Priests from non-Brahmin communities trained by TTD.
Priests from non-Brahmin communities trained by TTD.

It was a retrograde law. You can become a priest only if your father is already one.

The right-thinking people even among the Brahmins had welcomed when it was repealed by late NTR. Now the same anachronistic law has been brought back by Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy.

The Andhra Pradesh government has done away with the retirement rule for temple priests on attaining superannuation at the age of 65. The YSR Congress government also restored the hereditary priesthood rights to the Hindu temple priests. The GO 439 that restored the right of priests to continue in their job as long as they want is now being implemented in the state.

Under the new law, a priest of Madanagopala Swamy Temple in Vallipadu village of Attili Mandal has been re-appointed after retirement. Endowments Minister Vellampalli Srinivasa Rao handed over the appointment letter on Friday in Vijayawada.

The new law says that a priest can be succeeded by one of his family members in the same temple. “If a priest who intends to retire due to old age or other health reasons, he shall nominate his successor and send the name to the Commissioner of Endowments for approval,” the order issued by Jagan government in October 2019 said.

“He [a priest] shall continue in the post till he is physically fit to perform his archakatvam [priesthood] duties,” a government order issued by the state endowments department on Monday evening said.

The hereditary priesthood ensures that only those belonging to Brahmin caste can ever become a priest. TDP founder and former chief minister N T Rama Rao took the bold decision of scrapping hereditary rights of priests and opened temple priesthood to all communities in 1987. He also enabled training for SC/ST and BC and other non-Brahmin communities to become priests.

His government also prepared a syllabus for priestly duties, and those who excelled in the subjects were to be recruited as priests in temples without caste discrimination. This decree would have allowed men from backward and scheduled castes to become archakas for the first time in modern history.

Conservative Brahmins went to court on this issue, and the Supreme Court upheld the state government’s right to do away with hereditary rights of priests in 1996. In 2018, the High Court gave a breather on the petition by Tiruchanur Temple priests on the hereditary priesthood. This order seems to have been surreptitiously used by the Jagan government to reverse the earlier policy of opening priestly jobs to all communities. Jagan, and his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy, were opposed to the law which prohibited hereditary priesthood, essentially because it was brought by the TDP government.

Minister Vellampalli Srinivasa Rao giving appointment letter under hereditary GO.
Minister Vellampalli Srinivasa Rao giving appointment letter under hereditary GO.

The Chandrababu Naidu government forcibly retired chief priest of Tirumala Temple AV Ramana Dikshitulu on attaining 65 years in 2018. He created a scene over this and went to court. He is now brought back as an advisor to the temple by the Jagan administration.

Another case related to the hereditary priesthood filed by Tamil Nadu Brahmins is pending before the Supreme Court. The AP order restoring hereditary priesthood might be subject to the judgment of the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the trained priests belonging to SC/ST communities may be deployed only temples being by TTD in SC/ST colonies in the state.