A Close Look at Hindu Temples – Part 9

(Last Part)

Undoing Historical Injustice or Politics of Vendetta?

How can we reclaim our temples?

Dr Uma Shankari*

It is well known that when Muslim rulers invaded North India, starting from 11th century onwards, there was the usual plunder, slavery and rape, as all conquering invaders did. In addition, the religion of Islam, and Abrahamic religions in general, were vehemently opposed to idolatry and polytheism. The very origin of these religions was to oppose idolatry and polytheism and to advocate monotheism, with an abstract transcendental notion of God. They even went to the extent of a notion of God who punished whole communities of transgressors with severe natural disasters. Wars and fierce conflicts on the issue of idolatry were very common, in the Middle East, where these religions were mostly based, right from ancient times. It should be no surprise that they continued to smash temples and idols with the same vigour and fierceness in Indian soil as well. However, as the Muslim rulers settled in the Indian soil, they came to limit their violence to levying a tax on the Hindus. In due course, they even supported Hinduism through grants to temples and mutts.

It must be remembered that history of the world is full of vandalisms and violence between peoples of different religions. The conquering/ruling regimes often impose their religious faiths on the conquered societies. The temples of Jews in Jerusalem were destroyed twice. The Crusades saw destruction and vandalism of mosques as well as churches in Europe and Asia. Racism, slavery and class distinctions compounded these acts of violence. But a tit-for-tat policy has only led to greater competitive violence, especially of the innocent bystanders who had no interest in it. As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Most ordinary people wish to live in peace, and wish to get on with their lives, finding joy and happiness in family life, work, and nature. Such violence is usually engineered by a few for their own purposes. But in the recent times, unfortunately, they have been able to whip up the masses into mob violence.

It is true that for the Hindus all this destruction during the Muslim rule was deeply humiliating and hurtful. Even today when a Hindu sees beautiful idols disfigured he cannot but feel bad and angry at the nameless and faceless mob which did it. For instance, the Mohini idol in the Belur Chennakeswara temple (Left) is one of the most beautiful sculptures but its hands are broken, its nose disfigured.

One feels very sad and angry when one sees it. But should it mean that the Hindus should bring down or vandalise the mosques and churches?

The Hindus have always resisted these harsh measures by the Muslim rulers. Their resistance perhaps made the Muslim rulers in India to take a more lenient view of idolatry and reduce the harshness of the measures. As mentioned earlier, some of the Muslim rulers even made grants of lands to build temples and sacred places. South India on the whole faced less such harsh treatment as direct Muslim rule was not very frequent. Muslims did come and settled down in large numbers and many lower castes converted to Islam but the temples were largely left alone.

Christian Evangelists did try to downgrade the practices of Hindus and were successful in converting the lower castes, especially the Dalit castes, in large numbers. The Dalit castes responded favorably to the promise of equality as well as concrete material benefits. As mentioned earlier an intense debate had gone on during the British rule about Hindu beliefs and customs.

All these historical happenings provoked certain cultural organizations of Hindus such as the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and its sister organizations in the pre- and post-Independence era to use the Hindu angst to propagate the notion of Hindu victimhood under the Muslim and British rule, a policy of returning the Hindu temples to their original status and glory, and re-writing history to highlight the Hindu culture and civilization, and to denigrate other religions. These organizations have selected three temples for reclaiming, namely the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Siva temple at Varanasi and the Krishna temple at Mathura, all of them in Uttar Pradesh. Their way of thinking gained momentum with the active promotion of it by the political party BJP, and the Babri Masjid, a mosque allegedly built by Babur was demolished in 1992 after a nationwide campaign by these organizations. This was preceded and followed by prolonged court cases and riots in which several innocent people died. But the Supreme Court decreed in 2019 that although the demolition was a crime, the land where the demolished mosque stood was given to the Hindus to build a temple for Ram, as the majority of Hindus believe that site to be the birth place of Ram.  In compensation, a piece of land was given to build a mosque at the outskirts of the Ayodhya city.

This judgement has given encouragement to the other two demands of the RSS and the BJP. Now they have taken up the Gyan Vapi mosque adjacent to the Siva temple in Varanasi and the Krishna temple in Mathura adjacent to the mosque. Court cases are going on these two issues. These incidents have obviously hurt the sentiments of the Muslims and they are opposing it. In the recent years they have further been humiliated when their eating and clothing habits were questioned by the powerful people in ruling dispensation. I will not go into the details of all these cases here.  I will only deal with the larger question of history and historical injustice.

As I said earlier the Hindus do feel hurt when they see temples and idols disfigured. But throughout the history, abandonment of temples and theft of idols was not uncommon. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the Brihadiswara temple at Thanjavur and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temples, of which we are rightly proud, were in ruins and were not functioning temples before they were discovered and renovated. Such instances of destruction or abandonment did not destroy either Hinduism or the temples. People simply repaired/rebuilt or built new temples and made new idols and installed them. The idea is quite clear in their minds: God or the Supreme Energy is eternal, cannot be destroyed, nor contained in idols and statues. The faith lives in people, not idols and buildings, which are only symbols and representations of a higher principle; and these symbols may change according to ‘desa’ and ‘kaala’ and ‘patra’. Today we build temples in concrete, not in stone. Idols are made with new materials, not in the same alloys as before. Ironically, for last some decades, Indian markets are flooded with idols of our gods and goddesses made in China!

The Hindu culture and the Hindu people are thriving and spreading throughout the world. Many people in other countries are following yoga and other practices, learning them of their own will. Diwali is now officially celebrated in the USA. The so called ‘victimhood’ of the Hindus is really a construct of the above political organizations for their own political purposes. They are rousing the emotions of Hindus to a mass hysteria through hate speeches against other religions, to create a perception that they are the guardians and protectors of Hinduism and the Hindu people. Ordinary people should see through this diabolical game and resist falling for it. 

India has officially adopted secularism as part of its Constitution in 1976.The idea was to enforce equal respect to all religions and living with good will and harmony with people of all religions –‘sadbhavana’. This is a unique experiment in the whole world: to give equal respect to all religions. Many nations have adopted a religious state or gave its minorities a secondary citizen status in the modern period. But not so in India. It is after much deliberation about Indian history, character of Indian society, its diversity in customs, languages,  and religions, that the ‘sadbhavana’ meaning ‘good will towards all faiths’ was adopted for India and its brand of secularism.

It is with this understanding, and fearing that the Babri Masjid dispute may take an ugly turn that the then Government of India, passed an act forbidding destruction of places of worship in 1991. The Places of Worship (special provisions) Act 1991 prohibits conversion of any place of worship of any religion to into that of a different religion; a place of worship existing on 15th August 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day. The Government however could not/did not prevent the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The present disputes about Gyan Vapi mosque and the Mosque near Krishna temple are just a continuation of the hate- revenge politics pursued by a certain political party and its sister organizations which have now captured the seat of power. It is now hoped that the Courts will enforce the act of 1991 and prevent such demolitions and communal riots from taking place.

Instead of seeking retribution, we ought to be working for reconciliation between people of different religions. We ought to promote living with difference- differences in our beliefs, eating habits, languages, and clothes. Unity in diversity has been the guiding principle of our nation. It was unfortunate that the communal politics resulted in the partition of India. But today India is not at the same period as the days of partition. It is part of a globalized world and its citizens are spread in every nation in significant numbers. Most of them are Hindus. And they build temples wherever they go and reside. If the people of other countries were to vandalise those temples, will we have the moral standing to oppose them? 

How can we reclaim our temples?

First of all, we must recognise and grant that Hindus and the Muslims, high caste Hindus and the Dalits, male Hindus and female Hindus – all love and believe in their religion, want to participate in it, feel hurt when vandalized. This is the common ground among all the parties involved in the above disputes. Once we recognize this, and internalize this, we will not hurt the other side, will we? 

So let us re-build places of worship together, let us restore the broken vandalized idols together. We have heard of Muslims helping Hindus to build temples (in Bihar) and Hindus helping Muslims build mosque (in Ludhiana). These may be far and few at present, but this trend can and should grow. I saw an article on an IT professional in Karnataka who restores broken and disfigured Jain idols. Let us get his expertise and experience; let us form committees of Hindus and Muslims to repair the neighborhood mosques and temples, let us defeat the politics of hate and revenge.

We need to encourage inter-faith dialogues right from school education. We need to organize visits of people of other religions in our places of worship. We need to come to peace with inter-faith marriages. We need to develop and follow a few dos and don’ts to treat people of other religions with respect and good will.

 And in case the politicians still want to play their dirty politics of inducing communal tensions, let us book them under the laws of the country.

We need to do all this as collective(s) in a campaign mode.

A few random thoughts towards this effort may be in order.

  1. As mentioned earlier, we can help renovate, repair damaged vandalized temples, idols and mosques and churches, wherever possible.
  2. We can organize guided tours for people of other religions to learn about our respective religions- like visits to temples, mosques, gurudwaras, and churches.
  3. Each of us should try to befriend at least five people from other religions. We should encourage our children and youth to form friendships with their age mates/peers from other religions.
  4. We should oppose laws which shame other religions, like laws about beef eating, hijab wearing, love jihad and so on.
  5. We can drop our surnames which suggest /reveal our caste.

These are just a few suggestions which came to mind to build a society where we can develop not only tolerance but respect for each other’s religions. There may be more bright ideas about how-to live-in harmony with diversity. Ultimately it is about living with difference, diversity and to do it in a collective, deliberate way. Let us be the change we want to see.

Jai Hind


I am grateful to Rajni Bakshi, Harsh Mander and Pavan Vaidyanathan, P.A. Krishnan, A.K. Perumal, Theodore Bhaskaran for their feedback on these essays. They have helped to improve it substantially. With gratitude I acknowledge the support and guidance given by Dr JPS Uberoi and Dr Patricia Ubroi during my Ph.D. research.

These essays have been published in Tamil under the title, “koyilgal: arindhadhum ariyaadhadhum.”


The previous eight parts of the article can be seen on the given links –

Part 1 – Who are Hindus

Part 2 – History and Myths in Hinduism

Part 3 – Hinduism : Is it Sanathan?

Part 4 – Vedas to Puranas; Yajna to Puja

Part 5 – Is it Mandatory for a Hindu to Visit temples?

Part 6 – Come, Let’s Go Inside the Temple

Part 7 – Bhakti Movement and the Temples

Part 8 – Temples during the colonial periodand Changes during post-Independence period

*Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi, has been associated with various social movements since early eighties. She has published a book in Tamil which is about the relation between temples and the Hindu religion and society.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com, which does not assume any responsibility for the same.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here