State control of temples: A potential asset for Hindus?

Of late, there are a few voices, on social media and elsewhere, who have been putting forth a demand to free Hindu temples from state control.[1] However, it might be worth pausing and examining the issue from a few different angles.

A common argument made is: why only Hindu temples? Why are churches and mosques not under control of the government? It must be noted that Hindu Dharma, as a religion, is vastly different from both Islam and Christianity. Hindu Dharma has no uniform concept of congregations of adherents taking part in weekly meetings in a church. Neither are there vast, hierarchical networks of universally recognised Hindu religious leadership like the imams or the clergy.

In the long run, it is incumbent upon Hindus to strive to change the state and politics to be friendly towards their own religion and culture. If a Hindu revival must happen on a large scale, sentimental appeals must make way to appeals based on reason and a view of achieving long term objectives. With such objectives in mind, when the issue is closely examined, it appears that Hindus might be better off if the state continues to manage a few selected Hindu temples.[2]

Church, mosque, and the state

Cutting through the redundant notion of separation of church and state, the Christian church practically functions as a state unto itself. The modern church has its origins in the late Roman empire.[3] As is well-known, Ancient Rome adhered to the pagan Roman religion since its founding. However, towards the last years of existence, the Roman emperors began to condemn pagans and promote Christianity. Following this, the empire collapsed, and the western world entered a period known as the Dark Ages. During this period, it was the Christian church alone that preserved the remnants of the political structure, culture, and knowledge of the former Roman civilisation.

As a result, even today, the Pope retains the title of Pontifex, which has its origins in ancient pagan Rome. It was thanks to the efforts of the Italian fascist state under Mussolini that the independent state of Vatican City came into existence in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty.[4] Today, the Pope functions as the head of an independent theocratic state. Effectively, Christian churches from all denominations – not just Roman Catholic – function as supranational states.

Further, in most Islamic countries, there is no such thing as separation of mosque and state. The state and religion are inextricably intertwined. In Islam, the notion of “Ummat-al-Islam” (Community of Islam) binds all adherents of the religion together as a nation without borders. Thus, both Islam and Christianity are virtual states unto themselves and will not welcome any secular or non-Abrahamic state control over their institutions.

If not the government, who?

It is indisputable that a main characteristic of the Sanatana Hindu religion is its decentralised, autonomous, and self-governing nature. Every temple has its own traditions and its own groups of faithful devotees. No two temples are alike.

Managing any temple is a very complex and involved affair. Expecting privately-organised groups of devotees or part-time volunteers to manage all the thousands of temples of modern Bharat is a tall order, especially when it comes to large, popular temples.

The problem with demanding that private parties alone have control over all temples is the fact that there is little accountability with such entities. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Sanatana Hindu Dharma does not have a universally recognised, centralised, hierarchical clergy that is readily waiting to take over the management of temples.

In most Hindu temples, the purohits or pujaris (priests) were traditionally not even the main administrators. Therefore, having a dharmic-oriented government manage a few temples appears to be a good arrangement since the public can always hold the government accountable.

Minimal and maximal visions

As of today, many Hindu temples are state-controlled in Tamil Nadu, where politics has been long dominated by “atheistic” Dravidian parties. This may be held up as a reason to appeal for freeing Tamil Nadu temples from state control. However, another approach that might be considered could be to work towards changing the political climate to one that favours Hindus. This argument can be easily extended to the entire country.

One of the main reasons why many Hindus are demanding that the state give up control over Hindu temples is the flawed nature of Bharat’s secular state – which, in theory, should not favour one religion over the other. In practice, however, the secular state has been overly biased towards the so-called minority religions. Effectively, Hindus – who currently form the majority – have been rendered second-class citizens.[5]

In the face of such oppression, it is natural for any Hindu to be wary of a secular state having control over its most sacred space: the temple, which is the Devalaya (home of the deity). It would be natural to demand that such a biased secular state should, at the minimum, keep away from interfering in temple affairs.

temple-hindu
Rani Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, Queen of Malwa, who built and renovated hundreds of temples

However, if seen from another angle, a maximal vision to ensure the sustenance of dharma is also needed. As of today, Hindus are a stateless people with no country to call their own. However, this was not always the case. As recently as 250 years ago, a Hindu ruler like Rani Ahilyabai Holkar had renovated and built hundreds of temples all over Bharat.

Thus, it might be more beneficial for Hindus to strive towards making politics in general Hindu-friendly. Also, efforts need to be undertaken towards fixing the flawed nature of Bharat’s secular politics. One of the primary responsibilities of a Hindu-friendly state would be to ensure that the temples are managed well for the benefit of all devotees.

Conclusion

As has been pointed out often, the way the government manages certain Hindu temples can often appear to be clumsy and incompetent. Also, portions of the donations collected from devotees are appropriated in the name of administrative expenses etc. Under some incompetent administrations, many temples have even had precious artifacts stolen.

Such shortcomings are symptoms of the rotten nature of the secular state of today[6] and not of state control of temples in general. State control of a select few temples can sometimes be preferable as the state is subject to public scrutiny under law. In private hands, there is less transparency for ordinary devotees. One dreads to imagine the nightmares that could occur over the safety and responsibility of temple artifacts under the care of inscrutable private entities.

It must be recognised that because of the decentralised and diverse nature of Sanatana Hindu Dharma, Hindus need the organised power of a state to ensure their welfare and protection. If a vibrant culture and ecosystem that functions around the temples must be revived, having a well-managed temple administration run by a dharmic-oriented state can be a real asset.

References:

[1] “Free Our Temples – J Sai Deepak”,

 “Set India’s temples free – J Sai Deepak”,

 “Why the secular government is not a rightful manager of Hindu temples”,

 “Hindu Temples in shackles: Is it not discrimination?

[2] “Prof RV on who should manage India’s temples

[3] In the system of religious millets of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, Greek Orthodox Christians used to be labelled as “Millet-I-Rum” (the nation of Rome)

[4] “Lateran Treaty

[5] Charan, Jayant. “Who is the real minority in India?” (2018)

[6] Charan, Jayant. “Can secularism meet its end in India, that is Bharat?” (2020)

(Featured image: Meenakshi Amman Temple- for representational purpose only)


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About the Author

Jayant Charan
Jayant Charan is an avid reader and his main interests include fiction, society and culture. He likes to write mainly about contemporary politics.