God doesn’t need wealth, we do

We don’t know how much of the offerings comes from dirty money, says Ram Puniyani

IT SEEMS that in this profane world, the holy seem to be most wealthy in terms of money. Recently, the material goods of men of god have come to be known more openly than before. Sai Baba not only had over more than Rs 40,000 crore, some of this was kept in his personal quarters in the form of cash and gold. Baba Ramdev, the most successful yoga guru in the country, also has pots of money. It is said he controls over Rs 11,000 crore. All this came to prominence once Ramdev began his campaign against black money by undertaking a fast at Ramlila maidan. Other godmen like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Morari Bapu, Maa Amritanandamayi, Asaram Bapu and others 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 humongous riches.

The other centres of faith, the temples, also have infinite wealth. It is known that the Tirupati Balaji temple, the Shirdi shrine of Sai Baba, Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai and many such places are troves of treasure. This wealth comes from the offerings of devotees. Lately, some states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, like Karnataka, are also donating money to holy places. Many claim that this wealth is devoted for public welfare. It was calculated recently that only 0.5% of Sai Baba’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 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 that the Shree Padmanabhaswamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram has incalculable wealth. The chambers of this temple were opened on the orders of the Supreme Court. It seems that the deity of this shrine is the richest on earth. The mindboggling wealth of lakhs of crores has been locked up from a few centuries. The source of this wealth is multiple, part of this came from offerings and the major chunk has come 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 whom does this wealth belong?

Marthanda Varma defeated small kings to garner this huge wealth and was under the influence of a Brahmin priest. In due course, the king dedicated all his wealth and his sword to the Padmanabhaswamy temple and declared himself as a servant of the deity. He acted as the custodian of this wealth. The temple wealth was partly used for opening feeding houses for Brahmins, but most of it has remained in the coffers of the temple. The temple is being managed by a committee with the heir of Marthanda Varma as the controller of the treasure.

Such treasures have to be brought under social control and every penny must go towards the vital empowerment of the poor and the weak

Does god need so much wealth? And can this vast ocean of riches be of any good to society? One concedes that the wealth with the deity may be serving various emotive-spiritual purposes, and many Hindu groups and even Congress politicians have claimed that the wealth should remain as it is with a small part of it being diverted for social welfare.

With Independence and later abolition of privy purses to the kings who were enjoying privileges by claiming to have a divine right to rule, power passed on to elected representatives of the people. So should mere legality decide the use of this wealth or should the needs of society decide the utilisation of such wealth? What will make god most happy; the hoarding of this wealth under the control of a few or the use of this wealth for the larger good? When we say that wealth kept by Indians in banks aboard should be declared as a national asset and used for the welfare of the people, should we not pay similar attention to this wealth as well? Those arguing for, and correctly so, nationalising illicit money are quiet on the issue of wealth with god and wealth with godmen. It is a bit of a riddle that those who have been fasting and agitating on the issue of illicit wealth seal their lips where this social wealth under the control of a small group of trustees is concerned.

There are interesting historical incidents about holy places and wealth. Mahmud of Gazni had the clear motive of grabbing the wealth of the Somnath temple, but he claimed that he was destroying the temple because he did not believe in idol worship. Kalhan’s Rajatarangini mentions that the 11th century 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 holy places.

In current times, while there is a need to respect the faith of people, there is also a need to think of social welfare. Such treasures have to be brought under social control and every penny of this must go for programmes aimed at alleviation of poverty or empowerment of the weak and the poor.

Ram Puniyani is a former professor at IIT Powai.