It seems that in this profane world, the ‘Holy’ seem to be most monetarily wealthy. Recently the material goods of the men of God have come to be known more openly than before. Bhagwan Satya Sai of Putthaparthy, not only had over 40000+ crores of wealth; some of this was kept in his personal quarter, in the form of cash and Gold. Not to be left behind the most successful Yoga Guru and the champion of unearthing illicit money stashed abroad, Baba Ramdev, also has hoards of money. It is said he controls over 11000 crores. All this came to prominence once Ramdev began his campaign by undertaking fast at Ramlila maidan. These are just two samples from the Godmen, who are currently ruling the spiritual realm. Other Godmen like Sri Sri Ravishanker, Morari Bapu, Maa Amritanand Mai, Asaram Bapu and other of their tribe are also wealthy to the hilt. Unlike the low caste saints of the genre of Kabir, Tukaram, Narsi Mehta, Dadu or Raidas, most of those in the God market today have made humongous riches.
The other centres’ of faith, the temples, also have infinite wealth. It is known that Tirupati Balaji Temple, Sai Baba of Shirdi Shrine, Siddhivinayaka in Mumbai and many such places are troves of treasure. This wealth comes from devotees’ offerings. Lately some BJP ruled States, e.g. Karnataka, Governments are also donating money to holy places. Many claim that this wealth is devoted for public welfare. In is reported that only 0.5% of Bhagwan Satya Sai’s wealth was used for social welfare. How much of these offering are tax paid or comprise of illicit wealth is anybody’s guess. As Godmen are prominently visible currently, more facts about the stinking wealth of these centres of faith are coming to light. Some of these are plain shockers.
One such shocker comes in the form of the news (July 2011) that Shree Padmanabhswamy temple of Tiruvananthpuram’s lockers have incalculable wealth. These lockers were opened on the orders of Supreme Court. It seems that the deity of this Holy shrine is the richest ‘God on Earth’. The mind boggling wealth of Lakhs of Crores has been locked up there from last few centuries. The source of this wealth is multiple, part of this came from devotees offerings and the major chunk has came from the wealth of King Marthanda Varma, The source of his wealth was taxation of poor farmers, tax income from slave trade, and by appropriating the wealth of other kings. The source of wealth is known but its controls are in the hands of the temple trust. The surfacing of such a vast treasure has raised the issue, to who does this wealth belong?
Marthanda Varma the king who defeated small kings to garner this huge wealth was under the influence of a Brahman priest. In due course King dedicated all his wealth and his sword to Padmnanbha Temple and declared himself as Padmanabhdasa, and acted as the custodian of this wealth. The same regime and temple wealth was partly used for opening up feeding houses for Brahmins, but overall the whole wealth has remained intact in the coffers of the temple. The temple is being managed by a Committee with the heir of Martanda Varma as the controller of the treasure.
Does the God, deity, need so much wealth? And can this vast ocean of riches be of any good to the society at large in the material sense. One concedes that the wealth with the deity is `serving various emotive-spiritual’ purposes, and many a Hindu groups and even the Congress politicians have claimed that the wealth should remain as it is where it is and a small part of it can be diverted for social welfare.
With Independence and later with abolition of privy purses to the Kings, who were enjoying privileges by claiming to have divine right to rule, the rule passed on to the state, the elected representative of the people. So should mere legality decide the use of this wealth or should the needs of society at large decide the utilization of such wealth. What will make God most happy; the hoarding of this wealth under the control of few or use of this wealth for the larger good of society?
As such when we are hearing that a lot of wealth kept by Indians in banks aboard should be declared national asset and used for the welfare of the people, should we also pay our attention to this ‘Temple-Baba’ wealth as well? Those shouting hoarse, and correctly so, about nationalizing illicit money are keeping quiet on the issue of wealth with God, and wealth with Godmen, both. It is a bit of a riddle that those who have been fasting and agitating on the issue of illicit wealth seal their lips when this social wealth under the control of Deity or a small group of trustees is concerned.
As such there are interesting historical incidents about Holy places and wealth. Earlier also these places of worship were the places with good amount of wealth and many a Kings, motivated by the lust plundered it. Mahmud Gazni had the clear motive of grabbing Somnath temple wealth, but he claimed that he does not believe in idol worship, so he is destroying the temple. Such historiography became the stuff on which communal divides were drawn and divisive politics sustains itself. Here one forgets that even Hindu Kings have plundered the wealth in temples. Kalhan’s Rajtangini mentions that 11thCentury ruler of Kashmir, Raja Harshdev, had created a new designation of an officer, Decottpatan Nayak, whose job was to uproot the precious idols of Gods in the Holy places. The matters of faith are very delicate and have become more so during last three decades as the temple issues have bypassed the issues of poverty and dignity of weaker section of society.
One should also make it clear that similar wealth is locked up in other religious institutions, like in Churches and with Wakf board, though the source of this may be different. All this needs to be brought to the service of the community at large.
In current times while there is a need to respect the faith of people, there is also a need to think of social welfare in all possible manners. Such treasures have to be brought under social control and every penny of this must go for programs aimed at alleviation of poverty or empowerment of the weak and poor.
Ram Puniyani was a Professorof Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.