The Role of Archakas, Temple Priests, in Hinduism

Hinduism and Temple Priests

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism worshippers can worship their personal deities externally (bahya) with specific prayers and offerings or internally (antah) with visualization. Spiritually, the mental worship (manasa puja) is considered more effective. A devotee may perform the external worship either directly without any intermediary or indirectly with the help of a trained priest.

He may also conduct the worship at home, in a temple or at a sacred place. Traditionally, worship in Hindu temples is performed by priests, who are known as archakas (or arcakas) and yajakas. In Vaishnava temples, you invariably need the assistance of a priest to worship the deities. However, in Saiva temples, you can either worship the deity directly or with the help of a temple priest. The priests also have several local or vernacular titles such as pujari, devaswami, maharaj, etc.

Yajaka and archaka

The word Yajaka is derived from the word yaja, which means to sacrifice, worship with sacrifice, or assist those who perform the sacrifice. The worshipper or the sacrificer, and those who assist him are known as Yajis. Yajanam is the act of worship and yajamana is the one who hosts and supports the sacrifice with his patronage. The tradition of yaja dates back to the Vedic times. The word Yajurveda, meaning the Veda of rituals, the second most important Veda after the Rigveda, is derived from the root word, yajus, meaning a sacrificial prayer or formula. Presently, anyone who worships God ritually is considered yajaka.

Historically, the word archana or archaka came into prominence much later. It is derived from the word archa meaning to adore, worship, praise, sing, or salute with honor and respect. Archana is the act of worship and archaka is the worshipper. Archi means an emanation or a ray of light, or flame. The Vedas frequently compare Brahman to the immortal Sun. The immortal world of Brahman said to exist in the Sun itself and those who achieve liberation travel by the sun lit path of gods (devayana) to reach the immortal world located in the Sun. Thus, if Brahman is the Sun, each deity as an emanation of Brahman is compared to a ray of the sun (archa), and the act of worshipping him is called archana.

An archaka is one who worships an arca, meaning an image of God. In traditional Vaishnavism, an arca is a living incarnation of God in image form. The arca itself may be made of stone, wood, clay, gemstones, gold, silver, bronze, or alloys, but will be treated as an embodiment of God.

Temple as an abode of God

In this sense, in Hinduism, a temple is not a mere place of worship, but a sacred house where God resides. Since God lives in the temple not as a mere statute, or an image, but as a living and breathing entity, the temple administration has to ensure through a host of priests and attendants that He is served with great honor and treated respectfully like a king from the time he wakes up in the early hours until he goes to bed. If the particular aspect of God has a consort, family and retinue, everyone in the group has to be given due honors. The temple for all practical purposes is a universe in itself, or a heaven, in which gods dwell and interact with humans at a very personal and intimate level. Since the temple is a house of God, in most temples the principal deity and his consort are installed together and worshipped together. However, in rare cases, where the deity is either unmarried, celibate, or separated from his consort, he is worshipped alone. For example, separate temples exist for Lord Venkateswara and his consort Bhramaramba at Tirumala and Tirupathi respectively since due to a marital conflict they live separately.

Arca, the living and breathing deity

As stated earlier, an arca is a living incarnation of God in image form. Therefore, the expression idol worship in Hinduism is a complete misnomer, used by some to degrade the religion. Hindus do not worship mere stone or wooden idols. They worship a living and breathing form of God who lives inside the body that is made of stone, wood or other material. Because of it, they are treated with utmost respect, as if God is present personally to bless the devotees.

However, not all arcas are made equal. Their power and eminence depend upon how long they are present on earth, how they are installed and how many people offer them regular worship. A deity's power increases in proportion to the fervor of his or her devotees. If more people visit a temple and frequently worship the deity, the arcas installed in that temple gain more power and vigor from the offerings made and develops the ability to fulfill the wishes of the worshippers. In other words, although the same deity resides in several temples, in each temple the deity has a different potency. If they are regularly worshipped, they become active and powerful, radiate positive energy, strengthen the roots of dharma, and help more people to become spiritual and work for their liberation. Therefore, it becomes the duty (dharma) of every Hindu to visit temples and offer worship. In their turn, the temples have to ensure that the deities are regularly worshipped and more devotees are attracted to them, so that the deity (arca) gains power and potency to fulfill their wishes. It cannot happen, unless the worship is conducted by priests who are well versed in the scriptures and who have a perfect knowledge of the rituals and sacrificial ceremonies. With their knowledge and prayers, they can keep the deities well nourished and well attended.

The beginnings of temple worship

Temple worship in Hinduism was not an original Vedic practice. Vedic priests performed sacrificial ceremonies and daily practices, mostly in open places or in their homes. There was no tradition of housing the gods in temples and worship them. The tradition probably evolved overtime with the integration of several indigenous cultures who might have housed their gods and ancestors in special houses to protect them from rain and wind, and became a full-fledged practice in the post Buddhist period. The earliest temples were probably built in honor of deceased kings, saintly people, or sacred objects, by their successor and followers to discharge their debt of gratitude. Subsequently the practice might have been extended to honor the heavenly gods. Historians believe that the earliest temples were temporary structures made of wood, clay, reeds, etc. Hence, none of them survived. Construction of stone temples gained momentum during the post Mauryan era and reached its culmination in the Gupta period. It is even possible that the tradition began in the South during the reign of southern dynasties such as the Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and Satavahanas, and spread northward. Since the earliest times, the Brahmins have been the traditional choice for all forms of Vedic worship. When temples became prominent in both north and south, they became the natural choice to perform temple rituals.

Types of priests

Broadly speaking, in Hinduism the priests who perform temple rituals fall into one or more of the following four main traditions due to their caste, family and sectarian affiliations.

1. Saivism

2. Vaishnavism

3. Shaktism

4. Folk traditions

In Vaishnava temples, priests follow either Vaikhasana or Pancaratra practices to conduct worship. Of the two, the Vaikhasana is considered the most ancient and a sect in itself. In most Vaishnava temples of southern India, including the Tirumala, Tirupathi and Madurai temples, the temple rituals are performed by Vaikhasana priests. Many Brahmin families who live in coastal Andrha, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala belong to this sect. It is said that they migrated from northern India during medieval times and settled in these parts ever since. Some of them also specialize in Ayurveda.

In Saivism and Shaktism also we come across several variations in customs and practices, as they are further divided into several sub sects, each having its own traditions, philosophy and belief system. For example, followers of Kashimiri Saivism, Vira Saivism and Pasupatha Saivism follow different methods of worship and esoteric rituals. In the present day world, with the rise of popular Hinduism and construction of modern temples which house several deities belonging to different sects, you may not see much specialization among the priests who work there. You may see the same priest worshipping different deities, or the same set of priests sharing their duties and responsibilities according to the schedule fixed by the temple administration. With the construction of temples for politicians, film stars, and gurus of modern times, the tradition is getting further diluted.

The role of Archakas or Yajakas

As worshippers of God, the temple priests occupy an important position in Hinduism. According to the scriptures a worshipping priest is a devotee of God (yajaka evam madbhakta). He is verily a part of the body of God Himself (machsariram hi yajaka). One should, therefore, treat with utmost respect any priest, who offers prayers to God. Blaming him is equal to blaming God Himself. In Vaishnavism an archaka is verily considered, without any doubt, Hari himself (archakastu hari sakshat chara rupi na samsayah). We find a similar approach in Saivism also. In terms of importance, the archakas occupy the foremost place in society because by worshipping the deities properly as stipulated in the scriptures, and keeping them happy, they prevent misfortune and calamities befalling upon people and ensure peace, prosperity, and welfare of all in the towns and villages where the temples are situated. The scriptures state that if priests worship deities with pure intentions and great sincerity, it brings rich rewards to everyone. Hence, the profession of archakas is considered the most important and sacred in the world.

A day in the life of a priest

Those who work in the temples as priests have to lead an austere and disciplined life. They have to be well-versed in the scriptures and ritual knowledge. They cannot succumb to any vice or evil. They have to be free from greed, anger, lust, envy and other evils. A priest is a servant of God, who has only one mission in life, to take care of the daily needs of the deity he worships. He has no other duty, because the deity will be responsible for his personal life. Theoretically, for him the needs of God are more important than his own needs. Having a good priest in your local temple, is a blessing, because through his actions he can make a difference to a number of people who visit the temple and pay their respects.

The relationship between the deity and his priest is very personal, deep and intimate. Every priest has to be a Bhagavata, a servant-cum-devotee of the deities he worships. He has to put his heart and soul into his service and worship God with utmost devotion, but without any desire or expectations for himself. Every day, he is expected to wake up early in the morning, take a bath, wear clean clothes, perform his morning oblations, wear necessary marks upon his body according to the sect to which he belongs, and begin the day with a stable mind. Then he should go to the temple, to begin his daily service. At the temple, he should remove yesterday's offerings, (flowers, etc.,) from the place of worship, sweep the floor in the sanctum or the room where the deity is installed, and clean the tools and utensils used in the worship.

After purifying the place and rearranging everything, he should wake up the deity with a morning prayer and perform the morning archana (ritual) with the offerings of light, incense, flowers, water, food, etc. As the day proceeds and devotees start visiting the temple, he should perform various rituals according to their needs and act as a mediator between the deity and his devotees. Depending upon the popularity of the presiding deity, the rituals would continue throughout the day with some resting period in between, during which the priest would attend upon deity as if he or she were a living entity. At the end of the day, after serving the evening meal and performing the evening rituals, he should make arrangements for the deity to take rest by singing lullabies. Finally, when he is convinced that the deity is asleep, he should close the door of the sanctum, secure everything, and return home to take rest. This is the daily routine of a priest who works in a local temple where he happens to be the main priest or the only priest. In busy temples, several priests participate in these daily rituals and share their duties according to the instructions of the head priest or the temple administration. Traditionally, the priests are also entitled to their due share in the offerings made to the deity.

Since a priest is an intermediary between the deity and his devotees, he has to strictly follow the wishes of the devotees in choosing the methods of worship or making offerings. In most cases, the devotees bring their own offerings and request the priests to perform worship according to their needs which involves recitation of different prayers. A priest has to oblige them and fulfill their wishes. Many temples also charge money from the devotees to perform specific rituals. When devotees are present in large numbers, a priest has to ensure that each devotee gets a view of the deity and a proper share in the offerings.

Types of rituals

The rituals that are performed in temples vary from deity to deity. However, they fall into the following categories.

1. Daily rituals which are offered from morning to evening to serve the deity or according to the wishes of the devotees. They usually involve recitations of Sanskrit prayers and names of the deity.

2. Periodic rituals that are performed every week, fortnight, or month to commemorate auspicious celestial or astronomical events. For example there are certain rituals that are performed on every full moon day or new moon day and on specific days in each month when the planets are aligned specifically. They are meant to ensure the smooth progression, the order and regularity of the world.

3. Special worship is also offered to the deity on festive occasions, which may be festivals that are particularly associated with the deity, such as a marriage anniversary (kalyanam)the birth of a saint, or general Hindu festivals such as Deepavali or Dussehra.

4. In case of 2 and 3, some temples may have the tradition of taking out the deity on a procession and carry him through the street. On such occasions, the principal deity along with attendant deities are placed in a chariot or a human carriage and taken out in huge procession, through the streets, to the accompaniment of music and dance. While it is customary for the devotees to visit the deity throughout the year and seek his blessings, on such occasions, the deity pays a visit to his devotees to express his love and see how they are doing. It denotes that the relationship between God and His devotee is not a one-sided affair. It is mutual and God is as eager to see his devotees as the devotees are. It is also meant to ensure that those who cannot visit the temple due to age, any physical disability or personal problem are also not ignored by Him.

Pachakas

While the archakas are responsible for the worship of the deity, they are assisted in their duties by several others. Prominent among them are the pachakas, who are mainly responsible for preparing traditional food items (naivedyam) that are used in the offerings made to the deity. After offering to the deity, the remains are distributed among the devotees. The people who are responsible for preparing and cooking the food items also hail from the Brahmin families. In several ancient temples, the right to cook food for God is hereditary and rests with a few families. Food may be prepared either in the temple premises or outside. The pachakas have to prepare the food in sattvic manner, using the purest of the ingredients that are acceptable to the deity and maintain strict personal discipline as laid down in the scriptures to avoid incurring his displeasure. In preparing the offerings, they have to keep in mind that they cannot compromise on the quality or purity. Some of the preparations are historically well known. For example, the sweet balls (laddus) and other food items prepared by the Tirumala temple for Lord Venkateswara are world famous.

Acharyas

Acharyas are Vedic scholars and spiritual teachers who are employed by the temple for spreading religious awareness and speak about the significance of the temple and its deities. They are responsible for reciting morning prayers, mantras, addressing religious gatherings and narrate stories from the scriptures about legends and anecdotes associated with the deities. They may work either on a part-time or full-time basis. Many big temples also maintain their own publication division and offer books and magazines to the devotes for fees.

Paricharikas

They are specially employed in big temples to perform menial work such as sweeping the temples, cleaning the cooking utensils, booking reservations and accommodation for the devotees, organizing events, making garlands, carrying food items, lighting lamps, and protecting the temple property from vandalism.

Administration

As an abode of God, a temple is also an institution. Small temples can be managed by a single priest and a small number of patrons. However, big temples require a more organized and professional approach to manage the temple activities. Many ancient temples of India are visited by millions of people every year from various parts of the world. Their income and expenditure amount to millions of dollars. Hence, they are managed by a huge body of government officials, trust members, security personnel, priests, administrators, and others. In ancient times, temples were supported by kings and local feudal lords with lands grants. In modern times, Government of India appointed a special board to look after the temple administration and temple lands in several states. Misuse of temple funds is not unknown. However, if people are careful and pay attention, such problems can be avoided through collective effort.

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