Facing and Fixing a Shortage of Priests
With many brahmin boys taking up other professions, temple-owning organizations have created schools to train anyone aspiring to the religious life
BY G.K. NAIR, KERALA
DUE TO AN EVER-INCREASING SCARCITY of temple priests from the brahmin community in the southern Indian state of Kerala, several non-brahmin communities have set up their own priest training programs—a radical change in tradition. Graduates are hired for service in the temples owned and administered by their community.
The latest such school was established by the Nair Service Society (NSS), which represents the four-million-strong Nair community and owns over 1,000 temples across Kerala. The society started its Sri Padmanabha NSS Thantra Vidhyapeedom in 2010 with a full-time, two-year course of study comprising 18 months of classes and a six-month internship at a temple. The syllabus covers temple worship, havana, yoga, vastu architecture, astrology and Hindu philosophy.
Candidates must be vegetarian and have completed their secondary education. Their horoscope, character and family background are examined closely. As Arun Bhaskar, the school’s director, says, “It is a profession that demands spirituality, piousness and good character.” Following the traditional system, students are provided free tuition, room and board during their studies. They receive a certificate at the completion of their training. The first batch graduated last year, and Bhaskar reports that all have been employed as priests at NSS temples.
The NSS general secretary, Mr. G. Sukumaran Nair, confides that the school faced stiff opposition from the upper-caste priest community, who still consider the priesthood their monopoly—despite that many of their present generation are going into other professions. He asserts that their priests had become greedy, only wanting to work at certain rich temples and not at the small ones, which are over 90 percent of the total. “We have been experiencing an acute shortage of qualified priests for a long time,” Nair explained. “Finally we decided to open our own school. Better to be late than never.”
The move has been welcomed by the non-brahmin Ezhava community. A full century ago, they opened the Brahmavidhya Gurukulam at Sivagiri under the guidance of Sree Narayana Guru. A second school, Thantra Vidhya Gurukulam, was opened several decades ago in Konothukunnu. It has enjoyed a recent increase in popularity under the leadership of Dr. Karumathra Vijayan Thantri, a respected Sanskrit scholar, expert in temple rituals and head priest for 400 temples. The students are trained under Sri Vidhya Upasana Sampradaya. Graduates of the two schools serve in temples owned by their community of nine million.
Dr. Vijayan told HINDUISM TODAY that the courses are conducted on weekends so that students can attend college during the week. Over the five-year course, they are taught Sanskrit, rituals, histories of their gurus and enough about Hindu religion to give discourses. Upon completion, each is given a certificate which qualifies him to function as head priest of any temple performing worship of any Deity. Dr. Vijayan reports that under his tenure, “one hundred students have graduated and are now well employed in temples.”
New priests from the Nair Service Society’s Sri Padmanabha
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Objections from Kerala’s brahmin community, which includes the Namboothiri, Namboothiripad, Embramthiri and other subcastes, generated a series of court cases. A Supreme Court decision in 2002 established the right of non-brahmins to be appointed as temple priests in community-owned temples of the Nairs and Ezhavas as well as those run by the state’s government-controlled Dewaswom boards.
The priest shortage exists because the present generation of brahmins are not attracted to their traditional profession, for a variety of reasons. The youth complain about the demanding routines, such as waking up early to bathe and spending long hours each day in the temple. Nor do they want to live on the temple premises, a requirement for the head priest at some temples—e.g., one year at Sabarimala and three years at Ettumanoor Mahadeva Temple.
Most importantly, Hindu priests do not enjoy a respectable status in Kerala society, explained Brahmasri Rajiveru, chief priest at the famous Sabarimala hill temple. And the pay is low—actually among the lowest for any temple employee. Board authorities argue that the wages are fair because the priests receive dakshina (gifts of money) from devotees for performing the various rites. “In fact,” Rajiveru counters, “for want of funds, the majority of the 2,500 temples under the Devaswom Boards do not conduct all of the daily pujas; few devotees attend the small temples, and not everyone gives dakshina. A priest cannot maintain a family on such meager salary.”
The brahmin community is painfully aware of the problem. “This kind of priest family life is not liked by the girls in our community. These days girls are generally well educated and well employed. Therefore, finding a bride for a priest becomes very difficult,” admitted Mr. Sankaranarayanan Namboothiri, a brahmin who works at a major bank. His daughter is married to a Chennai-based businessman from his community, while his son is employed with an international airline as a cabin crew member. Kerala’s brahmin community is small in numbers; and with marriages only permitted within the respective subcastes, choices are limited. No youth wishes to restrict his options further by pursuing a profession that earns neither respect nor a decent salary.
Finally, in the state’s modern Westernized society many brahmin youth consider the priesthood as something primitive. They want to live like their counterparts in other castes and religions. In contrast, the Ezhava and Nair boys come from economically depressed communities. The religiously inclined among them look upon priest work as a good opportunity.
An earlier attempt, in 1969, to train Nair and Ezhava youth for the priesthood by the Travancore Devaswom Board was not successful. M. R. Jaganmohan Das, a former Assistant Commissioner of the Board, told HINDUISM TODAY that devotees refused to even receive the temple sacraments from these priests. Consequently, many were withdrawn and posted in the Board’s offices as clerks.
Jaganmohan observes that the sentiments of devotees have changed since that time. Now, he predicts, the success of promoting priests from other castes will largely depend on the devotion and commitment to this pious and spiritual life shown by each individual who adopts this vocation.