by Ranjit Devraj
(IPS) NEW DELHI -- The recent arrest of a highly influential Hindu cleric -- regarded as Hinduism's Pope -- on murder charges has exposed the huge wealth amassed by India's temples, religious institutions and shrines.
Adherents of the right-wing, pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believe that religious institutions and their heads should be allowed to function free of interference from the government. But others are demanding that temple books should be open to state auditors because the country has secularism as the cornerstone of its constitution.
Members of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a partner in the Congress-led secular coalition that defeated the BJP in the May elections, have been particularly vocal in demanding that the vast sums of money donated by the devout to the various religious 'charities' be accounted for.
The cleric, Jayendra Saraswathi, was arrested on Nov. 11 by police in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on allegations that he ordered the gruesome murder in September of his temple accountant. The dead former employee, Sankararaman, was a strong critic of the religious leader and he threatened to expose Saraswathi's diversion of some five billion dollars from the temple's coffers.
Saraswathi is the 'Shankaracharya' of Kanchi and heads one of the five seats of Hinduism in India. He also leads the Kanchi Shankara Mutt, an influential religious establishment.
In the meantime, Saraswathi's arrest has also turned deeply contentious with top leaders of the BJP including former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launching a nation- wide agitation on Sunday to secure his release from custody.
But there are those who believe that no one, no matter how high, should be above the law. And the charismatic Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa is one of them -- a co-star and political heir of the late actor and politician M.G. Ramachandran.
Ramachandran built a lasting image for himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden through his movie performances during the 60s and 70s.
But the 'Shankaracharya' has been quick to rally his supporters to condemn Jayalalithaa, accusing her of plotting to seize the wealth of his super-rich Kamakoti Peetham temple foundation.
But the chief minister denied she had ulterior motives and told the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly that she just wanted justice to be done in the Sankararaman murder case.
The fact of the matter is that institutions such as the Kamkoti Peetham not only attract vast sums of money but also bring in offerings in the form of gold ornaments and, at times, land endowments bequeathed by the faithful for answered prayers.
However, very little of this wealth trickles down to the millions of hungry Indians or the fund-starved education and health sectors.
"Hindus do not have the same idea of charity as do Muslims and Christians and would rather give to temples and religious institutions than donate to improve the lot of the poor," Yogendra Singh, one of India's leading sociologists told IPS.
One man who wants to see greater transparency and social accountability on the part of money-spinning temples and shrines is Swami Agnivesh.
Agnivesh dons the saffron robes of a 'sannyasi' or Hindu renunciate, and is attached to the Arya Samaj order. But he is internationally known for his work in helping stamp out bonded labor.
"There is no account for the billions of dollars that ordinary people pour into religious institutions and the only gauge of the funds at their disposal is the luxurious lifestyles maintained by people who pose as priests and godmen," said Agnivesh.
The 'Shankaracharya,' now cooling his heels in the dismal dinginess of an Indian provincial Indian jail, was known travel around the country in chartered planes.
But such wantonness could change if the CPI and other like-minded political parties are able to push through legislation that would enable the channeling of temple funds into socially useful programs for the poor.
"Money that is coming in the name of God, is good only if it is spent on the poor, but not otherwise," said Gurudas Dasgupta, a member of the CPI and leading trade union activist who, for one, would like to see a law that gives the government access some of the loot lying unproductive in temple vaults.
About the only temple in India that publicly accounts for its wealth is the Tirupati shrine in southern Andhra Pradesh which is controlled by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams trust with an income of $150 million a year making it the second wealthiest religious body in the world after the Vatican.
But less than 20 percent of the Tirumala trust income goes into social and charitable activities according to a study called 'For God's Sake -- Religious Charity and Social Development in India,' done by the Indian Centre for Philanthropy.
Recently the trust approached the government with a peculiar problem.
The famous hilltop shrine had accumulated 8,000 kilograms of gold jewellery encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones placed at the foot of the idols and wanted permission to dispose off the treasure.
Normally, the trust collects daily at least 10 kilograms of gold, from the temple, placed at the shrine of Venkateshwara -- the deity that presides over Tirupati. It then melts it down into special 22-carat medallions to be sold as souvenirs.
But the law under which the trust was constituted does not allow sale of studded gold jewellery.
According to Agnivesh what is truly deplorable is the fact that not only the government but also people who contribute to the great wealth of religious shrines have no say in how their money is to be spent.
One man who dared ask questions, Sankararaman, was hacked to death in broad daylight by hired assassins within the premises of a temple in Kanchi town, with the killers later confessing to police that they were paid to do the job by a Hindu cleric known as the 'Shankaracharya.'
November 30, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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