The SC on Wednesday sought to dispel the notion about rigidity of Hinduism harboured in certain quarters and said it was the “collective wisdom and inspiration of the centuries“ even as it ruled that the state could not have a say in who should be appointed a pujari (priest) in a temple.
“Religion incorporates the particular belief(s) a group of people subscribe to. Hindui sm, as a religion, incorporates all forms of belief without mandating the selection or elimination of any one single belief,“ Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N V Ramana said. It is a religion that has no single founder, no single scripture and no single set of teachings. It has been described as Sanatan Dharma, namely, eternal faith, as it is the collective wisdom and inspiration of the centuries that Hinduism seeks to preach and propagate,” the SC said.
Deciding on a petition by Adi Saiva Sivachariyagal Nala Sangam, which had challenged a Tamil Nadu government order of 2006, deciding to take up appointment of priests to temples, the SC ruled that priests could be appointed as per norms prescribed by the scriptures so long as the selection did not violate the Constitution’s cardinal mandate against discrimination.
The bench did a tightrope walk in maintaining the sanctity of religious customs in appointment of temple priests and not getting overawed by religious sensitivity by clarifying that selection of priests could not violate the basic constitutional mandate of nondiscrimination on the grounds of caste, creed and gender. It also said that right to freedom of religion included right to observe religious practices.
Writing the judgment for the bench, Justice Gogoi said, “Requirement of constitutional conformity is inbuilt and if a custom or usage is outside the protective umbrella afforded and envisaged by Articles 25 and 26 (right to practice and profess any religion), the law will certainly take its own course. Constitutional legitimacy, naturally, must supersede all religious beliefs or practices.” The bench also clarified that non-interference of the government in religious practices, in this case appointment of priests, did not mean the courts could not adjudicate disputes arising on the same issue. “The exclusion of all ‘outside authorities’ from deciding what is an essential religious practice must be viewed in the context of the limited role of the state in matters relating to religious freedom as envisaged by Articles 25 and 26 and not of the courts as the arbiter of constitutional rights and principles,” it said.
The court examined the effect of Article 16(5) of the Constitution, which excludes application of equal opportunity in matters of public employment in connection with the affairs of religious denominational institutions, to appointment of archakas (pujaris). It said, “Exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as archakas would not violate Article 14 (right to equality) so long as such inclusionexclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter.” The Tamil Nadu government order of May 23, 2006 had said, “Any person who is a Hindu and possesses requisite qualification and training can be appointed as an archaka in Hindu temples.” The court said the validity of this order would have to be decided keeping in mind the peculiar facts and circumstances of each case and it would not be appropriate to give a general finding on this issue.
The Supreme Court has reiterated what this paper has held as an article of faith: Essentially, that Hinduism is the longest-running socially liberal program in the world. Unlike many other religions, Hinduism has never had a ‘head’, which is one of the reasons why it has survived countless attacks — those who have sought to kill it have failed to do so for the simple reason they could never find a ‘head’ to chop off. It has thrived and evolved over thousands of years because of its secular, global, assimilative character — one where ‘anything goes’, be it food, dress, language or even belief.
Indeed, Hinduism has exhibited an infinite capacity to contain contradictions and implicitly granted its ‘subscribers’ a democratic right to create mythological hagiographies of their own. It is our view that efforts to declare any one scripture, even the Bhagavad Gita — spiritually magisterial as it is — as pre-eminent, are misplaced. The recent quasi-political attempts to impose a set of rigid do’s and don’ts in the name of Hinduism fly in the face of its very essence of tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness.
‘Orthodox Hinduism’ is an oxymoron; it should be treated as nothing more than an obscurantist branch of Hinduism.