Appointment of Women Priests in TN Temples: What are the implications?
At the outset, let me clarify that you might find some aspects of this write-up politically incorrect or traditionalist. But, let me begin by stating that I am neither a traditionalist nor a supporter of patriarchy or matriarchy, for that matter.
A couple of days ago, it was reported that three women from Tamil Nadu completed training to become priests in Tamil Nadu temples managed by the state government-controlled HR & CE department. I observed the reactions to this news in the media. As expected, all the major news outlets hailed this development. One liberal media outlet portrayed it as a ‘progressive step towards closing the gender gap,’ while another reported this as ushering in a ‘new era of inclusivity.’ I tried to gauge the reactions of both the right and the left on social media and was surprised to find that there were no negative responses to this news.
We know that Hindu civilization has withstood centuries of invasions, and this culture has survived despite severe atrocities against the natives. The Mughals tried, the missionaries tried, but they could not wipe out our culture. Our great temples with powerful energy spaces have played a significant role in ensuring the continuity of this culture. It is no surprise that many such ancient temples were razed down by invading armies because they realized that this was the only way to conquer the land completely. If you closely examine our vast land across the subcontinent, you will notice that wherever temples ceased to exist, Sanatana Dharma gradually disappeared over a period. Good examples would include our neighbors to the east and west, as well as regions such as Kashmir within our own country.
Today, there are no invading armies. However, our temples are managed by various state governments, many of which belong to parties with atheistic ideologies. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are good examples of such states. Recently, the Tamil Nadu government has decided to do away with the centuries-old practice of having only male priests in temples. Is this a progressive move or a step aimed at dismantling existing societal structures within the community that have survived centuries of onslaught? After all, this is a state government that has publicly expressed its intentions of undermining the religion in its entirety.
To get to the bottom of this, let’s try to understand what a temple exactly is and what the different types of temples are. First and foremost, unlike churches and mosques, it’s important to recognize that temples are not simply ‘places of worship.’ A temple is the abode of the presiding deity, which is why they are also referred to as ‘Devasthanam’ or ‘Devalayam.’
Temples are constructed and maintained in a specific manner, following various prescribed rituals, to ensure that the energies within the temple remain vibrant and supportive to a devotee who visits. The fundamental purpose of a temple would be defeated if these energies were to diminish, which can happen if the temple space is not maintained in the prescribed manner. There are several ancient temples in Tamil Nadu under the HR & CE department that are poorly maintained and in a dilapidated state. You may visit some of these temples, to see it for yourself.
Types of Temples
Temples come in various kinds:
1. Agama Temples: These are temples built and maintained according to the Agama Sastras. Tamil Nadu boasts numerous Agama temples, with prominent examples including the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, and the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam.
2. Tantra Temples: Then there are Tantra temples, which are places of worship that follow the principles and practices of Tantra. Examples of Tantra temples include the Madayikavu temple and the Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple in Kerala.
3. Kula Devata Temples: Additionally, there are Kula Devata temples belonging to various clans and families, which follow their own independent traditions.
It’s important to note that every temple is unique, and therefore the above classification does not encompass all the various types of temples.
Coming back to the subject matter of this article, here are a few questions that have popped up in my mind after reading this news report.
What kind of temples will the women priests be appointed to?
According to a report in The Hindu, out of the 42,000 temples in Tamil Nadu, 5000 are Agama temples, and the remaining are non-Agama temples. Agama temples have very strict rules regarding the rituals conducted there, and various interpretations of the Agamas suggest that women cannot serve as priests in such temples. Currently, as per the media report, none of the Agama temples in Tamil Nadu have women priests. In a 2022 ruling, the Madras High Court declared that temples constructed according to the Agama Shastras are exempt from the Tamil Nadu government’s authority to appoint priests. Therefore, based on available information, these women priests will likely be appointed in the non-Agama temples, following the rules of the HR & CE department.
In the words of Sadhguru, ‘There are certain shrines where we would definitely not want women to be there, so there is no question of whether women can be priests. There are other shrines where we would not want men to be there. It depends on how the shrines are consecrated and for what purpose. Based on this, certain traditions were created.’
Will the HR & CE department consult with scholars or individuals well-versed in the different types of temples and the rules for priest appointments before making decisions on where to appoint women priests? Or will these appointments be done arbitrarily?
What about the biological reasons?
In today’s liberal society, discussing any ritualistic restrictions imposed on women during menstruation can be deemed politically incorrect and unpopular. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that such restrictions should not be considered discriminatory because all kinds of bodily excretions, whether from a man or a woman, such as blood, mucus, tears, etc., are considered ritually impure, and individuals in such a condition are excluded from any contact with deities or participation in Yajnas (ritual offerings).
Temples perform elaborate purification rituals even if an infant urinates in the temple sanctum. The Guruvayur temple in Kerala is an example of a temple where such incidents have occurred, and cleansing rituals were performed to purify the temple.
If a woman priest is appointed, will the temple be temporarily closed for 5–6 days during menstruation, or will they be granted leave during those days?
Other points to be considered.
1) Male Priests and Female Priests: Temples are sacred spaces, and typically, a distance is maintained between men and women in spiritual settings. One of the reasons for this practice is to ensure that there are no distractions. In a temple, the focus must be solely on the deity. Are we now going to see male priests and female priests conducting the rituals together in temple sanctums? Is this advisable?
2) Yajnas and other rituals: There is a ritual of tying the sacred protection thread before a Yajna. Usually, this is not done by a male to a female, or vice versa, unless they are a married couple. The act of tying the thread is considered a ritual binding of two people. A woman priest cannot tie it on anyone’s hands except her husband’s. Additionally, it is customary for the Yajamana (the ritual patron to offer gifts to the priest). However, a female priest accepting such a gift from a male can be viewed as adultery according to certain scriptures.
3) Of course, some of the issues mentioned above might be addressed by making adjustments to the rituals here and there. However, who should have the authority to make these decisions? Shouldn’t these matters be decided by scholars well-versed in these topics, or should it be a group of self-proclaimed atheists managing the temples?
Lastly, I will conclude this discussion with one question for the state government. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister mentioned that by enabling the appointment of women priests in temples, he is removing the thorn from Periyar’s heart.
Dear Chief Minister,
What about mosques and churches? Will your government consider training women to be clerics and priestesses in mosques and churches? I already know the answer. I understand that you wouldn’t dare venture into that territory, would you?
Why would you, after all? You have made it clear that your intention is solely to eradicate Sanatana Dharma, not the other religions.