Patna, July 13, 2017: Temples in India have always been the domain of Brahmin priests and saints. As a matter of fact, Dalits were not allowed to step inside the temple decades ago, however, a ritual in a temple of Patna is striving to change the age-old caste equation. What’s peculiar about the place is the identity of a priest in the temple. Dressed in white dhoti and matching shawl, a 62-year-old Phalahari Suryavanshi Das, who is a Dalit is the priest of this Patna Mahavir temple.
“A Dalit priest standing shoulder to shoulder with a Brahmin priest inside one of the largest temples, frequented by all castes, is symbolic in itself. It is a marker of the social change that’s slowly happening… at least here,” says Acharya Kishore Kunal, a retired Indian Police Service officer and former chairman of the Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts to the Mint.
It is a glaring truth that priesthood has been the monopoly of Hindus in India. “I am a Mahatma. I never thought of myself as a Dalit. When you become a Mahatma, you abandon all such worldly identities. Saint Ramananda said, ‘Jaati panthi pucchai nahi koi, hari ko bhaje so hari ka hoi (Let no one ask of caste or sect; if anyone worships God, then he is God’s).’ Upper and lower castes are not the creation of God. It is our creation,” said Das to Mint.
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The development took place in 1993, one day when Das stepped into the sanctum sanctorum of the Mahavir temple late afternoon. The three-member delegation escorted Das, but the man behind the drastic change was the caretaker Kunal, who initiated the philanthropic action and slowly built a reputation for himself and the temple.
“This change was endorsed by three important priests of the time. And by then, people knew me as a true devotee. People trusted me. Had I come forward as a progressive liberal talking about change, I doubt I would have been successful in bringing about this change,” told Kunal to Mint.
Kunal personally visited Ayodhya’s Sant Ravidas temple to request the pujari to send a priest for Mahavir temple in Patna. Ravidas was the saint of the Dalits in the 15th century as he advocated the casteless society. Many temples have been built upon his name by the Dalits. Kunal feared that he would be lynched for beseeching a Dalit priest in the Mahavir temple. Initially, the authorities taught that Kunal has some political agenda for soliciting Dalit votes but sometimes later when they got convinced, they sent Das to the Patna temple.
Kunal has now install Dalit priest in more than dozen temples in Bihar. He has also written a three-volume book titled Dalit Devo Bhav, which obliterates myths imputed to caste discrimination in Hindu society and the place of Dalits in history.
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