The state government of Tamil Nadu has recently announced that the gold and other tiny bits of jewelry offered by devotees at temples run by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department will be collected. The gold collected will be melted into gold bars and deposited in banks to raise funds for development projects and welfare schemes at the temples.
Senior officials in the department said that an estimate of about 2,000 kg of gold jewelry is available to get converted to gold bars. The department had been doing this exercise from 1978 till 2010. It was discontinued by the AIADMK government.
Large quantities of such offerings over the past 10 years have been lying unutilized in temple vaults. Gems and precious stones in the jewelry would be removed before sending the gold to the government-owned refinery in Mumbai to meltdown and convert to gold bars. They would, in turn, be deposited in banks to generate revenue.
From this year, M. K. Stalin-led DMK Govt. is in favor to resume this exercise. Tamil Nadu govt. has distributed the responsibility into three zonal level panels. The process will be overseen by retired high court judges to set up and supervise the entire exercise. Verification officers would take stock of the gold jewelry to be converted to gold bars in the coming weeks. The entire process of verification of stock would be recorded and telecast on LED screens on temple premises.
This move has now become a matter of debate not only in Tamil Nadu but the whole nation. We are coming across various aspects of temple wealth utilization in the country. In this article, we’ll know how the govt. interference in the maintenance of temple funds is a problem for many and how does the opposition justify the ethical use of gold or jewelry offered in the temple for temple welfare only.
A few years ago, the World Gold Council estimated that nearly 4000 tonnes of gold are stashed in different temples of India. The gold was deposited by the devotees in the temples. They have been offering gold to adorn the presiding deities as a form of tribute. Such temples of India which are prominent from the wealth perspective are:
- Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Kerala
- Tirumala Tirupati Venkateswara Temple, Andhra Pradesh
- Shridi Sai Baba Temple, Maharashtra
- Siddhivinayak Temple, Maharashtra
- Vaishno Devi Temple, Jammu
- Jagannath Temple, Orissa
- Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi
While small temples are managed by the local temple administration, significantly big temples are managed by the Boards established by the state governments. British were the first to take the temple administration into their hands. South Indian temples were primarily brought under the government’s control.
The reason why South Indian temples were the prime target for the government’s interference was that temples in the South were wealthier and rich in terms of other resources as compared to the North Indian temples. To seize the temples in the South, the British introduced the Madras Regulation VII to implement the temple administration.
By this administrative system, the expected change was evident when they introduced the Madras Religious & Charitable Endowments Act, 1927. The Act was enacted focusing only on the Hindu religion, hence, Muslims and Christians were excluded from the Act. A radical change regarding the temple administration was noticed by the 1935 Act XII which stated that the Government could then notify any temple and take over the administration as required.
After independence, the Tamil Nadu government enacted the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act, 1951. Many provisions of this act have been stuck down by Hc & Sc. Later in 1959, Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act was passed. The Act abolished Hindu Religious Endowments Board and transferred the authority to govt. created Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments department. Similar to Tamil Nadu, state govt. of Kerala, Karnataka & Andhra Pradesh created boards to mandate the Act for temple management.
Government’s Justification on the Takeover
The insurance that religious trusts and institutions are properly administered and their income is not misused. The government also justifies its interference citing the past misappropriation of temple wealth where they had no right. Temples administration under the State Act is exempted from paying Income tax under Section 10 of the Income Tax Act. Many cases from the past have shown the misuse of the provisions leading to tax evasion. Income from temples is also used to fund marriages, arranging meals for the poor, and other popular schemes. The money generated is also invested in the welfare and development of temples.
The Opposition of the Government Interference
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution confers freedom of religion to all persons in India. Article 26 of the constitution allows everyone to establish religious and charitable institutions. The opposers of government takeover emphasized that the temple fund should exclusively be used for temple administration, repair, infrastructure, and emoluments, etc., and not for funding govt. schemes.
In a case in Andhra Pradesh, it was found that only 18% of temple wealth was returned to the temple while the majority of it was diverted in chunks to other expenditures. Similarly, the temple revenue generated in the Tirumala Tirupati temple was spent by the government directly for the maintenance of other religions such as Muslims & Christians. This led to a major controversy and the order was later repealed by the govt.
In opposition to the govt. taking the temple-generated funds under control, the individuals also point out that lack of maintenance has left the historic temples in very poor condition. Not keeping the surplus wealth reserved for the welfare of the temple and the people working there has also led to the pujaris with a meager income. Spending all the expenditures directly linked to Hinduism and its people is a better option they said. Even in the present context, states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and other northern states have sought to bring their temples under govt. control, to which many organizations are being resistant.
Conclusion – The Question of Wealth
It is certainly true that the management of religious institutions is a personalized or internal matter of religion and community. Avoiding the interference of government as much as possible is surely for the best. In the context of religions other than Hinduism, the government’s role is restricted to aid, support, and regulation only. Whereas Hindu institutions prominently in South India are under absolute government machinery.
It is to mention that in comparison to other religious institutions, Hindu temples generate a vast amount of revenue and wealth, where ‘offering’ is considered an important constituent. It’s time that we really need to question ourselves. Today more than 189 million people of the population in India are undernourished. India is still one of the poorest countries in the world with 84 million people living in extreme poverty. Even today, rural and excluded areas lack education, health, and other basic infrastructure. Is it fair to donate wealth to religious institutions when a section of our society is facing such issues? Is this a justified action?
If our donations can impact the increment in the gold reserves which can later be used to take loans from international institutions for development purposes, will it not be a better step for the country? Not just international loans, any such donations can be used for the holistic development of the local slums. Freedom of religious rights will exist but our duty as responsible citizens shall come first.