Home/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  The ruminations of Vimal Das, Dalit and Hindu priest

Editor’s note: Vimal Das, 31, is one of six priests at a small temple to the sages or rishis that appear in Hindu mythology. Das was born an Ezhava, a caste considered untouchable and which until 1936 was not even allowed to enter most temples to pray. The Ezhavas are also a community that the Bharatiya Janata Party—traditionally a party of the upper castes—has chosen as the best way to enter Kerala, a state that is otherwise dominated by the left parties and the Congress.

Das speaks on his life as a priest at the Agasthyashram temple in Tripunithura, his aspirations and why he is trying for a job in a government run temple. The portions in italics are added context, such as the series of events that led to priests like Das.

I am from village Arookutty.

My family has around 17 priests, including my father’s and mother’s families. I was fascinated by the status these people have, the respect they are given by others, the prestige they have in the family. I wanted to be like them. 

When there were functions at home, I got to speak to the priests. And that is how I came to feel that I should also do this. They had said that it would be useful only if you started learning (the mantras) at a young age. 

Our mind can get split in many different ways. So, after my 10th standard I got into this. Plus One and Plus Two (the equivalent of Class XI and Class XII; the reference is to 10 plus one and 10 plus two) I did even as I began studying for this.

They told me that these things I could never study as a day scholar. I would have to go live in the quarters of temple workers and live (and learn) from them. If we are at home, we can eat whatever we want. You have to wake up in the right manner. After waking up, you have to sit on the bed, and before you plant your feet on the ground, you have to pray. 

Then we can go, after washing our hands and feet, for our primary needs (i.e. going to the toilet, etc.). Once you learn the proper procedure for all these things, then it is by-heart.

Ezhavas yenna chattakoodinagathu nirthanda avashamilla (It is not just the Ezhavas). All Hindus, apart from Brahmins, could not (perform pujas at temples). The yogyada (eligibility) to enter a temple and pray for all Hindus was given by Sree Narayana guru. In the old days, if a non-Brahmin even heard Vedic chants, they would pour melted eeyam (lead) into his ears. 

When Narayana guru expressed a desire to establish a temple (which meant performing the necessary tantric rites), the sa-varnas (those people who fell into one of the four varnas, as opposed to the avarnas, better known as Dalits or Harijans) said you are not even allowed to enter the temple or consecrate an idol. So, in 1888, Sri Narayana guru consecrated a temple at Arivikulam.

Das’s officiating as a priest was made possible by generations of protests for equality, culminating in what is called the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 issued by Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the ruler of the princely state of Travancore. 

It is said that Balarama Varma and his advisers were wary of the threat of mass conversion to Christianity, if regressive laws that applied only to lower-caste Hindus (such as restrictions on the right to walk on public roads near the temples) were not lifted.

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, a largely symbolic government move to get more Dalit priests backfired when, at first, even Dalits did not want Dalit priests to officiate at their religious ceremonies. In 2015, the Supreme Court overturned the government attempt to appoint Dalit priests.

“The Dalits have historically been priests in Hindu temples that are linked to Vedic culture." But when these temples reach above a certain limit in revenues, the (state) government takes control over them. And if the government taking over a temple is a positive, the negative is that they end up replacing the original Dalit priests with Brahmin ones, said Stalin Rajangam, a professor at Madurai American college and a Dalit writer and scholar.

So, when my guru took up a temple in Varkala, they had need for two or three santhis and so I was taken along. I could help them and I could also learn. I was 19 then. And it is from there that I went to study (for my engineering degree). 

There were two temples I had to work at. The main temple and a smaller temple that had only evening prayers. In between, I had a once-a-week class (on religious studies) that I had to make up.

(But) I couldn’t handle both (the religious studies at the temple in Varkala and the B.Tech. course). So I wound it up. 

According to Sunny Kapikad, a prominent Malayali atheist and Dalit writer, the Dalits as a community did not even want to become priests in temples. Hinduism, he said, wanted the Dalits to be embraced within its fold.

Individual Dalits may have wanted to become priests, but as a community they did not express such a desire, according to Kapikad. The enveloping of the Dalits into the Hindu fold has itself taken on different forms in the two southernmost states of peninsular India. In Kerala, it has taken the form of Dalits occupying positions previously occupied by Brahmins, and adhering to Brahminical conventions such as ritual cleanliness, Vedic Hinduism and praying to Vedic gods.

I have an older brother and a younger brother. One is in Coimbatore, where he works as a designer for a company. One is an electrical and plumbing contractor. My family is supportive of what I do. I still don’t regret this job. I haven’t felt I shouldn’t have done it. I am completely satisfied with my life. 

Here I get Rs12,000 a month. But, at the Devaswom, I would get Rs18,000 if I were to be hired as a part-timer.

The Devaswom boards are government bodies that administer some 3,000 temples in Kerala. There are four such boards in the state. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the president of the Travancore Devaswon Board in Thiruvananthapuram, said the board had 75 vacancies. He did not hazard a guess on how many applicants there were, although Vimal Das said 25,000 probably gave the entrance exam, out of which 200 were called for an interview.

My father had an oil mill. About six years back, he had a mild heart attack. So after that, he isn’t going to work because he has three male children. He does a little farming, some work around the house. Mum is a housewife. 

I have applied for a job as a priest at the Thiruvithamkoor Devaswom Board because our life will be settled. I can continue doing this work as long as I am healthy. But after my health is gone, life will become a question mark. If I work for the Devaswom board, then my pujas and other things will continue and if I am unable to perform the pujas (because of ill health), then I get pension. (Then) we will be able to take life forward somehow. 

Can we marry? Definitely, we can. Even the statues we worship are considered the result of a man and woman’s union. That is the theory behind it. So, even in the rituals we do, there is this man-woman union. So, marriage is definitely not forbidden for us.

I would like to marry too. Not for any other reason but our tantric puja vidhanangalil, there are many pujas that you have to do with your wife. Even the wooden planks on which we sit when we do the pujas have a portion for our wives to sit on. Not that I (want to marry just so) I can do these things.

But some gods and goddesses, brahmacharyam (bachelorhood). Now, Hanuman Swamy (the Hindu monkey god who helped Hindu god Rama rescue Sita). When we do pujas for Hanuman Swamy, we are supposed to observe celibacy or bachelorhood. There is a kind of rule that you cannot think unnecessarily of women, or go near them or talk to them. It is an unwritten rule.

Now, in Sabarimala, there is (all this talk) that women cannot enter. (Das is referring to the ongoing controversy over whether women should be allowed to enter the hill shrine.) It isn’t as if all women aren’t allowed to enter. Only women who have started getting their menses cannot enter. It is not as if the fear is that (the deity) Lord Ayyappan’s bachelor celibacy would somehow be spoiled when women (of a certain age group) enter. But it may affect the men who come there to worship him. This is not just my personal viewpoint but that of many of us (priests).

Ayyappa Swamy of Sabarimala is not opposed to all women. If he were, they wouldn’t allow girls who haven’t started menstruating yet, or our mothers who have stopped menstruating would not be allowed. 

At the time of the consecration of the idol, it was written down that Lord Ayyappan was a bachelor. 

On caste

The Rig Veda says merely that the castes have been differentiated. it doesn’t say that (some) people should never be (allowed in the temple). It was the sa-varna medhavis (lords) who made these keezhvazhakoms (rules) just so it stays with them. You cannot be a Brahmin by janmam (birth). You can be a Namboodiri (a Brahmin caste) by birth. But you can only be a Brahmin by karmam (actions). If you want to become a Brahmin, you have to have done 10 karmams. Only then will he become a Brahmin. How can anybody have done these 10 things at birth?

The 10 karmams involve the ability to control indiryams, such as lust, as well as telling truth, maintaining the knowledge of the Vedas and belief in god.

These 10 things you have to know to be worthy of being called a Brahmin. That is what the Vedas say. By birth, you can become a Namboodiri. But to become a Brahmin, you must have all these skills. 

It is not enough if you have these skills. You must have done certain acts too. You must study a lot of things. But you must teach these things to those that don’t know too. You must give alms to those that don’t have something. But you must also take alms when you don’t have. These are things a Brahmin must do.

On how important the government job is to him

One or two people have suggested to me "if you have Rs1 lakh or Rs2 lakh, we can get you inside". I don’t have the money for that. If I am to get (the job), let me get it from the things I have learnt. 

If not, then no need. I will come back to this temple and do the pujas. I am satisfied. I only see one plus point in the Devaswom board job. Tomorrow, if for some health reason, I am unable to do pujas, I will get a (government) pension to continue my upa jeevanam (living). 

Nidheesh M.K. contributed to this article.

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Updated: 22 Apr 2017, 11:23 PM IST
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