Deities As Legal Entities: India

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Indian Courts Recognize Deities As Legal Entities

Dhananjay Mahapatra | TNN

From the archives of The Times of India 2007, 2009

New Delhi: It may have come as a surprise to many when Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman fought litigation for the last 21 years before the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court through his ‘‘next friend’’, a legal term for representative, Deoki Nandan Agarwal and has now won ownership rights over the disputed site in Ayodhya.

Can a deity, like a normal human being, fight a legal battle when, as the incarnation of god, he is believed to mitigate the problems of others?

The HC replied in the affirmative. ‘‘This court is of the view that place of birth, that is Ram Janmabhoomi, is a juristic person. The deity also attained divinity like Agni, Vayu, Kedarnath. Asthan is personified as the spirit of divine worshiped as the birthplace of Ram Lalla or ‘‘Lord Ram as a child.’’

In effect, the ruling means that while Ram Lalla, being a deity, enjoys legal rights, but since he is a minor, he would be allowed to be represented in court through his guardian or next friend.

In the Indian judicial system, deities have always been regarded as legal entities who can fight their case through the trustees or managing board in charge of the temple in which they are worshiped.

If Ram Lalla fought his case in Lucknow, Kashi Vishwanath of Varanasi battled in the Supreme Court when the UP government enacted the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act, 1983 for better management of the ancient temple. The Supreme Court, in Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, vs State of UP [1997 (4) SCC 606 recognized, though not for the first time, the right of a deity to move court and said, ‘‘Properties of endowment vest in the deity, Lord Sri Vishwanath.’’

It dismissed the claim of the priests that they alone had the right to manage the temple on behalf of the deity and said management of the temple by mahant/pandas/archakas did not mean it became their property. It upheld the Act saying it was merely for better management of the temple. Similarly, in Bihar State Board of Religious Trust vs Ramsubaran Das [1996 SCALE (2) 702 the SC pointed to ancient revenue records attaching the temple land in the name of the deity. It had said, ‘‘That mahants dealt with the properties in their own names does not detract from the fact that the temples were public temples as they would well be said to be dealing with on behalf of the deities to whom the properties are dedicated.”

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