A Hindu temple is not just a place for prayer and worship, but also consecrated as the house of the presiding deity. It is believed to be a place where god dwells. This is fundamentally different from the belief in Abrahamic/monotheistic religions, wherein religious places are for prayer and congregation.
The symbolic, spiritual and structural aspects of a Hindu temple are rooted in ancient Vedic traditions, sacred texts such as the Agama shastras and several treatises on architecture.
Hindu temples are a ritual, religious and spiritual destination, as well as landmarks around which ancient arts, community celebrations and economy flourished.
In other words, the temple was the nucleus of not only religious and spiritual acts, but also social, cultural and economic activity in the neighbourhood.
The administration of temples in ancient and medieval India was governed with Dharmic tenets. The king, as the sovereign head of the state, discharged his duty as a protector of temples. The king/state intervened only as an arbiter in disputes.
However, in independent India, the state, in contravention of the secular credentials enshrined in the Constitution, controls and administers temples. The Constitution does provide for regulation and restriction of “any economic, financial, political or other secular activity associated with religious practice”.
While this may afford sanction to the government intervening in the event of mismanagement, there is no constitutional support for the control and/or administration of temple affairs. Yet, in blatant and brazen infringement of constitutional provisions and Supreme Court strictures, various state governments are administering ad infinitum over 400,000 temples across the country.
Now, recognising the complexities involved with temple affairs, the government of India did constitute a seven-member commission of inquiry under Dr C P Ramaswami Aiyar in 1960 to recommend practices for the effective management of temples and their resources.
Over 1,400 responses to a questionnaire widely circulated and about 400 memoranda were received from various stakeholders, including temples, mutts and public bodies. The commission also held 130 public and in-camera meetings in various cities and visited about 250 important religious institutions to obtain evidence.
In 1962, the commission submitted an exhaustive report of over 110 recommendations.
Meanwhile, in the recent past, we have heard debates swirling around the issue of temple governance even as the public awareness and consequent pressure builds up on the government to correct this distortion and end this disservice to Hindu society.
What follows is a summary of a more detailed governance framework put together by a team that included the authors. The intent of this summary is to convey to the wider world the existence of clear, comprehensive and contemporaneous governance processes that marry traditional splendour, functionality and impact with modern best practices.
The questions on the minds of millions of Hindus are: what happens if the government relinquishes administrative oversight of temples under its direct control?
Who does the power to govern temples devolve to?
And, what safeguard and regulatory mechanisms are to be in place for ensuring good governance?
It is clear that a robust governance model must ensure:
Alternate Governance Model — Objectives And Guidelines
Diversity within the Hindu religion/dharma poses several challenges. Multifarious sects, communities and denominations; multitudinous customs, beliefs, practices and traditions; large pantheon of gods and deities; numerous temple types (eg, grama, kula, mata, family, and so on) and worship forms etc; all make it extremely difficult to impose a monolithic, centralised, diktat-driven form of temple administration.
Therefore, it is vital not only to have a decentralised approach to temple-administration with robust regulatory oversight, but also to confer varying degrees of autonomy and flexibility insofar as religious practices are concerned.
While policy matters and compliance parameters imposed by government could be firm to ensure transparency and governance, the implementation mechanisms must be flexible.
Thus the objectives of the system can be summarised as follows:
A. No governmental control: there should be minimal interference from government in religious and managerial aspects of temples.
B. Religious freedom and flexibility: subject to constitutional restrictions, complete laissez-faire should be afforded for worship, rituals, practices, welfare and traditions of temples.
C. Regulatory apparatus: robust checks and balances must be in place to avoid concentration of power and to ensure that vested interests do not abuse resources. Appropriate processes, rigorous safeguards and protective measures must be defined to ensure fiscal discipline, financial responsibility and functional accountability.
A. Democratic management: administrative power must be ultimately vested in devotees. Temple establishments must exist in a “of, by and for devotees” paradigm.
B. Community empowerment and participation: community involvement in temple affairs will help revitalise the ecosystem. Temples then can become hubs of socio-cultural activity and community welfare. Religion, and its propagation, can serve as the foundation for value education, moral enrichment and societal upliftment.
C. Operational independence with accountability: temples must enjoy operational freedom; yet, they must comply with administrative frameworks, which should be fool-proof, fraud-proof and fail-proof. Performance benchmarks can be stipulated and monitored.
D. Preservation and protection of assets: the structural integrity, religious sanctity and aesthetic appeal of temples must be preserved. In particular, restoration and conservation activities (with or without CSR funds of corporates) must complement upkeep and maintenance work in temples: (a) with heritage status; and/or, (b) of historical/archaeological significance. Temple property, both movable and immovable, must be diligently protected. Ancient treasures and antique jewellery must be adequately documented, secured and safely kept.
E. Defined procedures and processes: well-defined and documented administrative processes, practices and procedures are desirable to: (a) uphold temple sanctity, serenity and spirituality; (b) safeguard temple purity and property; and, (c) warrant the safety and security of devotees.
Accounting And Audit
A. Good governance: accounting practices and audit norms must be based on sound policy decisions. They must adhere to the highest standards of openness, transparency and accountability. Voluntary disclosure of information without jeopardising safe-keeping of temple wealth and property is desirable.
B. Revenue realisation and debt/asset recovery: effective systems and methods must be put in place to ensure gifts, offerings, bequests and endowments of devotees are fully reported in the books. Besides, temple revenues must be properly recorded/recognised and all receivables meticulously recovered. Encroached temple lands, as also stolen, embezzled or misappropriated monies and valuables, must be regained, retrieved or reclaimed assiduously. Stringent norms must be implemented to ensure assets are sold, rented, leased, invested or deployed, as the case may be, to earn revenues at market prices and rates.
C. Elimination of leakages and corruption: adequate mechanisms for combating corruption through transparent procurement and vendor/contractor selection procedures must be instituted. Systemic leakages, pilferage and inefficiencies must be systematically plugged.
Advisory And Adjudication
A. Apparatus for dharmic dispute resolution: the mainstream judiciary is ill-equipped and not geared to adjudicate matters of a religious nature. Resolution of such disputes requires expertise on dharmic tenets, besides knowledge of customs, precepts, worship, traditions and practices. Hence, specialised forums, with presiding officers qualified in Hindu religious affairs and spiritual matters, need to be instituted.
B. Dharmic advisories, best practices and guidelines: an advisory body/entity/authority must be created to guide temples on appropriate forms of worship and instruct temple administrators on best practices.
Regulation And Governance
It is proposed that a registrar of Hindu religious establishments (ROHRE) be set up as a statutory and autonomous authority for registering all Hindu temples, prayer halls and places of worship. This government body can function along the same lines as the Registrars of Cooperative Societies, Companies, etc.
With recent progress and upgrades in e-governance, registering even a million Hindu temples and places of worship in a phased manner should pose no logistical or procedural challenges to the government. Besides, the manpower of endowments departments in various states can be re-purposed in this new authority.
Beyond the purview of statutory compliance, a specialist, domain-centred authority should be constituted for advising temples on shastric knowledge bases, religious processes, practices and procedures, as well as for issuing policy guidelines and advisories.
Illustratively, let’s call it dharmic mahasabha (DM). The general membership of this statutory body shall consist of enlightened persons, who have renounced worldly pleasures and have dedicated their lives for spreading Hindu dharma (regardless of denomination or community considerations), such as sanyasis, mathadipatis, acharyas, swamis, etc.
Multi-layered regulatory frameworks allow for checks and balances. At the same time, the mandates must be clear so as to avoid bureaucratic frictions and confusion.
Three levels of robust governance measures and mechanisms must exist and function seamlessly:
A. Governance within the temple and its board of trustees: the 'structure and operating policies' must allow for empowered action and minimise friction and concentration of power. Also, this must deter conflicts of interest. Some of the mandatory aspects include:
B. Governance through ROHRE: various measures can be initiated at the ROHRE level to ensure transparency and good governance in temples. It is recommended that ROHRE adopt best practices from impact governance constructs such as ‘B corporations’ in the US. Some of the possibilities are enumerated below:
C. Governance through DM: DM too can contribute to higher standards of governance from a strictly dharmic/religious perspective through:
If the various state governments relinquish control over temples under their administrative power overnight, there would be a vacuum created. This has to be obviously avoided.
Consequently, the emphasis should be on a planned, multi-phased devolution of power by government starting with the larger temples. For instance, in Karnataka, government-administered temples are categorised based on annual revenues and designated alphabetically ─ Category A and B are the larger temples; Category C and D are the smaller temples.
The cession of power by government can be accomplished in the manner delineated below:
1. Phase I: Category A and B temples under government control: they all have: (a) a large number of devotees; (b) substantial asset base; (c) significant cash flows; and (d) financial stability/prosperity.
Government must cede power over these temples as soon as the necessary infrastructure/framework for autonomous administration of temples is put in place. The process could entail the following steps:
2. Phase II: Category C and D temples under government control: these are small and medium-sized temples, which are relatively obscure and financially impoverished.
These temples must be conferred with autonomy through a progressive transfer of administrative power. The option of administering the Category-C temples must be first offered to various mutts, based on fitment/congruity of sampradaya, denomination, history (of temple), jati, clan and other community considerations. If multiple claims for control are put forth for any particular temple, then DM acts as the arbiter and settles the matter amicably.
In the event, no mutt evinces interest, then offers of Hindu volunteer groups (authenticity to be duly validated by DM) to govern such Category-C and D temples may be considered. DM, in conjunction with the government, can draft the guidelines for such adoption of the Category-C and D temples.
If neither any mutt nor any voluntary Hindu group is interested, then a process similar to the larger (Category-A and B) temples may be adhered to, except that the interim boards of trustees should be appointed for the transient period of two years with fewer (say, only three) trustees. DM may even appoint panels of administrators, who can work on transitioning these Category-C and D temples into the new autonomous schema.
3. Phase III: Temples not under government control: presently, there are many temples which are being managed effectually and efficiently by trusts, societies, Hindu undivided families, etc. Such temples should be brought mandatorily under the registration and regulation framework (of ROHRE and DM) described above.
The governance model summarised here encompasses aspects which are consistent with the C P Ramaswami Aiyar recommendations. Additionally, the model leverages and suggests modern governance constructs and incorporates evolved citizenship factors.
Our temples must reflect the ethos of our nation. They can be the cornerstones of a resurgent, vibrant Bharat. Forward looking, rooted in our traditions, proud of our immense heritage and generous in thought and action. By leading and showing the way, temples can help people across the country aspire for a higher quality of life and inspire people to pursue right 'Dharmic' conduct.
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