Should the riches of a temple be used for secular purpose?

via published on July 17, 2011

By Vivek Gumaste –

The Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple is no El Dorado. The fabulous treasure trove unearthed from the subterranean vaults of the hallowed  shrine in Thiruvananthapuram with its hordes of gleaming gold coins, exquisitely carved antique statuettes and overflowing caskets of rubies and diamonds, may parallel the imagined grandeur of legendary El Dorado but that is where all similarity ends.

El Dorado or the ‘lost city of gold’ was an undiscovered fabled haven of limitless riches supposedly located somewhere in the dense wilderness of the Amazon basin, making it fair game for one and all to pursue with no legal strictures or moral compulsions.

The wealth of the Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple was neither abandoned, unclaimed nor lost; it had been secreted away for safekeeping from the preying eyes of pillaging invaders. Its rediscovery within the legal precincts of this viable, functioning Hindu sanctorum reduces any controversy about its ownership to a nihility.

The treasure is without an iota of doubt the rightful property of the temple and by extrapolation of the Hindu community.

That this astonishing discovery was the direct fallout of a Supreme Court initiative responding to a PIL urging government control must also compel us to re-examine the role of the state in  Hindu religious matters: specifically its legality and its practical ramifications.

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act of 1951 (HRCE) invests state governments with authority over Hindu temples for the ostensible purpose of streamlining their functioning.

At present, most Hindu temples in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and a host of prominent temples like Jagannath Puri, Kashi Vishwanath, Vaishno Devi and Amarnath are under the jurisdiction of the government.

The HRCE Act is ideologically flawed on two counts. First, it goes against the basic tenet of secularism that emphasizes separation of state and religion. Second, it smacks of blatant discrimination. When Islam and Christianity are given total freedom to conduct their affairs, why should Hinduism alone be singled out for these restrictive regulations?

Not surprisingly, the judiciary agrees. In a landmark decision in 2006, the Karnataka High Court struck down the Karnataka Hindu Religious and Endowment Act of 1997 indicating that “the legislation violated Articles 14, 25 and 26 of the Constitution which provided for right to equality, freedom of conscience and freedom of profession, practice and propagation of religion and also the freedom to manage the religious affairs.”

More damning than this ideological infraction is the adverse practical impact of this act which has been exploited by unscrupulous politicians to siphon off crores of Hindu monies to sustain Muslim and Christian institutions, usurp temple land for personal gain and indulge in skullduggery to undermine Hindu institutions vis-a-vis its religious adversaries.

Below is a limited but telling list of some high profile instances of chicanery that demonstrate the extent and scope of wrongdoing via the HRCE Act:

    *  Hindu temples are compelled to contribute 5% of their income to a government controlled discretionary Common Pool Fund.
    *  In 1997, the Karnataka government exacted Rs 52 crore from Hindu temples but returned only Rs 17 crore; Rs 12 crore were allocated to madrassas and churches and Rs 23 crore were utilized for government programs. The figures for subsequent years till 2002 indicate a similar or even worse disparity.
    * In AP, the state government has not denied the charge of appropriating 85% of TTD’s (Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams) annual revenue of over Rs 3100 crores.
    *  Probing an allegation of inappropriate donations made to NGO’s by the Shree Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai, Justice Tipnis concluded: ”… there is no method or principle followed for particular institutions. The only criteria for selection was recommendation or reference by trustees or the minister or a political heavy-weight, generally belonging to ruling party.”
    *   In 2010, the Orissa government sold 500 acres belonging to the Jagannath Puri temple at a throw away price of 1 lakh per acre to the Vedanta foundation. Its efforts to sell another 1000 acres were aborted by the High Court.
    *  In the 1980s, the then Kerala chief minister K Karunakaran ordered the Guruvayur Temple to deposit Rs 10 crore with the state treasury to offset a government deficit. Whether this money was ever returned or not is uncertain. In addition, the temple’s land holdings were decimated from 13000 acres to 230 acres by the Land reforms Act which conveniently excluded non-Hindu institutions.   

These examples pose two ethical questions. Does the government have the right to use religious money for secular purposes? Can money from Hindu charities be diverted to Muslim and Christian bodies without the consent of the former?

Answers to both these questions have been clarified by the Karnataka High Court. Castigating illegal siphoning off of funds, the court categorically decreed, “Devotees of Hindu temples provide money for temple purposes and it cannot be spent for non-Hindu causes.”

This no –nonsense, unequivocal verdict should categorically silence the uncouth clamor calling for the Padmanabhaswamy treasure to be used for secular causes like deficit reduction or a new subway system. Enough is enough. This is Hindu money and can be utilized only for Hindu purposes for which there is a definite need.

Throughout the ages, Hindu temples, because of their opulence have evoked envy and greed leading at times to their destruction. The greater part of the second millennium saw Muslims loot, plunder, and raze hundreds of Hindu temples. In modern times, Hindu temples are not being physically destroyed: they are being economically bled to death by unprincipled governments pursuing a warped policy.

Stephen Knapp, a Western Vedic scholar and author of Crimes Against India and the Need to Protect its Ancient Vedic Tradition commenting on temple governance remarks: “Government officials have taken control of Hindu temples because they smell money in them, they recognize the indifference of Hindus, they are aware of the unlimited patience and tolerance of Hindus… Many Hindus are sitting and watching the demise of their culture. They need to express their views loud and clear.”

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