Ambedkar and Kerala High Court: Differing notions of caste and priesthood

Dr Ambedkar had a radical prescription for restructuring priesthood in Hinduism, but the Kerala High Court verdict was at variance.

ByFaisal C.K.

Published Apr 18, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedApr 18, 2024 | 3:56 PM

Priests at Sabarimala temple.

The Kerala High Court recently held in Vishnunarayanan v. Secretary Department of Revenue and Devaswom & Ors [2024 (2) KHC SN 10] that only ‘Malayali Brahmins’ can be Melsanthis (high priests) of Sabarimala Devaswom and Malikappuram Devaswom, the most sacred and lucrative Hindu temples in Kerala.

The court said such a provision would not amount to untouchability abolished under Article 17 of the Constitution of India.

However, the petitioners contended that Malayali Brahmins have no special privilege for being appointed Melsanthis of Sabarimala Devaswom.

They further argued that as the Travancore Devaswom Board, being a statutory body created under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, the issuance of the notification by the Devaswom Commissioner, inviting application to the post of Melsanthi only from Malayali Brahmins, by excluding all other castes from Hindu religion, violates Article 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India.

The Equality Code of the Constitution forbids class legislation. Class Legislation means making improper discrimination by conferring certain privileges upon a class of persons arbitrarily selected from many people.

The Kerala High Court has endorsed a class legislation by the Devaswom Board.

Also read:  Malayali Brahmins and untouchability

Priesthood cannot be based on caste

Last year, in a significant verdict, the Madras High Court made it “abundantly clear that pedigree based on caste will have no role to play in the appointment of Archaka (temple priest)” if the person so selected to the post was well-versed, adequately trained and fully qualified to perform pujas and other rituals as per the requirement of the Agama Sastra applicable to the temple concerned.

The Supreme Court had, in Seshammal & others versus State of Tamil Nadu (1972), held that the appointment of an Archaka to a temple would be a secular function, and only the performance of religious service by those priests would be an integral part of the religion.

In Adithyan v. Travancore Devaswom Board (2002), the top court clarified that there is no justification for insisting that a person of a particular caste alone can conduct puja in the temple, and any such appointment should not be based on caste or pedigree criteria.

Renowned academician and former Director of the National Judicial Academy, Dr. Mohan Gopal, who appeared for the petitioners in Vishnunarayanan v. Secretary Department of Revenue and Devaswom & Ors,  submitted that the criteria that Malayala Brahmins were only eligible to be appointed as Melshantis showcases casteism and untouchability.

It was stated that core constitutional values were at stake and that Article 17 of the Constitution prohibits and criminalises untouchability. The Madras High Court in Elephant G Rajendran v The Registrar General and others (2023) had observed that “Untouchability” was not merely a caste-based practice but included all practices of social ostracism and exclusion that have their bases in ritual ideas of purity/pollution and hierarchy/subordination.

The court added that the Constitution was not only a charter for independence from colonial rule but also a document that helped to overcome the social hierarchies in society. Thus, the court added that the courts should read these clauses broadly to give effect to the Constitution’s transformative purpose.

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Ambedkar on Hindu priesthood

Dr Ambedkar, the architect-in-chief of the Constitution, was one of the most radical egalitarians of the 20th century.

The concept of equality was so close to his heart and soul that, on the evening of his life, he conceived a multi-volume history of (in)equality in India under the title, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India.

He ventured to expose Brahmanism as the locomotive of inequality and to demonstrate Buddhism as an egalitarian revolution in ancient India. His major work is annihilation of Caste (1935), marking him as modern India’s most ‘progressive radical thinker’. Ambedkar conceived a nation built on the foundations of liberty, equality, and fraternity in this treatise.

The caste matrix is a hierarchy of inequalities with an ascending sense of reverence and a descending sense of contempt. Temples have a significant role in reinforcing the caste system, and priesthood is a source of power, prestige, and wealth. The caste system dehumanizes those in the lower strata and confers undue privileges to those in the higher echelons.

Brahmanism, which supplies an ideological plinth to the caste system, is antithetical to Liberal Constitutionalism. The latter is based on ideals of the rule of law, reason, individualism, equality of opportunity, and meritocracy.

As Ambedkar put it, Brahmanism negates the trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Ambedkar conceived the Indian Constitution as the Rock of Gibraltar standing against the menacing waves of the Indian Caste Ocean.

In Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar wrote, “Religion is the source of power [and it] is illustrated by the history of India.” He referenced that “the priest holds sway over common man often greater than the magistrate.”

In this context, Dr Ambedkar made an incisive diagnosis of the maladies of the Hindu priesthood and gave a radical prescription.

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Radical priesthood reforms

Regarding priesthood in Hinduism, Dr Ambedkar proposed three radical reforms:

1. It would be better to abolish the priesthood among Hindus. However, that appears impossible, so the priesthood must cease to be hereditary. Every person who professes to be Hindu must be eligible to be a priest. Every Hindu can become a priest only after passing a government-prescribed examination. The priest must hold a sanad from the State permitting him to practice.

2. Ceremonies a priest performs without holding a sanad should not be legally valid. The law must penalize such a priest.

3. A priest should be the servant of the State and subject to disciplinary action regarding his morals, beliefs, and worship. He should also be subject, along with other citizens, to the ordinary law of the land. By proposing these radical changes, Dr Ambedkar conceived of bringing about meritocracy and equality of opportunity in the Hindu priesthood.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court and the Madras High Court endorsed Dr Ambedkar’s democratic and egalitarian view on Hindu priesthood.

Ambedkar said it must be open to all, based on individual merit, irrespective of one’s caste. However, the Kerala High Court’s recent verdict runs against his egalitarian prescription.

From Mahatma Gandhi, we imbibed the idea and practice of radical love. From Dr Ambedkar, we learned the precept and praxis of radical equality. These together became the cornerstone of our Supreme Codex–the Constitution.

So, the act of reserving the high priesthood of a prestigious temple in our Republic for an arbitrarily chosen caste, excluding other, equally qualified Hindus, belies radical love and radical equality and thus trembles the very cornerstone of the Constitution.

(The writer is Deputy Law Secretary to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal.)