The age old debate on priesthood and Brahmin caste in Hinduism has come alive once again in the land of Adi Sankara. Over the last few decades a consensus befitting the most liberal, scholastic and secular religion in modern times, was evolving on the subject. But it has been pulled back thanks to foot-in-mouth statements from irresponsible leaders of some responsible and relevant organisations in Kerala. It is said that Swami Vivekananda had once described Kerala as a madhouse of 'casteism'. It was quite natural that a reform process started in Kerala itself to get rid of the evil of caste discrimination among Hindus. The much revered Narayana Guru and Chattampi Swamikal had contributed extensively for the reforms and Kerala Hindu society is what it is now thanks to their efforts.
Unlike the foreign Semitic religions, Hinduism clearly differentiates between Gurus and Priests (pujaris). Both are attained by individuals and never inherited. Their purposes are different and qualifications are much more different. While anyone can aspire to become a priest in a place of worship, it takes much more efforts to become a guru and more importantly to be accepted as one. Without elaborating further, it takes only a little time to realise the difference when we know that there a millions of Hindu priests in India while there are only a handful of acceptable gurus in India now. The four undisputed gurus in contemporary South India are Saibaba, Mata Amritanandmayi, Kalki Bhagawan and Sri Sri Ravishankar. If we bother to analyse the background of each of them, we can clearly conclude about the illogic of inheritance in attaining 'gurudom'. Not all Hindus born to Brahmin parents can aspire to realise Brahman and their 'brahminhood' is merely their inherited caste name. Since many of their forefathers are priests by profession, it might be easier for them to become priests. The idea is crystal clear and there is no scope for any ambiguity.
From time immemorial, our rishis and gurus have been stressing on the true basis of caste system and trying to make laymen understand the absolute truth in it. Even if we do not admit it or like it, all of us are born with different vasanas(qualities) and we belong to different groups (castes). There is no harm whatsoever in having groups and problems start only when there is discrimination on the basis of castes. The entire edifice of caste system is built on qualities of individuals and quality is something that is not entirely inherited. Our puranas have hundreds of examples of people born in fishermen and fighter communities (castes) becoming first class scholars and rishis. Anyone who is determined and intelligent enough to master the required skills for any job can attain it and priesthood is just one of them. This has been clarified many times and only true enemies of Hindu society can vomit the logic of linking priesthood solely with the Brahmin caste all over again. In whatever way we look at it, priesthood is and must be attainable by anyone aspiring for it.
Anyone who is still harping on the theory of inheritance of priesthood must be living in a fool's paradise or they are pawns in the game of multi-national religious establishments to destabilise the Hindu society. They are the children of Jaichandin the twenty first century. Their only achievement will be undoing the correction done by our immediate predecessors in the temporary aberration of caste discrimination in Hindu society. Progressive organisations within the Hindu fold must take the reform process forward by further integration of the society. True leaders are those who can dispel the clouds of disintegration and build on the common grounds of integration. Those who still believe in the inheritance of priesthood are ignoramus of the concept of eternal truth (ET) in Sanatana Dharmawhich is a Himalaya among religious beliefs with so many Everests of unparalleled heights of human knowledge.
Search for ET
Life is nothing but a never ending search for the eternal truth (ET). In rare cases we come across men who can guide us in our search and we call them gurus. But in most cases the individual devices his or her own methods of searching for ET. It is quite natural that when we are searching for something we take the help of men, machinery and methods. The priests in question are the men here and the rituals we undertake are the methods involved. Though it is not at all necessary to indulge in any ritual whatsoever as a means for realisation of ET, it is quite common to find the laymen opting for it as an easy way. To some extent it is also true that theyagnas, poojas and various other rituals have their own relevance in our search. Though many doubt it, an overwhelming majority still believe that the rituals have meaning and offer apparently intangible benefits in our path towards the realisation of ET. An apt analogy is the case of mountaineers. Any sherpa can guide us in our attempt in climbing Everest but it is for the individuals to reach the top. And a sherpa becomes a true help only if he can carry load and knows the ways of mountaineering. All the priests are sherpas in our quest to reach the ET on top of the Everests of mind.
For any normal human being, the search for ET must begin from within, then in the neighbourhood and then expand to outside areas. If someone is avoiding a search in the immediate neighbourhood and instead opts for distant lands, it is only because of extraneous considerations. It is ridiculous for anyone to believe that the methods to realise ET exists in foreign lands when we have not exhausted or even considered the immediate neighbourhood. For us Indians, the search for ET must logically begin within ourselves and then in the surrounding Indian space. Those Indians who haven't considered Indian ways of realising ET are only deceiving themselves. The friendly priests in our neighbourhood must be our first call whenever we feel the necessity of a ritual as an aid in our search. The only thing to be checked is whether the priest is adequately qualified and he knows the tricks of rituals. It will not help us in any way if his father and forefathers were priests and he himself is ignorant.
In conclusion, the onus of differentiating between priesthood and Brahmin caste lies squarely with laymen who make up our society and are its true strength. Leaders who are trying to lead us down the lane like pied pipers paid by the enemies must be exposed and isolated. Indian politics might need more leaders (dealers may be a more apt term for many) but our society needs more gurus who can guide us to social moksha. Priests can help us propitiate Gods but only gurus can help us attain peace of mind.