Rich Gods and Poor People in the Era of Commercialised Religion

Instead of investing huge amounts of money on festivities and idols, religious institutions would do well to spend on philanthropic efforts for people in need.

The idol of Ganesh in Lalbaug, known as Lalbaugcha Raja. This year, . Credit: Karthikndr/Wikimedia Commons

The idol of Ganesh in Lalbaug, known as Lalbaugcha Raja. This year, the pandal is insured for Rs 51 crore. Credit: Karthikndr/Wikimedia Commons

In a strange reversal of developments from the West, where religious institutions have seen a decline in income while people have become richer, in India, the gods have become richer while the poor have become poorer.

Because the number of devotees going to worship has declined, many churches in England, Canada and elsewhere have closed or are offering limited services. Some have been sold to other faiths and converted into mosques and temples. On the other hand, most Indian places of  worship, and not just Hindu, show a contrary trend. As times turn uncertain and the pressures of life cause unbearable stress, more and more Indians are turning to religion for solace. Religious organisations of all faiths are seeing an increasing numbers of devotees whose numbers run into lakhs at the more popular pilgrim places and who contribute increasing amounts of money to their gods to placate them or to seek boons.

A second reason why gods have become richer in India is that liberalisation has generated a lot of new wealth, a large proportion of which remains outside the legal tax system as black money and finds its way to temples as donations into hundis (contribution boxes). Finally, advances in communication and information technology have made many religious bodies tech savvy. They use the new tools for further fund raising and for managing the money, assets, records and crowds.

The temples, gurudwaras and other religious institutions attract not only devotees but also allied businesses of all kinds such as jewellers, garland makers and so on, seeking opportunities to make money. In short, religion has become a growth industry.

While 30% of India’s poor have to live on Rs 32 per day in villages and Rs 47 in cities, in houses of mud and straw, with no clothes worth the name to cover their bodies, no water or nutritious food and no toilets to ease themselves when alive, and cannot even afford to die because of no money to bury or cremate them after death, the gods in over 16 religious shrines in India have income which runs into crores. They live or travel out in silver and gold bedecked sanctums and chariots, clothed and ornamented in the finest of fine clothes and jewellery, fed sumptuously and sung to sleep.

Wealth beyond the devotee’s imagining

The richest of all the temples in India, the Padmanabhaswamy temple, is estimated to have around $20 billion. The golden idol of Mahavishnu in the temple wears antique gold ornaments and golden crowns, and holds a golden bow. The gold necklace adorning the deity is 18 feet long and weighs around 2.5 kg.

The second richest temple, that of Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati, is visited by approximately 60,000 visitors who donate around Rs 650 crore to the temple in a year. The gold on the deity itself weighs 1,000 kg.

Similarly, the Siddhivinayak temple’s dome over the Ganesha idol is coated in 3.7 kilos of gold. On average, the annual income of the temple is Rs 48 crore.

Even Shirdi Sai Baba, who had renounced all riches in his life to lead an ascetic existence, is said to have gold and silver jewellery worth approximately Rs 32 crore and silver coins worth more than Rs 6 lakh. The temple gets donations worth Rs 350 crore every year.

Commercialisation of religion

As the income of religious organisations has boomed, so have opportunities for spending offered by crass commercialisation and new technology. The increase in godly wealth is being flaunted through elaborate publicised spending on ritual and festivals. At no time is this more evident than in the ongoing festival season when across India a number of gods – Krishna, Ganesh, Durga and others – are said to come to Earth to visit their people. Traditionally, the visiting gods were hosted in individual homes, in their shrines and in local communities as a whole, in a style in consonance with the devotees’ income and standing. There is no record of any god being offended by, or refusing to grant the wishes of a devotee solely on acount of, the amount of money spent or conversely, favouring those who had been lavish in their spending. But now it appears that even gods believe that you only get what you pay for and are doing inflation accounting besides.

As in other areas of life, commercialisation and politics seem to have taken over the celebration of festivals as well. Take the ritual of breaking dahi handis at the time of Janmashtami, for instance. In Mumbai, it  has become a big money spinner. Whereas traditionally a troop of boys of a locality would make a human pyramid to break the handi, or pot of curd, which is tied in the air in order to get sweets or some prize  money, it has now become a competitive event, both for the participants who compete to display bravado and for the sponsors of the event. Prizes are offered for the highest pyramid, which have increased in size because the higher the pyramid the greater the prize money. The lure of the money incites the boys to form higher and higher pyramids, even putting their lives at risk. The participation of political parties has commercialised what used to be purely for fun.

Whereas in 2011, the prize money for the events ranged between Rs 1 lakh  to Rs 12 lakh, today the prize money has increased to Rs 1-2 crore. Each party and each political leader vies with each other to offer more prize money, in order to stamp their name and party on public memory. As the prizes grow to mind-boggling levels, so does the height of the pots, safety be damned. After all, no politician wants to give their money away easily and life is cheap in India.

The popular Ganesha festival is also suffering from commercialisation. Started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1893 as a festival to knit communities together, bring out local talent and mobilise Indians for the freedom struggle, it has today become an exercise in displaying wealth and competitive spending power so much so that it has become necessary for the organisers to insure the idols and others assets.

The most famous and popular Ganesha festival is at Lalbaug, whose idol established in 1934 is known as the Lalbaugcha Raja. Located in what was once one of the poorest localities in Mumbai, comprising mostly mill workers, it has become one of the richest Ganesha mandals with devotees coming from all over, while the people living in the original chawls continue to be some of the poorest.

The  growing reserves of bullion with religious bodies have raised the annual Ganeshotsav insurance cover sought by Ganpati mandals to record levels this season, while the ordinary man on the street has no insurance cover at all, inspite of government promises. The richest mandal in the city, GSB Seva Mandal at King’s Circle, has purchased insurance cover worth Rs 300 crore higher than before due to the 15 kg silver mandap which now houses the Lord, who is adorned with 68 kg of gold and 315 kg of silver. The organisers handling Lalbaugcha Raja have not only insured their own pandal for Rs 51 crore by paying a premium of Rs 13.2 lakh, but also covered immersion processions across Mumbai.

Need for philanthropy and production

If instead of using the donated riches for further ornamenting deities who already have their own superabundance and need no human embellishment, religious institutions use the money to support philanthropic initiatives which will improve the lives of ordinary humans, they might garner more blessings for themselves and their devotees.

One may or may not approve of all of Baba Ramdev’s utterances and activities, but there is at least one aspect which is worth emulating by the many organisations who profess to serve the Lord. And this is his investment of publicly derived income into productive business ventures which are providing income and employment to many, especially in rural areas. It is something for those in charge of  the wealth of various deities to think about, so that not only Narayana, but also daridranarayanas share in some of the wealth.

Pushpa Sundar is  the author of Business and Community: The Story of Corporate Social Responsibility in India and Patrons and Philistines: Arts and the State in British India. She was also founder of Sampradaan – Indian Centre for Philanthropy.