False Idols

The trouble with temple deities acting as landlords

31 August 2018

HINDU GODS ARE IN A LITIGIOUS MOOD these days. Following the struggle by Ram Lalla—the Hindu deity’s infant form—to lay claim to the 2.77 acres of land where the Babri Masjid once stood, even minor gods are flexing their muscles. The temple idol in Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir, a garden-variety temple in Eastern Rajasthan, has recently been deemed to be the sole owner of about 400 bighas of land. The yoga guru Ramdev, incidentally, was eyeing the same plot of land for his Patanjali empire. The Indian state, which routinely dispossesses its citizens in the name of large infrastructure projects, is quite helpless when it comes to the land rights of temple deities.

Idols have long enjoyed state patronage. In 1988, the Indian government represented the god Shiva in a British court to bring back the idol of Pathur Nataraja from the British Museum. An argument made during the legal proceedings was that “an idol remained a juristic person however long buried or damaged, since the deity and its juristic entity survive the total destruction of its earthly form.”

Having “juristic personhood” assigned to a non-human entity cannot be considered a human right, but a privilege. It is legal fiction. Depending upon their social usefulness, states and courts choose to treat some non-human entities as if they were endowed with the rights of a person. These entities are obviously not flesh-and-blood persons—juristic persons do not have bodies or souls; they cannot reason or feel; they do not get married or have children. Yet juristic persons have the right to own property, to enter into contracts and to sue. Idols of Hindu gods are deemed persons in this sense, although being an embodiment of the divine, they are ascribed a superhuman will.

Idols are to modern Hinduism what corporations are to the world of business. In a hyper-capitalist country like the United States, business corporations have been granted the rights of free speech and freedom of religion, which used to be reserved only for citizens. In a hyper-religious country such as India, temple idols have been granted the right to own and litigate property, a right normally reserved for citizens. Yet what may be forgotten in all this is that it is human and other sentient beings that are entitled to enjoy rights that stem from living in a society.

ON 22 DECEMBER 1949, militant Hindu activists broke into the Babri mosque and placed the idols of the Hindu deities Ram and Sita there. The installation of the idols would trigger a conflict that would change the political contours of the country in profound ways over the next fifty years. The events of the night would be retold in a mythical fashion. In 1987, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh journal, Observer, reported it as a “historic morning” in which the idols “miraculously appeared at the Janmasthan.” By the 1980s, the Ram Janmabhoomi—Ram’s birthplace—movement had acquired considerable steam. In September 1990, BJP leader LK Advani launched a rath yatra that was to traverse 10,000 kilometres through the country in a jeep designed like a chariot, with the rallying cry of “Mandir wahin banayenge”—the temple will only be built there. The yatra left a trail of communal clashes wherever it went. It came to a head with the demolition of the mosque by a 300,000-strong mob. The incident led to one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence in modern India. During the rath yatra, Advani declaimed: “Can a court decide if Ram was born here or not?”

Keywords: RSS VHP Ayodhya Ram religion Babri Masjid Law Temples idol worship