Religion and Religious Denomination

A Constitution Bench of this Court in the Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (1954) SCR 1005 , speaking through Mukherjea, J. (as he then was), who spoke for the Bench while holding that certain provisions of the Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951 imposing tax on religious trusts and institutions were ultra vires Article 26 of the Constitution of India, adverted to the meaning of the word religion and the expression religious denomination found in the Constitution of India thus.

“….The word religion has not been defined in the Constitution and it is a term which is hardly susceptible of any rigid definition. In an American case (Davis v. Benson (1888) 133 US 333 at 342) it has been said that term religion has reference to one’s views of his relation to his Creator and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his Being and character and of obedience to His will. It is often confounded with cults of form or worship of a particular sect, but is distinguishable from the latter. We do not think that the above definition can be regarded as either precise or adequate. Articles 25 and 26 of our Constitution are based for the most part upon article 44(2) of the Constitution of Eire and we have great doubt whether a definition of religion as given above could have been in the minds of our Constitution makers when they framed the Constitution. Religion is certainly a matter of faith with individuals or communities and it is not necessarily theistic. There are well known religions in India like Buddism and Jainism which do not believe in God or in any Intelligent First Cause. A religion undoubtedly has its basis in a system of beliefs or doctrines which are regarded by those who profess that religion as conducive to their spiritual well being, but it would not be correct to say that religion is nothing else but a doctrine or belief. A religion may not only lay down a code of ethical rules for its followers to accept, it might prescribe rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are regarded as integral parts of religion, and these forms and observances might extend even to matters of food and dress.”

Then dealing with the meaning and connotation of the expression religious denomination and whether a Math could come within this expression, it has been observed thus:

“…The word denomination has been defined in the Oxford Dictionary to mean a collection of individuals classed together under the same name: a religious sect of body having a common faith and organisation and designated by a distinctive name. It is well known that the practice of setting up Maths as centres of theological teaching was started by Shri Sankaracharya and was followed by various teachers since then. After Sankara, came a galaxy of religious teachers and philosophers who founded the different sects and sub-sects can certainly be called a religious denomination, as it is designated by a distinctive name – in many cases it is the name of the founder – and has a common faith and common spiritual organisation. The followers of Ramanuja, who are known by the name of Shri Vaishnabas, undoubtedly constitute a religious denomination; and so do the followers of Madhwacharya and other religious teachers. It is a fact well established by tradition that the eight Udipi Maths were founded by Madhwacharya himself and the trustees and the beneficiaries of these Maths profess to the followers of that teacher. The High Court has found that the Math in question is in charge of the Sivalli Brahmins who constitute a section of the followers of Madhwacharya. As Article 26 contemplates not merely a religious denomination but also a section thereof, the Math or the spiritual fraternity represented by it can legitimately come within the purview of this article.”