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Friday, August 5, 2011

(Published in Sify.com on 4 August, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/temple-treasure-does-owe-us-money-news-columns-lieqeQfcgda.html)




(Image Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)



In a country – and a world – where a theist is a bigot, and columnists are intellectuals, and intellectuals lean so far to the Left that the Left begins to gravitate towards the Centre, I should probably begin with a disclaimer – or a claimer, as this may turn out to be.
I believe in God. Worse, I’m ‘Hindu’, not ‘spiritual’ – so I don’t believe in a vague power that runs the Universe, but consider temples places of sanctity. Even worse, I’m not going to justify my faith with an emotional account of an encounter with God. So, if you’re an atheist, you should probably stop reading now.
If you’re recruiting for a saffron party, I may not qualify, because freestyle dancing, illegal mining and token fasting are not among my primary interests. If you’re recruiting for a non-saffron party, you should know I’m not into telecom, padyatras or foreign currency.
If you’re still reading this, you probably think I rate myself too highly. And you’re right. Fortunately, I’m in a business where you can get away with both prejudice and vanity. Unfortunately, so are a lot of other people. And all of us have self-certified brilliant ideas about how exactly the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple treasure should be dispensed with.
We’ve got about a month to go before the two committees constituted by the Supreme Court to monitor the opening of the vaults and decide on the future of the valuables submit their reports. A few weeks have passed since the biggest figure not connected to a scam hit the media and made our tongues drop to the floor. This situation is particularly conducive to analysis.
With the hysteria done with and anticipation in the air, bloggers, rationalists and traditionalists have racked their brains for ideas as original as:
  • The money should be used to start the best-equipped university in the world.
  • The antiques should be displayed in museums
  • We should melt the gold, sell the jewels, use the money and feed the poor

Now, why not indeed? Why should children have to go to a regular school, when they could be playing abacus with real rubies, emeralds, diamonds and sapphires? Hey, maybe we could make golden slates for them to inscribe the alphabet on, huh? It’s not like God’s using all that gold, and anyway, doesn’t He owe us, given that He created the world and all of its hunger and starvation and illiteracy?
If we lived in a cash-strapped nation where economic growth has stagnated, where people are given too much tax relief for their own good, and where the government is running out of funds to provide infrastructure, Option 1 would make a whole lot of sense. So would Option 3. After all, most of our country is below the poverty line, and we can’t do anything about it.
Well, how can we do anything about it when we have to make donations across the world every time disaster strikes, because it’s so important to showcase our global standing at every forum and opportunity that presents itself? Maybe we should have pulled out our account books before we contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to relief operations in Africa, Japan and the US, huh? Then, maybe we wouldn’t have to ransack temple vaults to look after our own underprivileged. If we can afford such largesse, though, do we really need to grab at God’s own bounty?
Of course, there are those who would argue that no one need work when the temple can guarantee their progeny three nutritious meals a day, and possibly a pretty house in the countryside too. We live in a nation where it makes more sense to reap unemployment benefits doled out by state governments hungry for re-election, than to work at minimum wage. So, why not bolster those funds with the temple’s treasure?
It’s so much easier than hiking the minimum wage, and restricting benefits to people who are looking for work or who are unable to work because of disabilities, as welfare programmes in the US and UK do!
But, there are those pundits who value heritage in a country that doesn’t. They’d like the jewels to be displayed in museums. Look at the Tower of London for inspiration. You have riches in there that the public pay to see, and no one’s calling for an auction of those antiques, most of which have been stolen from erstwhile colonies, because they’re bringing in tourism.
Sadly, this is possibly the most ridiculous suggestion of all. Some of the oldest monuments in this country are falling to ruin, while chief ministers immortalise themselves in marble statues. We couldn’t protect the Nobel medal won by our first laureate, the first non-European to be awarded the honour. And we think museums would be safer than the temple’s chambers, where, for some reason – snakes, spells, strong locks or faith – the valuables have been lying undisturbed for centuries?
When no one wants to discuss money stashed away in Swiss banks, why is there such a furore over offerings made to a deity? Why do we feel compelled to trace the gold back to excise levied by kings on the common man, and reason that the supposed donors are now entitled to it? Faith is not bound by logic and proofs. And while some of us may shake our heads at a devotee who skips a meal to drop a ten rupee note in a temple’s donation box, none of us can fault his right to make that choice, or deny him the peace it brings him.

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