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Have you ever wondered what makes us humans eligible to possess rights and duties? Are all living and non-living entities allowed to enjoy these rights and freedoms? These introspective questions arose centuries ago when the discipline of jurisprudence just began to emerge. The difference lies in the ability of an entity to be categorized as a legal person or not. According to Salmond, “any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties” is a legal person[1]. It is important to understand that the concept of a legal person is not restricted to human beings. Animals, the environment, and even Corporations are considered to be legal persons as they have rights and obligations. In fact, there was a time when slaves possessed no rights and hence did not fall within the ambit of a legal person despite being humans.


An idol is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship”[2], in Indian society, idols hold a place of religious, social, and cultural significance. The idols that we worship every day possess rights and certain obligations and are considered to be juristic persons, which are non-human legal entities who possess rights and duties and are recognized by the law. Idols in India are considered to be minors and the priest or the shebait is considered to be the idol’s guardian and performs the duties and also enforces the rights of the idol. The inception of the legal personality of Hindu idols in India can be traced back to the landmark case of Promatha Nath Mullick v Pradyumna Kumar Mullick[3]. In this case, Lord Shaw stated that a Hindu idol is a juristic entity and possesses juridical status, which means that the idol can sue and be sued. The idol has interests of its own and these interests are attended to by the guardian, who is the person in charge of the deity. Lord shaw further stated that the idol also possesses “will” which can be interpreted by the person who occupies the position of shebait either by inheritance or by appointment and If a conflict arises, the court would appoint a disinterested person to decide what the idol shall deem to want given the other interests involved. He further ascertained that the law will not only take the interests of the shebait into account but also give equal importance to the interests of the worshippers.[4] In 1989, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court filed a suit claiming that Bhagwan Raj Virajman was the lead plaintiff in the Ayodhya dispute. He claimed and christened himself to be Ram Virajman’s friend who would appear before court on behalf of the deity.[5]


Hindu Idols in India can also possess property which can be taxed under the Income Tax Act, this principle was established by the case of Yogendra Nath Naskar v Commissioner of Income Tax[6], In this case, the Supreme Court held that Hindu Idols are juristic entities and are capable of holding property. A Hindu deity falls within the ambit of the meaning of the word individual under the Income Tax Act and hence, the property held by the deity can be taxed. It was also stated that neither god nor any supernatural being can possess a legal personality but the deity is a representation and a symbol and if the deity is allowed to hold property, it must be taxed as well. Another case decided in this regard was the case of Devkinandan V Muralidhar[7] in which the Supreme Court held that the property of a Hindu temple or an idol vests in the deity and the shebait only has the right to possession and management of the estate.


The primary interest of the idol is that of pious worship and this interest cannot be deprived under any circumstance. The position of rights and duties in regard to the preservation, maintenance and the rites and services to be performed are in charge of a human being. The duties of piety from time to time of the consecration of the idol are duties which are imposed on the humans. However, the destruction, degradation and injury to the deity are not considered to be in the power of the custodian of the idol. When the interests and rights of the idol are considered, the most important figure is the Shebait, the Shebait or the priest appointed by the shebait is the sole medium through which the rights and interests of the idol are carried out. In the landmark case of Indian Young Lawyers Association v State of Kerala, popularly known as the Sabrimala case, Justice DY Chandrachud clarified that although deities have the capacity to possess rights due to their juridical status, they cannot however be bearers of fundamental rights.[8]


Legal personality and the concept of juridical persons is a fiction of law. The only natural persons capable of possessing rights and duties are Human beings. Law confers this artificial personality to non-human entities and treats them as legal persons only to bestow the characteristics and the capacity of rights and duties to these entities. This legal status has also been conferred to rivers where the court of law has ruled that a river is a living entity and it must be preserved and protected as it possesses rights and duties. Earlier, it was difficult to imagine non-human entities possessing legal recognition and a capacity to hold rights and duties but the development of this concept has extended its scope to most non-human beings. The advent of technology has greatly contributed to the growth of Artificial Intelligence and Robots are slowly starting to develop consciousness, we might be looking at a future where robots and other machines, like Sophia are also attributed legal personalities and personhood.

Author’s Name: P Mir Minhaaj Ahmed (CHRIST University, Bengaluru)

[1] P. J Fitzgerald, Salmond on Jurispridence, 12th Ed

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idol

[3] Promatha Nath Mullick v Pradyumna Kumar Mullick  52 Ind. App. 245

[4] Duff, P. W. “The Personality of an Idol.” The Cambridge Law Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, 1927, pp. 42–48. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4515223.

[5] https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/who-is-ram-lalla-virajman-the-deity-who-has-been-given-possession-of-the-disputed-land-in-ayodhya/513457

[6] Yogendra Nath Naskar v Commissioner of Income Tax 1969 SCR 3 742

[7]Devkinandan v Muralidhar 1957 AIR 133

[8] Indian Young Lawyers Association v State of Kerala 2018 SCC Online SC 1690

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