Author: Parth Chandra, 4th Year, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur
Legal personality is sum of rights and duties at a particular time. When we confer on some person or object legal personality that means to bestow the one so conferred with legal rights and legal duties. Many different jurists have tried to analyse and define legal personality in different ways. The most apt or satisfactory definition of legal personality is given by Salmond. According to him, legal personality is the capacity for entering into legal relationships. On elaborating this, further a person would be said to be in legal capacity if he can hold property in his name, sue and be sued in the court of law.
In this paper through various case laws, we would be examining the juristic personality of Hindu idols and rationale or bases behind personifying it as legal personality.
The existence of Hindu idol as juristic person capable of having rights and discharging duties through sevakars were established in the court of law as early as 1925. In Pramatha Nath Mullick v. Pradyumna Kumar Mullick ((AIR 1925 PC 139)). The court observed that “One of the questions emerging at this point is as to nature of such an idol, and the services due thereto. A Hindu idol is, according to long established authority, founded upon the religious customs of the Hindus, and the recognition thereof by Courts of law, a “juristic entity”. It has a juridical status with the power of suing and being sued.
Its interests are attended to by the person who has the deity in his charge and who is in law its manager with all the powers which would, in such circumstances, on analogy, be given to the manager of the estate of an infant heir. From the very inception in Hindu Culture the Idols are considered as personification of deity itself and the image of the deity in the shape of idol which are often based on visualisation is bestowed with gifts and valuables by the worshippers. The gifts made to the idol are made in the same manner as made to a natural person. The rationale behind giving Hindu idols a juristic personality is best explained by Ganpathi Iyer in his valuable treatise on “Hindu and Mahomedan Endownments. He had this to say in regard to the legal status of an idol in, Hindu law:
“The ascription of a legal personality to the deity supposed to be residing in the image meets with all, practical purposes. The deity can be said to possess property only in an ideal sense and the theory is, therefore, not complete unless that legal personality is linked to a natural person.”
It would be correct to say that if we don’t give idols a juristic personality then there would be lot of practical difficulties in the matters of taxation and allotment of land as well as on the subject to alienation of property. Further, we would be examining many case laws based on the practical realities on personifying Hindu Idols.
In the case of Bishwanath & Anr.Vs. Shri Thakur RADHABALLABHJI & ORS ((1967 SCR (2) 618)).
The Manager of a temple alienated the idols property. A worshipper of the idol, who also assisted the Manager in his duties, filed a suit as next friend of the idol challenging the alienation. The reliefs sought were a declaration that the property belonged to the idol and recovery of possession. The trial court’s decree in favour of the plaintiff was upheld by the High Court. The defendants came to this Court, with certificate. It was urged on behalf of the appellants that s. 92 of the Code of Civil procedure was a bar to the suit, and that no one but the Sheba it was entitled to file the suit and represent the deity.
The suit was filed by the idol for possession of its property from the person who was in illegal possession thereof and therefore it was a suit by the idol to enforce its private right. The suit also was for a declaration of the plaintiff’s title and for possession thereof, and was not therefore a suit for one of the reliefs mentioned in s. 92. in either view this was a suit outside the purview of s. 92 of the Code and therefore the said section was not a bar t o its maintainability.
It can be clearly inferred that the court recognised and accepted the principle of juristic personality of idol otherwise; the procedural difficulties would not have allowed the plaintiff to claim back the property, which was illegal in the possession of the person. The court in this case took the view and gives effect to the personification that as the property belonged to the idol and the suit was filed by idol to recover the property.
This is one of the aspects why courts have always recognised idol as a legal personality that is conferred with legal rights and bestowed with duties.
Through the various case laws following principles of laws have been settled. They are:-
1) An idol of a Hindu temple is a juridical person;
(2) When there is a Shebait, ordinarily no person other than the Shebait can represent the idol;
(3) Worshippers of an idol are its beneficiaries, though only in a spiritual sense.
In cases where the Shebait acts in a manner which is against his duty then a worshipper can bring up a case in the name of the idol. B. K. Mukherjea summarises the legal proposition in the following manner in his book ((B. K. Mukherjea in his book “The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust” 2nd Edn p. 249.)).
(1) An idol is a juristic person in whom the title to the properties of the endowment vests. However, it is only in an ideal sense that the idol is the owner. It has to act through human agency, and that agent is the Shebait, who is, in law, the person entitled to take proceedings on its behalf. The personality of the idol might therefore be said, to be merged in that of the Shebait.
(2)Where, however, the Shebait refuses to act for the idol or where the suit is to challenge the act of the Shebait himself as prejudicial to the interests of the idol then there must be some other agency, which must have the right to act for the idol. The law accordingly recognises a right in persons interested in the endowment to take proceedings on behalf of the idol.
Hindu Idols are also given juristic personality for other purposes such as taxation and other assessment requirements under various implementation plans. The case mentioned below will give a clear reason of personification of Hindu Idols for assessment purposes.
Ram Jankijee Deities v. State of Bihar ((1999 AIR SCW 1878)).
That one Mahanath Sukhram Das did execute two separate deeds of dedication in December, 1950, and duly registered under the Indian Registration Act, dedicating therein the landed properties to the deities ‘Ram Janki Ji’ (Appellant No.1) and Thakur Raja (wrongly described in the records of the High Court as ‘Raja Rani’) (Appellant No. 2). Both the deities were separately given the landed property to the extent of 81.14 acres of land and in fact were put in possession through the Shebait. Under the Bihar Land Ceiling reforms, the authority refused to accept the two idols as two different units and did not consider it as separate units for assessment purposes. As a matter of fact the Collector passed an order recording therein that the entitlement of the trust would be one unit only. The authorities also claimed that the idols installed were unknown in Shastras and hence they are fake idols and would not be included in the assessment.
Where there are temples – in one, there is ‘Jankijee’ and in the second there is ‘Raja Rani’ by no stretch of imagination, the second Deity can be termed to be in fake form and this concept of introduction of fake form is a misreading of the provisions of Hindu Law Texts. What is required is human consecration and in the event of fulfilment of rituals of consecration, Divinity is presumed: there cannot be any fake deity. Both the Deities being consecrated by performance of appropriate ceremonies having a visible image and residing in its abode is to be treated as a juridical person for the purpose of Bihar Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961. Both Deities given separate landed property and located in two separate temples are entitled to two separate units under the Act.
It is not a particular image which is a juridical person but it is a particular bent of mind which consecrate the image. How one sees the Deity, how one feels the deity and recognises the deity and then establishes the same in the temple upon however performance of the consecration ceremony. Shastras do provide as to how to consecrate and the usual ceremonies of Sankalpa and Utsarga shall have to be performed for proper and effective dedication of the property to a Deity and in order to be termed as a juristic person. A simple piece of wood or stone may become the image or idol and divinity is attributed to the same. It is formless, shapeless but it is the human concept of a particular divine existence which gives it the shape, the size and the colour.
In one case the court has been pointed out that once endowment is separate in the name of separate deities the legal ownership under the endowment vests in idols; the idols would be seen as two different units even though they are located in two different temples but in same area ((Shri Lakshmi Narain v. State of Bihar, AIR 1978 Patna 330)).
Mr. Justice Subramania Ayyar in Vidyapurna Tirtha Swami v. Vidyanidhi Tirtha Swami ((, ILR 27 MAD,435)).
He has expressed his views and rationale behind the need for personification of Hindu Idols into a juristic personality. “It is to give due effect to such a sentiment, widespread and deep-rooted as it has always been, with reference to something not capable of holding property as a natural person, “Perhaps the oldest of all juristic persons is the God, hero or the saint”.
Assessment for Taxation Purposes
Hindu Idols have always been awarded gifts and other valuables which if put together are sometimes more than small country’s economy. It is for this reason also idols are considered jurist person for taxation purposes. It was also reiterated in the case of
Jogendra Nath Naskar v. Commissioner of Income Tax ((AIR 1969 SC, 1089)), Calcutta
Neither God nor any supernatural being could be a person in law. However, as far as the deity stands as the representative and symbol of the particular purpose, which is indicated by the donor, it can figure as a legal person. The true legal view is that in that capacity alone the dedicated property vests in it. There is no principle why a deity as such a legal person should not be taxed if such a legal person is allowed in law to own property even though in the ideal sense and to sue for the property, to realise rent and to defend such property in a Court of law again in the ideal sense. The Hindu idol is a juristic entity capable of holding property and of being taxed through its Shebait who are entrusted with the possession and management of its property, There is no reason why the meaning of the word “individual” in Sec. 3 of the Income-tax Act, 1922 should be restricted to human beings and not to juristic entities. A Hindu deity, therefore, falls within the meaning of the word “individual” under S. 3 of the Act and can be treated as a unit of assessment under that section.
From the various case laws and jurist writings, it has become clear that an idol is treated as juristic person that is capable of having rights and duties. The Idol has always enjoyed a good position in Hindu Mythology. Hindu Law recognises Hindu idol as a juridical subject being capable in law of holding property by reason of the Hindu Shastras following the status of a legal person in the same way as that of a natural person. It is not a particular image, which is a juridical person, but it is a particular bent of mind, which consecrate the image. The reason behind personifying it as a juristic person are many such as taxation purposes, assessment purposes, representation in a suit to defeat illegal claims. “The Hindu Law, like the Roman Law and those derived from it, recognises not only incorporate bodies with rights of property vested in the corporation apart from its individual members but other juridical personality.