Powers and Obligations of Matha ‘Mahant’ and ‘Shebait’

(1) Power over the Income of the Matha or Debutter Property:

Both a Mahant and Shebait are under an obligation like a trustee not to spend any additional income from Matha or debutter property on himself but on the other hand to invest the same for the benefit of the estate. In order to preserve the dignity of his office a Mahant is not supposed to use the additional income for his personal comforts. Similarly a trustee cannot invest the property given to a charitable institution for some purposes other than those mentioned in the deed.

(2) Power to Compensate:

Where a Shebait in order to fulfil his duties invests some of his own property or draws some money from his own accounts for purposes of carrying out the obligations thrust upon him by the founder he has got the power to compensate his loss out of the debutter property. Similarly, whatever revenues he pays out of his own accounts for the preservation of debutter property in his custody that he can realise from the debutter property.

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(3) Power to Acquire Property:

The law does not disqualify the Mahant or Shebait to earn separate property. Besides discharging his duties in that capacity he can very well earn his separate properties but in that case he has to prove that it was not connected with the trust property or the property given to Matha or to idol. Where certain property is not shown to have been acquired by a Mahant in his individual capacity, which would not be intended to mean for the office of Mahant.

Removal and Replacement of Idol:

The Shebait has got the power to remove the idol from the place of worship or to replace it by another in case he finds it desirable. But where an idol has been installed in a temple, he has got no such power to replace it or to remove it unless the majority of the worshippers give their consent to it. The Court also cannot interfere in the matters of replacement or transfer of the idol to another place unless it is found to be covenient for the public and the very idea of transfer has been favoured by the devotees and the worshippers.

Power to Contract Debt:

The power has been vested in the Shebait to contract debt or to take a loan for the management of the temple and the idol installed therein. Such debt can be contracted for the purposes of worship or repairs of the temple or for purposes of protecting the properties belonging to the deity or to defend the suit filed against the interest of the temple or the idol.

The need for the loan can be considered in the context of the circumstances at a given time and the power of the Shebait can be compared with the powers of a guardian of a minor. In this connection the well known decided case of Hanuman Prasad Pandey v. Mst. Babooee can be considered to be a good case.

Whatever is necessary for the management of the temple or for the benefit of the same belonging to the temple, can be done by the Shebait in his capacity as a Manager of the idol. Whenever the Shebait considers that if the loan is not taken then the entire temple and the idol will be damaged and the worship which is being offered to the deity, would become impossible the debt taken by him would be held to be valid.

Whenever a creditor gives any loan to the manager of any religious institution, the onus to prove the necessity of the loan is on the creditor himself and he has also to prove to the satisfaction of the Court that he had made necessary enquiry about such necessity and was fully satisfied to it, and hence the loan given by him was fully justified.

Alienation of Debutter Property:

The general rule is that property given for religious worship is inalienable, but the Shebait or Mahant in the charge of property can alienate such property for purposes of keeping up the religious worship and for the benefit and preservation of the property. The power of the Shebait or the Mahant to alienate the debutter’s property is analogous to that of a manager for an infant heir. He has no power to alienate the debutter’s property except in case of need or for the benefit of the estate.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the same principle when it held that where the debutter-property is to be alienated permanently by a Shebait, it could be permitted only in case of necessity or benefit of the estate. The rule applies when the debutter-property is to be given on a lease. The Allahabad High Court observed that the power of alienation of a Shebait can be compared with the power of a manager of a minor coparcener. Generally, the property dedicated to the religious and charitable purposes is alienable.

But legal necessity is an exception to it. It is for the transferee to establish that the necessity was so acute except the alienation there was no alternative. The burden lies on the alienee to prove either that there was legal necessity or benefit of estate, or that he made proper and bona fide enquiries as to the existence of the necessity and did all that was reasonable to the existence of such necessity, or benefit.

The worshippers have a right to file a suit to set aside a transfer of the immovable property comprising in a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment made by a manager thereof, provided it was found that the transfer by sale done by the Shebait was unjustified. In a public temple the real beneficiaries are the worshippers in the temple not the idol.

The legal position is well established that the worshipper of a Hindu temple is entitled, in certain circumstances, to bring a suit for declaration that the alienation of the temple-property by the de jure Shebait was not in the interest of deity and therefore, invalid and not binding upon the temple.

The Calcutta High Court in Jogendra Nath v. Official Receiver, held that under the Hindu Law and alienation of debutter property can only be made on the ground of legal necessity and it can be made by all the Shebaits acting jointly. The Shebaits cannot delegate their authority to any other person or a particular person or some Shebaits.

But the position becomes different when the debutter estate is operating under a scheme framed by the Court. In such a case, the provisions of Hindu Law regarding the rights of the Shebaits acting jointly are modified to the extent as provided in the scheme.

The Supreme Court in Vishwanath v. Sri Thakur Radhaballablta Ji, held that an idol is in the position of a minor and when the person representing it leaves it in a lurch, a person interested in the worship of the idol can certainly be clothed with an ad hoc power of representation to protect its interest.

Now it is well settled that the Mahant or Shebait can alienate the property for purposes of legal necessity. The Courts have held the following alienations as valid on the ground of legal necessity:—

1. To defend the office of Mahant,

2. To feed the Brahmins and to repair the damaged part of the institution or the temple.

3. Purchase of the essential commodities to feed the devotees and to perform the worship.

4. To perform the funeral rites of the Mahant or Shebait.

5. Repairs of the temple and the tradition to keep the worship going on.

A Shebait or Mahant cannot transfer the right of management of the debutter property or of a Matha property nor can he give it on lease. The right is not liable to sale even in case of execution of a decree. Where, there are more than one Shebait or Mahant, they can for the benefit of the estate of the Matha or temple surrender their rights in favour of one person.