May 6, 2010
A Divine Auction
— Neelima Shukla-Bhatt
On April 24, about one hundred images of Hindu deities were auctioned off at the site of the former Hindu Temple of Georgia in Norcross, GA. The images, made of precious metal or wood, which were earlier valued by the temple at $ 4.5 million, brought $89,000 from approximately seventy-five bidders, including practicing Hindus and others.
The temple had been in the eye of a controversy for over a year, due to several court cases regarding its financial transactions and events following its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2009. The images were part of the public auction of the property and its assets intended to repay the outstanding debt. Court documents suggest that the debtors had been given a chance to mend the situation, and the court-appointed trustee in the Chapter 11 case made efforts to work with various representatives and affiliates of the debtor to avoid an auction that nonetheless became inevitable. Within the framework of bankruptcy litigation, what happened in this case is typical. Yet the case has been viewed as “unusual” both by the trustee and reporter Andria Simmons, who has covered the story for the Atlanta Journal Constitution since July 2009. Two aspects of the case contributed significantly to its “unusual” status.
The first is the religious nature of the institution filing for Chapter 11. In an essay on the implications of bankruptcy filed by religious organizations, written following a hint that the Archdiocese of Boston was considering bankruptcy, David A. Steel suggests that religious institutions should seek bankruptcy only as a last resort: There is “an awkward fit between religious organizations and America’s bankruptcy laws” because the law allows for an intrusive scrutiny of the debtor’s assets, and there is a stigma associated with such proceedings. Since the primary concerns of a religious institution are moral and spiritual, if it has to file for bankruptcy, its community is gravely impacted. Thus, financial troubles leading to bankruptcy and auction can lead to the loss not only of financial credit, but also of the moral authority of the institution. There is an important lesson in this case for enthusiastic religious groups (especially in immigrant communities) that are eager to establish worship centers. Expert advice in legal and financial matters may be as important in founding a religious institution as deep contemplation on issues of faith, because today such an institution stands at the intersection of religion, law, and market economy and is accountable in all three areas.
The second aspect relates to the images themselves. Providing an example of the intense asset scrutiny that Steel mentions, the images were documented as part of the property of the debtor, along with office furniture, electronics, kitchenware, and other goods. But an awkwardness ensuing from their previous sacred status is clearly reflected in the auction documents. While listing the images among property items, the documents give them special attention in separate sections as well. The images also seem to have drawn more public attention than other objects, generating appreciation, curiosity, awe, and fear among non-Hindu viewers. They are variously referred to as “statues,” “idols,” “"sacred" Hindu statues,” “religious icons,” or “ornamentals” in legal documents, newspaper reports, and viewers’ remarks. These noun phrases, which are used in conjunction with verbs such as “to bid,” “to snap up,” or “to bargain,” are not inappropriate for property items in an auction. But many Hindu bidders still referred to them as “deities,” reflecting the culturally ingrained idea that such images are infused with the living presence of the divine. In fact, the temple’s attorney tried to have the images excluded from the auction on this ground, and the temple head reportedly saw the auction of images as “trying to auction off his children or his mother."
While the point about divine presence has no legal ground because the temple itself viewed the images in terms of monetary worth in estimating their value at $ 4.5 million, the difference in the terms used by different “interpretive communities” in relation to them is remarkable. It raises the issue of enhancing public awareness and sensitivity when referring to the sacred objects or practices of a religious community in our multi-religious nation, especially when the objects or practices are at the core of the “everyday theology” of that community. Everyday theologies, in contrast to abstract systematic or scholarly theologies, inform people’s daily lives and are most likely to come up in public encounters. In the case under consideration, those who used terms such as “idols” and “statues” (often Hindus use them too) were most likely not even aware that a more sensitive term to use would be “image” because, as scholars of Hindu traditions point out, it affirms the idea of seeing the divine in them. In this context, use of the term “image” would also be seen by many Hindus as an affirmation of their identity in their new homeland.
In our efforts to make our pluralistic society vibrant and healthy, then, developing awareness in two contexts is important: Immigrant religious communities could avoid the loss of financial and moral credibility by developing a keen awareness about their legal and financial responsibilities; and greater awareness about the “everyday theologies” of the many religious groups that comprise our society would help build a more respectful community. In tandem, these two measures can help build bridges in an increasingly diverse society. As the images from the Hindu Temple of Georgia settle in the homes of new owners or worshippers, they leave us with important issues of our pluralistic culture to ponder.
For more on the the temple’s legal troubles, see www.ajc.com
David A. Skeel. “Avoiding Moral Bankruptcy” in Boston College Law Review, Vol. 44: 1181 -1200, 2003.
Neelima Shukla-Bhatt is an Assistant Professor in South Asia Studies at Wellesley College in. Her area of study is History of Religion in South Asia with a focus on literature and culture.