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The Renewal of the Priesthood: Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple

The Renewal of the Priesthood: Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple

by C. J. Fuller

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Much has changed for the priests at the Minakshi Temple, one of the most famous Hindu temples in India. In The Renewal of the Priesthood, C. J. Fuller traces their improving fortunes over the past 25 years. This fluidly written book is unique in showing that traditionalism and modernity are actually reinforcing each other among these priests, a process in


Much has changed for the priests at the Minakshi Temple, one of the most famous Hindu temples in India. In The Renewal of the Priesthood, C. J. Fuller traces their improving fortunes over the past 25 years. This fluidly written book is unique in showing that traditionalism and modernity are actually reinforcing each other among these priests, a process in which the state has played a crucial role.

Since the mid-1980s, growing urban affluence has seen more people spend more money on rituals in the Minakshi Temple, which is in the southern city of Madurai. The priests have thus become better-off, and some have also found new earnings opportunities in temples as far away as America. During the same period, due partly to growing Hindu nationalism in India, the Tamilnadu state government's religious policies have become more favorable toward Hinduism and Brahman temple priests. More priests' sons now study in religious schools where they learn authoritative Sanskrit ritual texts by heart, and overall educational standards have markedly improved.

Fuller shows that the priests have become more "professional" and modern-minded while also insisting on the legitimacy of tradition. He concludes by critiquing the analysis of modernity and tradition in social science. In showing how the priests are authentic representatives of modern India, this book tells a story whose significance extends far beyond the confines of the Minakshi Temple itself.

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Princeton University Press
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Renewal of the Priesthood

Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple
By C. J. Fuller

Princeton University Press

C. J. Fuller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 069111658X

Chapter One

The Priests and the Minakshi Temple's Renovation Ritual

IN SEPTEMBER 1976, when I had just begun research in Madurai, two young men accompanied by their wives were consecrated as new priests in the Minakshi (Mi¯ni¯ksi¯) Temple. Ugrapandya Bhattar was then twenty-eight and Manikkasundara Bhattar was twenty-three; Ugrapandya had just married Madhuravani, Manikkasundara's sister, and Manikkasundara had married Umarani, daughter of one of the Temple's chief priests. Manikkasundara had also recently graduated from a religious school in which he had spent six years learning the Sanskrit ritual texts known as the Agamas (Agama), and he was now the first priest in the Minakshi Temple to possess this qualification.

Nearly twenty-five years later, in April 2001, I visited Manikkasundara and Umarani at the Minakshi temple in Pearland, Texas, one of Houston's sprawling southern suburbs.1 As I drove down a long straight road leading from yet another shopping mall, past new housing developments for the well-off and prefabricated "trailer" homes for the poor, the towers of a temple in the distinctive South Indian style incongruously appeared through the trees. In the car park, a young man who was playing basketball introduced himself to me as Praveen Kumar, Manikkasundara's twenty-two-year-old son. Manikkasundara and his family had been in America for nearly six years, and as I soon found out, they were eagerly looking forward to going back to Madurai in May for their first return visit. Only recently had they acquired their green cards, which would allow them to reenter the United States freely. For Manikkasundara and Umarani in particular, settling down in Pearland had been difficult, and after six years they were still ambivalent about America and often homesick for India. Their children, however, had few qualms, and Praveen Kumar, studying for a degree in computer engineering, and his nineteen-year-old sister, Vijaya Shri, starting her training as a doctor, had thrived in American schools and adapted fairly easily to American life. To Manikkasundara and his wife, it was their children's educational achievements that had made all their struggles worthwhile, and they were determined to stay in America at least until Vijaya Shri had qualified as a doctor. Praveen Kumar's principal ambition was to work in America as a computer engineer specializing in software, just like the son of Rajarathna Bhattar, also from Madurai, who had been replaced by Manikkasundara when he retired, as well as the son of another priest from India also working in the Pearland temple. Praveen Kumar will probably succeed and Vijaya Shri will probably become a doctor, and in a few years' time they will become two more members of the highly successful Non-Resident Indian (NRI) population in America, exactly the kind of professional people who prosper in Houston and drive out to worship in Pearland.2 In many respects, the transnational social mobility exemplified by Manikkasundara's family is now a very familiar feature of globalization, but because he is a priest it has its distinctive features.

In 1976, Thangam Bhattar, then in his late forties, who had briefly visited Malaysia three years earlier, became the first Minakshi Temple priest to work overseas when he went to a Singapore temple for a few months. In 1982-83, Thangam worked in Pearland for nearly a year when its Minakshi temple was first opened, and he was then replaced by his younger brother Rajarathna; Thangam also returned for over a year in 1986-88, when the temple was extended in size, but Rajarathna stayed on permanently in Pearland until retirement and now lives there with his wife. Thangam and Rajarathna both acquired green cards in the mid-1980s. Back in 1976, though, nobody in Madurai would have predicted that Thangam, Rajarathna, and then Manikkasundara would work in Texas, and that the latter's graduation from an Agamic school would be so important for his career in Madurai and his eventual move to America. Indeed, although it may be a very small element in the history of latter-day globalization, the emergence of "traditional" education in Sanskrit scripture as a valuable asset in the United States is a striking sign of how the world changed during the twentieth century's last quarter, for it was not only unpredictable in the mid-1970s, it was virtually unimaginable. This book's principal objective is to describe and explain how events unforeseen in Madurai and the Minakshi Temple twenty-five years ago came about, and what they have meant for its priesthood during the intervening years.

The Minakshi Temple Priests and Change since the 1970s

My previous monograph about the Minakshi Temple priests, Servants of the Goddess (SG), was based on fieldwork carried out in 1976-77 and 1980, and those years provide the main baseline with which the contemporary position will be compared.3 As explained in SG (ch. 5), a crucial date in the Minakshi Temple's modern history is 1937, when its management was taken over by the provincial government of Madras through its agency, the Hindu Religious Endowments (HRE) Board. Two years later, the Temple was opened to untouchable Harijans (Dalits) and low-caste Nadars, who had always been excluded from it, and virtually all the priests then began a "strike," which lasted until 1945. During the six years when the priests were absent, they became much poorer and the Executive Officer in charge of the Temple since 1937 imposed a series of changes that greatly undermined their rights and privileges; in the years after 1945, the priests' position mostly continued to deteriorate, notably when their tax-free lands were confiscated in the 1950s following land reform legislation. In 1970, when the anti-Brahman Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party was in power, the government of Tamilnadu brought in legislation to abolish the hereditary temple priesthood throughout the state. The abolition act was challenged in the courts, and in the end its impact was minimal, but in 1976, when I first worked in Madurai, the Minakshi Temple priests had witnessed forty years of continual decline, including a recent threat to their very existence.

For understandable reasons, demoralization was widespread among the priests, most of whom said that they hoped their sons would find better jobs outside the Temple. The constant pressure exerted on the priests by the Temple administration (Devasthanam) and, at one remove, by the Tamilnadu government and its Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department (which had replaced the old Board) was further increased by continual criticism of their incompetence and ignorance of the Agamas, the Sanskrit texts that are believed to contain the instructions of Shiva (Siva) himself for his proper worship. The priests themselves had internalized this criticism, and in concluding SG (166), I said that they could only respond to it by insisting on their devotion to Minakshi-the devotion (bhakti) of "a compelling love which overcomes all rational barriers" (O'Flaherty 1973: 38-9).

Social scientists have a poor record in foretelling the future, and my implied prediction has turned out to be wrong. The priests' position in the Temple, and their demoralization as I saw it in 1976-77 and 1980, did not continue to worsen. On visits to Madurai in 1984 and 1988, some improvement was already apparent, especially in their economic position and in their more relaxed attitude toward the government, and this continued during the 1990s and until the present day.4 Just as importantly, the priests' growing commitment to Agamic education for their sons and themselves, which is both product and cause of their generally improving morale, has meant that they have been able to respond to reformist criticism much more effectively than earlier seemed likely. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that by the end of the 1970s, the worst was actually over for the priests. But it was not obvious either to them (or me) at the time, mainly because they had been suffering forty years of actual or threatened losses to their rights and privileges, so that it was only reasonable to assume that the decline would continue. Furthermore, because the most senior priests could remember the better days before the temple-entry dispute, there was a persistent tendency to hark back to them, which only served to exacerbate pessimistic comment about the future.

Since the late 1970s, the Minakshi Temple administration and its superior authority, the HR&CE Department, have been no more favorable to the priests than they were in earlier years, and there are still constant complaints about them. On the other hand, anti-Brahmanism as a political ideology has greatly weakened over the last two decades. Moreover, in almost all directions, the religious policy of the Tamilnadu government has become considerably more favorable to the priests' interests, especially since 1991 when the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party came to power under the leadership of Ms. J. Jayalalitha. Her government further encouraged religious revivalism, and started to support and promote Brahmanical Sanskritic Hinduism almost as if it were the state religion, a development linked to the rise of Hindu nationalism-most evident in northern and western India-since the late 1980s. For the priests, although the state still has a negative side represented in particular by the Temple administration and the HR&CE Department, it has acquired a more positive, supportive side as well, especially since the early 1990s.

The administration's control over the priests has also been diluted inasmuch as they now do far more work outside the Temple than they used to before the early 1980s, and this-together with the introduction of more expensive forms of private worship inside it-has significantly raised their income. The priests' autonomy and standard of living have therefore both improved. These changes have mainly come about as a result of rising middle-class affluence produced by India's economic liberalization-which began in the mid-1980s and accelerated from 1991-assisted by the Tamilnadu government's religious policy, especially its support for temple renovation rituals, which also provide many priests with extra sources of income. A significant minority of priests, following in Thangam Bhattar's footsteps, has been working abroad as well, and this has been made possible by the growing prosperity and strengthening ethnic identity among overseas Hindu communities, whether in older regions of settlement such as Malaysia and Singapore or newer ones such as Britain and especially the United States, where the wealthy NRI population has rapidly expanded.

At the root of the priests' changed circumstances, therefore, both in their relationship with the state and their economic standing, is the particular conjuncture of declining anti-Brahmanism plus religious revivalism in Tamilnadu combined with resurgent Hindu nationalism and economic liberalization in India as a whole; the development of the Indian diaspora has also had an effect. The particular case of the Minakshi Temple priests and their changing lives has to be placed in a much wider context-social, religious, political, and economic-which also has local, regional, national, and even global dimensions. A large part of this book is about the wider, multidimensional context and hence about how the priests, despite their unusual characteristics, are caught up in much the same flow of rapid, radical change as millions of their fellow Indian citizens.

One sign of change in the Temple in 1976, whose full significance would only become clear ten or fifteen years later, was Manikkasundara Bhattar's consecration as the first priest to have graduated from an Agamic school. Agamic education, as I explain in chapter 4, has played a crucial role in how the Minakshi Temple priesthood has changed during the last two decades. The growing commitment to Agamic education has been stimulated by the general improvement in the priests' position, especially by better opportunities for educated priests, but it has also contributed to that improvement and to restoring the priests' morale. In these respects, too, the state has been influential, because priestly ignorance was first criticized as part of the early nationalist movement for socioreligious reform, and subsequently the HRE Board, followed by the HR&CE Department, has pursued policies intended to improve priestly education and training. Even though priests have persistently resented government interference in their working lives, they have accepted that the criticism of their ignorance is justified, and their growing commitment to Agamic education since the 1970s is partly a recognition that the HR&CE Department's policy is right. This commitment has also actively reinforced the priests' insistence on the rightfulness of traditional authority and its absolute expression in the texts containing Shiva's words. Agamic education has indeed helped to strengthen the priests' traditionalism, so that compared with twenty years ago, they more forcefully express their ideological commitment to the authority and legitimacy of tradition, as embodied in Agamic texts but also as vested in the Temple's ancient customs and their own hereditary rights.

Yet priestly traditionalism also goes hand-in-hand with the growing adoption of a range of modern attitudes and values about the importance of education, training, and professionalism, as well as about money-making and economic rationality, or, less consistently, about the dispensability of old-fashioned rules about purity and pollution or caste and marriage. The priests have become better informed about the wider world and less provincial in their outlook; albeit implicitly, they have recognized that their lives have been "disembedded" from their local roots, because they can now be shaped-especially by men who have worked outside Madurai-through supralocal and even transnational networks. Priests with an Agamic education, especially if they are well educated in the secular system, too, also tend to display a positivist attitude toward book-based knowledge, and in their eyes both types of education are about acquiring rational knowledge that may be used reflexively to examine and reform religious and social practices. For the priests, however, a better knowledge of the Agamas should also enhance devotion to god because it (ideally) leads to an improved understanding of what Shiva's words mean and how they are to be put into practice.

Among the priests, tradition is always positively valued, whereas modern change is not, so that the relationship between them is asymmetrical; roughly, the traditional is the positive, marked pole and the modern is the negative or residual pole.


Excerpted from The Renewal of the Priesthood by C. J. Fuller Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Mattison Mines
This book is beautifully written in a clear style that will make even the most arcane aspects of the priestly profession accessible to undergraduate readers. At the same time, it is a theoretically sophisticated work that will be read widely. No one can write about the Minakshi temple priests with the authority that Dr. Fuller brings to the task. As ethnography the book is unique.
Mattison Mines, author of "Public Faces, Private Voices"
Peter van der Veer
In this book, C. J. Fuller has cumulated ethnographic experience and data for twenty-six years and has thus made himself into the consummate ethnographer of the priests of one of the most magnificent temples of South India.
Peter van der Veer, author of "Religious Nationalism"

Meet the Author

C. J. Fuller is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His books include The Camphor Flame (Princeton) and Servants of the Goddess.

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