On the ground in Kerala, Sabarimala is a far bigger issue than even a politcally aware Hindu outside its cultural milieu might conclude. The bizzare semi-blackout by the Kerala media, the relatively luke-warm response on non-Malayalam social media to even influential tweeters (alas, Hindus from different parts of the country do not yet realize that they have only each other for support), the Sangh’s unfortunate insistence on respecting the Supreme Court decision, the non-violent nature of the massive protests all inspire a misleading underestimation of its popularity.
Common Malayali Hindus have come out in droves to defend their faith against what is perhaps the culmination of a multi-decade campaign targetting the temple (here is a 2003 hatchet job on the temple and “masculinity” in a western “research” journal; those who were around during the heydays of the blogosophere might remember that desipundit promoted a vile hit piece in this regard that explicitly called for treating the majority community according to different standards, on “constitutional” grounds).
But this article is about a different, yet related, issue. Regardless of where you might stand on the Sabarimala row, the developments surrounding it have a wider scope: at its background lie auxiliary and contextual issues that other Hindus can, and would be well advised to, find common cause with.
An important and illustrative example is the fact that the sentiment expressed in the following tweet has started going viral in Kerala.
“#NoHundiKanike: Unique Protest by Lord Ayyappan Devotees”
Some of the devotees decided not to donate money in Kerala Dewaswam Board controlled temples!
— Girish Alva (@girishalva) October 4, 2018
More and more Hindus are taking the pledge to not contribute to Hundis run by state-run temples. Here is a random sample of some Malayalam tweets asking devotees to desist from donating to Hundis run by Government: , , , , , , , , , . One of these describes those Hundis as Pinarayi Vijayan’s begging bowl, another says that funding Government temples invites mahApApa.
This slightly older (Malayalam) video of Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi (a Rajya Sabha MP of the BJP, incidentally), appealing to Hindu devotees to not feed the Hindu-baiting Devaswom board with their monetary offerings has been going somewhat viral in Kerala too, over the last few days. One hears unconfirmed rumours of an adverse impact on the collections at the Guruvayoor temple, but unfortunately it is not clear if they have any basis in fact.
One wonders how far this idea can be taken: for instance, can we take these protests further and popularize them with T-shirts and badges that proudly proclaim a lack of intention to contribute to Devaswom boards?
In any case, we see that a politically aware local or a regular, unlike an outsider to the cultural locus of Sabarimala, tends to locate the issue also in the wider context of how the state run temple administration apparatus (Devaswom Boards in the context of Kerala) has been treating Hindus: a complete understanding of an issue often requires a complete understanding of the actors and their motivations.
Before discussing this hope-giving development, however, let us take a look at this illuminating excerpt from the 11th century Kitab al-Hind by Al Biruni, regarding the early eighth century Arab conquest of Multan or Mulasthana by the Ummayad general Muhammad bin Qasim:
“Among the famous idols of Hindustan was that of Multan, dedicated to the sun, and therefore called Aditya…When Mohammad ibn Kasim ibn al-Munabbi conquered Multan, he inquired how the town had become so very flourishing and how so many treasures had there been accumulated, and then he found out that this idol was the cause, for pilgrims came from all sides to visit it. Therefore he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery.”
The appeal of the temple as a cash cow was powerful enough to stem the iconoclastic momentum that invariably accompanied such a prolific Ghazwat. Yet, the general chose to humiliate the Hindus since he knew that he could get away with that, without losing much revenue.
1,300 years on, the secular Indian state that rules over Bharat continues the tradition of milking Hindu temples for cash while treating them poorly (often taking over private Hindu temples the moment they start generating a lot of cash). The secular Indian state that rules over Bharat chooses to humiliate Hindus because they know they can get away with humiliating Hindus, without losing much revenue. Thus, these are issues that resonate elsewhere in Bharat too: for instance, the hashtag #NoHundiKanike was initiated by some Kannadiga twitterati earlier this year in response to the then Siddaramayya Government’s excesses on Hindu temples and institutions.
The situation of temples in Kerala
Here is a small selection from the typical concerns one hears from politically aware Hindus in Kerala: I haven’t been in a position to verify some of the claims I am stating, but these deserve scrutiny, and knowledgeable people can correct or add:
- Of course, there is the classic and well-recognized complaint: private Hindu temples that make profit are all taken over by the greedy Government (recent examples being the take-over of the Guruvayoor Parthasarathy temple, and the ongoing Trichambaram temple fiasco);
2. The Makara Vilaku fraud: The Travancore Devaswom Board, apparently in continuation with a tribal tradition, used to light a fire and simply let people believe that it was of divine origin, hoping to attract more pilgrims (and hence more revenue). In 2011, as they were forced to clarify that the light was man-made, the narrative turned to how Hindus were stupid and superstitious to believe that the light wasn’t manmade. The role of the secular Government in spreading misinformation to promote the superstition is clear from, for instance, the misleading phrasing present even now on the secular Kerala Government’s webpage: “On Makarasankranti every year without fail, miraculous events occur. Firstly … miraculously disappears. Within moments after the Lord being adorned with the Thiruvabharanam, an effulgence (Makaravilakku) appears in the opposite hills of Sabarimala, shining 3 times. This hill is called Ponnambalamedu.” .
3. There are numerous instances of Government unwillingness to use the funds to use the temple revenue to improve the pitiable state of facilities. There is the perception that the banning of private vehicles in the Nilakkal-Pampa route, now restricted to the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) buses, is an attempt to rig the system to force the devotees to fund KSRTC. The poor facilities from Pampa and onwards provided by the Government are contrasted with the relatively luxurious Haj facilities, AC buses and all, without funds from Masjids or Wakf properties; One sees news items about increased rates for special offerings even in a cash-rich temple like Guruvayoor, simply because they can charge more.
4. Some priests confide in devotees close to them that the Devaswom goes on overdrive to identify the ways the priests get dakShiNa from devotees, and try to set up rules to channel all that money to its coffers;
The necessity of understanding why temples get taken over
Unfortunately, we Hindus who are merely content to criticize the Governments for taking temples over, do not pay enough attention to the background that facilitates this, and make no attempt to remedy it.
Often, temple trusts witness a power struggle between groups, and the losing group appeals to the Government for a take-over as a form of scorched earth policy. In the case of the Trichambaram temple, the claim put forward by the Malabar Devaswom board to take it over was irregularity in payments of salary. Neither of these justifies a take-over: think of a corporate or business power struggle or issues of salary payment. And yet, by and large Hindus don’t mind such take-overs, and continue to donate money to Hundis for their kArya-siddhi or a sense of social duty to contribute to the upkeep of temples, without worrying about how these funds get misued.
This is of course, partly due to socialist success in planting ideas favoring the Government sector, and partly because Hindus think about temples from a predominantly religious or spiritual (and not political) perspective.
Turning the popular opinion needs a bottom-up as opposed to a top-down transformation, especially since our leaders do not care enough or aren’t enterprising enough. While this is hard, almost super-human or “Mahatma grade” to borrow the terminology of a certain think-tanker not so well-disposed to Hindus, crises like the Sabarimala issue might supply triggers that can usher in thitherto unanticipated changes.
The question is: how prepared are we to turn the crisis into an opportunity? Importantly, can we Hindus agree to stigmatize those Jaichands among us that invite the secular state to take over our property?
Some complements on the historical example
A doctrinaire libertarian would not be happy with Hindu rulers who constructed temples on tax-payer money. But the revenue generation suggests that they recovered a lot of money through the revenues the temple could bring. So perhaps we need to find out if the temples were about to recoup all the investment or even exceed it. If this possibility looks unbelieveable, do consider that:
- According to some estimates pointed to by this wikipedia article, up to 30% of the state’s revenues in Multan came through the Sun temple mentioned above.
- The temples continued to generate revenue long after its creators were dead, and thus was a one-time investment that benefited the posterity.
- Moreover, some temples loaned money out to villagers, boosting the credit flow in the economy and facilitating gainful employment
The last point above is taken from the following excellent thread by a very knowledgeable and committed Hindu, that makes for a revealing reading on the topic:
More than 95% of the money loaned out from the temple of rAjarAjeshvara (shiva, named after the king) went to the villages, the countryside
— āṅgīrasa śreṣṭha (@GhorAngirasa) July 11, 2017
There is even a book that discusses this phenomenon extensively in the context of the Chozha temple culture, Cholanomics, that the thread points to.
Thus, while not libertarian, the approach of the Hindu kings was closer to a form of benevolent statism, and not downright exploitation.
In contrast to this symbiotic existence, the barbarous invaders that followed Muhammad bin Qasim, had a “secular” interest in Hindu “kAminI-kAnchan”, which forms the basis for a lot of the so called “syncretic Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb”: immediate annihilation of Hindus replaced by a slow, excruciating, humiliating death over centuries. Unfortunately, the Indian secular state that rules over Bharat is in many ways more similar to the barbarous invaders than to the Hindu rulers: only, the secular state is less bloody in its approach, and hence also more subtle in the nature of its damage.
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