‘The Destroyer of Worlds’

By skepticlawyer

Many Westerners know one passage from the Hindu scriptures, even if they do not know its provenance: physicist Robert Oppenheimer‘s statement — in response to the first successful nuclear test — that ‘now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. The source, of course, is the Bhagavad Gita, and the speaker is Krishna, who — as part of an attempt to persuade Prince Arjuna to do his duty on the battlefield — reveals his multi-armed ‘universal form’.

I was put in mind of Oppenheimer’s quotation last week when I heard — through several Indian friends — that the Allahabad High Court had — after a long delay — brought down its verdict in the Ayodhya matter, a festering religious sore on the Indian body politic.

I suspect you’re wondering why people in Australia and the UK should take heed of an Indian court’s decision, perhaps perceiving it as a conflict between people far away, of whom we know little and care less. This, I think, is a grave mistake. Not only is India a rising global power, but the toxic overspill of the War on Terror coupled with a troubled colonial history makes India’s religious troubles in some respects our own.

What makes Ayodhya important?

Ayodhya is one of India’s oldest cities, located in Uttar Pradesh; it is likely the birthplace of Hinduism. One small part of the ancient city is considered Ram’s birthplace (one of Vishnu’s incarnations) among devout Hindus. Ram’s story — like the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem — is almost certainly apocryphal, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t take it seriously. It is recorded in the Ramayana.

And like Bethlehem (and Israel generally), Ayodhya is also contested ground.

When Islamic invaders conquered Hindu and Buddhist India, among other things, they attempted to kill or convert the locals. When I mentioned above that the scrap over Ayodhya evinces India’s troubled colonial history, I wasn’t referring to British colonialism. I was referring to Islamic colonialism. It is not fashionable to call it colonialism, but to a European looking at the dispute from afar, watching the scrabble over Ayodhya in the courts and noting long-running violence and resentment in parts of the world once ruled by Muslims but which are now Jewish, or secular, or Christian, it is possible to detect in Islamic ressentiment something of Harold Macmillan’s observation that we are dealing with a religion that has lost an empire and failed to find a role.

Among other things, the Muslim Mughals built a mosque on the site Hindus consider Ram’s birthplace. We know quite a bit about the mosque. Its builder was Babur, the first Mughal ruler of India; its year of completion was 1527. It was called the Babri Masjid. What we don’t know (and repeated archaelogical excavations have produced more heat than light) is whether the Hindu temple already on the site was deliberately destroyed to make way for the mosque, or whether it had simply fallen into disuse. What is not in dispute was that a mosque was constructed on one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, and that when it comes to destroying other people’s religious monuments, both Christianity and Islam have form, but the behaviour of Muslims historically in this respect is nothing short of appalling. Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas are only the most recent manifestation of the behaviour.

1992, the year of destruction

You’ll note that when I referred to the Babri Masjid above, I used the past tense. In 1992 a mob of Hindu extremists took it upon themselves to destroy the mosque, taking it apart brick by brick, often with their bare hands:

Three days later, the state government falls as “a baying mob of Hindu bigots” tears down the mosque, where they want to build a temple. “They used primitive tools and their bare hands to tear the mosque to pieces,” writes Brown. “First the three domes went, then the spartan interior and the perimeter walls. The Hindu idols, installed in the late 1940s at the start of the arcane, obscurantist dispute, also disappeared … In a few frenzied hours, the mob brought down the government of India’s most populous state, and provoked deep communal tension throughout the country.

Hundreds of people died, a major historic monument was destroyed and India’s historic foundation in norms of non-violence (from both Ashoka and Gandhi) was fatally undermined.

As the article I’ve quoted above suggests, the modern Babri Masjid dispute goes back to the 1940s, when Hindus began placing devotional statues of Ram on the site. However, all the available legal evidence points to Muslims owning the land, even if they originally acquired it by expropriation, adverse possession or effluxion of time. The litigation — only resolved last week — turns on Hindu claims that the site is in fact Ram’s birthplace, and that this birthplace claim should trump any other claims (be they based in the law of property, or ancient laws of conquest).

My imaginary sky fairy(ies) can beat up your imaginary sky fairy

At its heart, then, the dispute in Ayodhya was over property. Muslims claimed they owned the land, and were aggrieved at the destruction of an historic site; two Hindu groups — one mainstream and one strongly tied to devotees in Uttar Pradesh — counterclaimed on Ram’s behalf. I make that last comment in full knowledge of what it means to our legal readers. In Hinduism, as in Roman law, deities are considered legal persons. Religious property is held in trust and managed by priests, priestesses and devotees on their behalf. Yes, pagan gods are well aware of the law of trusts:

Well, in the Indian judicial system, deities have always been regarded as legal entities who could fight their case through the trustees or managing board in charge of the temple in which they are worshipped by devotees.


The Supreme Court, in Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, vs State of UP [1997 (4) SCC 606], recognised the right of a deity, though not for the first time, to move court and said, ‘Properties of endowment vest in the deity, Lord Sri Vishwanath.’

The upshot

In the end — after twenty years or so of continual litigation, and after numerous appeals for calm — the Allahabad High Court split the difference, allocating 1/3 of the disputed land to the Muslim litigants, and 1/3 to each of the two Hindu groups. This sounds like a fairly typical legal compromise, and while it may not be fair — especially to Muslims with their ruined mosque — it does at least seem to have kept the peace:

The majority verdict of the Allahabad High Court on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is a compromise calculated to hold the religious peace rather than an exercise of profound legal reflection. This search for a compromise informs the orders of Justice S.U. Khan and Justice Subir Agarwal even if they would seem to stretch the law and, at times, logic as well.

The third judge, Justice D.V. Sharma, decided that the disputed structure could not be regarded as a mosque and ruled in favour of the Hindu plaintiffs. The effect of the majority judgments is that the disputed land of 2.77 acres is to be divided equally among the two Hindu plaintiffs, the Nirmohi Akhara and Bhagwan Sri Rama Virajman, the deity regarded as a jurisdic person that can own property, and the Sunni Central Board of Waqfs U.P. The portion of the inner courtyard where the central dome of the Babri Masjid stood before its demolition and where the makeshift temple now exists is to be given to the Hindu plaintiffs. The rest of the area where the Babri Masjid stood, including part of the inner courtyard and some part of the outer courtyard, is to be allotted to the Waqf Board. The Nirmohi Akhara is to be allotted the buildings that stood in the outer courtyard of the premises, including Ram Chabutra and the Sita Rasoi, while it is to share the unbuilt area of the outer courtyard with Bhagwan Sri Rama Virajman.

The intriguing legal wrinkle is that the Court made a finding of fact that the disputed patch of land — or at least a small part of it — was Ram’s birthplace.

India — as anyone with even the faintest understanding of modern history knows — was founded as a secular democracy. One reason Indians wore the bloody excesses of Partition was because they thought they were getting a State that was above religious disputes, or at least bold enough to force politicians, not the courts, to make complex decisions that turned on religious differences. My Indian friends fear that this decision will become India’s Roe v Wade. That is, while it may be popular in the short term, there will be a terrible democratic deficit over time. Unelected judicial officers have deprived people of an opportunity to treat politically with an issue about which they care deeply. I’ve often thought politicians who hive hard decisions off to the judiciary cowardly in the extreme: recall the old saw that politicians are elected to make the laws, while judges are there to interpret them. It doesn’t always hold, but it is important to bear it in mind. Of course, there is already talk of an appeal to the Indian Supreme Court.

Thing is, though, I just can’t get away from that finding of fact. Leading Indian historian Romila Thapar puts it most succinctly:

The court has declared that a particular spot is where a divine or semi-divine person was born and where a new temple is to be built to commemorate the birth. This is in response to an appeal by Hindu faith and belief. Given the absence of evidence in support of the claim, such a verdict is not what one expects from a court of law. Hindus deeply revere Rama as a deity but can this support a legal decision on claims to a birth-place, possession of land and the deliberate destruction of a major historical monument to assist in acquiring the land?

The Destroyer of Worlds?

When a superior court in a state founded on secular principles resorts to this kind of reasoning, then I think we’re all in trouble. I’ll be the first to argue that Muslims need to be forced (as Europeans have been forced) to confront a troubled colonial legacy. Part of that necessary confrontation will involve an admission that, yes, Virginia, they engaged in mass acts of colonialism all over the planet, and now the boot is on the other foot, other people resent them. And those people aren’t just Americans or Israelis.

But a legal judgment that makes this point by stating as a bald fact that a mythological deity was born on a given patch of Indian real estate? I don’t think that gets us very far.


For those interested (it’s very, very long, and much of it discusses archaeological evidence), the judgment is here. There’s also a handy potted version (produced by NDTV) here. The graphic accompanying this post comes from the NDTV visual summary.


  1. Posted October 7, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    You will be there for some time, I warn you. There’s 800 pages of archaeological evidence exhibited to the judgment for starters.

  2. Posted October 7, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    There’s one, albeit theoretical, benefit of a secular court making decisions in favor of sky-faeries and theiir self-appointed/annointed agents: the chance of finding /against/ for acts-of-sky-faerie and/or damage by their agents. (Who remembers the Billy Connelly film “The Man Who Sued God”). Can’t see that good outcome actually happening.

    But on the underlying logic… Dumb dumb dumb… It’s no different to accepting as real the evidence based on delusions of diagnosed sufferers of psychoses.

    (I’m reminded of the joke about the cleric deciding his share of donations “I throw it up in the air to god, he keeps what he wants, and what comes back to earth is mine”)

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Secret Women’s Business, anybody? 😉

  4. Peter Patton
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    It is indeed an ironic sign that eurocentric conceit is still alive and well when westerners instantly think we must be talking about Britain whenever the word “colonialism” is used. Never mind that the Islamic imperialism lasted centuries longer, had a greater geographic spread, and was unashamedly racist. In fact, The Koran was born as the instruction booklet for Islamic imperialism.

  5. Posted October 7, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    How do we stop courts Going Places They Shouldn’t?

  6. Peter Patton
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Yes, they are not too fond of the idea of non-justiciability, are they?

  7. TerjeP
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Brilliant article. I learnt several new things. You broaden my horizon regarding colonialism. I learnt that gods sometimes get granted legal rights. Whether this case matters or not (I suspect it does) merely using it to canvas these concepts was sufficient excuse for an article.

    How well codified and accepted are the “laws of conquest”?

    Posted October 7, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I should think we live an era that should alow us the insight to avoid the excesses of the feudalism that proceeded modernity. (ok, western centric, but surely some truth in it).
    It is because we do, for the first time, have the historical insights that foundational societies lacked.
    So we ought to be able to avoid the sort of mistakes these earlier societies made?
    Not from what I’ve observed of Pax Americana since my youth, back with Vietnam thru to now.
    “A conservative never forgets and never learns”, to loosely quote de Tocqueville.
    SL’s post is based on the illusion that civilisation ever moved beyond feudalism.

  9. Patrick
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The Indian SC has never understood judicial restraint, this is barely a ripple on their other efforts.

  10. Posted October 7, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    It hasn’t gone to the Indian SC as yet, although that will almost certainly happen. My understanding is that the UP state government and the High Court have been playing ping-pong with the issue for sixty years – no one wanted to make the fateful decision.

    Even so, one does long for the phrase ‘this is a matter for parliament’.

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