Historical research and analysis around the temples and their resources have been centred around how they acted as focal points of social control, how they were (mis) managed by a limited number of people belonging to select communities who had a vested interest in keeping the temple resources to themselves. Essentially, the ones who wanted to deprive the society of any advantage that could accrue out of it. All of these points have been systematically dismantled through thorough research.
There are several arguments being made about how the traditional temple administration must fundamentally change. The ensuing beliefs around how temple administration must reform itself revolve around the following arguments – resources must be utilised primarily for the benefit of Hindu causes, provide widespread employment and scholarships to Hindus, so on and so forth.
These arguments are founded on the principles that they have historically not already done so, that they do not have the will do so, and that they are incapable to do so.
Thus they buy into the argument that temples have historically been an oppressive institution and also that they need to be reformed by a shakeup of administration and a takeover through various means to create a new system with radical new ideas. Something which we have seen plays out time and again, state after state, government after government and temple after temple.
The very idea that traditional practices are in need of reform belies the fact that the proponents of this ‘reform’ might be misinformed with regards to how it was structured in the first place.
The Udupi Mutth was instituted and is run by the Madhava community does not mean the social work that is the outcome of the temple activities is accrued to by only the members of that particular community. The social work encompasses a wide spectrum of society, the beneficiaries of which are primarily the most deprived sections of society. These activities were not borne out of ‘liberal reform’, rather they are inbuilt in the very nature of traditional temple administration that the indigenous communities came up with their will to create long-lasting institutions out of hundred of years of effort and practice. To replace this with management seeking reform is just another way of saying that the traditional practices are neither enough for the local customs and traditions to sustain themselves but also that a “new model” would better serve the needs of the Hindu society.
An argument that revolves around the idea that the temples must involve all the sections of the society that profess to be a part of the sampradaya seems deliberately misplaced in the sense that the traditional governance of the temples was already in the hands of the constituent (devotee) communities.
Sri Parthasarthy Temple, Triplicaine has been a fundamental example of how the temple management was already composed of local communities who were devotees of the temple and also of how it was interwoven across the societal matrix blending together various sections of the society which had in common the noble pursuit of running the temples in the best way as possible (something that was subverted as soon as the govt professing belief similar to the ones being advocated right now took over the temple).
The particular temple’s management has been constituted of members, from not just the Brahmin community, but also from the Telugu community and another section from the Shudra community (although all three were to be from the Vaishnava sampradaya). Thus proving that traditional temple management already had a highly evolved mechanism, a broken down and simplistic version of what is now being proposed as a common universal template across the various temple administrations.
Proposing election based representation from the “district” in which the temple is situated often misses the point that each temple evolved its own unique methodology to integrate the local communities into how it was run and the resources managed. This methodology was unique in every temple and a universal template cannot be drawn to subvert the processes that evolved locally and are much more in cognisance of what the nature of the temple is (through its various rituals integrating its various stakeholders and the devotees integrating the local communities).
Drawing a universal template (as a possibility to generate competition across various administrations to pursue secular objectives) often will lead to the subversion of local practices and demands. There will be fertile ground for takeover by elements that will take advantage of the “utility maximising” processes (like running hospitals and providing scholarships) that are now being proposed. Often the newly elected management will choose to give up unique customs, rituals and the various activities that categorise the Sacred in lieu of activities that are not just superficially secular but in actual terms is just another way of saying that temples must be willing to perform what the responsibility of the govt ideally is.
The argument that “secular activities” like that of providing social security net and “massive hospitals” is based on the fact that this will lead to a huge influx of devotees. This fundamentally disparages the beliefs of the devotees, this also takes the blame of a fundamental failure of a social security and healthcare system from the government of which it literally is one of the major responsibilities.
Finally, the basis under which the proposal that the temple must exert political influence often misses the forest for the trees. While the need of the hour is a reform focused on the revival of traditional temple governance which was founded on Dharma, the distracted lot demand an infusion of secular ethos into how the temples are run so as to serve the purposes of a political-administrative system that has existed in barely a tenth of the time period in which these temples and their enduring institutions have existed, like rocks tethering us to our cultures and most importantly to our Dharma.
(This article has been written by Anjali George. She is an activist, writer and a reformer and one of the pioneers behind the ‘Ready To Wait’ movement, that was launched to ascertain the rights of the indigenous women in opposition to a politically motivated attack on the tradition of Sabarimala temple. She serves on the Board of Frankfurt City’s Council of religions, Indic Collective, and Shaktitva foundation. She is also the chairperson of People for Dharma)