The Supreme Court recently suggested to the management of Puri’s Jagannath temple that it should “permit every visitor irrespective of faith to offer respects and make offerings to the deity”. What is the background of the practice of barring non-Hindus from entering the temple, and to what privileges and traditions is it linked?
What the court said
The court cited “settled law” from Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam vs Government of Tamil Nadu (2015) to stress the inclusiveness of Hinduism. “Religion incorporates the particular belief(s) that a group of people subscribes to. Hinduism, as a religion, incorporates all forms of belief without mandating the selection or elimination of any one single belief… It has been described as Sanatan Dharma, namely, eternal faith, as it is the collective wisdom and inspiration of the centuries that Hinduism seeks to preach and propagate.”
According to temple scholar Dr Harihar Kanungo, the deity was originally a “Sabara Debata” (Adivasi god) who was named Jagannath or Lord of the Universe by Buddhists. Scholar and former diplomat Subhakanta Behera has spotlighted the fact that the Lord’s core servitors, known as daitas, are of non-Brahmin descent.
Kanungo has argued that Jagannath was established in Puri in the 9th century AD, and “came under Brahmins after the decline of Buddhism”. The restrictions based on caste and religion took root around the 16th century. Lord Jagannath is originally a “non-Hindu, non-Brahminical god, and therefore (the temple) should be accessible to people of all faiths,” he says. Historians Benimadhava Padhi, Anncharlott Eschmann and Hermann Kulke have supported the theory of gradual Hinduisation of Lord Jagannath. Nilakantha Das, one of the five Panchasakha who played a critical role in the recognition of the Odiya language, spoke of the Jain origins of Jagannath.
‘Only for Hindus’
Servitors and some temple scholars, however, do not agree that Jagannath was not originally a Hindu god. They argue that the temple is a place of worship, and not a hospital or a school requiring equal entry rights. Keeping non-believers out is not discriminatory because they don’t believe in the deity, and are not deprived of any essential services, they say. According to Puri Shankaracharya Nischalananda Saraswati, “(entry) rules for Mahatma Gandhi memorial (which is open to people of all faiths) cannot be applied to the temple”.
Puri MLA and BJD strongman Maheswar Mohanty has argued that the Rath Yatra, when the Lord emerges from the temple, affords a chance to people of all faiths to meet Him. “If everybody is allowed inside the temple… what is the need for Rath Yatra?” he has asked. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has said it would approach the court before the next hearing in September, because it fears “the suggestion will soon change into an order”.
After the court sought a report on reforms needed in the temple, the Puri district judge proposed that hereditary servitors be abolished — a suggestion that the court accepted. Servitors face allegations of extorting money and misbehaving with devotees. “Provision shall be made for payment of compensation to the Sevaks and Sevayats who will be affected… In future, preference shall be given to duly qualified persons belonging to the families of the different categories which were in existence at the time of abolition of the hereditary rights,” the report said.
The servitors say they are not “ordinary workers who can be removed from service”. They say their role is not a secular activity that can be regulated by the state or the judiciary, but an intrinsic part of the fundamental right to religion. Temple scholars argue that dismantling the hereditary system may violate fundamental rights.
The Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) has begun implementing the Supreme Court’s orders on daan and dakshina in the temple. SJTA chief administrator Pradipta Mohapatra has said “No sevaka can take any dakshina from any devotee/pilgrim. People can only donate voluntarily to the hundis.”