Looking back at India’s chequered past, we can today certainly claim progress. The dehumanising of Dalits has not vanished, neither has the targeting of minorities, but there is change. The voices of the marginalised are getting heard louder than before and, what is more, they are at the forefront of organised resistance against bigotry and cultural homogenisation. They are going to change the landscape of Indian society.

It is in this context that we need to understand the appointment of six Dalits as priests of various temples by the Travancore Devaswom Board in Kerala in October.

This is indeed a step towards smudging social boundaries. For those who see socio-religious upliftment purely in economic and political terms, this may seem insignificant. Others who view religion as the source of social tyranny will not understand how any religious or ritual reformation can possibly enable the dismantling of caste privilege. But whatever dialectical materialists and agnostic rationalists may feel, the fact is that culture, art and religion are identity markers, spaces that reaffirm purpose and give hope a chance. Somewhere within everyone lies a temple and a prayer, and for those who connect that inner with a system of faith (and that is most of humanity) religion is real and temples a living testimony of that reality. Any progressive movement in this sphere will leave a deep and indelible mark on social life. And I have no doubt that this move by the Kerala authorities will have an immense impact on Hindus.

The Brahmin insignia

As I read multiple articles about one of Kerala’s six Dalit priests, Yedukrishna, and saw his photographs, I could not but notice the young man’s cross-belt, the yagnyopavita. That cluster of white cotton threads associated with caste and Vedic privilege is worn across the chest by Brahmin males. By wearing this badge, the low caste Dalit had attained the status of a Namboodiri, the Brahmin priestly caste of Kerala.

Before my upper caste friends rush to point out that the poonal, as we Tamil Brahmins call it, is worn by members of other castes and even among priests of certain Dalit sects, let me state a few things that cannot be denied. These tightly knotted threads across the chest are directly associated in practice with Brahmin privilege and flaunted by members of that caste. Let us not forget the hullabaloo we create every year on the day that we replace the worn out old set with a sparkling new set. There is no getting away from the fact that this is an in-house caste ritual, plain and simple. When members of other castes wear the same thread insignia it symbolises an intra-caste upper hand. Worn by those other than Brahmins, the sacred thread, as it is called, is still a very problematic symbol.

Vedic pundits may cite ancient texts to prove the yagnyopavita’s catholicity but the bitter truth is that it has been, and is, a Brahminical symbol and unequivocally discriminatory.

As per Hindu practice, intimate access to the Vedas is given only to Brahmins, and the upanayana (when a Brahmin lad first wears the yagnopavita) is the entry into its studies and to pious Brahmin rituals. I remember my mother narrating stories of how the conservative Brahmin community was initially uncomfortable with Swami Chinmayananda (a Menon by birth) lecturing them on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

If the intention of appointing Dalits as priests of various temples in Kerala is to open the tantric, ritualistic, mystical and secretive fiefdom of Namboodiris to people at large, where is there a need for the cross-thread? Could they have not learnt the Vedas, rituals and become priests without becoming broadcasters of the Brahmin symbol? Why were these Dalits made to wear the yagnopavita?

Were Namboodiris and other upper caste scholars unwilling to teach them unless the Dalits were first purified through this process?

By retaining the presence of these threads we are perpetuating caste. By appearing in his fresh role duly be-stringed, the newly-ordained Dalit priest gives up his cultural and religious past to embrace the Brahmin way of life. This reinforces the superiority of the Brahmin and further entrenches the lower castes in their religious, ritual, social lowness. It is a commentary on what is accepted as worship in powerful upper caste temples, casting aspersions on the Dalit way of life. The pure and the impure, all ugly caste-related judgments are fortified.

The Dalit priest may not see the problem as this gives him caste mobility. And even if he does, he is not in a position to raise questions. For this Brahmin convert it means further conscious and unconscious distancing from his Dalit identity. Unwittingly, this entire exercise plays right into the way caste operates. In a few generations, heirs of these Dalit priests will be more Namboodiri-ish than the by-birth Namboodiris. Without doubt they will be presented as shining examples of upper caste broadmindedness and of how anyone with pure commitment, sincerity and discipline can become a Namboodiri.

What happens to the Dalit identity?

A thousand years ago, when Ramanuja converted non-Brahmins into Brahmins, it was progressive. But today, a similar act is regressive. This is what the Devaswom Board seems to have done unwittingly. The Kerala authorities have taken a step forward and one back. They have allowed all men entry into the sanctum sanctorum but as neo-Brahmins. A priest needs to be devoted to the deity, in command of all the rituals, mantras to serve the devotees for whom he is a conduit. Everything else about the individual is immaterial. But the poonal makes everything from the birth of the individual relevant to adorning the status of a priest. This gives strength to those who insist that caste cannot be addressed as a religious problem. But there is also another complication in this discourse which we cannot ignore. If Dalits do not wear the poonal but the Namboodiris continued to do so, this too re-enforces caste differentiation and hierarchy. The only solution is the discarding of the yagnopavita entirely, it is after all a caste costume.

In all this celebration we have, as always, forgotten women. I do not see any government or religious institution working towards bringing women into the priestly class. There are powerful gurus who present ridiculous so-called scientific reasons for restricting the entry of women into temples during menstruation. Not to forget the defence that certain gurus put up for not allowing women entry at the Shaniswara temple in Shingnapur, Maharashtra – that mumbo jumbo about unseen sensitive energies! So many upper caste Hindu women unfortunately embrace this as gospel. I wonder if the men who ogle at, and try to grope, women as they stand in line to worship Venkateshwara of Tirupati do not hurt spiritual vibrations.

In such an environment I do not see women as priests in the near future. Those few specialised temples where women are allowed to perform pujas are just exceptions for which religious reasons are provided by the pontiffs and spiritualists. Everywhere else women are not welcome.

It is time we create temples of the 21st century and rediscover rituals with a social eye. These must be temples where rituals of all caste groups find place in everyday practice in such a way that there is no one ritualistic system that dominates. Where every priest irrespective of his or her caste will need to master diverse caste rituals, and it will not matter who is intoning which mantra. If the temple is for all, no temple incantation can belong to any one denomination. It has to co-habit and be shared in epiphany.

Only then will the deity be caste blind.