November 12, 2016

India: increase in donations to temples after demonetization

The Telegraph - November 12, 2016


A matter of riches
- The increase in donations to temples after demonetization was announced reveals certain less than pleasant aspects of Indian society

India would have startled Shakespeare's Macbeth. Had the confused king been present now, at perhaps the Tirupati temple, he would have learnt that it was possible to tread a primrose way not to, but away from, the everlasting bonfire. When the government of a country abruptly renders the widely-used notes of two high-value denominations useless in order to make hoarders of black money crawl out of the woodwork, people are apt to get a bit jumpy. No one wants to be seen turning in too many high-value notes to the bank while Big Brother watches keenly, however much the government may reassure the 'innocent'. Ironically, the suddenness of the change, the very thing that was supposedly meant to catch the hoarders of black money unawares, also opened up the primrose way to escape.

Moved by the helplessness of the numerous visitors to the temple of Venkateswara and the temple town, Tirumala, the temple authorities, although they initially baulked at accepting notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, finally relented. But if arranging for free food and water and accepting notes of all denominations as well as credit and debit card payments for prasad and tickets were actions consciously undertaken by the temple authorities, donations to the hundi were, in a sense, uncontrollable. Donations go to the bank every day anyway, a temple official said. But such donations are anonymous; Big Brother would not be able to identify the biggest donors of high-value notes. Even authorities of the Golden temple at Amritsar, who firmly refused notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, could not stop them from pouring into the golak, the temple's donation chest. Reports indicate that donations to around 100 temples and various trusts showed a sharp rise immediately after the prime minister's announcement of demonetization. Since the deity is forever inscrutable, it would be difficult to determine whether this sudden upsurge of religious feeling received the deity's approval. But there can be no doubt that donating to the deity's service was a most attractive primrose way leading away from an uncomfortable bonfire.

Attributing forgiveness to the deity is a human need, and, as this eagerness to turn black into white shows, not always for entirely spiritual reasons. Giving to god removes all taint: the muddy turns clear, the bloodied grows healthy again. Even Saint Teresa of Calcutta believed this. But what is more interesting is the reported interest the government is showing in the spurt in donations. Does the government really believe that the people whose unaccounted for wealth feeds the parallel economy preserve their money in notes of Rs 500 and 1,000? And that they have been quickly getting rid of these by pouring them on to the feet of the deity? Maybe not. But hypocrisy is an attribute of Indian culture; it leaves no sphere of life untouched.