Divine landlords

By Gail Omvedt

IN A striking ruling, the Supreme Court recently declared ``Hindu deities'' to be ``legal persons,'' capable like corporations or other institutions of owning property under the law.

More precisely, Mr. Justice M. Jagannadha Rao and Mr. Justice Umesh Banerjee ruled that ``Hindu law recognises a Hindu idol as a juridical (legal) subject being capable in law of holding property by reason of the Hindu shastras following the status of legal person in the same way as that of a natural person.'' The ruling was based on an appeal against the Patna High Court's ruling regarding the idols of ``Ram Jankiji'' and ``Thakur Raja'' in Bihar. The appeals are said to have been filed by the deities through their managers or `shebait' controlling their temples.

The Supreme Court judges rejected the ruling by a judge of the Patna High Court that one of the deities was false, arguing that ``there cannot be any false deity'' under Hindu law. Relying on the shastras and various ``authorities,'' the court also explained the ``rituals of consecration,'' presumably to show how true deities were consecrated. Thus, they described the rites of carrying the image to the snan mantap, uttering the sankalp mantra, bathing the image with holy water, ghee, dahi, honey and rose water; and taking it for oblation to the sacred fire; in this, they said, the pran pratishta takes place in which the ``eternal spirit is infused in the idol.'' With the image then taken to the temple and formally dedicated to the deity, the court found it fit to rule that the deities or idols in question were indeed ``legal persons'' consecrated in temples with lands that were entitled to enjoy exemption under the State's land ceiling law.

The court decision seems bizarre. It is hard to imagine the implications of taking a deity (or idol, in the courts' own language) as a ``legal person.'' After all, a ``legal person'', whether individual, corporate or divine, is legally subordinate to the laws of a country, something that would be unsettling to any self-respecting god. Further, if a deity - or, to follow the language used, ``the eternal spirit infused in the idol'' - is seen as the owner of some land, this implies the exclusion from ownership of the rest of the land. This would be somewhat puzzling to those for whom the divine has ultimate governance over all creations. The Supreme Court's strange decision is, in fact, derogatory to the deity, reducing the divine to being yet another Bihar landlord.

In any case, almost everywhere in the world as in India, it is religious institutions, not idols or gods taken as legal persons, that own property. Idols, after all, have to have a human spokesman; institutions are socially constituted to begin with. Such institutions, of course, own a lot of property the world over; churches, temples, maths, gurdwaras, mosques or whatever are not small powers. The Vatican, the Catholic and Protestant churches and religious institutions in the U.S. are able to claim tax exemption and other privileges that would make any company envious. Individual Christian ``evangelists'' become millionaires. In India, not only temples but such institutions as the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee of the Sikhs are powerful and wealthy. But they are wealthy as institutions, not as the direct voice of the deity. This leaves it up to the believer, and not the courts, to contest whether these institutions actually express the divine will. The courts only have the authority to decide on whether the institutions are following the laws of the country in which the property is owned.

In Maharashtra, to take an important example, temple lands are registered under public trusts. Most village temples, as a result, are controlled by the villagers themselves - certainly not by a priest of ``manager'' speaking in the name of the devata. There are often conflicts over this control; larger trusts may be controlled by cliques. Nevertheless, many of the temple trusts function relatively democratically, with their lands representing something like common property resources of the villages concerned; They are, in any case, more democratic than feudal control.

For that matter, the vast majority of the Maharashtrian trusts are in the name of Bahujan devatas and devis unknown to the Sanskrit dharmashastras. It is thus unlikely that any of the current crop of judges would be qualified to rule on their qualifications. These Bahujan devatas and devis have their own characteristics. Khandoba, for example, may be claimed by Brahmans to be a form of Shiva, or may be argued by scholars of religion to be closely related to the Dravidan Murugan. Little of this means much to his Maharashtrian devotees, for whom he is simply one of the most popular peasant devatas. Khandoba has his own stories and his own characteristics, including what might be called an `intercaste' marriage: while he is thought of as a Maratha-Kunbi king, his second wife Banu was from the Dhangar community. Similarly, Jogeshwari, one of the most widely revered devis of Maharashtra, may be taken to be a form of `Parvati' by Brahmanic tradition or a local form of the worldwide `great goddess' by feminists. What is significant is that in her local story, she refuses to marry Vaijanath of Parli, and settles down firmly as an independent devi at Ambejogai. There is really little of Sanskrit tradition in this, whatever glosses might be added.

It may seem out of line for a non Hindu - particularly one whose place of birth would make her a second-class citizen under some current proposals by political leaders - to comment on `Hindu' theology. Hindu (Brahmanic) judges may indeed understand Hindu (Brahmanic) law far better than any outsider. If it were a matter of the judges of the Supreme Court interpreting Brahmanic law only for those religiously inclined to accept it, there would be no problem. However, two points can be made.

The first is a question about the Bihar situation out of which this court case arose. It is not that there are no religious institutions controlling lands in Bihar. One of the most famous is the Bodh Gaya math, where a land struggle was carried on for years among the Dalit agricultural labourers working the lands of the math by the Sangarsh Vahini.

The struggle has become famous among feminists because the end result was that, in 1983, after the labourers won the rights to some of the land, the momentous decision was taken by the Vahini to give the land won in the names of women. The Bodh Gaya math is also notorious for a different reason, because the trust that runs it is controlled by Brahmans in spite of at least a century of protests by Buddhists, and in the last decade there have been mass struggles of Dalit Buddhists to regain this sacred site of the Buddha. Could it be that the appeal in the name of `Thakur Raja' and `Ram Jankiji' is being made in order to evade the results of similar land struggles?

It is also intriguing the names of the devatas in question would appear to suggest that these are Bahujan or perhaps even adivasi devatas who are being Sanskritised. This fact, and the question whether they should enjoy exemption from the state's land ceiling law, are certainly a matter of concern for the rural poor of Bihar.

The second point is one that convinced (Brahmanic) Hindus themselves should be concerned about. Letting the courts rule on the status and rights of deities may be quite satisfactory as long as the current Brahman monopoly of the judicial system continues. But what if the benches were occupied - through some fluke of increasing education and political appointments - by those people who, according to the very dharmashastras the judges are interpreting, are not even supposed to hear the most sacred Brahmanic scriptures? What if the Dalits, those who used to be called `shudras,' and even women become judges? The divine landlords of Bihar and their all-too-human supporters would then indeed have something to worry about.

(The writer is visiting Professor, University of Pune.)

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