THE simple answer is that he is the ‘auditor general’ of the shrine — of Vaikuntha itself according to some accounts — in the sense that he combines the functions both of an ‘auditor’ and of a ‘general’. He is the guardian of the finances but he is also the commander-in-chief in time of war.
Speaking of Tirupati, it was traditionally held to be the richest temple in India. I was mildly surprised to learn that the title may actually be held closer home, by the Padmanabhaswamy shrine in Thiruvananthapuram. Who, may I ask, serves as the 21st century Vishvaksena for the all too well-publicised wealth of this temple?
Constitutionally, I suppose that would be VS Sivakumar, who is listed on the Government of Kerala’s portal as the Devaswom Minister. (For reasons best known to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the Devaswom portfolio is shared with responsibilites for the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.) In practice, however, the day-to-day responsibility lies with the Devaswom Board.
That, of course, is a recent development. The Padmanabhaswamy temple was administered through a trust run by the ruling family of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. That ended in 2011, when the Kerala High Court, following litigation by P. Sundara Rajan, ordered that the temple should be henceforth controlled by the State, meaning the Government of Kerala. The Trust then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered an audit of the temple’s assets — which is when the whole world came to know of the incredible treasures stored in the shrine’s vaults.
Whatever the course of the case, the Devaswom Minister and the Devaswom Boards are definitely responsible for the other shrines in Kerala, including the famous temples in Guruvayur and in Sabarimala. Specifically, there are four Devaswom Boards, namely ‘Guruvayur’, ‘Travancore’, ‘Malabar’, and ‘Cochin’, which run about three thousand temples between them. Each is technically an autonomous body constituted under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1950.
One of the key provisions of that legislation, as it exists today, is on the appointment of the members of a Devaswom Board. That right is vested in the Hindu MLAs in the Kerala Assembly. And this is where the Oommen Chandy ministry finds itself in some difficulty. Most of the MLAs on the Treasury benches are non-Hindus, and the bulk of the Hindus in the Assembly are on the Opposition side. Any Devaswom Board election will be decided by the Opposition, something that no government likes.
The Oommen Chandy ministry has come up with a particularly bad solution. It has decided to promulgate an ordinance, that will ‘amend’ the law. I place ‘amend’ within quotes as the original meaning of the word carries the sense of ‘to change for the better’ — which is debatable in the changes sought by the United Democratic Front ministry.
The Oommen Chandy government wants each Devaswom Board to have only three members, two of whom shall be selected by the Council of Ministers and only the third by the MLAs. A crucial change is that only such MLAs may participate as are sworn believers, thus cutting out the Marxists and others who solemnly affirmed their oaths of office rather than taking it in the name of God. Finally, the Congress-led ministry is scrapping an existing provision that mandates the presence of at least one female member on a Devaswom Board, clubbing it with a provision for a member from the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. (There are other changes but these are the principal ‘amendments’.)
First of all, why is the Oommen Chandy ministry hiding behind an amendment rather than making its case through open debate in the Assembly? Second, coming to procedural issues, which ministers are entitled to choose the members of a Devaswom Board? Only such as are Hindus, or all of them, including the Christians and the Muslims? And if it is to be only Hindus, does the Oommen Chandy ministry really want us to start counting just how many Hindus sit at the Cabinet table? Third, by what right does a supposedly secular government differentiate between ‘believing’ Hindus and ‘non-believing’ Hindus?
A marked difference between the Abrahamaic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — and Hinduism is that the latter cheerfully accepts those who do not worship as part of the larger Hindu family. That is not something new, it is a tradition that goes back several thousand years. There are Rig Vedic verses that seem to mock ritualists but those are satirical rather than atheist-materialist. In myth, the first note of actual non-theism is struck in the Ramayana by Jabali, one of Dasharatha’s ministers who tries to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya, and who is then accused of outright atheism by the outraged prince. Turning with a bump from mythology to actual history, the first known atheist was probably Brihaspati. (Not to be confused with the teacher of the gods in mythology!)
Brihaspati is generally identified as the founder of the Charvaka school, or at least as the first man to set down its principles in a series of aphorisms. Unfortunately, the actual texts are now long lost, and the little that we know of Charvaka teachings is through quotations by scholars who wanted to refute them. It is like trying to understand the motivations of Indian freedom fighters through the jottings of British officials — with the added complication of several thousand years between us. Gleaning through these references, it seems that the Charvaka — also called ‘Lokayata’ — school rejected the Vedas, rejected the concept of the immortality of the soul, and rejected the doctrine of moksha. But, and this is the important point, adherents of the Charvaka philosophy could identify themselves, and were accepted, as Hindus.
So, on what grounds exactly is the Oommen Chandy ministry trying to say that an MLA is a Hindu or a non-Hindu? This brings up the fourth, possibly the most important, point. Should a supposedly secular State have anything at all to do with the running of shrines? If yes, then why should the State confine itself to Hindu temples? Why should it not also assume the right to run Muslim mosques and Christian churches?
That is why I mentioned the ongoing legal struggle over the Padmanabhaswamy shrine. The heart of that case is whether a temple should be run by individuals or by the State. If religion is an individual affair, why should governments be involved? If religion is a societal concern, why should Hindu temples alone be administered by governments?
The Padmanabhaswamy case was always going to raise uncomfortable questions. The Oommen Chandy ministry threatens, for its own selfish reasons, to make the situation worse with its rush to administer an ill-thought-out ordinance. Here is the bottomline. Governments have no business running temples. Governments certainly have no business deciding who is a Hindu and who is not a Hindu.