Sunday, April 1, 2012


'Temple Priests and Preserving the Vedic Heritage'


Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

In a previous article 'The Mighty Fortress of Brahmanism' the present writer pointed out how the anti Hindu lobby since the time of Monier Williams has tried to portray Hinduism as identical with something they conjured up as ' Brahmanism,' identified as a primitive hierarchical world view, which must be rejected in favour of the modern (read Christian) ethos. Monier Williams, author of the Sanskrit English Dictionary (1899) had said :

"When the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of the cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete" (Modern India and Indians, p.247).

In the twentieth century we have the likes of Arundhati Roy, under the unconvincing rubric of Leftism (during her globe trotting tours) hold forth on the "Brahmanic Hindu State " ! And we have similar echoes from deracinated Hindus and the motley crew of liberals, progressives and Macaulay's children.

This type of crafty anti Hinduism should not stampede Hindus into making unwise moves such as the recent initiatives in Tamil Nadu (under the anti Hindu DMK) to pass legislation that would adversely affect the Hindu temples priests, legislation even endorsed by some misguided Hindus.The writer Tamizhchelvan has pointed out that this legislation (now abandoned with the coming to power of the AIDMK) is in reality a Christian ploy. Temples in Tamil Nadu employ both Brahmin and non Brahmin priests, depending upon where the temple is situated (For details of his criticism the reader is directed to 'The Mighty Fortress of Brahmanism' in www.haindavakeralm.com ; ; Vijayavaani).

We now have a move by the Kerala government to 'democratise' Hindu temple activity. The Kerala government as it is now constituted is made up of Christians and deracinated Hindu Congresswallahs, and the Muslim MLAs. The Devaswom Boards are composed of government's handpicked candidates. On the face of it, the project of training non Brahmins to be temple priests appears to be a 'democratic' move. While any individual who genuinely wants to undergo the elaborate training to be a priest, should be given the opportunity to do so, a government sponsored project is most likely an effort to secure the vote banks and as well to undermine the Hindu structure in the nation. Government lackeys will be hired over other deserving candidates and from there on it will move to other aspects of tinkering with Hindu religious tradition, which in the end is the goal of such parties. Not social justice or social reform !
Hiring individuals from the non Brahmin castes may be a laudable move at social engineering, but the way to go is to provide them with educational and employment opportunities in the non religious sector, and not throw already impoverished Brahmin priests onto the streets. It is also a waste of existing talent and resources. Since neither the state governments nor the central government have any role in the Indian Constitution to meddle with Church or Mosque affairs, it is not clear why the fathers of the Indian Constitution allowed blatant interference with Hindu temple affairs. It would seem that the founding fathers were unwittingly looking through the prism of Monier Williams's anti Hinduism. Restoring the freedom of the Hindu majority to pursue their religion without government interference is a goal that contemporary Hindus should clearly agitate for.

In a similar context one recalls the effrontery of the famed Kalakshetra's danseuse (a non Hindu) quietly moving away from the stage the murti of Ganesha, lord of beginnings (in the Hindu pantheon and worshipped prior to a dance performance ), with the brazen argument that this is a secularisation /democratisation of the Hindu dance ! Hindus should take back their dance from such misplaced 'progress' and such brazen Inculturationists ! The Bharata Natyam dance has always been an invocation to Hindu deities.

The Sangh should also be careful in promoting governmental moves indiscriminately. The Sangh's work with tribals, and minorities in bringing them back to the Hindu fold from where they had been alienated by Christian and Islamic attempts at conversion is praiseworthy. On the other hand, the governmental meddling in Hindu temples must be opposed. In Kerala the legislation to promote the hiring of non Brahmin priests must be seen as  part of a ploy to attack the Vedic heritage, rather than moves towards social justice. It is social engineering with a political motivation. The recent suggestion by a certain non Hindu engineer that the wealth of the Padmnabhaswamy temple should be utilised  in such and such fashion is laughable simply because he does not have similar 'creative' suggestions concerning the immense wealth of the Church ! He even had a detailed plan ready for distributing the wealth of Lord Padmanabhaswamy !

In order to understand in context the significance of  the role of the Brahmin temple priest one must go back to the Vedic period.

Here the Vedic ritual of oblations  (Yajna) is officiated by a layer of priests.

1. hotr : reciter of the hymns
2. adhvaryu : who looked after the physical details of the Yajna, such as the building of the altar.
3. udgatr : chanter of the hymns set to melodies
4.brahman : superintendant of the entire performance

Needless to say, the Vedas were an oral tradition and the performance of rituals had to be followed meticulously in the chanting and the ritual itself. The Rg Veda mentions 7 hotrs. In time the entire body of officiants became 16 in number. The class of Brahmans then began to expand and was hereditary, so that the AUTHENTICITY & INTEGRITY of the rituals could be maintained in an unbroken tradition. This class therefore was not motivated by economic motives.The Vedic Yajna was performed under the open sky. Subsequently, with the rise of temples (built according to Vastu Shastra) the Vedic rituals were moved into these structures.

Since the Vedic seers worshipped the terrestrial, atmospheric and cosmic "devatas" (deities), the legacy of Hindu polytheism and the ATTENDANT PRIESTLY STRUCTURE IS  DERIVED FROM THIS RELIGIOUS FOUNDATION. The division of society into brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and sudra served the purpose of maintaining the rituals intact. In time, the evolution of the economy led to the sreni system (comparable to the Europeans guild system) and this system (mistakenly described as the caste system) was the basis of India's material prosperity. Trade, commerce, and productivity were unparalleled. The scientific, philosophical and cultural achievements were also a wonder to the world. Hindu society flourished . Hence, the  role of the priesthood was limited to the maintenance of religious norms. Scholars are yet to determine when and why Untouchability arose. The favoured date is approximately the third century before the Christian era. Dr. Ambedkar ( the Dalit politician,lawyer and scholar) had suggested that sudras who defied the four fold caste system became the Untouchables. Still others believe that the population was composed of peoples who were captured in war, very much like the helots of Sparta. At any rate, Untouchability is no longer condoned and both NGOs and the government of India have worked to eradicate it,  through affirmative action and educational programs, though much more can be done. Much more needs to be done.

But the central point to note here is that the Vedas do not mention an Untouchable population. There is no evidence of it in the 4 Vedas.   The priests who performed the rituals were the upholders of the Vedic rites and this corpus is the foundation of Hinduism as it evolved and gathered innumerable beliefs and populations into this fold. The gods and goddesses (devatas) of the Vedas continue to inhabit the land, as Hindus believe, and the temples house the consecrated deities who are worshipped and called by Hindus, murtis. The monotheists call them idols.That is their terminology and there is no need for Hindus to rush to apologise or to be embarassed.

In the end, therefore, well intentioned Hindus must pause before they advocate the tinkering with Hindu temple rituals. There is no need also for craven scurrying around trying to prove to the Christian West or the monotheistic faiths that Hindus are not polytheists and idol worshippers, for both these  have a profound reason for their origin and continued existence on the subcontinent. Temple priests are not to be installed and discarded at the will and whim of governments or the vagaries of the free market or globalisation. They are not only cultural icons either or merely historic relics. They are the ongoing solemn expression of the Hindu religious engagement with the cosmic, atmospheric and terrestrial powers.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university. Her academic training is in Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, Political Economy & History).

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