Religion, since time immemorial, has influenced Indian law and society on a political, cultural, and economic level. The country’s rich religious and cultural history has, over the years, been both revered and celebrated around the world.
Our architecture, holy books, epics, symbols, and homonyms all reflect the country’s diverse and rich heritage that encompasses religion. The Indian Constitution further complements this heritage by vesting its citizens with the right to freely profess, practise, and propagate their religion under Articles 25-28, subject to reasonable restrictions.
It is safe to say that religion is deeply intrinsic to Indian society, and inevitably, it has seeped through every facet of the Indian lifestyle, including trade and commerce. Religion, in India, is a sensitive subject, and the use of names of Gods and Goddesses, religious writings, figurines, and scriptures is subject to certain reasonable restrictions under the Indian Constitution as well as other domestic laws, including the trademark law.
Hence, while not entirely forbidden, the proliferation of hypersensitivity with respect to religion and religious scriptures and symbols dictates the jurisprudence around the usage of such marks under the Indian trademark law.
Trademark Law and the Bar of Religion
The use of religious symbols and figurines in commerce and business to draw clients has, over the year, proven to be an effective strategy to encourage growth, considering individuals place a high value on religious symbols and have a solid emotional and spiritual tie to items affiliated with their faith. Such usage, however, is also characterised by the nature of goods and services and the morality or immorality tag duly attached to said goods and services in contemporary society.
Section 9 of the Trademarks Act, 1999 stipulates Absolute Grounds for Refusal of Registration of a trademark. Consequently, Section 9(2)(b) specifically places certain restrictions on the registration of marks that are likely to hurt or insult the religious sensibilities of any class or section of society.
Additionally, the Manual of Trade Marks, Practice and Procedure by the Central Government, in consonance with the provision as has been prescribed under Section 23(1) of the Trademarks Act, 1999, further enumerates a list of notified prohibited trademarks which includes, interalia:
- Words “Lord Buddha”, “Shree Sai Baba”, “Sri Ramkrishna”, “Swami Vivekananda”, “the Holy Mother alias Sri Sarada Devi”, “Balaji” or their devices and the Emblems of the Ramkrishna Math and Mission or colourable imitation thereof; or
- Names and pictures of Sikh Gurus, viz. Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjun Dev, Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Raj, Guru Harkrishnan, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Govind Singh;
- Name and picture of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj;
- Name and/or picture of the deity of Lord Venkateswara and/or Balaji.
Indian Jurisprudence and the Contours of Religious Susceptibility
The use of names of Gods or Goddesses, religious symbols or figurines per se is not prohibited under the provisions of the Trademarks Act, 1999. In Vishnu Cement v. B.S. Cement Private Ltd., for instance, the word “VISHNU” was granted registration in the absence of any device of Lord Vishnu, associated with the word mark, by associating the word mark with a personal name, and not a religious sentiment. Again, in Mangalore Ganesh Beedi Works v. District Judge, a relatively liberal approach was taken by the Allahabad High Court in allowing the proprietor to use the trademark ‘GANESHA’ on beedi packets.
However, such usage in relation to certain goods or services may offend the religious sentiments of certain sections of society. In these situations, such marks would fall within the ambit of marks not eligible for registration. For instance, a trademark carrying the name and image of Goddess Meenakshi regarding fertilisers and manure was revoked under the erstwhile 1958 Act. Similarly, in Amritpal Singh v. Lal Babu Priyadarshi the mark RAMAYANA was found incapable of registration. The case acted as the first instance of a blanket restriction being imposed on the registration of the name of a religious book by interpreting the provisions under Section 9(2)(b) of the Trademarks Act, 1999, stricto sensu.
Interestingly, in all these cases, the courts have cited the need to prevent the monopolisation of names of gods and religious symbols and figurines, adding that these words lack enough distinctiveness and merely qualify as common words, which should not be allowed for registration. The Bombay High Court recently refused registration to the word “LAXMI,” citing the aforementioned, on the grounds that it was a common name and thus lacked any distinctiveness to merit registration.
It is pertinent to note from the aforesaid that the courts have refrained from defining strictly measurable thresholds when it comes to dealing with marks that might have a religious connotation, which is fair and understandable to an extent, considering the sensitive nature of such cases. However, the lack of consistency in the reasoning cited behind these decisions has raised some eyebrows, and the conflicting decisions have left much to be desired.
More recently, the Kerela High Court granted the Attukal Bhagawathy Temple Trust the registration of the “picture of Attukal Deity” and the title “Sabarimala of Women” under Class 42 – a residuary clause (for temple services, social services, welfare services, and cultural activities), citing the need to “prevent unauthorised use of the deity’s picture and title.” The case stands as one of a kind, where a temple trust has been granted registration for carrying out services corresponding to the temple and in the name of a particular religion and goddess, thereby risking the exclusion of an entire sect of devotees from using the picture and title of their beloved deity.
While the grant of such a registration might be in contravention of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, the decision also sets out a dangerous precedent, risking the monopolisation and commercialisation of services and other activities carried out in the name of faith, which is in stark contrast to the general position portrayed under the Trademarks Act, 1999, and the spirit of secularism as a whole.
While the intention behind the courts not defining a straight-jacket formula while dealing with marks that might have a religious connotation is laudable, considering the sensitive nature of such cases, the inconsistency behind the reasoning cited in some of these cases leaves a lot to be desired.
The use of names of Gods, Goddesses, religious writings, figurines, and scriptures is generally publici juris, and registration of the aforesaid should be allowed only in exceptional cases where the prima facie evidence in favour of the usage by the proprietor is so strong in the public mind that the mark could be deemed to have garnered secondary distinctiveness, to the exclusion of all other parties, bar the proprietor.
No doubt, commercial interest forms the cornerstone of business in the contemporary world, but it’s important to remember that religion and business often don’t go hand in hand, and such commercial interest shouldn’t come at the cost of compromising the religious sentiments of the masses.