Hindu gods are in a litigious mood these days. Following the struggle by Ram Lalla—the Hindu deity’s infant form—to lay claim to the 2.77 acres of land where the Babri Masjid once stood, even minor gods are flexing their muscles. The temple idol in Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir, a garden-variety temple in Eastern Rajasthan, has recently been deemed to be the sole owner of about 400 bighas of land. The yoga guru Ramdev, incidentally, was eyeing the same plot of land for his Patanjali empire. The Indian state, which routinely dispossesses its citizens in the name of large infrastructure projects, is quite helpless when it comes to the land rights of temple deities.
Idols have long enjoyed state patronage. In 1988, the Indian government represented the god Shiva in a British court to bring back the idol of Pathur Nataraja from the British Museum. An argument made during the legal proceedings was that “an idol remained a juristic person however long buried or damaged, since the deity and its juristic entity survive the total destruction of its earthly form.”
Having “juristic personhood” assigned to a non-human entity cannot be considered a human right, but a privilege. It is legal fiction. Depending upon their social usefulness, states and courts choose to treat some non-human entities as if they were endowed with the rights of a person. These entities are obviously not flesh-and-blood persons—juristic persons do not have bodies or souls; they cannot reason or feel; they do not get married or have children. Yet juristic persons have the right to own property, to enter into contracts and to sue. Idols of Hindu gods are deemed persons in this sense, although being an embodiment of the divine, they are ascribed a superhuman will.
Idols are to modern Hinduism what corporations are to the world of business.