The Chembur Tilak Nagar Ganapati in Mumbai always makes news during Ganeshotsav, not so much for its grand façade as for its association with the gangster-murderer Chhota Rajan. He is the criminal who recently took responsibility for murdering the journalist, J Dey.
In a Pune locality, the 'Chor Madhu temple' is so-called because it was apparently funded by an accomplished thief who targeted the homes of the wealthy. One break-in would result in booty worth lakhs. Legend has it that he stashed his ill-gotten wealth below this temple because that's the last place the police would want to touch.
From time to time one hears of unnamed wealthy devotees making sensational offerings of gold and diamonds to their favourite deity. Such devotees often seek anonymity- is it out of humility or to escape the attention of extortionists and the Income Tax department?
Such is the astronomical dimension of temple wealth in India that one is left wondering whether India is a poor country of rich people or a rich country of poor people. How does one explain the starvation deaths and the acute poverty of millions of people on the one hand and the billions of dollars of gold lying in the coffers of temple trusts? Can't this wealth be used to construct good quality schools, colleges, hospitals, vocational training centres and whatever else may be required to address the issues of poverty?
To be fair, many prominent religious trusts, notably, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthnams which manages the famous Sri Venkateshwara Temple at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, do undertake a variety of charitable activities. However, what is the proportion of this spending vis-à-vis the stockpiled gold and the donations received, year after year?
History suggests that the estimated Rs One lakh crore treasure discovered in the hidden vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala was deposited there by the Travancore kings, partly to hide it from the British and also to use it during famines and other calamities. Accumulating since ancient times, this treasure remained untouched out of fear of the wrath of divine powers. This is how the temple wealth has largely remained intact, although the cold fear of the deity's curse has subsided over time while generous contributions from devotees have continued to pour in.
The recent allegations of financial irregularities at the Sri Satya Sai Central Trust with assets of an estimated Rs 40,000 crore are a case in point. This enormous wealth belongs to the people and is meant for their welfare. However, it remains in the tight control of a few custodians.
Although the wealth of the Christian community in India is in large tracts of land with various churches, many church properties in Mumbai, Pune and elsewhere have been sold for a pittance, often with the connivance of the trustees to unscrupulous builders and politicians. Likewise is the case with the Wakf Board properties for the benefit of the muslims.
Religious establishments should certainly be allowed full control over a percentage of their wealth for the maintenance of the establishment and the propogation of the religion. Beyond that however, their wealth should compulsorily be used for the welfare of society. The true spirit of religion lies in serving humanity and not in qualifying for the boast of the wealthiest temple in the neighbourhood.