Sunday, August 5, 2012

Of temples and temple endowment acts

It has started to dawn on some sections of the net chatterati that socialism in India has failed. This realization has started a movement towards endorsing free market reforms. Much of this is welcome, but some of it is travelling too far into libertarianism. This causes some problems.* For instance, it is widely known that the goal of libertarianism is dismantling the welfare state. To a question that who will look after the poor after the welfare state is dismantled, one 'secular' libertarian friend suggested that it is our responsibility to take care of them.
This is a very romantic and very appreciable thought, and it also has MILTON FRIEDMAN written all over it*. In the west which gets ample of skilled labor from around the world, this might click. But in India, there is a serious dearth of talented professionals and innovative people in many fields. These are the people who are most vulnerable to long periods of exposure on libertarian forums and believing in a minimalist state. We need these people to work hard and make profits for their companies and drive the nation into the new age. Now if these people go on to do charity without burning their potential, it will be a tragedy to the nation. There is also the problem of how far these individuals will reach on their own, because there's simply so much to do. We will therefore not have to stop on that part of libertarianism associated with individual charities and examine another long forgotten element of the society to do charity and public service - your neighborhood temple.

I will try to encapsulate the message of this booklet (ref) and this paper (ref) about what Hindu temples were able to do earlier and can do so again today:

1) Educate people about concepts of Hindu dharma and the threats facing it.
2) Be service oriented and do charity and public work in the neighboring area.
3) Initiate inter-faith dialogs with Abrahamic faiths.
4) Build irrigation facilities for neighboring villages.
5) Invest in enhancing productivity for places from which endowments are sourced (which was the concept behind point 4.
6) Run educational institutions (mathas).
7) Support musicians (probably related to aarti sessions) and scholars (do research?)
8) Support pilgrimage housing.
9) And do maintenance of the building.

It thus was able to serve as an independent business and probably operated like a big private company today. With regards to south Indian temple activities, these were enabled by assigning village grants to temple and the temple would then collect 51 to 75% of the village income. We might not be able to implement that kind of stuff, but we can at least allow for voluntary donations to the temple. However, except for a small part of point 9 of the above, today's temples can't do any of the above activities. The reason: endowment acts.

These acts are actually a continuation of British policy (ref) towards interference in temple affairs. Through endowment acts, the government enters into the management of hindu religious institutions using the argument that funds available to these are mismanaged. This is viewed so because each temple manages its funds differently. The scope creep of endowment acts is progressively getting worse. However, this might not be constitutional since according to article 26 every religious denomination is allowed:

1) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes.
2) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.
3) to own and acquire movable and immovable property.
4) to administer such property in accordance with law.

Clause 2 and 4 should be sufficient to allow for an argument of the financial freedom of temples. The temples have started their own agitation for this, as in the Tirupathi declaration. The thing about endowment acts that nobody seems to ask is why is not the same argument (about government control being better than local control and the constitutionality premise of it) being forwarded for other religious places? The financial and operational freedom of Hindu temples can start the long process of recovery of Hindu traditions that have been suppressed since the past millennium.  There are several projects that await execution by temples, including writing a smriti for this age*. Financial freedom to temples would also allow them to compete with the Abrahamic faiths in public service. Unwinding the welfare state to some extent is also assured, as temples have the profit incentive for public service in furthering the cause of Hinduism while government run welfare schemes are known to operate badly for the lack of it.* And as Sun Tzu would say, a general should put his men in a tough spot, that is where they will fight the hardest. Our hindu priests are in a tough spot, and from here, there is nowhere to retreat. We can help them by campaigning to dismantle the endowment acts. 

* = edited later to improve flow of logic.