A historic, symbolic blow to untouchability

Religion
India

In these depressing times, I believe, a nugget of good news is something to celebrate. Indeed, to be pounced upon, devoured and savoured.

Bad news from around the world – hate crimes, North Korean Kim versus Trump, Brexit, our own Indian political and economic catastrophes, overshadowed a historic decision in India. A millennia-old blot on the history of Hinduism was overturned in Kerala this October.

The devaswom (Hindu socio-religious trusts that govern and administer temples and property) minister Kadakampally Surendran directed Trivandrum temple authorities to recruit non-Brahmins as Hindu priests.

In a historic blow to untouchability, six Dalits have been ushered into Kerala temples along with 30 other non-Brahmin priests. Every battle against untouchability is something to shout about for India’s Dalits, who have, for several thousand years, faced not merely injustice and discrimination but violence and murder if they dare to step out of line. So this is a huge victory against caste discrimination.

To be sure: there have been protests against the move, predictably from several traditionalist, orthodox Hindu quarters. The Kerala Brahmin Society President, MrN. Anil Kumar, objected to the appointment of non-Brahmins as priests. He complained that positive discrimination was acceptable for a job, but not for a religious ritual.

Many Hindus, he continued, would feel that the purity and sanctity of temples was sacrosanct and could not be tampered with by non-religious bodies: priesthood is not a job but a ritual. He announced that, like him, many orthodox Hindus would consider the decision unacceptable.

In any religion, the diehards will protest to retain their power and the old ways, regardless of whether the old doctrines fail the tests of justice or morality hundreds or thousands of years later. Priests of all faiths cling to power desperately. They must. It enables them to control the communities they reign over.

But Kerala has led the way time and time again. Kerala was a veritable madhouse eregarding caste discrimination, Swami Vivekananda, a visionary Hindu monk, guru and philosopher observed when he visited the south of India towards the end of the 19th century. In 1936 however, Kerala shocked India when it threw open its temples to all Hindus, irrespective of caste, through the iconic ‘Temple Entry Proclamation’.

The new dalit priests can now enter the sanctum sanctorum of temples, perform the daily pujas (worship rituals), bathe the idols, decorate the shrines with flowers and clothe the deities with silk and customary gold jewellery. It’s a giant leap for the faithful and the communities that were till recently completely barred from even entering temples because of their caste.

There’s been another shocker in the news from Kerala recently. Unsung and unknown to most of India, a teenage girl has been making waves. Young Jyotsna Padmanabhan, all of 18 years old, a second-year student of Sanskrit at Kalady, Kerala, has been performing the rituals at the Sree Krishna Temple, Ponjanam, near Kattoor.Padmanabhan Naboothiripad, Jyotsna’s father, who also happens to be the temple’s chief priest, have been explaining to the media that no Hindu text ever prohibited women from being priests. The wise revolutionary priest taught his daughter the worship rituals, or pujas, from the time she was seven.

Hindu women are naturals. In Hindu homes all over India, it is the women who perform pujas every morning. Ironically again, Hindu goddesses Kali and Durga are synonymous with shakti, strength and power. But until now Hindu women were never priests.

So thats two news nuggets, that for me, sent out a sign of hope in Octoberin the recent weeks. I hope they did the same for you.

Thumbnail image via Jain Temple in Cochin.

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