Hindus Temples In India – An Alternate Governance Approach

Hindus Temples In India – An Alternate Governance ApproachLord Venkaterwara Temple, Tirupati. (@HimaniJha/image via twitter)
Snapshot
  • Our temples must reflect the ethos of our nation. They can be the cornerstones of a resurgent, vibrant Bharat.

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:

  • Full withdrawal of government control over temples;
  • Smooth transition of power to non-governmental bodies/entities; and
  • Effective autonomous administration of our holy shrines.

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:

Autonomy

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.

Administration

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:

  • Board of trustees: the executive trustees must all have well-defined roles, duties, obligations and responsibilities. Ideally, they must have complementary functional experience. Each functional leader must be able to operate with independent authority within the defined area of responsibility. The traditional practice of local families who undertake trusteeship as a duty and a responsibility must be nurtured.
  • Financial transparency: operating budgets, capital allocations and procurements must be documented and published for public view of devotees. Facilitate 'RTI-like queries' from devotees so there is full transparency, particularly with matters related to the assets register and hundi collections.
  • Information systems: use of technology is vital for protecting temple assets, revenues, etc. Information systems and e-governance must be implemented in mid to large temples for minimising the risk of fraud, leakage, pilferage, embezzlement, etc. Donations and cash offerings from devotees must be routed through online temple portals and payment systems instead of hundi. Temples can seek donations in cash and kind from devotees through online portals. Contract awards/asset sales (in larger temples) must be through online bidding/auctioning.
  • Advisory trustees: independent, non-executive trustees may be either appointed as advisers or put on specific committees. These advisers should typically be senior professionals who can contribute to the management of the temple. Retired army people/professionals from corporate sectors may work well too. Advisers could become trustees and vice versa.
  • Compliance and communications: there must be a designated trustee for this function (and public relations), particularly in the larger temples. This person is the primary point of contact with the external world. Communication encompasses interfacing with all constituents ─ media, ROHRE, government regulators, etc.
  • Alignment with national initiatives: temples can align with nation building initiatives too (eg, Swacch Bharat; Beti Bachao Andolan, etc). Through temples, we can raise levels of public awareness about health, hygiene, socio-political issues, etc.
  • Sustainability of Governance: iconic or Category-A temples must raise the bar on governance by continually improving practices. An interesting modern construct is the ‘B corporation’ in the US that voluntarily subscribes to higher levels of governance, transparency to suit sustainability (ESG) commitments. Setting up a higher standard voluntarily, like Impact oriented companies, will have a positive effect on their reputations and create a halo effect across all temples. It is also desirable that the iconic temples mentor Category-B (significant) temples, which in turn can replicate it for the Category-C temples and so on. This creates an evolving, self-correcting nurturing ecosystem across all temples. Sustainability of best practices is critical and deterioration over time must be prevented.

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:

  • Audit: annual statutory audit must be mandatory for the larger, if not all temples. Audit reports and financial statements must be submitted annually to ROHRE and also placed before or circulated within the general body of devotees. External auditors must be randomly picked from the members on the rolls of the ICAI and assigned to temples. The auditor must be changed mandatorily every two years to reduce the risk of mismanagement and usher in greater transparency.
  • Reporting and filings: ROHRE must provide simple, online systems to enable temples file annually in a timely and effective manner. ROHRE must verify filings made by temples on a statistical sampling basis to ensure high degrees of conformance with statutory norms, systems and procedures.
  • Budgeting and expense guidelines: ROHRE must announce budgeting guidelines and expenditure ranges/recommendations based on ratios. It would be compulsory for temples to conform with all prescribed norms in the management of their affairs. Deviations would attract appropriate penalties and proceedings against the board of trustees.

C. Governance through DM: DM too can contribute to higher standards of governance from a strictly dharmic/religious perspective through:

  • Quality control and compliance: advisories and best practices must be declared for adherence by temples. Standards/quality of worship maintained and calibre of archakas at temples must be periodically audited too. In this audit, DM also verifies compliance of temples with its advisories, guidelines, norms, best practices, etc, issued.
  • Financial models to guide development expenditure and investments ─ perhaps referred to as, say, dharmic social responsibility ─ of prescribed percentage of 'net temple income' on social causes such as public toilets, drinking water supply, old-age homes, clinics and hospitals, schools and colleges, etc, for the well-being of the community as well as to prevent the indoctrination into or ‘harvesting’ by other religions of poor and needy Hindus.
  • DM must organise (via veda pathashalas and the Dharmic ecosystem) periodic training programmes and workshops to facilitate proper administration of temples.

Transition

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:

  • Independent boards-of-trustees (BOT) are set up on an interim basis for these temples with a minimum of seven trustees.
  • The government facilitates and the DM appoints interim trustees from aspirants, who submit their candidatures as per prescribed format in response to governmental notification.
  • Qualified candidates (based on denomination of temple, sampradaya, etc) only shall be considered for (interim) trusteeship. Preference shall be given for candidates who: (a) are resident in the neighbourhood of the temple; (b) have rendered service to the temple in the past; (c) adhere to a dharmic way of living; (d) have good standing in the local community; etc.
  • The term of appointment of interim trustees should be two years.
  • There could be a parallel run of the Interim BOT with the endowments department for a period of one year to facilitate smooth transition.
  • The DM oversees the transition process.

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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