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I recently learned that the priest of the Vishnu temple in my native village of Poondi is a low-caste person. The notion of a low-caste person serving in a temple didn't surprise me, since in the Sri Vaishnava sect it's a well-established practice for low-caste people who have performed Sharanagati (complete surrender to Vishnu) to perform service to temples. But I was more surprised to learn the priest was not a Sri Vaishnava, but rather a Vaikhanasa.

As I discuss in this answer, one of the early movements that was important in the development of Vaishnavism was the ancient Pancharatra movement, whose sacred texts consisted of detailed procedures to worship the sage Narayana, an ancient incarnation of Vishnu. Since the Pancharatra texts originated from Narayana himself, they are followed by pretty much all mainstream Vaishnava Sampradayas, whether Sri Vaishnavas, Madhvas, Gaudiya Vaishnavas, etc. But as I discuss in this answer, there's another group of Vishnu-worshippers who worship Vishnu according to the different set of texts, the Vaikhanasas. Vaikhanasas place more emphasis on rituals than in high-minded philosophy; while mainstream Vaishnavas are committed to elaborate Vedantic philosophical systems, like Dvaita or Visistadvaita, Vaikhanasa doctrines are more about the construction and worship of idols and the like. The vast majority of Vishnu-worshippers follow Pancharatra, but there are several Vaikhanasa temples in India, including the world-renowned Tirumala Tirupati/Venkatesshwara temple.

In any case, it seems that the priest in my native village of Poondi belongs to the "Bhattacharya" community, which is apparently a community of low-caste Vaikhanasa priests. My question is, are there any sources that discuss this community? And assuming this community does exist, what is its origin? As I discuss in this answer, the Vaikhanasa system was founded by the sage Vikhanasa, who taught it to four sages, Atri, Marichi, Kashyapa, and Bhrigu. And Vaikhanasas believe that they're "Garbha Vaishnavas", i.e. that the child of Vaikhanasa parents is initiated into the system by Vishnu while they're still in the womb. So how could a system which began with four Brahmins and which believes that only the offspring of Vaikhanasas can be a Vaikhanasa ever acquire low-caste members?

And is true that the Vaikhanasa system allows low-caste people to be priests? My understanding is that of the two systems, Pancharatra is a bit more liberal on caste than Vaikhanasa; Wikipedia says this:

With the rise of the Shri Vaishnavas the Vaikhanasas declined in their temple role. Rāmānuja, leader of the Shri Vaishnavas and the first organiser of temple administration at Srirangam Temple, replaced the Vaikhanasa system of worship with the more liberal Pañcaratra system, expanded the fivefold division of temple servants into tenfold, and gave an important part in ritual to sudra, lowest caste, ascetics. This change spread to other Vaishnava temples.

And judging by this excerpt from the Vaikhanasa Dharma Sutras, their views on the caste system seem to be perfectly orthodox. So how could the Vaikhanasas accept the Bhattacharya community and allow them to be priests?

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    @Ikshvaku Yes, Vaikhanasas form their own sect of Hinduism. Sri Vaishnavas, Madhvas, Gaudiya Vaishnavas, Pushtimargis, Ramanandis, Swaminarayan people, and Nimbarka people all follow Pancharatra Agamas rather than Vaikhanasa Agamas. In any case, the greatest Vaikhanasa philosopher was Srinivasa Dikshitar, who was chief priest of Tirupati in the 13th century. (It speaks volumes about the Vaikhanasa emphasis on rituals that their greatest philosopher doubled as a priest.) Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 19:38
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    @Ikshvaku Yeah, the Vaikhanasa Namam is the same as the Vadakalai Namam. The Namam, or Urdhva Pundra as it's called in Sanskrit, isn't something unique to the Sri Vaishnava sect; all Vaishnava sects believe in wearing the Urdhva Pundra because it represents Vishnu's Padam. But there are some disagreements between different sects about its exact shape. The Thenkalai-Vadakalai disagreement in the shape, for instance, is that Vadakalais think it represents one foot of Vishnu, namely the foot that gave rise to the Ganga, whereas Thenkalais think it represents two feet sitting on a footstool. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 19:50
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    @Ikshvaku The word Adiyen is part of general Brahmana Bhashai, it's not limited to Iyengars; even Shaiva Siddhantins use Adiyen to refer to themselves. Dasan may be more Sri Vaishnava-specific though. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 21:13
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    How did you come to the conclusion that Bhattacharyas(Vaikanasas) are 'low caste' persons?They predate even Ramanuja and they have been engaged in temple worship for thousands of years.
    – BCAK Nayr
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 10:01
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    @KeshavSrinivasan I am not sure if you had different intention or literally you meant the words in your question. It is very incorrect to say that Bhattacharya are low caste - what is your pramana to say such absurd thing? Sri Vaikhanasas need not depend on the sub-title 'Bhattacharya', as you have mentioned about, the great Srinivasa Dikshitar of Tirumala, many of the Sri Vaikhanasa priests were scholars and great Vedic ritual experts. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 6:26

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The issue is not one of caste but one of subcaste. Both Pancharatrins and Vaikhanasas are rivals and consider each other to be inferior.

To make matters worse, Vedic Brahmins (non-Pancharatrins/non-Vaikhanasa) consider both of them to be of inferior subcaste to their own. This issue was brought up during Yamunacharya's time as a reason for rejecting the validity of the Pancharatra (since they were being followed by non-orthodox temple priests). See Agama Pramanya of Yamunacharya for how he defended the position against this arguenr.

Such subcaste issues are common even among Smartas. E.g Orthodox Vadama Iyers go to the extent of intermarrying with Vadakalai Iyengars rather than with Brihachcharanam Iyers since the former are considered an offshoot of Vadamas and thus equivalent in subcaste-level whereas the latter are considered inferior in subcaste.

This is not new. Ever since the time of Ramanuja, such subcaste differences were prominent (although it wasn't considered with a superiority-inferiority complex, but rather one of simply the subcastes being different).

See the story of matrimonial alliance between Kuresa's son and Mahapurna's daughter in the biography of Ramanuja by Alkondaville Govindachariar.

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  • You are making a baseless allegation that Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa priests consider each other inferior. This is not the case. It is a fact that these 2 sects do not exchange bride / bridegrooms, but that doesn't mean that they consider each other inferior. The incident you quote above doesn't relate to the false allegation that you are making. Don't spread hatred unnecessarily. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 6:09
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To the question of "how could the Vaikhanasas accept the Bhattacharya community and allow them to be priests?" , I would quote Iśvara Samhitā.

brāhmaṇaḥ kṣatriyo vaiśyaḥ śūdro va bhagavanmayaḥ | śraddhā bhakti samāyuktaḥ sampannaḥ śānta mānasaḥ || 5 || āstikaḥ satya-sandhaśca sadācāra samanvitaḥ | ācāryaṁ varayet pūrvaṁ bhagavad śāstra kovidam || 6 || tattvajñaṁ bhagavad bhaktaṁ bhagavad vaṁśa sambhavam |

A Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Sudra who is filled with mindfulness of Bhagavan, endowed with faith and devotion, accomplished, of a peaceful disposition, who has faith in the Vedas, truthful, of good behavior, learned in Pancharatra and having thorough knowledge of philosophy, a devotee of God and born in a family of devotees shall be chosen as acharya. (Chapter 16 Temple consecration Isvara Samhita)

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    This is an incorrect translation. The verse is about the procedure for installing an idol. Here Narada says that the sponsor can be a Brahmin/Kshatriya/Vaishya/Sudra so long as he is filled with the Lord's spirit, full of faith, devotion and of a pleasant disposition. Such a person should invite an Acharya first who is well versed in the Pancharatra Sastra, who understands philosophy, a devotee of the Lord and who is born into the clan of the Lord (Bhagavad Vamsa). Here Acharya refers to the primary priest who will perform the installation of the deity into the idol.
    – hashable
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:53
  • Vaikhanasas follow the Sri Vaikhanasa bhagavat shastra given by Muni Sri Vikhanasa. You are giving wrong information. The OP itself is wrong in questioning about "Bhattacharya" community. The 'garbha vaishnavas' Sri Vaikhanasas have at some point in time used the title 'bhattacharya' - this does not change the fact that they are followers of Sri Vaikhanasa bhagavat sastra and are 'garbha vaishnavas' , and have the rights to do archakam / priest service at temple. Great personas in Sri Vaikhanasa community , who lived in 12th centuries have had 'dikshitar' as sub-title. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 6:15

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