The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which manages the country’s richest religious centre, has decided to appoint Dalits, Adivasis and fishermen as priests in temples it’s building across Andhra Pradesh to push for social inclusion.
Earlier, Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) in Kerala reserved 32% seats for SCs, STs and OBCs in recruitment of priests in the temples under its control, in a departure from tradition.
Traditionally, only Brahmins can hold the distinguished position in the temple even as the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment stated that the eligibility for priesthood should be based on the knowledge of rites and traditions, and not the caste.
Many temples across the country even prohibit the entry of Dalits and people from other backward communities.
The TTD, which operates cash-rich Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirumala in Chittoor district, is training in batches more than 200 people belonging to SC, ST and fishermen communities in priesthood and other Vedic rituals and religious practices.
Unlike the TDB, the Devasthanams will, however, not appoint the trained priests from the backward communities in the “regular temples” it operates. Instead, the trainees will be accommodated as priests in temples it is constructing in various Dalit colonies, tribal areas and fishermen villages across the state.
“We are at present constructing nearly 500 temples in these areas where regular Brahmin priests are not available,” TTD official spokesman T Ravi told Hindustan Times.
“We have been training Dalits, tribals and fishermen under the auspices of TTD Dharma Prachara Parishad in various Vedic rituals, so that they could get appointed as priests in their respective villages,” Ravi added.
In all the existing temples the independent trust operates, only traditional Brahmin priests perform the rituals and pujas.
“The role of Archakas (priests) is not only to perform puja as per the prescribed tenets but also to play a vital role in the propagation of Hindu dharma,” he said, while presenting certificates to 30 priests belonging to backward communities who completed the training.
Though the proposal for imparting training for priesthood to Dalits and Adivasis was mooted long ago, it had taken a shape only last year.
“In the past, there were short training programmes for them, but for the first time, a full-fledged training course is being conducted in Vedic rituals, so that they will be eligible to be appointed as priests in the temples in their respective areas,” Ravi said.
A senior TTD official, who refused to be quoted, said the main objective of training SC, ST and BC priests and appointing them in temples in their own villages is to prevent religious conversions.
“In many parts of the state, people belonging to backward communities are being lured into other religions like Islam and Christianity, because of caste discrimination among Hindus,” he said.
“The TTD has taken up this programme to remove the social stigma and give these people a sense of belonging in Hinduism,” the official said.
A decade ago, the TTD had launched a programme called Dalita Govindam, wherein the temple authorities used to take out procession of Hindu gods in Dalit and tribal hamlets and distribute “prasadam” among the people.
However, the programme was stopped in 2010 as there was no follow-up action in “spreading Hindu dharma” in these colonies, the official added.