Hindu Temple Affairs And The Face- Off With Judiciary
Traditional customs and practices have as great a role in the day-to-day running of a Hindu temple as the Shāstras or scriptures. Unquestioningly accepted in the past, what is it that creates disaffection these days among certain sections of the society who have now started demanding changes and reforms in some of these customs and practices? It could be due to the fact that a vast majority of today’s members of the Hindu faith haven’t had the benefit of acquiring in-depth knowledge of the Vedic culture that would presuppose a total acceptance of the status quo in the temple management and related matters. Furthermore, they have a clouded perception because of their exposure to the so-called scientific temper and much-touted rational approach in line with their
Western concepts-based education. Other than practising Hindus, Hinduism also allows within its fold atheists, rationalists, social activists and self-proclaimed secularists and liberals. The public outcry for changes and reforms that we have been lately witnessing are from these segments of the population.
As facts would bear testimony, all those who protest or agitate for changes or reforms in the practices being followed in the temples do not make such demands out of goodwill or for bringing any genuine changes or improvements or for the benefit of the bonafide devotees. Many of them are self-seeking charlatans, who raise their voice in protest against the temple management out of sheer spite, malice, political motivation or just to get some free publicity. A curious mix of spoilers, who are not even regular temple-goers, as well as some devotees, who are ignorant of the relevant facts of the issue, have got swayed by the vociferous hoi polloi and contributed to the uproar calling for changes.
For instance, three of the five petitioners in the case demanding entry of women of all age groups into the Sabarimalā Temple, subsequently expressed regret in the Supreme Court for signing the petition. They revealed they signed the petition out of sheer ignorance of the entire gamut of tantric traditions observed in the worship offered at the temple. It has also come to light during the hearing of the case that the mainstream media (MSM) had lent itself to the fanning of the ‘Happy to Bleed’ campaign that captured the nation’s imagination but eventually turned out to be anti-Hindu. The involvement of other religions, which vie with each other to bring the entire nation under their sway, cannot be ruled out. They are said to have entered into a conspiracy with disgruntled elements within the Hindu community in a bid to hamper the smooth functioning of temples.
In the matter of Shani Shingnapur Temple case, the statement made by women rights activist Trupti Desai, who had led the campaign against the discriminatory treatment meted to women in religious places, reveals the key intention of the litigants. After the Bombay High Court observed that women should be allowed entry into the said temple, she said, “It’s a victory of women power…” Obviously, it was all a case of assertion of women power over the wrongly perceived male domination and has nothing to do with the right to pray!
While hearing a private petition seeking transparency in the running of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the Supreme Court ordered the opening of the six treasure vaults in the temple and inventorying of the findings. Based on the directions of the apex court, though five vaults of the temple were opened, one secret vault B still remains unopened on account of abounding myths and folklore regarding impending destruction and devastation surrounding the opening of that vault. As such, the full inventorying has not yet been completed. Meanwhile, the CPI (M)-led LDF government in Kerala insists that vault B, which is said to contain mysterious treasures, should also be opened. Hence, the Supreme Court is expected to decide on it. However, some experts opine that the judiciary or the government should not intervene in any matters pertaining to the management or running of temples.
Here, it is worth emphasizing that faith is the underpinning of all the beliefs and customs in Sanātana Dharma, which is arguably the most ancient religion in the world. Its tenets and stipulations regarding worship, prayers, etc have been handed down to successive generations by religious elders of the distant past by means of the spoken word as the technique of printing and recording had not been invented until a much later date. These tenets and stipulations have been accepted by the faithful as the divine word on the sheer strength of faith.
Quite a few of the ancient temples built by the Sanātanis, which dot India’s skyline throughout the length and breadth of our country, are extolled today as engineering marvels. How were such massive constructions accomplished during the times when the benefit of the modern infrastructural development was not available is a matter of wonderment. Obviously, faith, which is capable of moving mountains, made the monumental task possible! No wonder that the Sanātanis lay huge premium on faith in the temple-related matters.
Temples are hot spots of divinity and devotion. Different temples develop distinct and unique practices for the worship of the resident deity, taking into account the contours and nuances of the local customs and traditions while ensuring not to bend or breach the norms and stipulations in line with the Shāstras. A person from outside a certain locality may find it difficult to understand the undercurrents of the practices and customs unique to a specific temple.
Sanātana Dharma does not have a central command of spiritual authority either to authentically interpret a tenet or stipulation or to settle a dispute that arises from within. The reach of the Shankaracharyas, who are revered by devout Hindus as the pinnacles of spiritual authority, is only in the nature of advice and guidance and no more.
Against this backdrop, we have witnessed in the recent past a sudden spurt in the cases wherein the faith-based customs and traditions of temple management are being questioned, nay, challenged by organizations or individuals who may be collectively termed as non-traditionalists, on the grounds of gender equality, individual liberty and freedom to practise a religion of one’s choice, all guaranteed by the Constitution.
Imbalance of Arguments
Without prejudice to the supremacy of the Indian Judiciary and its exalted status of being the final arbitrator in disputes between feuding parties with conflicting narratives, one cannot help wondering how the verdict of a bench of grey eminences for a change in temple affairs could have supremacy over time-honoured and customary traditions. The court has before it, on the one hand, a set of logical, rational and constitutionally-valid arguments, cogently presented by legal luminaries and, on the other, a set of counter-arguments based on faith-based beliefs and traditions that constitute the bedrock of Sanātana Dharma. With the obvious imbalance between the two sets of arguments rendering the whole issue asymmetrical or lopsided, doesn’t the litigation leave the devout and the faithful at large emotionally scarred? This happens because the devotees tend to witness a helpless situation wherein they know in their heart of hearts that if the adjudication goes against the customary traditional practices followed in a temple, it is not because the faith-based beliefs and traditions are unsustainable but because these are unfairly pitted against the law, which is based on the provisions of the Constitution.
The matter gets further vitiated when a case is foisted on the believers by non-believers and other unscrupulous elements with a narrow political agenda. Therefore, the ideal scenario would be for the Judiciary to distance itself from matters of faith-based practices followed in temples, except in cases of blatant discrimination. As such, let all our temples remain places of worship by the devout rather than transforming them into legal battlegrounds for feuding parties over feigned inequality or other contentious issues.
By Dr. Sunil Gupta