The sacred and the secular

In 1951, Hon’ble Supreme Court of Bharat ruled that the administration of a religious institution cannot be vested in a secular authority. Yet Hindu temples and charities, unlike churches,  mosques, continue to be administered by the secular Indian state.

This two-part series that traces the trajectory of the interference of the state back  to the East India Company and explores its ramifications on Hindu society, including the audacious demands by politicians and so-called secularists to monetise the gold belonging to Hindu temples  for COVID-19 relief and rehabilitation.

Isavasyam idam sarvam (Pervade the entire world with the vision of the Divine) 

Isavasya Upanishad 

I live in Madurai, a Temple City. Temples  are the heartbeat of this ancient, continuously inhabited city in the planet. The city is scalloped on all sides by ancient Hindu temples—the iconic Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple around which the city has sprung up,  Koodal Azhagar Perumal temple nearby, Thirupurankundran temple  to the north,  and Narasingam Perumal and Tirumohur temples on the other side of the River Vaigai that bisects the city.

Dharma matters

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a temple is “a building used for the worship of gods or goddesses in some religions.” The Sanskrit word for temple is devalaya (deva= God; alaya=abode). The English  word  temple   does not capture the magic, mystery, mysticism, wonder and awe evoked by devalaya. Not surprisingly, we struggle to describe dharmic terms in adharmic vocabulary and syntax. Thus, we  find that the translation is grossly inadequate as  many of the terms elude easy translation!  

One of the offshoots of centuries of foreign invasion, subjugation and rule,  has been the  insidious  de-Hinduisation  of Hindu traditions, customs and practices particularly as it relates to Hindu temples. Currently, in the country,  temple legislation  normalizes and justifies statal control only over Hindu temples and religious endowments. Churches, mosques and religious endowments of Christians and Muslims respectively are sacrosanct and therefore immune.

The recent audacious demand by the Congress and the former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavhan  that the  gold  property of Hindu temples be monetised to  support the COVID-19 relief and rehabilitation are  blatant and malevolent attacks against the essence  of Hindu Dharma principles  by striking at its roots – the sampradaya (tradition) and purpose of Hindu temples. 

The temple as a sacred space

A temple, in Hindu Dharma, is a kshetram  or transformative space. It is a dharma kshetram or a hallowed space for the practice of Hindu Dharma.  In the Sri Vaishnavite sampradaya, a  temple is a divya kshetram or sacred space sanctified by the pasurams or hymns of the azhwars or the mystic  Sri Vaishnavite Bhakti poets. Sri Vaishnavites also believe that the murtis in the 108 Sri Vaishnavite temples are archa vatara or the descent of the Divine (Vishnu) into the image so that He may be easily accessible to His devotees. 

Clearly then, in Hindu Dharma, temples are not  brick  and mortar structures but  a sacred space consecrated by the twin ceremonies of murti sthapana or installation of  the image of the presiding deity of the temple (another dharmic term that eludes translation) and prana prathishta or the infusing of  prana or life energy into the murti. The murti, then,  is not an  inert stone idol but a living, dynamic  energy form.      

So, when  we enter a temple and cross the dwara or threshold, we step into a  zone of  infinite potential that pulsates and throbs with Divine Consciousness. A Hindu temple, thus, is a subliminal portal or threshold that straddles the material and spiritual realms.  

Darshan or the  art of sacred perception

Indic culture is predominantly visual. The murtis or deities in our temples are vibrant reminders of  the importance of darshan or  sacred perception. It is more than just ‘seeing’ which is a purely sensory neurophysiological event.  And this quality of darshan permeates our landscapes, arts,  iconography, our lives and our living. Similarly, we undertake tirtha yatra  or sacred pilgrimages to have darshan of the  sacred place; to travel as an explorer in search of the Unknown; not a touristy temple traveller who ticks off the place on his travel itinerary.   

Pujya Sri Swami Chinmayanandaji said, “… As a devotee visits a temple, and has the vision of the idol, he feels a thrill of joy and inner peace, in spite of the prevailing tensions around. It hardly needs to be emphasised how much temples are necessary these days. They serve as speed breakers to slow down and soften our hectic blind rush  in life. They also serve as sources of inspiration and solace during times of depression and disappointments, which are mostly beyond our control. Building of temples was,  therefore  considered a sacred activity in ancient times, as sacred as any other community service.”  

A Hindu doesn’t  visit a temple to “worship” the deity. Instead, he or she visits the temple to have “darshan” of the deity—to see and be seen in turn. We commonly ask someone who has visited a temple, “Did you have a good darshan?”  

A temple, for a Hindu, is  not a  congregational place for “fun and fellowship” and discussions and debates about the mundane. It is a space for direct communion or darshan with the Divine. It, then naturally follows that when each us stands before a murti in a temple, we are in effect “seers.”  In fact,  my mother often tells me that we stand before a murti, not  to pray with closed eyes; but  pray with  eyes wide open, permit the vision of the murti to flood us and revel in the gaze. 

More than just  a matter of perspective

The absence of a shared iconographic vocabulary and grammar, bewildered the early  invaders and conquerors of Bharat.  For instance, European travellers  responded to  the icons and images of Bharat with a mixture of horror, bewilderment and repugnance. To them, and others of Abrahamic faiths, our murtis were inert “idols” and worshippers of idols practised “idolatry” – a cardinal sin and thus deserved iconoclasm or breaking of the so-called idols.  

MA Sherring (1826-1880), Protestant missionary and Indologist, lived and worked in Benaras. He  wrote an influential book The Sacred City of the Hindus: An account of Benares in ancient and modern timesIn the book , he writes, “… the worship of uncouth idols, of monsters, of the linga and other indecent figures, and of  a multitude of grotesque, ill shapen and hideous objects.”

Mark Twain, the well-known American author, writes of his visit to Benares and his encounter with the “idols.” “And what a swarm of them there is! The town is a vast museum of idols—and all of them crude, misshapen and ugly! They flock one’s dreams at night, wild mob of nightmares.”   

Overvaluing the heard over the seen

This points to a basic difference in the point of view and perspective of the seer and the seen. The extreme reactions evoked  by Hindu  images in  people from Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) springs from a deep-rooted hostility and antagonism to “imagining the Divine.”  Thus, Abrahamic faiths place primacy  and faith on the heard. People of The Book, One God; One Prophet (Judeo-Christian tradition) thus have an inherent suspicion  and mistrust  towards the seen. Ironically, most present day deracinated secularised liberal Hindus have also lost their connection to their heritage of iconographic vocabulary, grammar and syntax.    

Such divergent points of views and perspectives, supplemented with British imperialism, and evangelization set the stage for tectonic shifts in the relationship between the rulers and  Hindu temples. It  gradually resulted in changing equations between  Hindu temples and the society of which they were an integral part.  

During the  foreign invasions, Hindu temples were the nucleus  of  the society. In the tradition of Hindu dharma, a temple was many-splendoured. It  was the confluence  of  sacred, the spiritual, cultural, economic, social  and artistic  traditions of the community. In fact, the fabric of the community was woven with the warp and weft of traditions, customs and rituals vivified in the sacred precincts of the temple. 

Although often supported with generous endowments by powerful kings and emperors,  temples, nevertheless were jointly managed and administered by the local community. Such charitable endowments were utilized by temples for the upliftment and welfare of the local community such  as constructing rest houses,  hospitals (Ayurveda), supporting education through veda pathashalsa, cow protection (gau shala), and providing food for those who require it. The Hindu temple was a vibrant eco system that supported the livelihoods of the entire community.  It belonged to every caste, every subsect and every community. It was truly democratic in scope and purpose.   

Enter the law

Shri TR Ramesh, firebrand temple activist and President, Indic Collective Trust (that promotes and upholds Indic civilizational values through legal intervention) and his team spearhead the reclaim temple from government control movement. He offers insightful perspectives that traces the growth and evolution of legislation of Hindu temples to the East India Company (EIC 1600-1874).

According to Shri Ramesh, the beginning of  the interference of the government/state in Hindu temples can be traced to  the Madras Regulation of 1817 passed by the British to ensure  ‘efficient administration’ of religious charities and places of worship. However, the move was resisted vehemently by Muslims and therefore the they did not come under the purview of the act. Christian charities,  as always, were exempt from such considerations. 

However, Shri Ramesh explains that only the major Hindu temples were under  the EIC “supervision” and they were not in “control” of the Government.  Between 1817-1840, the administration of Hindu temples was efficient  and several District Collectors such as  Thomas Edward Ravenshaw  and Thomas Munro  (1761-1827) were  openly supportive of the activities of the temples  that  also contributed to the revenue. It is interesting to note, however, that in 1840, the EIC decided to delink themselves from  the temples  as evangelical missionaries “complained” to the British parliament that  the efficient administration of  Hindu temples was a barrier in proselytization efforts. 

In 1863, the British Government issued  the Religious Endowments Act 1863, which clearly stated that government would have no control whatsoever in appointment of trustees, etc. in Hindu temples. In 1925 and later in 1926, the provincial government in the Madras Presidency, led by the so-called progressive intellectuals of  the Justice Party, was bent upon government control over Hindu Temples and Endowments and thereby gain control over the property of Hindu institutions. The Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act 1926, was introduced and was  the precursor to the current Hindu Religious  and  Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Act  1959 that sought to manage and control  Hindu religious institutions (temples and mutts) on the pretext of mismanagement. 

“Hindus are oblivious of their fundamental rights to profess, practice and propagate their religion and more importantly they do not seem to be aware that they alone are, under Article 26 of the Indian Constitution, vested with the fundamental rights to administer and maintain their religious institutions. Hindus are also totally ignorant of the dictum of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India that the administration of a religious institution cannot be vested in a secular authority (Shirur Mutt Judgment – AIR 1954 SC 282). Abrahamic religions would not suffer this at all. When J. Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, tried to introduce Annadhanam or free food in churches and mosques albeit as a favour to the respective minority communities, the minorities were very clear that would brook no such ‘interference’,”  says Shri Ramesh.    

Reclaim the temple narrative

Shri J Sai Deepak, Supreme Court Advocate and legal mentor of the Indic Collective, is passionately committed to the movement to reclaim  the Hindu temples from the state.  According to him,  the state control of Hindu temples is “unconstitutional and discriminatory.”  

In his talk ‘Set India’s temples free’, Shri Sai Deepak says, “Our temples  do not belong to us. This is a statement of fact. Hindu temples have been usurped by the very institution that is duty bound to protect the freedom of religion—the Indian state… Temple administration in the hands of the state  has eviscerated, emasculated, disembowelled Hindu temples which are hurtling towards the extinction of our very own traditions and way of life.”   

According to Sai Deepak, the  “real” damage happened, ironically, not under the British rule, but post Independence. In 1951, the Shirur Mutt in Udipi, Karnataka, was notified for state take over  under the Madras Hindu Religious Endowment Act (1951) and a legal battle was fought in the Madras High Court. Later in 1954, the Supreme Court of India struck down some of the central provisions of the act as “unconstitutional and illegal.” However, in 1959, the state brought in a new legislation that “rehashed” the earlier provisions that were struck down and currently, this legislation is in practice even today. 

Shri Sai Deepak also points out that from 1959 except for a few isolated instances “nobody from the Hindu society deemed it fit to challenge the blatant takeover of its religious institutions by the state, which is a violation of their fundamental rights,” and hence the legislation remained unchallenged until 2012. Pujya Shri Swami Dayanandaji, in 2012challenged the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments legislations of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry. However, the petition is still “languishing” in the Supreme Court. 

“It is important to note that the presence of such Hindu-centric legislations is not limited to the southern states but is also applicable in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra also have legislation which control Hindu temples,” says Shri Deepak.  

State control of temples destablises Hindu society  and alienates  Hindus from their roots. It has also resulted in increased corruption, its inherently discriminatory focus questions the notion of a secular Indian state that is supposed to be equidistant from all religions, loss of livelihoods that make people vulnerable to predatory conversions and loss of temple real estate to the state and hostile take over by other religious groups. According to Shri TR Ramesh and Sri Sai Deepak, 47,000 acres of temple land have been lost in Tamil Nadu alone since 1959. 

Perhaps a fall out of this systematic alienation from dharmic values is the recent  issue of monetisation of temple gold to address the COVID-19 pandemic, another selective strategy that  exhorts that the wealth of only one particular faith be the target of such “innovative” ideas.  

The sense of entitlement of the so-called secularists and politicians in their demands to monetise temple gold  highlights their sense of entitlement and amnesia over the fact that when a bhakta makes  a dakshina  (offering) to a temple, the property is that of the deity.  It no longer belongs to any single institution  or individual.  

Shri Ramesh opposes monetisation of temple gold in letter and spirit. 

“Under Article 26 every temple can only ‘own and administer’. It cannot alienate. It should not alienate. Gold in the form of  ancient coins and antique jewels  meant for adornment of deities or for use during rituals cannot be used for monetisation of gold or touched in any way. Temples having huge deposits of other kinds of gold offerings can turn them into bullion and deposit them with the Reserve Bank of India in Gold Deposits where the deposit earns interest in gold.

However, these are to be decided by true trustees of the temple and not by governments. Politicians and secularists demanding such appropriation of gold do so because only Hindu and Jain temples have gold. They never open their mouths regarding real estate belonging to religious institutions because Churches and Wakfs have huge extent of such landed properties,” he says with analytical precision.   

For several centuries, we, Hindus, have been  slumbering like Kumbhakarna, cocooned in our self-delusions and apathy. I am reminded of the Silent Valley Movement launched by the people of Kerala to prevent the construction of a hydroelectric project on the River Kuntipuzha that flows through the Silent Valley forest in the Western Ghats. It was a participatory  people’s movement which believed that it was everybody’s business (not just of activists and researchers alone) to Save Silent Valley.

We need  a similar people’s movement across the Hindu society to reclaim our temples from  state control. We need to converge as a community; rekindle a sense of pride in Hindu Dharmic values and reclaim what is rightfully ours. There is no unwilling victim. Victimhood disempowers – individually and collectively. Reclaiming Hindu temples is every Hindu’s responsibility. Every Hindu voice matters.

(To be continued..)


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.