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Places of Worship: CLASH OF MULTIPLE INTERESTS, By Dr S. Saraswathi, 26 October 2018 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 26 October 2018

Places of Worship


By Dr S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Several recent incidents all over the country like organised thefts of  idols of deities in temples,  controversies over maintenance and renovation of old temples, activist movements to establish  right of entry and worship for those deprived of these rights and to end caste and sex  discriminations  for  employment  to conduct temple rituals have given rise to clashes between multiple interests. They demand immediate attention of the government, the law making bodies, the judiciary, temple authorities and the public and even become world news.


In the course of debates and actions, it leads to the question of management and utilisation of temple properties and funds. Are temples just one institution among many in democratic societies subject to total control of government? Where do we draw the line between the authority of traditions represented by temple rituals and democratic rights guaranteed by the Constitution?


Suddenly, places of worship, forms and manner of worship, rights of deities and worshippers, etc., have acquired extraordinary importance in the daily routine and social life of the people, in legal/constitutional rights and in the obligations and limits of various authorities in the governance of religious institutions. We have come to realise what an important place the activity “worship” particularly in public places is accorded in this country and how firmly it holds on against formidable challenges from social changes.  


The questions that have emerged on the surface revolve around compatibility of religious faith and secular norms to permit their peaceful coexistence and at a deeper level involve disputes over rationality and belief system and also inclusive and exclusive social order. Science and technology have not replaced religious faith; and religion has not been relegated to private sphere despite social reforms and secular democratic government. Consequently, there is need to regulate governance of public places of worship with due regard to the authority of the State and the sentiments of Religion.


Places of worship of native and foreign religions and of their different denominations are numerous in our country true to a saying in Tamil that prohibits living in a place where there is no temple. Temples in the traditional order had been at the centre of social life, developmental and livelihood activities like irrigation work and land reclamation, and also of philanthropic activities like food distribution, relief and charitable work.


The idea of State control over temples in India was born in the historic fact that all huge temples were constructed by renowned kings. Princely States patronised places of worship and religious learning in the British era. Temples reflected the most powerful expression of royal patronage and served as centres of social life. The Board of Revenue was vested with the management of religious endowments in the British Raj. This was terminated by the Religious Endowments Act of 1863 and management of Hindu endowments was transferred to a board of trustees.


At the time of independence, they were transferred to respective Provinces/States thus paving the way for State control. In the old Madras Presidency, the Hindu Religious Endowments Act was  passed in 1925 which placed temples under the direct management of the provincial government.  It also constituted a Religious Endowment Board, which took over control of over 36,000 temples and mutts, and about 2,000 specific endowments and trusts.


However, the Act did not touch mosques and churches, which continued to remain autonomous – a distinction carried on till today. The Madras Act was the handiwork of Ministers responsible to the legislature and not a reform thrust by foreign rulers. The Hindu Religious Endowments Act of 1951 adopted by Parliament allowed State governments to take over Hindu temples and administer and maintain complete control over these.


In Andhra Pradesh, in the 1980s, the NTR government established the Tirupati Devasthanam Board (TDB), supposed to be the richest in the country, under the State Government thereby “nationalising” in one stroke over 30,000 temples in the State. The Government of Maharashtra took over about 30,000 temples including the shrine at Shirdi. In Kerala, the Devaswom Board created under the Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 is an autonomous body and its accounts are checked by auditors designated by the Kerala High Court. Audit reports are treated as public documents.


In January 2014, the Supreme Court pronounced a judgment which ruled out the government’s absolute right to take over the management of temple trusts. By this, the right of temple priests – Dikshitars - to administer the Nataraja Temple at Chitambaram was restored. The case had a long history going back to 1952 when the Madras High Court upheld the right of Podu Dikshitars (temple priests) to administer the affairs of the temple. In 2009, the Madras High Court upheld the constitutionality of the law.


Meanwhile, the Government of Tamil Nadu issued a GO in 2006 for takeover of the Nataraja temple by the government. A serious legal battle ensued when a petition seeking revocation of the GO was filed in the Supreme Court in 2013. It ended with the restoration of the hereditary right of priests. It was indeed a turning point in temple administration in India and put an end to the prolonged battle between religious and temporal authorities at least temporarily.


Another PIL filed in the Supreme Court complained against “blatant commercialisation and exploitation of the devotees” at the Jagannath Temple at Puri in Odhisha. The Court directed the Union Government to take a review of the management of holy places with a view to making these “visitor friendly” and to curb malpractices. But, differences between servitors and temple administration started lessening affecting even conduct of rituals. The court asked the State Government to constitute a committee forthwith to study the management schemes in other important shrines such as Vaishnoo Devi, Somnath Temple, Tirupati Temple, Dharmasthala and suggest suitable changes. The court also directed the Union Government to gather information about other shrines since problems are similar, and conduct a total review.


The directives given to Jagannath temple were sent to all religious institutions across the country.  Management of temples has had been a huge and important responsibility that combined secular control and faith-based activities -- a task bound to face clash of interests and ideologies and inevitably bring divisive social and political forces into action.

The religious basis of American nationalism was well established by the 20th century. The institutions of the early American State were secular, while the culture remained deeply religious. Role of religion was perceived as essential to nurture public virtue.


As a contrast, separation of Church and State is a cornerstone of the American Constitution and has been accepted by the Supreme Court of the US as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment of the Constitution.


Religions in modern societies are not monolithic or unchanging set of values. Each religious tradition is subject to varied interpretations -- progressive or conservative, liberal or illiberal, authoritative or accommodative. Re-interpretation of religious traditions to suit the modern era and be consistent with civil liberties has become necessary. This has to be accomplished without altering the “basic structure” of religion which is to be defined.---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)



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