New Delhi: The Supreme Court today ruled that any Hindu person irrespective of caste or creed could be appointed temple priest, provided the governing Agama Shastras (the temple tenets) permit it.
In other words, if the tenets allow a Dalit, tribal or any other backward class individual as a priest, he/she cannot be disqualified on the ground that the job is the exclusive privilege of Brahmins.
In delivering the judgment, a bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N.V. Ramana struck a delicate balance between Articles 25 (right to practise one's religious beliefs) and Article 26 (right to manage one's religious affairs) of the Constitution and Article 14 (equality before law), Article 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth), Article 16 (equality of opportunity in public appointments) and Article 17 (forbidding untouchability).
"....the exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as archakas (priests) would not violate Article 14 (equality) so long as such inclusion/exclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter," Justice Gogoi, writing the judgment, said.
The ruling came as the court disposed of a batch of petitions by some upper caste persons and priests challenging a 2006 Tamil Nadu government order permitting any Hindu person to be appointed temple priests irrespective of caste and creed.#
A strong belief exists among upper caste priests, mainly Brahmins, that permitting other caste groups from entering the sanctum sanctorum or performing puja would defile the temple itself and is contrary to the shastras.
In this context, the court referred to Article 16(5) - related to equality of opportunity in public appointments - which says: "Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any law which provides that an incumbent of an office in connection with the affairs of any religious or denominational institution or any member of the governing body thereof shall be a person professing a particular religion or belonging to a particular denomination."
The court said the provision "protects the appointment of archakas from a particular denomination" under the Agamas (tenets) of a temple. "All that it does and says is that some of the Agamas do incorporate a fundamental religious belief of the necessity of performance of the pujas by archakas belonging to a particular and distinct sect/group/denomination, failing which, there will be defilement of deity requiring purification ceremonies."#"Surely, if the Agamas in question do not proscribe any group of citizens from being appointed as archakas on the basis of caste or class, the sanctity of Article 17 or any other provision of Part III (fundamental rights) of the Constitution or even the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, will not be violated," Justice Gogoi said.
The court pointed out that Hinduism, as a religion, incorporated all forms of belief without mandating the selection or elimination of any one. It is a religion that has no single founder; no single scripture and no single set of teachings. It has been described as Sanatan Dharma (eternal faith), as it is the collective wisdom and inspiration of the centuries that Hinduism seeks to preach and propagate, the court said.
"While the right to freedom of religion and to manage the religious affairs of any denomination is undoubtedly a fundamental right, the same is subject to public order, morality and health...further, such rights will not prevent the state from acting in an appropriate manner in larger public interest as mandated by both Article 25 and 26 (right to practise one's religious beliefs and the right to manage one's religious affairs)," the bench said.
Hence, the court said, "appointments of archakas will have to be made in accordance with the agamas, subject to their due identification as well as their conformity with the constitutional mandates and principles as discussed above".