When the East India Company started conquering and taking control of territories in India, England was not a secular country with a wall of separation between church and state. Instead, the Church of England was the established church in the realm. King Henry VIII established the Church of England, and broke away from the Pope. Since 1520, every ruler of Great Britain bore the official title ‘Defender of the Faith’. The ‘Act of Supremacy’ enacted in 1534 declared that the British monarch was the ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’. The ‘Act against the Pope’s Authority’ in 1536 dissolved the Pope’s authority. The Archbishop of Canterbury, or the most senior bishop in the Church of England, and other high-level church officials were all appointed by the government. The incomes of members of the clergy were supported by compulsory tithes or taxes imposed on some agricultural products. New monarchs were crowned by a high-ranking member of the clergy, and senior bishops were represented in the House of Lords.
Similarly, pre-colonial rulers in India were intricately involved in the administration of religious institutions like temples and mosques. In 1790, for instance, Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore, issued an order to his officials that Hindu temples were under their management, and that they were to ensure that ‘the offerings to the gods and the temple illumination are duly regulated . . . out of the government grants’. According to one scholar, Tipu Sultan was following ‘a pattern imposed by centuries of history’ in India.
When the East India Company took over, it continued administering religious institutions that had been managed by prior, pre-colonial governments, partly because it was a good source of revenue and partly because it lent legitimacy to the ruling dispensation.
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For instance, in 1796, the British collector of Madras took over the administration of Hindu temples at Conjeevaram (Kanchipuram). In 1801, it was declared that all temples and servants at Tirupati were under the control and administration of the District Collector of North Arcot, who could punish any temple servant for misappropriating funds.
The colonial government soon started enacting laws for administering temples and other religious institutions. In 1806, the government issued regulations for the ‘superintendence and management’ of the Jagannath Temple in modern-day Odisha.
Interestingly, the British referred to this temple as the ‘Juggernaut’ Temple. The English word ‘juggernaut’ is derived from this nomenclature, which can probably be attributed to an Anglican chaplain, Reverend Claudius Buchanan. In June 1806, Buchanan was horrified to see a Hindu pilgrim sacrificing himself to the idol at Jagannath. The pilgrim, said Buchanan, lay on the ground with his ‘arms stretched forwards’ and was ‘was crushed to death by the wheels of the tower’ carrying the idol. He wrote a book about his experiences at the ‘Juggernaut’ Temple, which became quite popular.
The 1806 regulations reintroduced a pre-colonial tax on pilgrims who visited the temple. The tax was to be used, among other things, for paying the salaries of temple officials though this did not bar them from ‘receiving presents or gifts’ voluntarily offered by devotees. The ‘superintendence of the temple . . . and its interior economy’, and ‘the entire control over [its] priests, officers and servants’ was vested in an ‘assembly of pundits or learned Brahmins’, consisting of three members, who were appointed by the government. The pundits held their office during good behaviour, but could be removed by the government ‘on proof of misconduct’. Like the monarch appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury for the established Church of England, the colonial government thus exercised the power to appoint senior priests at the Jagannath Temple.
However, this arrangement did not last very long. In 1809, only around three years later, the management of the Jagannath Temple was transferred to the rajah of Khoordah, who was appointed the trustee of the temple. The government still retained some control over the temple. The rajah of Khoordah held his office as trustee of the temple only so long as he conducted himself with ‘integrity, diligence and propriety’ and could be removed by the government for failing to do so. Some temple officials called dewul purchas were to be appointed by the British collector of Cuttack, who also exercised control over the pilgrim tax.
Soon thereafter, the colonial government enacted rules in Bengal, Madras and Bombay, for regulating the administration of temples and mosques. In 1810, a law was enacted for Bengal that opened by saying that ‘considerable endowments’ or sizeable donations and contributions which had been made by past governments and individuals in favour of mosques and temples were being misappropriated and embezzled by the managers of those institutions.
The ‘general superintendence of all lands granted for the support of mosques, Hindoo temples . . . and for other pious and beneficial purposes’ was therefore vested in the colonial government.
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It became the duty of the government to ensure that religious endowments were not mismanaged by local managers of mosques and temples. Wherever a pre-colonial government had exercised the power of appointing trustees at religious institutions, the colonial government would now be able to exercise that power.
A similar law was enacted in Madras in 1817. In Bombay, in 1827, a law was enacted which said that lands that were exempt from paying taxes because they were being used for religious establishments would be liable to be taxed ‘if the conditions of the grant are not fulfilled’, i.e. if the manager of the institution was misappropriating funds. Over the years, the colonial government got itself intricately entangled with the administration of religious institutions. Officers and attendants at temples were appointed by government officials.
Under the orders of the public officer of the district, a religious offering was made at temples for ensuring a good monsoon. At government offices, prayers were offered to the Hindu goddess Saraswati by worshipping account books and other records on some festival days.
By 1833, the Madras government reported that it was in charge of the administration of 7600 Hindu temples. All this annoyed Christian missionaries and members of the Christian clergy in Britain and India who put pressure on the government to end these practices. Consequently, in 1833, the ‘Court of Directors’ (like the modern-day board of directors) of the East India Company wrote a long letter of instructions to the government in India outlining its policy towards India’s religions.
The directors wrote that all ‘religious rites and offices’ that were ‘harmless’ in the sense that they were ‘not flagrantly opposed to rules of common humanity or decency . . . ought to be tolerated, however false the creed by which they are sanctioned’. However, they continued that while it was necessary to provide some police protection at large festivals, ‘[i]t is not necessary that we should take part in the celebration of an idolatrous ceremony, or that we should assist in the preparations for it, or that we should afford to it such systematic support as shall accredit it in the eyes of the people’.
The exhibition of ‘British Power in such intimate connexion with the unhappy and debasing superstitions’ at Hindu and Muslim religious institutions, they wrote, gave the people of India the impression either that ‘we admit the divine origin of those superstitions; or, at least, that we ascribe to them some peculiar and venerable authority’.
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The fact that the pilgrim tax was being used in making repairs at temples and paying the salaries of priests annoyed the directors. ‘From being simply conservators of the public peace . . . we are become the chief agents in sustaining an idol establishment’, they wrote.
They therefore ordered that ‘the interference of British Functionaries in the interior management of native temples, in the customs, habits and religious proceedings of their priests and attendants, in the arrangement of their ceremonies, rites and festivals, and generally in the conduct of their interior economy, shall cease.’ The directors expressed their dissatisfaction with the 1809 regulations, which, they noted, still left the colonial government a large degree of control over the ‘interior concerns’ of the Jagannath Temple.
They opposed the pilgrim tax at Jagannath, not because they thought that it was an unfair imposition on the religious rights of Hindus, but because they were revolted ‘at the idea of deliberately making a profit of practices, the existence of which we must deplore, and of tenets which we cannot but entirely disapprove’.
They wrote that the pilgrim tax gave the government an incentive to promote and encourage ‘the superstition, out of which the tax is derived’. ‘[A]t Juggernauth’, they wrote, ‘the most gorgeous part of the decorations with which the cars at the festival are embellished, consists in cloths directly supplied by our own warehouses.’ They concluded by directing the government that the pilgrim tax should be abolished and that ‘in all matters relating to their temples, their worship, their festivals, their religious practices, their ceremonial observances, our native subjects be left entirely to themselves’.
It was in this manner that the seed of secularism was sown in India. Unlike Britain, which had an established church, the colonial government was directed to disentangle itself from ‘superstitious’ Indian religious institutions, because Indian religions were considered heathen and false. Importantly, it was not the ‘Mutiny’ in 1857 which set British India on a course towards secularism, but the 1833 letter of instructions from the Court of Directors which did so.
This excerpt from Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India by Abhinav Chandrachud has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.