The reasons for the recognition of the idol as an entity in law are intrinsically tied to the historical circumstances in which recognition took place. The setting up of religious endowments by individuals, merchants and rulers is an age-old practice in India. However, the colonial administration in India and English law of the time lacked the legal framework within which to record, tax and ultimately adjudicate upon claims with respect to Hindu religious endowments.
Disputes arose with the increase in the value of the properties dedicated. The establishment of courts across the country led to their increasingly having to adjudicate upon claims concerning endowments, idols, and debutter properties.
Legal characteristics of Hindu idols
English and Indian judges in India were called upon to determine the legal characteristics of Hindu idols and the properties associated with them.
In Manohar Ganesh Tambekar v Lakhmiram Govindram, the plaintiffs were persons interested in the religious foundation of the temple of Dakor and the defendants were recipients of the temple‘s offerings. The plaintiff‘s prayer was that the court appoint a receiver for the accountable disposal of the offerings made at the temple. On the other hand, the defendants submitted that the temple offerings were their own absolute and secular property.
A Division Bench of the Bombay High Court analysed the circumstances in which the case took place and considered the need to confer legal personality on the Hindu idol. The Court, speaking through Justice R West observed:
“For a period extending over several centuries the revenues of the temple seem to have but slightly, if at all, exceeded the outlay required to maintain its services, but recently these revenues have very largely increased. The law which protects the foundations against external violence guards it also internally against mal-administration, and regulates, conformable to the central principle of the institution, the use of its augmented funds.”
Necessity to apply law on Religious Endowments
The Hindu practice of dedicating properties to temples and idols had to be adjudicated upon by courts for the first time in the late nineteenth century. The doctrine that Hindu idols possess a distinct legal personality was adopted by English judges in India faced with the task of applying Hindu law to religious endowments. Property disputes arose and fuelled questions about the ownership of the properties.
Two clear interests were recognised as subjects of legal protection–
-First, there existed the real possibility of maladministration by the shebaits (i.e. managers) where land endowed for a particular pious purpose, ordinarily to the worship of an idol, was poorly administered or even alienated.
–Second, where the land was dedicated to public worship, there existed the threat that access or other religious benefits would be denied to the public, in particular to the devotees. Where the original founder of the endowment was not alive and the shebait was not the owner of the lands, how were the courts (and through them the State) to give effect to the original dedication?
To provide courts with a conceptual framework within which they could analyse and practically adjudicate upon disputes involving competing claims over endowed properties, courts recognised the legal personality of the Hindu idol. It was a legal innovation necessitated by historical circumstances, the gap in the existing law and by considerations of convenience.
It had the added advantage of conferring legal personality on an object that within Hinduism had long been subject to personification. In conferring legal personality on the Hindu idol, courts drew inspiration from what they saw as factual parallels in Roman law.
Justice B K Mukherjea summarises the position:
“…from the fifth century onwards – foundations created by individuals came to be recognised as foundations in the true legal sense, but only if they took the form of Pia Causa, i.e., were devoted to “pious uses” only, in short, if they were charitable institutions.
Whenever a person dedicated property whether by gift inter vivos or by will – in favour of the poor or the sick, or prisoners or orphans, or aged people, he thereby created ipso facto a new subject of legal rights – the poor house, the hospital and so forth and the dedicated property became the sole property of the new subject – it became the property of the new juristic person whom the founder had called into being. ……
A private person might make over property by way of legacy or gift to a corporation already in existence and might, at the same time, prescribe the particular purpose for which the property was to be employed, e.g., feeding the poor, or giving relief to the sick or distressed. The receiving corporation would be in the position of a trustee and would be legally bound to spend the funds for the particular purpose.
The other alternative was for the donor himself to create an institution or foundation. This would be a new juristic person, which depended on its origin on nothing else but the will of the founder, provided it was directed a charitable purpose. The foundation would be the owner of the dedicated property, and the administrators would be the trustees bound to carry out the object of the foundation.”
In Roman law, where property was dedicated to a particular religious or charitable purpose and not to an identified donee, the religious/charitable purpose itself was elevated to the status of a legal foundation. The foundation was a separate legal entity and came to own the dedicated property. Hindu law does not make a distinction between religious and charitable purposes. However, a clear parallel exists in the case of Hindu endowments.
In Manohar Ganesh Tambekar, the Division Bench of the Bombay High Court set out the rationale for and the process by which legal personality is conferred on a Hindu idol. Justice West observes:
“The Hindu law, like the Roman law and those derived from it, recognizes, not only corporate bodies with rights of property vested in the corporation apart from its individual members, but also juridical persons or subjects called foundations. A Hindu, who wishes to establish a religious or charitable institution, may, according to his law, express his purpose and endow it, and the ruler will give effect to the bounty …
A trust is not required for this purpose: the necessity of a trust in such a case is indeed a peculiarity and a modern peculiarity of the English law. In early times a gift placed, as it was expressed, ―on the altar of God sufficed to convey to the church the lands thus dedicated. … Such a practical realism is not confined to the sphere of law; it is made use of even by merchants in their accounts, and by furnishing an ideal centre for an institution to which the necessary human attributes are ascribed. …
But if there is a juridical person, the ideal embodiment of a pious or benevolent idea as the centre of the foundation, this artificial subject of rights is as capable of taking offerings of cash and jewels as of land. Those who take physical possession of the one as of the other kind of property incur thereby a responsibility for its due application to the purposes of the foundation. …
The law which protects the foundations against external violence guards it also internally against mal-administration, and regulates, conformable to the central principle of the institution, the use of its augmented funds. It is only as subject to this control in the general interest of the community that the State through the law courts recognizes a merely artificial person.
It guards property and rights as devoted, and thus belonging, so to speak, to a particular allowed purpose only on a condition of varying the application when either the purpose has become impracticable, useless or pernicious, or the funds have augmented in an extraordinary measure.”
The decision in Manohar Ganesh Tambekar indicates that the expression of a religious or charitable purpose and the creation of an endowment to effectuate it was adequate. The creation of a trust, as in English law was not necessary. The creation of an endowment resulted in the creation of an artificial legal person. The artificial or juridical person represents or embodies a pious or benevolent purpose underlying its creation.
Legal personality is conferred on the pious purpose of the individual making the endowment. Where the endowment is made to an idol, the idol forms the material representation of the legal person. This juridical person (i.e. the pious purpose represented by the idol) can in law accept offerings of movable and immovable property which will vest in it. The legal personality of the idol, and the rights of the idol over the property endowed and the offerings of devotees, are guarded by the law to protect the endowment against maladministration by the human agencies entrusted with the day to day management of the idol.
Shortly after the decision in Manohar Ganesh Tambekar, the Madras High Court was called upon to decide a dispute pertaining to the appointment of the head of a Mutt. In Vidyapurna Tirtha Swami v Vidyanidhi Tirtha Swami, a Division Bench examined the legal character of idols, temples and mutts in some detail.
Justice B Ayyangar went to on to observe:
“As already stated, the worshippers are beneficiaries only in a spiritual sense, and the endowments themselves are primarily intended for spiritual purposes, through indirectly and incidentally a good number of people derive material or pecuniary benefit therefrom as office-holders, servants or objects of charity…
The question has not been suggested or considered, whether the community itself for whose spiritual benefit the institution was founded and endowed may not be more appropriately be regarded as a corporate body forming the juristic person in whom the properties of the institution are vested and who act through one or more of the natural persons forming the corporate body, these latter being the dharma Kartas or panchayats, &c., charged with the execution of the trusts of the institution and possessing strictly limited powers of alienation of the endowments, as defined in the cases cited above.
Though a fluctuating and uncertain body of men cannot claim a profit a prendre in alieeno solo, nor be the grantee of any kind of real property (see Goodman v Mayor of Saltash, yet there is high authority for treating such community as a corporation or juristic person in relation to religious foundations and endowments. …
For all practical purposes however it is immaterial whether the presiding idol or the community of worshippers is regarded as the corporation or juristic person in which the properties are vested, though from a juristic point of view there may be a difference of opinion as to which theory is more scientific.
In the words of a recent writer on Jurisprudence (Salmond’s “Jurisprudence” (1902), 346) “the choice of the corpus into which the law shall breathe the breath of a fictious personality is a matter of form rather than of substance, of lucid and compendious expression, rather than of legal principle,” …”
The conferral of juristic personality by courts is to overcome existing shortfalls in the law and ensure societally satisfactory and legally sound outcomes. Justice Ayyangar observes that a key societal interest sought to be protected by the conferral of juristic personality on the idol was the protection of the devotees’ interests. Justice Ayyangar notes that such protection could also be achieved by conferring juristic personality on the devotees as a collective. However, given the widespread personification of the idol, he holds that juristic personality should vest in the idol on considerations of practicality and convenience.
In Bhupati Nath Smrititirtha v Ram Lal Maitra, a five judge Bench of the Calcutta High Court was constituted to answer the question whether bequests by a testator to trustees for the establishment of an idol of the Goddess Kali and the worship of the idol after the testator‘s death were invalid due to the Hindu law principle which stated that gifts could only be made to sentient beings.
The testator in that case had dedicated certain properties to an idol. While the testator died in 1890, the idol was not consecrated until 1894. A question arose as to whether the non-existence of the idol at the time of the testator‘s death invalidated the provisions of the will dedicated the property. In an erudite opinion holding that such bequests were valid, Chief Justice Lawrence Jenkins held:
“… but the testator directed all his property to be placed in the hands of persons named by him and subject to certain payments these persons were directed to spend the surplus income which might be left in the sheba and worship of Kali after establishing the image of the Kali after the name of his mother. Now this manifestly was a disposition for religious purposes and such dispositions are favoured by Hindu Law. …
In England it has been held that gifts “for the worship of God” or “to be employed in the service of the Lord and Master” are good. Then does it invalidate the disposition that the discretion is for the spending of the surplus income on the Sheba and worship of Kali “after establishing the image of the Kali after the name of my mother.” I think not: the pious purpose is still the legatee, the establishment of the image is merely the mode in which the pious purpose is to be effected.”
In his separate opinion, Justice Stephen noted:
“But though a dedication to a deity does not constitute a gift, it has legal effect. The intention of the donor is that the subject-matter of the gift shall be used for doing honour to the deity by worship, and for conferring benefit on the worshippers and the ministers of the deity who conduct it. This worship is properly and I understand necessarily carried out by having recourse to an image or outer physical object, but the image is nothing till inspired by the deity. It is the duty of the sovereign to see that the purposes of the dedication are carried out.”
In holding that the non-existence of the idol at the time of the testator‘s death did not matter, the opinion of Chief Justice Jenkins clearly demonstrates that the endowed property vests in the purpose itself. As he notes, ‘the pious purpose is still the legatee.’ It is on this purpose that juristic personality is conferred. In recognising the pious purpose as a juristic person, the state gives effect to, and protects the endowment. The idol is the material embodiment of the testator‘s gift.
As the gift is one to ensure the continued worship of the deity, the idol is a physical manifestation of the testator‘s pious purpose. Where courts recognise the legal personality of the idol they are in effect recognising and protecting the testator‘s desire that the deity be worshipped.
A Hindu may make an endowment for a religious purpose. There is a public interest in protecting the properties endowed and ensuring that the original pious purpose of the dedicator is fulfilled. The law confers legal personality on this pious purpose. However, as Chief Justice B K Mukherjea notes, it is the idol, as the material manifestation of the juristic person which is ―looked upon‖ as the centre in which the property vests. The idol as an embodiment of a pious or benevolent purpose is recognised by the law as a juristic entity. The state will therefore protect property which stands vested in the idol even absent the establishment of a specific or express trust.
The pious purpose, or “benevolent idea” is elevated to the status of a juristic person and the idol forms the material expression of the pious purpose through which legal relations are affected. It is the pious purpose at the heart of the dedication which is the basis of conferring legal personality on the idol and which is the subject of rights and duties.
The need to confer juristic personality arises out of the need for legal certainty as to who owns the dedicated property, as well as the need to protect the original intention of the dedicator and the future interests of the devotees. It was open for courts to even confer the personality on the community of devotees in certain situations, but the idol is chosen as a centre for legal relations as the physical manifestation of the pious purpose.
The idol constitutes the embodiment or expression of the pious purpose upon which legal personality is conferred. The destruction of the idol does not result in the termination of the pious purpose and consequently the endowment. Even where the idol is destroyed, or the presence of the idol itself is intermittent or entirely absent, the legal personality created by the endowment continues to subsist.
In our country, idols are routinely submerged in water as a matter of religious practice. It cannot be said that the pious purpose is also extinguished due to such submersion. The establishment of the image of the idol is the manner in which the pious purpose is fulfilled. A conferral of legal personality on the idol is, in effect, a recognition of the pious purpose itself and not the method through which that pious purpose is usually personified.
The pious purpose may also be fulfilled where the presence of the idol is intermittent or there exists a temple absent an idol depending on the deed of dedication. In all such cases the pious purpose on which legal personality is conferred continues to subsist.
Upon making an endowment, the donor relinquishes all claims to the endowed property. The property now vests in the pious purpose at the heart of the endowment which is recognised as a legal person. The idol forms the material manifestation of the pious purpose and the consequent centre of jural relations. The beneficiaries of the endowment are worshippers and the proper maintenance of worship to the idol is to enable the worshippers to achieve the spiritual benefit of being in communion with the divine.
Edited Excerpt from the Judgment ‘M Siddiq (D) Lrs v. Mahant Suresh Das & Ors. (2019)
 ILR (1888) 12 Bom 247
 B.K. Mukherjea, The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust, 5th Edition, Eastern Law House (1983) at
 ILR (1904) 27 Mad 435
 ILR (1909-1910) 37 Cal 128
 B.K. Mukherjea, The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust , 5th Edn. Eastern Law House (1983) at