One of the strongest memories from my experiences in India revolves around a temple. Outside the temple there was a man paying large amounts of money to another man who was riding an elephant, in order to receive blessings. The swathes of homeless beggars around him, unnoticed. Now, I don’t know if either men contribute to the relief of local poverty but the memory stuck none the less. At the time, I was infuriated that a temple could be earning so much in donations and that there could still exist so many beggars living around it. I was infuriated that people would rather donate to the priest than give to the local NGOs. Of course, they could be doing both. Rightly or wrongly (probably in between) I was angry.
Padmanabhaswamy temple, Kerala (below) contains £13bn worth of precious metals. This vast sum dwarves even the second richest temple in India, the Tirumala Temple, Andhra Pradesh, which receives £68,000,000/year in donations. It’s not uncommon for Hindu temples in India to receive huge sums of money in donations and a lot of Indian Philanthropy is routed through religious institutions.
There have been many stories of people being prevented from worshipping at temples or being frowned upon, even cursed, if they do not donate enough or effectively purchase ‘praying rights’ as determined by the temple authorities. I remember my Grandfather being refused entry for refusing to buy a second ‘gift’ to present to the temple. However, I don’t want to discuss corruption by temples here. The recent film PK (2014) does that pretty well. Rather I want to explore where all this money actually goes.
"Do temples actually do anything useful with donations well in excess of their operating costs?"
After a quick preliminary surf through the net and a few conversations, it seems the general feeling is that the Hindu Temples of India are corrupt, with donations lining the pockets of those who manage the trusts. Furthermore, the charitable operations are minimal and act as a sort of cover up. However, it’s important to note two things:
1. Temples vary enormously with regards to income. Some are rich, but many are not.
2. Most of these conceptions are opinion.
In fact, it’s very difficult to disprove or prove in a quantitative manner the charitable activities of the richest temples and herein lies the problem. Transparency. Looking further...
Here’s a list of the top 5 Hindu Temples in terms of income:
1. Padmanabhaswamy Temple (Unknown but owns assets >£13bn)
2. Tirumala Temple (£68M/year)
3. Vaishno Devi Temple (£52M/year)
4. Saibaba Temple (£36M/year)
5. Siddhivinayak Temple (£6.5M/year)
Padmanabhaswamy Temple has forgotten to pay income tax for 10 years. Detailed financial records of these great institutions are sparse, with the exception of the Siddhivinayak Temple. Below is a breakdown of charitable donations:
**Total = £3.5M
Based on these records, the Siddhivinayak Temple, is not misspending its donations. For me at least, this is quite reassuring. However, what exactly is the Chief Minister Relief Fund. I’m afraid that’s another article in itself with its respective legal, moral and financial controversies.
It seems the greatest problem with large Hindu temples receiving huge sums of money is transparency. A more open approach would certainly lead to less scepticism.