The conferral of legal personality on objects has historically been a powerful tool of policy to ensure the practical adjudication of claims. By creating a legal framework, it equipped the court with the tools necessary to adjudicate upon an emerging class of disputes. It saved considerable judicial effort and time by allowing judges to obviate the distinction between artificial and natural persons where it was not relevant. The conferral of legal personality was thus a tool of legal necessity and convenience.

Legal personality does not denote human nature or human attributes. Legal personality is a recognition of certain rights and duties in law.

An object, even after the conferral of legal personality, cannot express any will but it represents certain interests, rights, or benefits accruing to natural persons. Courts confer legal personality to overcome shortcomings perceived in the law and to facilitate practical adjudication. By ascribing rights and duties to artificial legal persons (imbued with a legal personality), the law tackles and fulfils both necessity and convenience.

By extension, courts ascribe legal personality to effectively adjudicate upon the claims of natural persons deriving benefits from or affected by the corpus upon which legal personality is conferred. The corollary of this principle is that the rights ascribed by courts to the corpus are limited to those necessary to address the existing shortcomings in the law and efficiently adjudicate claims.

This principle is concisely articulated by Phillip Blumberg:

“Distinguished by their particular legal rights and responsibilities, each class of legal unit is unique. They include legal subjects as disparate as individuals, maritime vessels, physical objects, partnerships, associations, special accounts, funds, economic interest groupings, and governmental agencies, as well as the corporation and the corporate group.

In each case, the attribution of rights and responsibilities demarcating the perimeters of legal recognition of the unit reflects all the factors that underlie societal lawmaking: the historical development of the law, changing values and interests, socio-economic and political forces, and conceptual currents. There are certain fundamental points.

First, neither legal rights nor legal units exist “in the air”. Legal rights must pertain to a legal unit that can exercise them. Further, there can be no comprehensive list of legal rights and responsibilities that automatically springs into existence upon recognition of a particular subject as a legal unit. Quite the contrary. It is the recognition of particular rights and responsibilities (principally rights) – one by one – that shapes the juridical contours of the legal unit for which they have been created.

When the law recognises a particular right or imposes a particular responsibility on a presumptive legal unit, this constitutes recognition as a legal unit to the extent of the attribution. Other rights and responsibilities may or may not exist, depending on whether such recognition of the unit in the view of the lawmaker – whether legislator, administrator, or judge – will fulfil the underlying policies and objectives of the law of the time in the area. Further, as society changes, the concept of legal identity and the legal consequences attributed to them inevitably change as well.”[1]

All legal units are not alike. The conferral of legal personality sub-serves specific requirements that justify its recognition. The conferral of juristic personality does not automatically grant an ensemble of legal rights. The contours of juristic personality i.e. the rights and liabilities that attach upon the object conferred with juristic personality, must be determined keeping in mind the specific reasons for which such legal personality was conferred. The limits or boundaries of the rights ascribed to the new legal person must be guided by the reasons for conferring legal personality.

The parameters of judicial innovation are set by the purpose for which the judge innovates. An example of this is when courts lift the veil of corporate personality where the conferral of an independent legal personality no longer serves the above goals. The application of the doctrine is defined by its ability to serve the object underlying its creation.

The legal innovation will become unruly if courts were to confer legal personality on an object and subsequently enlarge the object‘s rights to the point where the original goal of intelligible and practical adjudication is defeated.

The Hindu idol and divinity

At the outset, it is important to understand that the conferral of legal personality on a Hindu idol is not the conferral of legal personality on divinity itself, which in Hinduism is often understood as the ‘Supreme Being’. The Supreme Being defies form and shape, yet its presence is universal.

In the law of Hindu endowments, it has often been stated that legal personality is conferred on the ‘purpose behind the idol’. Legal personality is not conferred on the “Supreme Being” itself. As observed by the Court in Ram Jankijee Deities v State of Bihar[2]:

“19. God is omnipotent and omniscient and its presence is felt not by reason of a particular form or image but by reason of a particular form or image but by reason of the presence of the omnipotent. It is formless, it is shapeless and it is for the benefit of the worshippers that there is a manifestation in the images of the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being has no attribute, which consists of pure spirit and which is without a second being i.e. God is the only being existing in reality, there is no other being in real existence excepting Him.”

In 1991, the English Court of Appeal in Bumper Development Corporation Ltd v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis[3] was called to decide the question whether a Hindu temple and a Hindu idol could sue in a court of law. In 1976, an Indian labourer discovered a “Siva Natraja” in Pathur, Tamil Nadu which the labourer subsequently sold to a dealer in religious artefacts. Other artefacts were subsequently found, including a ‘Sivalingam’, and were reinstated in the Pathur temple. In 1982, Bumper Development Corporation purchased the “Siva Natraja” in good faith from a dealer in London who produced a false provenance of the Natraja for the purposes of the sale. The Natraja was subsequently seized by the Metropolitan Police.

At trial, the Government of India and the state government of Tamil Nadu intervened, along with the Pathur Temple and the Sivalingam as juristic persons. The Court of Appeal engaged in a lengthy discussion on foreign law in English Courts. However, in evaluating the maintainability of the claim by the Pathur temple as a legal entity, the English court made the following observations:

“(1) Neither God nor any supernatural being can be a person in law. A practical illustration of the truth of this statement is that if the endowments were to vest in God as a supernatural being litigation between different temples over their respective rights would be impossible. In any event the same ―person‖ would be both plaintiff and defendant since, as Dr. Mukherjea points out, all Hindus always worship the one Supreme Being.

That there is much litigation between temples in India is clear beyond a peradventure. …

(4) Any juristic person must be capable of identification. This necessitates that ‘person’ having a name or description. Since every Hindu idol is a manifestation of one Supreme Being, one must look elsewhere than to the name of God for an identification. The Pathur Temple bears the name of its founder in its title; and that appears to be the custom in Tamil Nadu. So any idol must in practice be referred to by association with the name of the temple in which it is.”

Hinduism understands the Supreme Being as existing in every aspect of the universe. The Supreme Being is omnipresent. The idea of a legal person is premised on the need to “identify the subjects” of the legal system. An omnipresent being is incapable of being identified or delineated in any manner meaningful to the law and no identifiable legal subject would emerge.

This understanding is reflected in the decisions of the Court as well. In Yogendra Nath Naskar v Commissioner of Income Tax, Calcutta[4], a three judge Bench of the Court was called upon to determine whether a Hindu idol (or “deity”) falls within the definition of an “individual” under Section 3 of the Income Tax Act 1922. Justice V Ramaswami speaking for a three judge Bench of the Court held:

“Sankara, the great philosopher, refers to the one Reality, who, owing to the diversity of intellects (Matibheda) is conventionally spoken of (Parikalpya) in various ways as Brahma, Visnu and Mahesvara. It is, however, possible that the founder of the endowment or the worshipper may not conceive of this highest spiritual plane but hold that the idol is the very embodiment of a personal God, but that is not a matter with which the law is concerned.

Neither God nor any supernatural being could be a person in law. But so 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.

Our conclusion is that the Hindu idol is a juristic entity capable of holding property and of being taxed through its Shebaits who are entrusted with the possession and management of its property.”

Legal personality on the Supreme Being

Legal personality is not conferred on the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being has no physical presence for it is understood to be omnipresent – the very ground of being itself. The court does not confer legal personality on divinity. Divinity in Hindu philosophy is seamless, universal and infinite. Divinity pervades every aspect of the universe. The attributes of divinity defy description and furnish the fundamental basis for not defining it with reference to boundaries – physical or legal.

For the reason that it is omnipresent it would be impossible to distinguish where one legal entity ends and the next begins. The narrow confines of the law are ill suited to engage in such an exercise and it is for this reason that the law has steered clear from adopting this approach. In Hinduism, physical manifestations of the Supreme Being exist in the form of idols to allow worshippers to experience a shapeless being. The idol is a representation of the Supreme Being. The idol, by possessing a physical form is identifiable.

Method adopted for the conferral of legal personality

An exploration of the method adopted for the conferral of legal personality on Hindu idols and the reason for the conferment is necessary. Chief Justice B K Mukherjee’s, “The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts” demonstrates a timeless quality and has significance in understanding the evolution of our law on the subject.

Justice Mukherjea notes that even prior to courts regulating the Hindu practice of religious endowments, the clear public interest in regulating properties dedicated for religious purposes, resulted in the practice being regulated by the rulers of the day. He states:

“1.36 … It appears however that from very early times religious and charitable institutions in this country came under the special protection of the ruling authority. In the celebrated Rameswar Pagoda case, it was pointed out by the Judicial Committee that the former rulers of this country always asserted the right to visit endowments of this kind to prevent and redress the abuses in their management. “There can be little doubt”, thus observed Their Lordships, “that the superintending authority was exercised by the older rulers.”

Mr. Nelson in his Madura Manual says: “… The Dharma Kartas held but little communication one with another and recognised no earthly superior except the king himself. Each was independent of all control and acted altogether as he pleased. This freedom led naturally to gross abuses and the king was compelled occasionally to interfere in the management of some of the churches.”[5]

In an article which was published in 2010 in the Economic and Political Weekly, Gautam Patel traces the historical evolution of endowments. He noted the reason for the conferment of personality in law on idols:

“Emperors and rulers routinely donated property and cash for the establishment, maintenance and upkeep of Hindu shrines. When land was made over to a temple, it was in the form of a sanad, or grant, or firman, by edict. The Shrinathji temple at Nathdwara, for instance, was said to have received a firman from the emperor Akbar. Given the colonial obsession with orderliness and documentation, this situation presented a problem – large areas of land were owned, managed and cultivated by shebaits and mohunts who were clearly not the owners. Temples were, by their nature, malleable and apt to grow and change.

The entity with some permanence was the idol and it is presumably for that reason that the legal concept of the Hindu idol as a juristic entity owning land evolved. The reason may have been purely fiscal – these lands had to be surveyed, their ownership ascertained, and then assessed for (or exempted from) land revenue and other taxes. But the ownership of land almost always depended on the establishment of a positive act of giving – by firman, sanad or any other instrument that unequivocally shows a dedication of the land to the idol.”[6]


Edited Excerpt from the Judgment ‘M Siddiq (D) Lrs v. Mahant Suresh Das & Ors. (2019)

[1] Phillip Blumberg, The Multinational Challenge to Corporation Law : The Search for New Corporate Personality,

Oxford University Press (1993), at page 3

[2] (1999) 5 SCC 50

[3] [1991] 1 WLR 1362 (2)

[4] (1969) 1 SCC 555

[5] B.K. Mukherjea, The Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust, 5th Edition Eastern Law House, (1983) at

page 28

[6] Gautam Patel, Idols in Law, Vol. 45, No.50, Economic and Political Weekly (11-17 December 2010) at page 49