In Ram Jankijee Deities v State of Bihar[1] the question before the court concerned whether the consecration of a deity with a visible image by the performance of appropriate ceremonies led to the establishment of a valid deity upon which juridical personality could be conferred “for the purpose of the Bihar Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act 1961”.

Two deeds of dedication were executed – one to the deity, Ram Jankijee and the other to the deity, Thakur Raja. Both deities, recognised as distinct entities, were given separate properties and put in possession through the shebaits. Both deities were located in separate temples within the dedicated property.

The Deputy Collector, for the purposes of the fixation of ceiling area, allowed two land units to the deities on the ground that there are separate deities to which the land was gifted. The Collector disagreed and allowed a single unit on the ground that the entire property held by both deities was to be managed by a committee formed under the Religious Trust Board and there was no evidence on the property donated to the deities being treated differently.

Supreme Court sought to answer whether the two deities were separate and distinct legal entities. It is pertinent to note that the Single Judge of the High Court held that the image of the deity styled as Thakur Raja (or Raja Rani) was not known to Hindu scriptures and hence, there is no second deity to which a separate dedication could be made. It is in this context that Supreme Court observed, speaking through Justice Umesh Banerjee:

“14. Images according to Hindu authorities are of two kinds: the first is known as swayambhu or self-existent or self-revealed, while the other is pratisthita or established. The Padma Purana says: ‘The image of Hari (God) prepared of stone, earth, wood, metal or the like and established according to the rites laid down in the Vedas, Smritis and Tantras is called the established images … where the self-possessed Vishnu has placed himself on earth in stone or wood for the benefit of mankind, that is styled the self-revealed.’ (B.K. Mukherjea — Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts, 5th Edn.)

A swayambhu or self-revealed image is a product of nature and it is anadi or without any beginning and the worshippers simply discover its existence and such images do not require consecration or pratistha but a man-made image requires consecration. This man-made image may be painted on a wall or canvas. The Salgram Shila depicts Narayana being the Lord of the Lords and represents Vishnu Bhagwan. It is a shila “the shalagram form partaking the form of Lord of the Lords, Narayana and Vishnu.’

The Court then surveyed precedent to hold that while an idol is usually consecrated in a temple, it does not appear to be an essential condition. The Court held:

“16…If the people believe in the temples’ religious efficacy no other requirement exists as regards other areas and the learned Judge it seems has completely overlooked this aspect of the Hindu Shastras “in any event, Hindus have in the Shastras ‘Agni’ Devta, ‘Vayu’ Devta — these deities are shapeless and formless but for every ritual Hindus offer their oblations before the deity. The ahuti to the deity is the ultimate — the learned Single Judge however was pleased not to put any reliance thereon. It is not a particular image which is a juridical person but it is a particular bent of mind which consecrates the image.”

All the cases relied on by the Court pertain to the requisites of a temple under various statutes or what constitutes a place of religious worship. The observations of the Court form the basis of locating the centre of worship, which according to it does not need to have a fixed image and is based on the faith and belief of the worshippers.

The observations of the Court were in the context of determining whether a valid deity existed to whom a dedication could be made. The question whether the second deity was a distinct legal person arose due to the need to determine the validity of the deed of dedication in favour of the second deity constituting a separate unit for the purposes of the Bihar Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act 1961. It is only consequent to the establishment of a valid deity that the dedicated property would vest in the established deity in the ideal sense.

The rationale underlying the approach adopted by this Court is clarified in the following observations:

“17. One cardinal principle underlying idol worship ought to be borne in mind ―that whichever God the devotee might choose for purposes of worship and whatever image he might set up and consecrate with that object, the image represents the Supreme God and none else. There is no superiority or inferiority amongst the different Gods. Siva, Vishnu, Ganapati or Surya is extolled, each in its turn as the creator, preserver and supreme lord of the universe.

The image simply gives a name and form to the formless God and the orthodox Hindu idea is that conception of form is only for the benefit of the worshipper and nothing else”. (B.K. Mukherjea — Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts, 5th Edn.)

The observations in Ram Jankijee Deities were made in the specific context of consecrating an image based on the faith and belief of devotees for the establishment of a deity to which valid dedications may be made. The observations in this case establish that the existence of a valid deity was not to be tested against Hindu Shastras but on the basis of the faith and belief of the devotees.

Once the faith and belief of the devotees had been established, it was an express deed of dedication that resulted in the conferral of juridical personality on the idol. The court in that case was concerned with whether a specific image of a deity must be tested against Hindu scriptures and it is in this context that the court held that divinity is ‘formless, shapeless but it is the human concept of a particular divine existence which gives it the shape, the size and the colour.’

[1] (1999) 5 SCC 50