India’s Supreme Court Threatens Hereditary Priests at Ancient Jagannath Temple

People go about their business around the Jagannath Temple in Puri, India. India’s Supreme Court proposed ending the hereditary rights of more than 2,000 priests at the temple. RNS photo by Priyadarshini Sen

PURI, India (RNS) — For centuries, the priests at the Jagannath Temple in this city on India’s east coast have enjoyed unfettered control over the temple’s rituals. But in July, India’s Supreme Court proposed ending the hereditary rights of the community of more than 2,000 priests, threatening a livelihood that depends almost entirely on donations.

The 13th-century shrine to Jagannath, a deity revered in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, draws thousands of pilgrims each year. Its priests are charged with sometimes dangerous duties such as tying flags to the mast of the temple and applying paint to statues of deities high on its walls, as well as playing instruments in religious parades and other tasks. Knowledge of the temple’s rituals has been nurtured within families and remained largely undiluted for generations.

The Supreme Court’s proposal, prompted by a local judge, aims to rein in the priests, who have allegedly been harassing pilgrims for money in return for bestowing blessings.

“If the court and government take away our only source of income, there will be nothing left. It will be the end of the road for us,” said Gadhadhar Pujapanda, a 32-year-old priest at the shrine.

Crowds prepare three chariots for the gods Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana to be drawn down main street during the Rath Yatra festival in Puri, India. The Jagannath Temple sits to the right. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The local judge who suggested removing the priests’ rights has suggested a new system by which priests are appointed, as was instituted at the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh after legislation in the late 1980s overturned the hereditary rights of its priests.

Pujapanda and other priests worry that their jobs will disappear if the same system comes to Jagannath.

“We consider ourselves living relatives of the deity,” he said. “My ancestors served King Anangabhima Deva during the 13th century. Where do we go if our livelihood is taken away?”

It is believed King Anangabhima Deva III declared himself the sole deputy of Jagannath in the 13th century and to secure his spiritual bona fides introduced 36 categories of temple attendants to venerate the deity. Over time, ceremonies became more elaborate and by the turn of the 20th century, there were 119 categories of servitors, as the priests and other temple workers are known.

Devoted to the regimentation and austerity of their spiritual practice, the hereditary priests lost touch with the secular world, neglecting their education and the pursuit of practical skills.

“Traditional priests have dedicated their lives to a different lifestyle,” said Rabindranath Pratihari, a former priest and Sanskrit scholar. “If they are shorn of these rights, they might even be pushed below the poverty line.”

Some servitors have strayed into other occupations such as tourism, hospitality, politics and real estate. Others have gone on to pursue higher education. But most remain immersed in their religious traditions.

They believe replacement of a hereditary system with merit-based appointment of salaried priests might corrupt priesthood itself.

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Source: Religion News Service