The discipline and devotion needed to become a Hindu temple priest is a lifelong responsibility not to be taken lightly.
As the Free Hindu Temples Movement heats up, the issue of the hereditary priesthood of the temples comes up more often under discussion. The question is: is the job of temple archakas always hereditary and thus birth-based? Or are there exceptions? Should it be birth-based or not? In my visits across more than 1500 temples in the country and my studies of the scriptures on Hindu iconography, Hindu architecture and sculpture, this is what I have found to be true.
The temple archakas, in a majority of cases, are mostly Brahmins. This is truer of states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but largely true about every other place. It is a hereditary duty because it requires a lifetime of training, possible only in families exclusively devoted to the duty.
It is not a free for all even for the Brahmins. Not every Brahmin can become an archaka. The temple archakas come from specific communities and clans. The community of Vaikhanasas are a case in point. They come from a ‘Vedic tradition’ within the temple tradition. They are a small community that has not more than a few thousand archakas at any given time.
These archakas are supposed to live a strict lifestyle. It is dictated by precise and clear instructions in the Agamas. The Agamas are the texts which govern the temple building, rituals, administration and management. Apart from providing the deepest darshana to be found outside the Upanishads, the Agamas also provide practical instructions for the temple tradition of Hinduism.
All Agamas speaking on temple tradition are divided into four main parts: Jnana Pada, Yoga Pada, Kriya Pada and Charya Pada. The Jnana Pada expounds upon the deepest darshana, which is often universal and common to many other Agama Shastras. The Yoga Pada expounds on meditational techniques illuminating both its mental and physical aspects. This is also in common with many other Agama Shastras.
The third part, the Kriya Pada is peculiar and specific to every temple tradition and community (sampradaya). It provides instruction on sculpture and architecture, instructing on how to build a temple and how to sculpt the vigrahas of gods, goddesses and other beings. It is a manual of technical instructions on the architecture and sculpture of the temple, as well as a manual for rituals to accomplish while building the temple.
The fourth part, the Charya Pada instructs upon the lifestyle of the priest and the devotee, as well as upon the temple rituals that take place every day and every year in a temple. It basically instructs on how to run a temple and offer worship in it once a temple is consecrated. This is also peculiar to every sampradaya.
The Charya Pada instructs on the routine and lifestyle of the priest. It speaks on the smallest of actions and rituals. The instructions to them are very specific. This is not the place to go deep into that but to become an archaka, an extremely rigorous and hard life must be lived.
To give just a taste, the pradhana archaka must be swapaki (cooking his own food) in most cases. Not just during the period when his wife or mother is menstruating, he never eats food cooked by anyone else. The ritual cleanliness that is required for the pradhana archaka demands that no one else touches his food. And thus he cooks his own food every time he eats.
He must wear only white or saffron while he remains on duty in the temple. The dress code is also specific and often the pradhana archaka can only wear an angavastram and a dhoti. These too must be washed by himself. The white cloth must be maintained perfectly in hygiene and looks and so, it has to be washed as soon as it is removed from the body.
The pradhana archaka can never travel abroad, for crossing the boundary of Bharatvarsha, to cross the ocean is prohibited in most temple traditions. The desire to travel abroad and see other countries must be stifled forever. The pradhana archaka cannot even travel inside India most of the times, for his duties at the temple are all-consuming. He must be there at least five times a day for the archana or abhishekam.
He must be there every time a devotee comes for darshana. When a devotee comes for darshana of the deity, the vigraha in the garbha-griha, it is not an act of simple seeing. It is a divine seeing, a divine sight where a divine transaction takes place. The vigraha becomes the devata when the archaka invokes him and the descent of shakti takes from above, the ascent of the shakti of the temple takes place from below, and the vigraha in the garbha-griha becomes the sakshata devata. It is then that the act of darshana becomes complete and fruitful. This is the reason why in every small temple in South India, you will find that every time a devotee comes to have darshana, the archaka does some sort of ritual and aarti to invoke the deity.
Needless to say, this act requires the presence of the pradhana archaka in the temple at all times, as long as the temple is open. Travelling even nearby thus becomes impossible. When the pradhana archaka needs to travel anywhere inside the country, he must find a replacement for him in the temple, for the temple cannot do without archana for even a single day. And one should not forget that the complex rituals that are necessary to perform in a temple of a particular deity are domains of only a few families and communities. As modern society and the secular Indian State comes down harder and harder over temple traditions, these communities are dwindling and it is becoming increasingly difficult for these temple archakas to find a replacement for themselves.
The pradhana archaka must maintain cleanliness to the point where he has to take bath every time he goes to the toilet. Many Agamas recommend that he cannot even pass gas while in the temple and if he does, he must do his ablutions once again.
It is a hard life. While in the North, many of the rules are not followed in the letter because the very temple tradition was destroyed by Islamic invaders, in the South and in many other places the rules are strictly followed. The sway of the Agamas is still great. The temple archakas still perform all these rituals in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to the entire temple tradition.
The duty of an archaka is not like a job in the modern sense. It is a sadhana and it takes the training of a lifetime. It is a lifestyle that must be maintained in thoughts, action and speech. Training in a hereditary setup becomes necessary for an archaka. This is truer in the case of independent India. Our education system is not just unwilling and incapable of sustaining a lifestyle conducive to create such archakas, it is downright hostile to a Brahmin way of life.
So, while we talk about ‘letting other jatis become priests’, and ‘liberating temples from birth-based privileges’, do we even think about the value system and the institutional set-up that is necessary to produce archakas qualified to carry the tradition forward?
Let us talk about the ‘exceptions’ to this rule. It is true that there are thousands of temples in India that do not have Brahmin priests. The Umiya Mata temples in Gujarat, the Naga temples in Himachal, the temples of the tribal communities in Maharashtra and some other tribal areas are many a case in point. But bringing up their case is not going to contribute to the case of those who argue for a non-hereditary training of temple archakas.
It is because all of these priestly communities in Gujarat and other states are also strictly hereditary and birth based. Though they are just temple archakas and are not pandits who perform yajnas at homes, they too go through rigorous training as priests by their parents and families. For them too, there is no way to learn how to become an archaka, outside the system of family, jati and varna.
The non-Brahmin priestly communities are not an argument in favour of those who argue for non-hereditary privileges of archana. It is an argument against them. The non-Brahmin communities are as birth-based as Brahmin communities are.
We are jumping the gun when we argue for the ‘rights’ of other jatis to become priests in the temples. Before giving them these ‘rights’ by the constitution or by society, we need to think about the ‘duties’ that must be performed by them.
This is once again the rights vs. duties problem. The Enlightenment-oriented liberalism always talks about rights. The traditional structures always talk about duties. If you think in the mindset of rights and entitlement, then the ‘birth-based’ system will irk you. However, if you think about the duties that need to be performed by the temple archakas, you will be forced to think about how to train them, and then you will be thinking in the right direction.
I am not saying it is impossible for non-Brahmins to become temple archakas. But before arguing for their rights, think about institutions conducive to the production of archakas with the right lifestyle, capable of performing the necessary duties. A temple is not just a building. It has to be kept alive with not just proper rituals but also a proper lifestyle lived strictly as required. Doing any less will destroy the very sanctity of a temple and without this sanctity, it will become just a building, a heritage monument to be visited for clicking pictures. It will cease to be a living organism anymore.
This lifestyle is not a set of concepts that can be learned in a diploma course in a year or two in a university. Like all things cultural, it must be lived, for the entirety of a lifetime. Only individuals and communities completely immersed in this lifestyle can provide instruction on it. And they do it by exemplifying, not intellectualising. A temple is a living institution. The duty of the archaka is to live a life of devotion and synergy with the deity he serves, so that he may be a humble channel of the devata for the visiting devotee.
When you think about the duties of the pradhana archaka in a temple you will be forced to think about the modern education system of India, and how it is hostile to the very soul of Bharatvarsha and to its cultural and knowledge ethos. Instead of nourishing, it has killed institutions conducive to create individuals with a sense of duty. It is then that you will realize how the modern economy, polity and society of the country are hostile to the very lifestyle of an archaka and then you will realize that the job of a Brahmin or non-Brahmin archaka is not a privilege, but a burden.
And then and only then you will be able to think clearly on the issue and solve the problem of whether it is possible for archakas to come from non-Brahmin communities, and if yes, then how. The correct way to approach the problem is to understand the temple tradition first, and not to think about providing solutions without understanding anything about the temple tradition and the lifestyle required to sustain it.