Religion and the State
source: New Indian Express
The episode of the unholy murder in a holy temple of Kancheepuram is becoming curioser and curioser. The events following the arrest of the senior seer of the Kanchi mutt — the refusal of bail by the Tamil Nadu courts, release of the seer by the Supreme Court followed by the lightning arrest of the junior seer, freezing of the accounts of the mutt and the unearthing of the crimes alleged to have been committed in the past —point to the gradual unfolding of a battle between the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Kanchi mutt.
It is perhaps time to examine the issue from a larger perspective, going beyond the passions and prejudices that the case has generated. The conflict between the Church and the State has a long history. In medieval Europe, while in theory, the Emperor was the protector of the physical welfare of the people and the Pope of their spiritual well-being, in practice, the Emperor poked his nose in the affairs of the Church and the Pope tried to influence the former in the way he ruled his kingdom. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII believed that he was not merely the head of the Church but also the highest court of appeal in all worldly matters. This led to a conflict with the German Emperor Henry IV who accused Gregory of all sorts of crimes and got him deposed. The Pope hit back by excommunicating the King. The battle between the two carried on till the Pope died.
The most famous case in the clash between the religious and temporal heads was witnessed in the 12th century England. Those days crime was not uncommon amongst those who devoted themselves to God (much like the present), so much so, a separate ecclesiastical court was set up to try the clergy accused of committing offences.
Once a church dignitary, Philip de Brois, accused of murdering a knight, was acquitted by one such court. King Henry II got the case reopened in the royal court and also proposed that the clergy convicted of serious crimes should be handed over to secular authorities for punishment. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop, refused to accept this as it would undermine clerical immunity. Both sides tried to resolve the issue through discussion but failed. Finally, the King had Becket condemned on trumped charges but the latter refused to hear any verdict against him. As the dispute dragged on, an exasperated King cried out: ‘‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’’
Four knights took the King literally and one morning, when the Archbishop was leading a mass in the cathedral, they killed him with their swords. The Pope intervened and Henry performed a ceremony of public penance. Becket became a martyr. This incident became well known as the case of ‘‘murder in the cathedral.’’ In the 16th century, when King Henry VIII of England wanted to divorce his wife Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, the Pope objected. The King countered by renouncing his allegiance to Rome and promptly made himself head of the Church of England.
In India, the story has been quite different. Kings always respected the seers and treated them as gurus. Hinduism does not have a Church on the lines of Christianity. Thus there was no competition or conflict between the secular and the sacred in the formal sense. In fact, Kings were instrumental in building temples and many of the magnificent shrines owe their existence to the rulers of powerful dynasties such as the Chola, Pallava and Hoysala. This also meant that the King had a say in the management of temples. As the number of temples multiplied and so did the number of priests, instances of maladministration increased.
An interesting development in Hindu religious history has been the establishment of mutts as distinct from temples. These mutts are affiliated to certain religious leaders like Sankaracharya, Madhwacharya, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, etc. They have been engaged in propagating the teachings and philosophies of their masters as also of Hinduism in general. Some of them have acquired a sectarian character such as the Veerasaiva or Vokkaliga mutts. These institutions have engaged themselves in social and humanitarian activities, apart from their religious work, especially in education and health sectors, somewhat analogous to what the Christian missionaries have been doing.
The expansion of non-religious activities inevitably led to acquisition of properties and accumulation of wealth. It is, however, important to note that many of these mutts would not have prospered without government support. In fact, all denominations — Hindu, Christian and Muslim — have been beneficiaries of government munificence. Should government have the power to take over the management of religious institutions?
In India, there is no law which enables the government to take over the management of Christian and Muslim institutions. Hindu temples, however, come under the purview of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act in the southern states. In case of mismanagement, government has the power to assume control over them after following the prescribed procedure. Interestingly, in some states like Karnataka, the mutts have been exempted from the provision of take over by a recent amendment. Obviously, the seers are a very influential lot.
The case of the Kanchi seer raises the important issue relating to crimes committed by individuals occupying high positions. When such persons are involved in or accused of wrong doing, the ramifications can be far reaching. It can snowball into the political domain and escalate into a battle between the Church and the State. While the government has to apply the law in the case of the individual wrong doer, it must take care to protect the institution which may cater to the interests of lakhs of people. After all, temples and mutts are run mostly by the contributions of people, rich and poor.
The Kanchi incident provides an opportunity to usher in the necessary institutional reforms in the religious domain. When we are clamouring for transparency in the functioning of political and administrative institutions, why not in the religious institutions which seem to be shrouded in greater mystery in the name of God.
People go to temples and mutts as a matter of faith, it is a voluntary act. They seek the blessings of not only the deity but of the seer whom they consider the embodiment of godly virtues. When such a person is accused of serious crime, either they refuse to believe or their faith is shattered. If the sanctity of a sacred place is to be protected, it is the devotees as stakeholders who must exercise greater vigilance. As Noam Chomsky put it, ‘‘States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.’’