Madras high court, agama temple exemption
The Madras HC directed the Tamil Nadu government to constitute a five-member committee headed by a retired judge of the court, Justice M Chockalingam, to identify the temples constructed as per the agamas and prepare a list. Representational image

Why Madras HC let agama temples in TN appoint their own priests

The Madras HC, while upholding the right of the DMK government to appoint 'archakas' belonging to any caste in temples, exempted temples constructed as per the agamas from this order; what are agamas and what gives them such power?

On the one hand, the Madras High Court on August 22 firmly upheld the right of the DMK government to appoint temple archakas (priests) belonging to any caste. On the other, it exempted temples constructed according to the agamas (post-Vedic scriptures) from this order and allowed them to employ priests per norms laid down in their scriptures.

In short, this court directive means that the agamic temples will not be bound by the rules laid down by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service ) Rules, 2020, regarding the qualifications and appointments of archaraks.

In fact, the Madras HC bench comprising Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice Mala further directed the Tamil Nadu government to constitute a five-member committee headed by a retired judge of the court, Justice M Chockalingam, to identify the temples constructed as per the agamas and prepare a list. Once the list is drawn, these temples will appoint archakas according to the provisions laid down in the agamas and this will be in line with the Supreme Court judgments on the issue, said the judges.

Agamas sacrosanct? 

Agamas (which means “tradition” or “received knowledge”) are post-Vedic scriptures conveying ritual knowledge. These are said to have been revealed by a personal divinity and are held sacred. The agamas are often in the form of a dialogue between Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. They are, in short, ‘secondary’ scriptures of Hinduism, more closely connected with rituals and temple culture.

Of the three main branches of the agamas – Saivagamas (who worship Lord Shiva), Saktagamas (worship goddesses) and Vaisnavagamas (worship Lord Vishnu) – the last has split into two sampradayas or traditions. They are the Pancharatra Agamas and the Vaikhanasa agama. The latter derives its name from the sage Vikhanas, its founder. He is regarded as a sage of great antiquity and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is said to have had four chief disciples – Marichi, Atri, Bhrigu and Kasyapa – to whom he taught the worship of Vishnu in great detail.

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The agamas provide a considerable amount of information on the earliest codes of temple building, image making, and religious procedure.

Elaborate rules are laid out in the agamas on the quality requirements of the places where temples are to be built, the kind of images to be installed, the materials from which they are to be made, their dimensions, proportions, air circulation, lighting in the temple complex etc. Pertinently, the rituals followed in worship services each day at the temple also follow rules laid out in the agamas.

Supreme Court backing

Besides this historic and religious angle to the agamas, the case for agamic temples was strengthened due to earlier Supreme Court judgments on the issue: Seshammal and others etc, etc vs state of Tamil Nadu (1972) and Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam vs state of Tamil Nadu (2015).

In their judgement, Justice Bhandari and Justice Mala said that they needed “to reiterate the reasoning given in the judgments of the apex court in the cases of Seshammal and others and Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam and others, wherein it has been elaborately given out that as per the texts of the Vaikhanasa Shastra (Agama), persons who are the followers of the four rishi traditions of Bhrigu, Atri, Marichi and Kasyapa and born of Vaikhanasa parents are alone competent to do puja in Vaikhanasa temples of Vaishnavites.”

“They can only touch the idols and perform the ceremonies and rituals. None others, however, high-placed in society as pontiffs or acharyas, or even other Brahmins, could touch the idol, do puja or even enter the Garbha Griha. The illustration aforesaid was given after elaborate discussion, in regard to the temples constructed as per the agamas, with a clarification that if one is not recognised under the agamas to touch the idol, then such a person would not be eligible for appointment as archaka/poojari,” the judges said.

Though the judges maintained that they would not strike down the TN rules because this would make the appointment to other posts unguided, it was a different story for the temples constructed as per the agamas. The judges read down the provisions in regard to the appointment of archakas to these temples.

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The judges said that if they did not do so then it would offend Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution that had to do with the Right to Freedom of Religion and postulate that “every religious denomination or any section shall have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and manage  its own affairs in the manner provided by the religion.”

The bench said that the temples governed by the agama would follow the practice and custom not only in respect to the worship of the deity but in all respects, which includes the appointment of archakas.

Contention of petitioners

Moreover, the petitioners had argued that in 1982, the Tamil Nadu government had constituted an expert committee under Justice Mahajan on the  process of appointment of  priests to temples. The committee conclusively recorded that as per agamas, only those who are born as Adisaiva or Vaikanasa or Pancharatra are qualified to become priests of Shaivite or Vaishnavite temples.

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The petitioners said that the agama rules are very clear that persons born in a certain denomination can only become a priest of temples. So, they argued that TN’s 2020 rules brought in to appoint persons from any section would erode the agama knowledge system.

The petitions were filed by the All India Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam, by its general secretary BSR Muthukumar and 14 others and sought to quash the provisions and consequently, restrain the authorities concerned from appointing or selecting archakas and other agama related personnel in temples against the principles of agamas. 

The petitioners argued that the rules of 2020 brought in by the TN government provide that the archakas should have completed a one-year course to be eligible for the post of archakas. This completely ignored the priests who had learnt the mantras and poojas in the gurukul and had three years experience. By insisting on the one year course, the government was “wiping out the prevailing customs given in the agamas”, they argued.

TN government’s stand 

The state contended that the 2020 rules also govern the archakas since they are considered to be the officers and employees of the temple. And that the rules do not offend Articles 16 (5), 25 and 26 and that Article 25 allows framing of rules for endowments or temples constructed as per the agamas.

The judges, however, contended that they did not find rules 7 and 9 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service ) Rules unconstitutional because it is not only related to the appointment of archakas but for other posts as well. The challenge to these provisions, all dealing with selection and service conditions, promotion and seniority, is not sustainable, the bench said in its 93-page judgment.

After the DMK returned to power in 2021, Chief Minister MK Stalin handed over appointment letters to 24 priests trained in the government-run priest training centres that admits candidates outside the Brahmin community. Five belonged to SC, six from MBC, 12 from BC and one from a non-Brahmin forward caste. As on date, as many as 26 non-Brahmin priests are working in various temples.

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