The inherent dissonance in the State Government(s) running Hindu Religious Institutions and proclaiming itself to be ‘secular’ is an apparent contradiction that has been repeated to death by many in the ‘right’ side. The idea that devotees should have direct control over the temple institutions that they worship is now a mainstream idea among the Online ‘Right’. Yet, the idea has not had sufficient political mobilization on the ground due to practical considerations. Whether or not it finds some success in the reform of temple administration is yet to be seen. In any case, the question of why is state sponsored administration so bad ought to be answered. The mere principle of separation of church and state should suffice, but there are a litany of administrative reasons for temple administration to be separated from the State.
After all, the State and the Devaswom Board (the name of the boards that administer temples in Kerala) is controlled by members of the (nominally) Hindu community. However, the objective of the administration of the devaswom (bureaucrats selected in a ‘secular’ method) have divergent objectives from the traditional stakeholders (the Tantri or the head priest of a temple (imperfect translation), the Raja (Samoothiri/Zamorin, Kochi Raja or Travancore Maharaja, or other Royals), and the devotees or the public. The unfortunate reality is that the power is concentrated on the Devaswom Board Officials, who run riot with it. The issue of corruption at the Sabarimala Temple, from the procurement of utensils to that of the divine Aravanna is a well known fact.
The pervasive control of the bureaucracy on Temple administration ranging from interventions in the conduct of rituals to the involvement in selection of priests and ‘VIP Darshan’ among others, the many wrongs conducted by the temple administration is far too many. The temple it seems, should function not according to the traditions and norms, but according to the whims and fancies of the bureaucrats and in large, the state. The latest example of the negative consequences of the bureaucratization or ‘secularization’ of temple administration can be seen in a recent directive issued by the Devaswom Ministry in Kerala.
The new directive, which increases the salary of temple dependent employees of the Malabar Devaswom Boards, however has a negative reference to the expenditure made as part of festivals, offerings to the deities and to the traditional temple priests, which are apparently ‘unnecessary’. The government directive mentions these expenditures as part of the ’extraordinary’ or ‘unnecessary’ expenditure that should be curtailed. This of course is quite contradictory to the fundamental reasons for the functioning of temples, which is to serve a core social function of uniting devotees on platforms such as utsavams (temple festivals). That they want to cut out the spiritual & divine function of the expenditure on vazhipadu (offerings to the deity) and tantra dakshina (offering to the hereditary temple priest) is egregious and unconscionable to any believing Hindu. Temples are not money minting machines and neither are they the divine providence of bureaucrats who wish to exert their frustrations. It is the literal divine providence of the deity of the temple of our devatas.. To ensure the progression, preservation and prosperity of our religious institutions, reform in temple administration to make it independent of state machinations is necessary. Free Temples, it is common-sense.
P.S.: The resolution of the salary dispute of MDB Employees is a welcome step, and came as a result of the new MDB chairman:
The funds for the advance of ₹2,000 have apparently been received. The strike was by Kerala State Employees Coordination Committee, Malabar Devaswom Employees Union (CITU), and Malabar Devaswom Staff Union (INTUC). There are around 6,000 employees in 1600-2000 temples under MDB — Ananth Krishna Subhalakshmy (@Ananth_Krishna_) January 6, 2021 https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
Also read: Why The State Must Step Back From Running Temples
Special Thanks to Aishwarya Ajayan for her Inputs and editing.