Spiritual Orientation, Religious Practices and Courts


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Why in News?

  • The constant debate over the intersection of religion and law often brings to the forefront the complexity and sensitivity involved in adjudicating religious practices.
  • In the Indian context, religion has been a cornerstone of societal existence, with a pronounced religiosity among its population.
  • Therefore, it is important to examine the judicial order in Navin Kumar (2024) by Justice G.R. Swaminathan of the Madras High Court, which permitted the religious practice of angapradakshinam, and the broader implications of judicial intervention in religious practices.

Angapradakshinam and the Court's Ruling

  • Angapradakshinam is a ritual that involves devotees rolling over banana leaves on which others have partaken food, specifically in the context of the Sri Sadasiva Brahmendral temple in Tamil Nadu.
  • This practice, previously restricted by a 2015 order from Justice S. Manikumar due to concerns of caste discrimination.
  • Recently it was allowed by Justice Swaminathan, who argued that the ritual did not exclusively involve Dalits but included participants from various castes.
  • Justice Swaminathan's decision relied heavily on constitutional provisions, asserting that the petitioner’s right to practice his religion (Article 25) and his right to privacy and human dignity (Article 21) were upheld by this practice.

Implication of the Order: Revival of the Debate on Essential Religious Practices

  • The order has reignited debates on several fronts: the definition of religion, the criteria for determining essential religious practices, and the judiciary’s consistency in such determinations.
  • Justice Swaminathan, in his detailed judgment, cited several Supreme Court rulings to assert that angapradakshinam was an established religious practice.
  • However, unlike similar cases, the court did not rigorously scrutinise whether the practice was essential and integral to Hinduism or merely a superstitious act.
  • This lack of scrutiny raises questions about the judiciary's approach to defining essential religious practices.

An Analysis of Judicial Consistency and the Essential Practices Doctrine

  • Origin and Early Application
    • The doctrine was first articulated in the landmark case of The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (1954).
    • The Supreme Court of India held that Article 25 protects not only religious beliefs but also the outward expressions of those beliefs through rituals and ceremonies.
    • The Court stated that what constitutes an essential part of religion should be determined with reference to the doctrines of that religion itself.
    • This case set a precedent for future determinations of essential religious practices.
    • Despite the clear principles laid out in the Shirur Mutt case, subsequent judgments have often deviated from this standard, leading to inconsistent applications of the Essential Practices Doctrine.
  • The Durgah Committee, Ajmer v. Syed Hussain Ali (1961)
    • In this case, the Supreme Court took a more restrictive approach and the Court ruled that only those practices which are essential and integral to the religion are protected under Article 25, and not every practice that claims religious significance.
    • The Court differentiated between practices that are superstitious and those that are essential, marking a shift from a broad to a narrower interpretation of protected religious practices.
  • Gramsabha of Village BattisShirala (2014)
    • In Gramsabha of Village BattisShirala, a sect claimed that capturing and worshipping a live cobra during the festival of Nag Panchami was an essential religious practice.
    • The Court, however, relied on more general texts of the Dharmashastra, which did not mention such a practice, and ruled that it was not an essential practice.
    • This decision demonstrated the Court's willingness to interpret religious texts broadly rather than deferring to specific sectarian claims.
  • Mohammed Fasi v. State of Kerala (1985)
    • The Kerala High Court in Mohammed Fasi faced the question of whether a Muslim policeman could grow a beard as part of his religious practice.
    • The Court dismissed the claim, noting that some Muslim dignitaries do not sport beards, and the petitioner himself had not always worn a beard.
    • The Court did not examine Islamic texts in depth to determine the essentiality of the practice, relying instead on empirical observations.
    • This case highlighted the Court's reliance on practical considerations over religious doctrines.
  • Acharya Jagdishwarananda Avadhuta v. Commissioner of Police, Calcutta (2004)
    • In this case, the Calcutta High Court initially ruled that the tandava dance was an essential practice of the Ananda Margi faith.
    • The Supreme Court, however, overruled this decision, noting that the dance was adopted into the faith only in 1966, despite the faith itself being established in 1955.
    • The Court's reasoning suggested that a practice could not be considered essential if it was not part of the religion from its inception, thus freezing religious practices in time and ignoring their evolutionary nature.
  • Ismail Faruqui v. Union of India (1995)
    • The Faruqui case dealt with the acquisition of land where the Babri Masjid once stood.
    • The Supreme Court held that while offering prayers is an essential Islamic practice, doing so in a mosque is not, unless the mosque holds specific religious significance.
    • This judgment overlooked the central role of congregational prayers in Islam and the significance of mosques in facilitating these prayers, showcasing the Court's inconsistent application of the essential practices test.

Way Forward: The Need for a Coherent Approach

  • Avoid Theological Judgments: The court should focus on legal and constitutional principles rather than delving into theological interpretations, thus maintaining judicial impartiality and respect for religious autonomy.
  • Consider Evolution of Practices: Judges should recognise that religious practices can evolve over time and that contemporary practices may hold significance even if they were not present at the religion's inception.
  • Uphold Constitutional Values: The court should ensure that all religious practices, even those deemed essential, conform to constitutional values such as public order, health, and morality, balancing religious freedom with other fundamental rights.


  • The Essential Practises Doctrine remains a crucial yet contentious aspect of judicial adjudication in India and a balance is essential for maintaining the secular and pluralistic fabric of Indian society.
  • While it aims to protect genuine religious practices, its inconsistent application has led to confusion and controversy.

A more coherent and principled approach is needed to ensure that religious freedoms are protected without compromising constitutional values. 

Q: What is the Essential Practices Doctrine, and how has its application been inconsistent in Indian judicial history?

The Essential Practises Doctrine is a judicial principle used to determine which religious practices are protected under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. This doctrine was first articulated in the landmark case of The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (1954), where the Supreme Court held that what constitutes an essential part of religion should be determined with reference to the doctrines of that religion itself. However, subsequent cases have shown inconsistent application of this doctrine. For example, in The Durgah Committee, Ajmer v. Syed Hussain Ali (1961), the Court ruled that only practises essential and integral to religion are protected, while in Mohammed Fasi v. State of Kerala (1985), the Court dismissed a Muslim policeman's right to grow a beard without deeply examining Islamic texts.

Q) How does the Indian judiciary balance religious freedoms with constitutional mandates, and what are some notable cases that illustrate this balance?

The Indian judiciary balances religious freedoms with constitutional mandates by interpreting Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution, which guarantee the right to practise religion but subject to public order, morality, health, and other provisions. The judiciary ensures that religious practices do not infringe upon other constitutional rights and societal values. Notable cases include the Sabarimala Temple Entry Case (2018), where the Supreme Court ruled that barring women from entering the temple violated their rights to equality and non-discrimination, and the Triple Talaq Case (2017), where the practice of instant triple talaq was declared unconstitutional as it violated Muslim women's rights to equality and dignity. These cases highlight the judiciary's role in ensuring that religious practices conform to constitutional values and promote social justice.

Source:The Hindu