“It has been said that the kings in the past interfered with the religious endowments and why then do you now object to the interference of the State as now constituted? The very constitution of the State will show the difference. Our kings in the old days, the Hindu kings, endowed properties for the temples and maths…But what is the case now? The Government which has got an ecclesiastical department has nothing to do with the endowments of the properties of the Hindus, yet wants to interfere with the religious institutions”
– Sriman Mayasaya, a Madras Legislative Councillor opposing the Hindu Religious Endowments (HRE) Board bill, August 1926
Treasures and assets, ostensibly worth billions of dollars, have been recently “discovered” in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala. Few could have predicted such undiscovered treasures outside of Hollywood movies—but what was completely predictable was the response by many Left-leaning Indian eminences. The gold must have been either looted or collected by duping the gullible, implied some. Others, less inclined to publicly equate faith with the Marxist concept of “false consciousness” perhaps, concentrated not on the genesis of the treasures, but with their disposal. Should not such vast wealth be used for social welfare, they asked with a twinkle in their eyes?
But not only should the discovered wealth not be considered national property or used for general welfare—it actually cannot be, as it is private property. The temple is managed by a private trust controlled by the former royal family of Travancore. Its primary fiduciary responsibility is the preservation and upkeep of the temple and its deity according to historical traditions. Just because a religious trust has huge assets does not mean that those assets are now state property. Even if the temple was not registered as a formal trust, for precedent we nonetheless have the Privy Council in London which had before independence concluded that the standard to determine what should and should not be done in a temple is “custom and usage” and that will “outweigh the text of the law.”
Unfortunately, many politicians have long disagreed—the national Hindu Religious Endowments Commission of 1960-62 appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru had said
“We are aware that consistently with the proclaimed and accepted objective of a socialistic pattern of society it is necessary to benefit the tenants and tillers of the soil and for this purpose the available land (of Hindu temples) has to vested increasingly in the cultivating tenants”.
At the state level, bureaucracies like Tamil Nadu’s HRE board and its successor, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) department have long tried to take over private temples, remove the hereditary rights of local priests, and standardise or “depoliticise” local Hinduism itself, as documented in Franklin Presler’s excellent book Religion under Bureaucracy. The book informs us that in Tamil Nadu
“in 1973, 11015 temples and maths were under HRCE administration. Collectively they owned 441,004 acres of land, some of it the best paddy-growing land in the state…and, an additional 41,306 institutions had, as HRCE officials put it, ‘escaped’ departmental control.”
In effect, our governments, even after independence, have partially nationalised many Hindu temples and destroyed the de facto trusts operating them. “The clear design was to modify local traditions, customs and practices to bring them into line with the political interests and ideological preferences of westernised elites, bureaucrats, political parties and social reformers”, Presler concludes. Now, of course, the government needs to make sure that all trustees perform their fiduciary duty. But that calls for prudential regulation and required disclosures (regarding major activities like selling of land) as well as courts to solve disputes—not bureaucrats that want to micro-manage every aspect of our places of worship.
Nonetheless, in the specific case of the Padmanabhaswamy temple even those who support the “sanctity” of private property could reasonably ask—why let so much gold just accumulate in a temple? Would the original priests and kings be satisfied with this status quo? Should not the trustees concentrate on preserving those jewelery and coins which have more antique or spiritual value, and sell some of the remaining treasure to be invested better and/or to serve underprivileged locals, especially those who belong to the community which has long prayed at this temple?
They could have a point—a creative interpretation of the cy-pres legal doctrine (meaning here “as near as possible to the original intent of the trust”) could potentially override any formal deed. Therefore, some parts of the wealth could (not should) be “liquidated” by the trustees to help the specific sect which the temple represents as well as general inhabitants of the area co-terminus with the erstwhile Travancore kingdom. But the latter could only be a tertiary priority. Around three centuries ago, the royal family of Travancore had declared themselves—and by all accounts, followed through on their promise—as dasas and sevinis (servants) of the temple and its specific deity; the wealth was accumulated in the temple on the basis of that understanding.
Generally, controlling places of worship goes against separation of state and religion. Moreover, liberalism and the rule of law are violated when properties associated with one religion are nationalised, and other religions are treated differently. Any temporal vs spiritual distinction in temple regulation breaks down in practice. One HRCE officer told Presler: “Once in a temple, I saw some pictures (lithographs) of gods in the sanctum sanctorum. Now, in Hinduism, we have idol worship. Pictures are all right in the homes, but not in the temple. So I called the priest and asked him…to take it down immediately”
Not to mention that state control of religion is bound to present opportunities to unethical political entrepreneurs to pit one caste or faith against another. Divide-and-rule becomes too tempting for many, and liberal nationalism is the first casualty. For example, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) played both the language and the caste electoral cards by trying to force out Sanskrit-chanting Brahmins in favour of Tamil-chanting non-Brahmin priests in temples. Even if one has great sympathy for the results of some specific cases of social engineering, one must be sceptical of Faustian bargains with the state.
The same state that may seem benign on some days sets many “barriers of entry” every single day for progressive offshoots of existing religions. Religious trusts are burdened with bureaucratic paperwork, government quotas apply only to some pre-defined communities and castes, personal laws present the binary of full acceptance or apostasy, and indeed the very enunciation of any theological re-interpretation could result in imprisonment on grounds of blasphemy and offence.
Indeed, the proliferation of cults around various god-men in India—instead of new sects based on theological debate (which is common in American Christianity)—suggests that “regulatory arbitrage” is at play here. Belief systems in India do not have the flexibility of formally diverging or converging because the state impedes that progress. Just like free speech does not amount to much on a state-owned printer, freedom in religion cannot thrive if the state controls the property of our holy places.