests do not hold water. â€śIf you look at how people become priests â€” many start at the age of five or seven, and undergo years of training in gurukulams. Their schedules in these gurukulams are rigorous and the students are allowed to meet their families only a couple of times a year. For a woman to become a priest, a similar curriculum will be followed. So logically, it is not atheists or women who want to disrespect religion who are going to sign up for this,â€ť Deepa says.
â€śReligious women, who believe in all this, would by themselves not enter the temple while menstruating. So the argument that this is a reason to stop women from becoming priests is moot. Further, there are already women working in temples even if not as priests â€” officers appointed by HR&CE department have offices inside these temples. These women manage their work in such a way that they do not enter temples while menstruating,â€ť the writer says.
â€śEvery sanctum has three-four priests who perform the rituals, and working a schedule around when a woman is menstruating is hardly an issue,â€ť she adds.
â€śWhile currently most temples follow Agama Shastra, if we think about this logically, this cannot have been the case throughout history,â€ť Deepa says. Agama Shastra are the traditions/rules followed in Hindu temples by Brahmin priests. â€śTake a temple like Sabarimala for instance. Even today, the hill tribes in the region say that the temple belongs to them â€” theyâ€™re fighting a legal case now. If a temple was built on top of a hill, doesnâ€™t it logically make sense that, in its original form, it belonged to the people who lived there?â€ť
â€śIf a temple is built on a sea-shore, doesnâ€™t it make logical sense that it belonged originally to the fisherfolk who live and work there? At some point, these temples that belonged to locals were taken over by kings who decided to build them up and the control went to Brahmin priests. These priests then started putting rules about who can enter and who cannot. It is not possible that every temple in the country was built by Brahmins who are a minority population,â€ť Deepa explains.
The announcements that have been made now are revolutionary, says Deepa, â€śbut all this will take time â€” years and years â€” to materialise. Hopefully, when Iâ€™m talking to my granddaughter in the future and tell her that people had a problem with women entering Sabarimala etc, she would laugh at me!â€ť
This interview was first published in Here's the thing, an exclusive newsletter for TNM Members.