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Democratizing Temple administration: Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

Would it be fair for a Vaishnava brahmin that say, newly began worshipping at his local Maisamma or Mesai Temple, to stake a claim in the administration of said Temple, solely by virtue of his living in its vicinity? Would they respect the weight of its history as much as one that has a deep familial connection, not only with the Deity but also with the institution itself?

In the ongoing discussion about state entrenchment in Hindu Temples, we come face to face with the question of what the alternative system would be, were the State to make a long-overdue exit, and whether it would be duly “democratic”. 

The issue can only be addressed with a baseline understanding the different types of temples and forms of Temple ownership, that vary across jātivarnakula, and sāmpradaya. That being said, the resources and wealth of the largest shrines in India are so vast that they require considerable manpower and expertise in order to efficiently administer – making them a doubly important topic of parlance.  

What distinguishes the Hinduism from other religions is that it is not a monolith. There is no single central concentration of power, and certainly no single, central religious organization or head. Countless sects, denominations, and schools of thought with numerous overlapping faiths; each with their own set of age-old highly specific rituals, festivals, deities, and traditions. These unique traditions, whether folk or Vedic or a blend of the two, are often confined to distinct deities, geographic locations, or even lineages.  

Historically, the administration of Temples has been handed down through the generations to the successors of that particular sampradāya, whether that be a particular family, a caste, or a whole village.  

Following the unconstitutional takeover of Temple administration by various state governments, which was essentially a perpetuation of the vestiges of colonial law (in both cases, only Hindu places of worship were targeted and never those belonging to other faiths), the situation with respect to the state of endowments, wealth, Temple properties, heritage preservation, antique idols, etc., has only gotten worse. While the reason for government incursion is cited as corruption and misappropriation of funds, the state has done absolutely nothing by way of increasing transparency and protection of assets as far as Temples are concerned.

Every rupee of Temple wealth and every square inch of Temple land unquestionably belong to the Deity and the Deity alone. There must, consequently, be no compromise by way of demanding utmost transparency when it comes to the management of Temples. Since the state has not delivered on this aspect, but in fact has allowed the exponential increase of corruption to unimaginable levels, especially in wealthy Temples across South India, the exit of the government is of paramount importance.

Naturally, upon the exit of the government, the administration and affairs should ideally directly be handed over to its rightful heirs, or the hereditary trustees of the Temple. While a few valuable players may be taken aboard for additional help, the financial and decision-making power must remain firmly with said hereditary trustees, as this is the only way to maintain Temple traditions in toto. After all, unique sampradāya and sthala purana (the history of that particular Temple, how it came to be established, and the lore surrounding it etc.) are what make a Temple one-of-a-kind.  

Temples are sacred to each and every Hindu and are the custodians of the Hindu faith. Temple traditions, some of which can be traced back millennia, have been preserved passionately and unwaveringly by those that subscribe to it. Any attack upon Temples and their traditions can be considered a direct attack upon Hindu Dharma.

Colossal levels of financial and ideological corruption have already crept in due to the state trampling Hindu rights. While we can strive toward a healthy level of equality and fairness, it is possible that subjecting Temples to constant scrutiny and social vigilance would be counter-productive. 

While a Hindu of any caste, creed, or race can take darshan and perform puja in any Temple of their choosing, irrespective of their sampradāya, ishta devata, kula devata or any other factor, an extrapolation of this right does not draw a logical corollary with being granted a stake in the administration of such an external sampradāya to which they are essentially an outsider. This is largely due to the elaborate nature of the rituals and rules that constitute or characterize the traditions themselves, and the resolute manner in which they are passed on to future generations – the specifics of which an outsider may not have intimate knowledge of. Deviations from the system would effectively dismantle the tradition itself, which, more often than not, is difficult to establish yet can be broken in an instant. 

For instance, would it be fair for a Vaishnava brahmin that say, newly began worshipping at his local Maisamma or Mesai (a south Indian folk goddess) Temple, to stake a claim in the administration of said Temple, solely by virtue of his living in its vicinity? Would they respect the weight of its history as much as one that has a deep familial connection, not only with the Deity but also with the institution itself? Not only is such a person not qualified to uphold and respect the tradition, but they are also clueless in most aspects of what that particular Temple and its rituals entail. Even if they spent years learning, they still most likely would not profess the same level of loyalty. An outsider inherently has little to no vested interest, and hence no obligation whatsoever to uphold the tradition without distortion.  

The same can be applied vice versa, yet no one is denying that either party can enter each other’s Temples or profess their faith for the latter, wholeheartedly. It is possible to draw a line between a devotee and invested party without it being discriminatory. The Constitution enshrines the rights of devotees or any individual for that matter, to be protected from discrimination based on caste. We’ve come a long way in terms of eradicating social evils related to caste, and thankfully, our country is, for the most part, not resistant to the right kind of social reform. 

At face value, democratizing Temple administration seems like a noble venture. But the negative connotations associated with birth-based varna should not be the driving force behind rallying to permanently alter a Temple’s character – that would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Straying too far from well-established traditions, even if well-intentioned, can have disastrous consequences by way of corruption of the Temple’s essence that make it exclusive in the first place. 

At the core of what keeps Hinduism alive, and a key factor that led to its survival through two barbaric invasions is its seemingly archaic practice of passing on knowledge and rituals unchanged through the generations. Despite this, we’ve lost a substantial amount of knowledge. Losing sight of this would mean losing the diversity that is so precious to the Hindu fold.  

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Sai Priya Chodavarapu
Sai Priya Chodavarapu
doctor, writes about Indian history and polity in her spare time

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