Government control of Temples : A perspective from Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri

Government control of Hindu Temples, a matter which has been debated and discussed innumerable times. Questions have been raised whether it is appropriate for a secular government to manage religious denominations. Counter arguments have been provided as to what constitutes a religious affair and do the extent of government control really meddles in it. Are financial matters of the temple religious in nature? The definition of secularism has been broadened as and when it suited the state. There have been examples where the state was trusted to oversee the daily affairs of a temple and even empowered to decide what rites should be performed. To argue for the cause, we need to understand who exactly in the government controls these temples, are these government committees unilateral, what is the extent of government’s intervention in religious matters, how much and for what purpose the temple funds can be used by such government-appointed committees. These are some of the precise points I will try to elaborate in this article through the context of Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri, one of the 4 dhaams of Hindu.

The Paradox of the Indian Secular State – Robert D. Baird.

Photo Courtesy: https://twitter.com/ravithinkz/status/673243694418419712

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Shree Jagannath Temple Act was an act passed by Odisha government, notified in the Odisha Gazette in 1954 to “provide for better administration and governance of Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri and its endowments”.

Who in the government (And outside it) actually controls it

The committee which administers Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri has substantial government clout. While there are members from all sections of the society including members of the public, government officers and temple servitors, the government officers enjoy executive powers and influence much of the decision making. Also, the who among member of public and servitor will be part of the committee is decided by the government.

The administration and governance of the temple are vested upon a committee which is constituted by people from all walks of life including ex-officio members who become a member by the virtue of the position they hold within the government. The committee includes the following people in various capacities.

  • The Raja of Puri, who has the first right over worship of Shri Jagannath is the chairman of the committee.
  • An officer of Odisha government, not below the rank of Addl. Chief Secy will be the working chairman.
  • An officer from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) not below the rank of Revenue Divisional Commissioner serves as the secretary

Apart from these, the government officers who are part of this committee includes

  • Puri collector
  • Superintendent of Police, Puri
  • An officer from Archeological Survey of India (ASI)
  • Addl Secy, Department of Law, Govt of Odisha

Apart from government officers, below-mentioned people are also inducted as the member of the committee which are nonetheless nominated and appointed by the government

  • One person from among persons entitled to sit of Mukti Mandapa.
  • 5 persons from among all Sevaks of the temple.
  • 1 person from the Mathas or other religious institutions related to the Nitis of the temple
  • One Chartered Accountant (CA) who doesn’t in anyway belong to or is related to any person in the above category

All the members of this committee, including the government officers must profess Hindu religion, failing which their membership automatically ceases to exist.

What is the extent of control this committee exercises over the temple

The committee controls the record-of-rights (Niti, Seva and Puja), has significant say over temple administration, is the proprietor of the funds as well as all the immovable properties and temple endowments.

The duties of the committee and its members are outlined in detail as follows

  • The committee maintains the records-of-rights i.e. the nitis and rituals of the temple and who is entrusted with what.
  • It ensures safe custody of funds in terms of endowments(land), donations, Ratna Bhandar and other movable properties of the temple.
  • It is also incumbent upon this committee to upkeep general cleanliness, hygiene and ensures discipline in the temple premises. This includes ensuring the purity and hygiene in the offerings (Mahaprasad or Bhog) as per standards.
  • The committee must make provisions for payment of the monthly salary of the temple staff.
  • To consult with state government on sale, lease or put immovable properties of the temple to agricultural use.
  • Remove encroachment from the Temple land.

The committee submits an annual administrative report to the state government in order for the government to assess the performance of the members. In addition to the committee, the secretary enjoys some executive powers which include the following

  • Can decide to lease Temple land for a period of fewer than 3 years
  • Resolve disputes on rights, privileges, duties and obligations among sevaks on niti, seva, puja in accordance with Record-of-rights.
  • Control activities, conduct and management of all institutions within the temple including the Mukti Mandapa and Pandit Sabha.
  • Suspend, dismiss or impose a fine on any of the sevak for non-performance of religious duty, disobedience or general misconduct.

Control over Temple Funds and Properties

The committee is the proprietor of most of the temple funds but it can be used only for the temple purposes or propagating Shri Jagannath culture. The donations received from various sources is managed by another committee headed by CM of Odisha which is used for salary and welfare of temple staff namely the servitors.

There are various incomes as well as expenditures of the temple. The Chief administrator is entrusted with preparing a budget for the annual income and expenditure of the temple which is to be approved by the committee and then passed in Odisha assembly. The temple fund consists of

  • Income from movable and immovable properties of the temple
  • Contributions from the state government in terms of grants
  • Gifts and contributions by public, institutions or local authorities

This fund can only be utilised for certain said purposes as defined in the act

  • Maintenance and repairs of the temple and its properties.
  • Training of sevaks to perform the daily rituals.
  • General hygiene for the worshippers and devotees as well as for medical relief, water supply and other sanitary arrangements.
  • Propagation of Shri Jagannath Culture and philosophy.
  • In addition, the committee must look into and try to utilise donations in a way as wished by the donating body be it a member of the public or any institution.
  • General day-to-day expenditure of the temple.

The cash offerings from devotees and other institutions go to a temple Hundi which is part of the “Shri Jagannath Temple Foundation Fund”. This fund is managed by the financial committee headed by the Chief Minister of Odisha aided by the Law minister who acts as the vice chairman. These are invested in long-term FDs the interest of which is used to pay salary to the sevaks and other temple employees as well as their welfare. These FDs can’t be encumbered without approval from the state government. 

Conclusion

With government intervention, it certainly brings in certain transparency in funds management. Also, as the custodian of Record-of-Rights, the government, which is a representative of people, makes sure the nitis and sevas are performed on time and as per ritual so as to maintain the sanctity. There have been instances where servitors of a particular Nijoga have not done their duty on time or as per ritual – Nijoga : A particular type of servitor engaged in performing some assigned responsibility like “Kumbhakara Nijoga” create earthen pots for the temple kitchen. There are 36 Nijogas in total. The temple administration has taken necessary action in these cases to maintain order, the Nabakalebara fiasco being the significant one. To summarise, it brings some accountability to the otherwise all-powerful and sometimes unruly nijogas. Recently, the administration also mandated quality check on the raw materials used for Mahaprasad to ensure hygiene. There was a complaint from a lot of quarters that the general quality ofMahaprasad was going down. By these limited interventions, the administration acts as a bridge between devotees and temple servitors.

However, it again raises the point mentioned in the beginning. Does a government which asserts itself to be secular should meddle in the religious affair, whether for a noble purpose and who gets to decide the nobility of the purpose. What will be ideal is, while govt ascribes itself to some form of financial management, which as Puri temple shows, should only be used for purposes directly related to the temple and Hindu culture and philosophies. This will bring some kind of transparency which is desirable. However, a secular government should always stay away from the religious affairs and let the temple administration viz. the sevaks and worshippers decide that. A selective approach to dabble in the religious affairs of only one community while others enjoy “religious freedom” would be seen by many as anti-Hindu which doesn’t augur well for a secular government.

As they say in Odia, “Chaka aakhi sabu dekhuchi”, The Lord with round eyes is watching it all.

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