Hindu Temples - A Dharmic Institution
The British wanted to control Hindu temples as sources of revenue and sadly this tradition continues even today. The country which is deemed 'Secular' does not see the need to get out of management of Hindu temples. State government see the temples purely as a source of revenue generation and giving almost nothing in return. The demand to free temples from government control is almost 7 decades old or even older. However nothing much happened all these years as the governments did not want to lose a major source of their incomes even though it was in contravention of the constitution they adhere to.So a movement at a higher level needed to be scaled up to Free the Hindu Temples from State Control.
Idea Behind the movement -
Some Hindus think that it is not critically important to free Hindu temples. They believe that it is not a matter of utmost urgency and can be achieved later on, if it is ever to be achieved. Forgoing discussions on Hindu temples for a while, let us take a comparative case study in which we examine historical cases of religious institutions and their comparative states of freedom. One case illustrates what happens when the majority religious institution of the country is not free: the case of Russia. The other case illustrates what happens when the premier religious institution of the country is free: the case of Poland.
Of the three major branches of Christianity, Orthodoxy is the third-largest after Catholicism and Protestantism. The largest number of followers of Orthodox Christianity is in Russia today. Orthodoxy is not bound to one over-arching Church or authority like the Catholics are to the Vatican. There are many Eastern Orthodox Churches, all independent of each other like the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Most of these churches are autocephalous, meaning that they dont report to any higher church authority. But that does not mean they are all free. What concerns us here is the case of the largest of these churches, the Russian Orthodox Church. For a long time in history, the Russian Empire has overlapped with the realm of Orthodoxy. The fate of Orthodoxy depends largely upon its fate in Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church once used to be comparatively free. This led them to incorporate many rituals and practices which were not entirely Christian in origin and were adapted from the pagan traditions rife in European Russia and also imbibed from Russias contact with Asian spiritual traditions including Buddhism. Many Church officials and State ministers were not happy with this. Diverse practices drawing from pagan cultures prevented their dream of creating a homogenized society.
During the 17th century, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich thought of finally tackling this problem. Earlier too, attempts had been to homogenize the Orthodox Church and to bring it more completely under the ambit of the State. Ivan the Terrible himself had tried it with not much success. Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich sponsored a group called Zealots of Piety which would take care that the rituals in the Russian Orthodox Church were homogenized and brought closer to the Greek rites.
The members of the Zealots of Piety blamed the then natural disasters on the lack of Christian piety in Russia and also on the deviance from standard rituals and practices under the evil influence of pagan culture. Their fundamentalist drive resonated with many Church clergies, and they soon overwhelmed the Russian Orthodox Church from within. What is important for us to know here is that they were powerfully backed by the Tsar. But in the process, the Tsar angled for more dependence of the Orthodox Church on the State.
His move backfired. Patriarch Nikon, the supreme leader of the Russian Church, managed to eliminate many rituals of pagan origin from the Church and brought it closer to the Greek rites but started working to make the Church more independent from the Tsar. This created a rift in the Church itself. Those who went with the old tradition with more pagan rituals were called the Old Believers. They were hunted out and almost completely exterminated. Most of these Old Believer survivors retreated into remote northern monasteries. Meanwhile, the Tsars were constantly looking for another opportunity to stifle the independence of the Orthodox Church completely. It was never as free as the Catholic Church to begin with. But the Russian state was bent upon making the Church completely subservient to the State.
In 1721 the Church was finally brought under complete Tsarist control. A supreme governing body called the Holy Synod was created by Tsar Peter, the great Tsar of Russia. The Holy Synod would arbitrate on all matters of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Synod was run by the State. The head of the Holy Synod was the Chief Procurator, who was directly appointed by the Tsar.
In this way, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, was chosen by the Tsar. The Russian Orthodox Church became nothing more than a department of the State, only a puppet in the hands of the Holy Synod, which in turn was run by the Tsarist State. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this change brought more followers to the Church itself as the Tsar felt that advancing the cause of the Church will also advance the cause of the Tsarist State.
Things seem good in such an arrangement between the religion and the State until the State favours the religion. But what is critical here is the fact that the religion loses all freedom in this drive and it takes just one anti-religious ruler to destroy the religious institutions from within.
Things went awry when the communists usurped power in a coup in 1917. The Orthodox Church was understood to be under the thumb of the Tsar, and as the Tsar himself was brutally massacred along with his entire family, the Church was left powerless and without its protector. It was a sitting duck.
The destruction of the Orthodox Church by the communists is a harrowing tale in itself, unmatched anywhere else in modern times.Not only were all Church buildings and possessions confiscated, but Orthodox priests were also massacred. Communists installed a Patriarch who listened to the Communist Party instead of tending to the believers. While the communists looted the property of the Church and destroyed it from within, the Patriarch kept quiet and whitewashed the crimes of the State against the Orthodox Church.[ref]
It is a sorry tale but on which much has been written. Suffice to say here that the lack of independence of the Orthodox Church caused its accelerated demise. And we shall not forget that initially the freedoms of the Church were destroyed and usurped by the State in the name of promoting the causes of the Church. Dependence of the religion on the State is ultimately bad for religion, at least as this particular case of the Russian Orthodox Church shows.
But did other churches fare well? Does the freedom of the religious institution matter at all?
To illustrate a different case let us take the example of Poland and the Catholic Church of Poland. Poland has been very unfortunate historically as it has always been sandwiched between Orthodox Russia on the east and Protestant Germany on the west. This has resulted in foreign powers trampling it again and again in wars after wars.
Surprisingly this unfortunate choice of religion for Poland also became a pillar of strength under a hostile state. After the Second World War, Stalin led USSR came to rule Poland. Much bloodshed happened and the communists perpetrated unimaginable atrocities on Poles, working on old ethnic hatred between Russians and Poles. In Poland too they physically destroyed various churches, looted their properties, killed and punished the priests and common believers. But one thing was different about Poland.
The spiritual and moral authority of the Polish Christians was the Pope in the Vatican, who was not under any State control and was a constant succour of hope for those Catholics who were reeling under the communist oppression. The sovereignty and freedom of the Catholic Church provided intellectual and moral courage to Polish Christians. The independence of the Vatican provided an international network to the Polish Christians when they were being persecuted by the communist government of Poland controlled by the USSR.
In 1978, the Bishop of Krakow, (Polands religious centre), called Karol Wojtyla became the new Pope called Pope John Paul II. In 1979, he visited his home country, Poland. His visit became symbolic that religion can withstand any State atrocity and persevere. The Christians of Poland galvanized around the religious authority of the Pope, drawing courage from him and the fact that their Church outside Poland was still going strong.
The hope that was generated with the Popes visit in 1979 ultimately converted into a social movement called the Solidarity Movement. This Movement worked through non-governmental trade unions, which had become possible in the post-Stalin era. All the anti-communist rebels started joining the Movement and peacefully, through strikes and protests brought the government to the talking table. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union decided to relax the communist yoke on neighbouring countries and Solidarity rode this democratic momentum. In the first free elections held in the country for many decades, leaders of the Solidarity Movement came to power in June 1989, ending the brutal communist rule in the country.
The impulse of Solidarity was not confined to just Poland. As it was the first successful social movement in many decades which overthrew the communist party in any country, it inspired many neighbouring communist countries. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. An avalanche was created in which regime after communist regime fell ultimately resulting in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lessons Learned -
What is not to forget is that the absolute freedom and independence of a religious institution was critical in throwing up opposition to an anti-religious State in adverse times, and was actually able to rebuild the religious movement in Poland after the communist party collapsed. This was possible because the Catholic Church was not controlled by the Polish State or by any other State. On the contrary in Russia, where the Church had been under the control of the Tsarist State, the destruction of the Church was swift and its resurrection very hard, after the collapse of the communist party.
Hindus can draw some lessons from this comparative case study. The State may not be actively hostile to Hinduism today, but in a democratic country, there is no guarantee that in future an actively hostile state will not come to power. In fact, sooner or later this is bound to happen. If Hindus do not free their temples completely from government control, the last and largest functioning public Hindu institution, the Hindu temple, will be a sitting duck to a future anti-Hindu government.
If the Hindu temple is freed then in times of distress, not only will it maintain and continue fundamental Hindu traditions, but will also be a beacon of hope; a pole to organize opposition to hostile anti-Hindu forces. That is why it is critical for the Hindu temples to be completely free.
Notes and References:
 Crummey, R. O. Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia and Ukraine in the age of the Counter-Reformation. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol.5: Eastern Christianity. Cambridge University Press. 2008.
 Lobachev, S.V. Patriarch Nikons Rise to Power. Slavonic and East European Review 79 (2): 290307. 2001.
 Ramet, S.P. Religion and Nationalism in Soviet and East European Politics. Durham. Duke University Press. 1984.
 Eringer, Robert. Strike for Freedom: The Story of Lech Wasa and Polish Solidarity. Dood Mead. 1982.