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Temple Economics: Where Faith Meets Finance

Editor – Ankita Kumari

The Spiritual Stock Exchange of Varanasi                           

Walking through the narrow and crowded lanes of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the chiming of temple bells and chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ are constants. Proclaimed by UNESCO as one of the oldest living cities in the world, Varanasi, also known as Banaras and Kashi, is known for its 84 ghats and more than 3,000 temples; UNESCO has also chosen it as a city of music. Walking past a wedding and a funeral procession, within 15 minutes of each other, is quite usual here. After all, one of the holiest cremation grounds and one of the most important places of worship, Manikarnika Ghat and Kashi Vishwanath temple, respectively—are situated right next to each other.

Temple Economics and Everyday Giving

Most devotees inside the temple donate ₹10-20, or more, in the donation box, with many believing their prayers will come true; some others think it will be used to help someone. Philanthropy is rooted in India’s history and culture, with traditions such as daan, seva, zakat, tithe and langar cutting across religions and regions. Everyday donors might not have large resources at their disposal, but they still contribute in small ways. Donations to places of worship and religious institutions—daily amounts, however small, dropped into collection boxes, and big-ticket offerings such as jewellery made of gold and silver—can amount to several thousand crores in India, often overshadowing the wealth of business conglomerates. Although most donations are made in good faith, transparency remains a concern.

Kulpati Tiwari, aged 72 and a former chief priest of the temple, with a service record spanning over three decades, laments that since the government assumed control of the temples, priests have ceased to receive their wages. According to Tiwari, there is a lack of transparency in how the funds are utilized. He advocates for the establishment of universities, schools, orphanages, and healthcare facilities using the temple funds. Despite having written to the prime minister and president about the issue, Tiwari claims to have received no response. He contends that the donations should ideally benefit both the priests and society at large. However, he perceives that the government is neglecting these concerns, turning the administration of temples into a business driven by politicians.

GDP of the Divine

According to a 2019 report by Sattva Consulting, a social impact consulting firm, everyday giving—ways in which people give their time and money—in India is valued at about ₹21,500 crore, and giving towards religious and spiritual causes is worth ₹8,800 crore. A 2020-21 report by the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University says religious organizations (cash donations of ₹16,600 crore, constituting 70 percent) and beggars (₹2,900 crore, constituting 12 percent) are the most preferred recipients of household giving. Family and friends constitute 9 percent (₹2,000 crore), non-religious organizations 5 percent (₹1,100 crore), and household staff 4 percent (₹1,000 crore). Among households, 64 percent contribute to religious organizations, with the most common motivation being family traditions that encourage giving on special or auspicious occasions. 

For certain families in India, especially the middle-class, giving to religious organizations is a priority because we are a deeply religious society, says Neera Nundy, co-founder of philanthropy foundation Dasra. She adds that there are different outcomes of being a religious society. One outcome is that it comes from a deep set of values that can be very strong, as it helps build a good society. Another outcome is that in some religions, there is a mandate or expectation of giving back to the community or the religion in some form. For instance, religions such as Sikhism, Islam and Christianity encourage giving 10 percent of one’s annual income away as daswandh, zakat or tithe, respectively.

As per the latest data from the Ministry of Tourism, places of worship in India made ₹1.34 lakh crore in 2022, up from ₹65,070 crore in 2021. Also, a total of 1,433 million domestic tourists visited these sacred sites, along with 6.64 million foreign tourists. Although the revenue earned has not hit pre-Covid levels yet, the recovery has been strong, say experts.

The temple economy is as large as the Indian budget and is sustaining the country. Its contours across religious denominations – Hindu, Muslim, and Christians – are much wider than expected. It is changing society and its financial parameters.

The NSSO survey estimates that temple economy is worth Rs 3.02 lakh crore or about $40 billion and 2.32 percent of GDP. In reality it may be larger. It includes everything from flowers, oil, lamps, perfumes, bangles, sindhur, images and puja dresses. It is driven by the vast majority of informal unprotected labor.

The 2022-23 Central government revenue is Rs 19,34,706 crore and mere six temples collected Rs 24000 crore in cash alone. There are 5 lakh temples, 7 lakh mosques and 35,000 churches in this country. Top officials as devotees give a kick.

A nation of worshippers

As per the 2011 Census, places of worship appear to top the priority of Indians among most things. Between 2001 and 2011, India also saw places of worship mushroom at a faster rate (26%) than hospitals (13%) and factories (13%). Census data also reveals that India has around 330 million building structures, out of which 216 million are residential. In contrast, India has around 3.01 million places of worship, which is way more than its number of schools and colleges (2.1 million).

This means, there is a place of worship for every 40 people in the country, a ratio much higher than other social indicators like schools, police stations, and hospitals. Among the states, Uttar Pradesh leads with 3.54 lakh religious places, the highest in the country. It is followed by Maharashtra with 2.78 lakh and West Bengal with 2.57 lakh.

The business of religious tourism

For god’s blessings, Indians will travel no matter the distance. No wonder, India’s travel economy linked to places of religion is worth ₹3.02 lakh crore, which is nearly 2.32% of India’s GDP, as per the ‘Key Indicators of Domestic Tourism in India’ report published in 2017 by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).

In reality, however, it may be even larger as religious tourism is supported by a large unorganized market, which thrives on the sidelines, as a host of religious items and services go unaccounted. Moreover, it is also driven by informal, unprotected labor.

The NSSO figures suggest that 55 percent of Hindus undertake religious pilgrimages patronizing mid and small sized hotels.  Expenses on religious travel are Rs 2,717 per day/person, expenses on social travel, Rs 1,068 per day/person, expenditure on educational travel, Rs 2,286 per day/person. That comes to expenditure on religious travel of Rs 1316 crore per day and an annual expenditure on religious travel of Rs 4.74 lakh crore.

This NSSO data says that Indians do more pilgrimage than business trips and spend more on pilgrimage than traveling for education purposes.

Religious donations in India on the rise

Not only are religious trips on the rise, but household donations to religious organizations too are also spiking. The “How India Gives” report by the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy notes a 14% increase in household donations between 2021-22. The total quantum of donations made by Indian households during the period is estimated to be ₹27,000 crore, an increase from ₹23,700 crore in 2020-21.

Of the five recipient groups covered in the study (classified as religious organizations, non-religious organizations, household staff, extended family and friends, and persons engaged in beggary), “religious organizations” and “persons engaged in beggary” were the preferred choice of household giving. The report, which surveyed 81,000 households, mentions that “religious beliefs” continues to be the most important motivation for giving. Others include festivals, family traditions, the desire to support someone in financial distress, and to perform “service” (seva). Tax incentives, however, did not appear to be a major motivator for giving.

Religion and charity have long been intertwined in India, a land where diverse faiths have woven narratives of compassion and service into their core values. But with great generosity comes the crucial question: how can we ensure that the vast sums donated in the name of faith are used effectively and ethically?

Challenges in faith

The manner in which religious organizations are managed is different for different religions. According to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by BJP spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay in the Supreme Court, state governments control the management, income and assets of many temples and gurdwaras. However, mosques and churches in India have no such government controls. The PIL pressed for the right of Hindus to manage their religious places without government interferences, like Christians and Muslims.

In response, the Supreme Court, “Since all temples’ earnings are from people, they may well go back to them by way of setting up colleges and universities.” The court raised doubts over the necessity of revisiting the 1863 Religious Endowments Act, which facilitated temples to cater to the “larger needs of the society”.

Building Trust, Brick by Brick: Financial Transparency in Faith

Imagine this: you toss a heartfelt wad of rupees at a temple idol, hoping it’ll land like a prayer, bringing good karma and maybe even solving a few earthly problems. But where does that cash go? Does it vanish into thin air, lining the pockets of some celestial accountant? Or does it actually do good, like fixing leaky roofs or feeding hungry bellies?

Turns out, it’s both. Religious charity in India is a massive pot of gold, but sometimes, it feels like you’re tossing coins into a well of mysteries. Take the PIL filed by Ashwini Upadhyay. He wants temples and gurdwaras to manage their own finances, just like churches and mosques. Now, that sounds fair, right? But it also opens another can of worms – what if there’s no one watching the temple till?

Then again, not all holy houses are shady shacks. Some, like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, run by temples, feed a million kids daily. Their accounts are cleaner than a freshly scrubbed temple floor. And the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati? They publish their finances online, proving God likes spreadsheets too.

So, what’s the deal? Should we let religious folks handle their own cash or send in the government detectives with clipboards and frowns? Maybe not.

We need transparency, like open doors and detailed reports. Independent audits and online platforms where every rupee rings like a temple bell, telling where it went. It’s not about spying on saints, it’s about trust. We give because we believe, but faith shouldn’t wear a blindfold. For centuries, religious institutions have inspired hearts and nurtured communities. Yet, in the modern world, ensuring financial transparency has become critical to maintaining that trust.

Inspired by the innovative efforts of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, let’s explore a three-tiered approach to building a bridge of trust between faith and finances.

Secure Foundations:

Every donation, a precious brick in the temple’s base. Unique IDs, mobile app tracking, diverse payment options – each layer strengthens the path of accountability. Publicly declare your commitment to transparency, set the cornerstone of trust.

Vigilance and Wisdom:

Internal audits like dedicated monks, external audits like visiting sages – vigilant guardians ensure financial fidelity. A diverse advisory board, a council of elders, offers oversight and guidance. Regular financial reports, the temple bells of information, keep the community informed.

Open Doors, Open Hearts:

Transparency thrives in sunlight. Donors deserve updates, progress reports, stories of impact. Open dialogue, where questions find answers, builds trust and strengthens the community. Town halls, virtual gatherings, bridges of understanding. Showcase the blessing of donations, transform numbers into tangible good.

Remember, every donated rupee is a tiny seed. When planted right, it can grow into a school, a hospital, or maybe even a brighter future. So, let’s shine a light on those divine denominations, work together with religious folks, and make sure every act of charity becomes a miracle, not a mystery.

Trust and transparency, that’s the mantra. Then, maybe, just maybe, our faith in good deeds will bloom like jasmine under the temple lamp, filling India with a sweet scent of progress and hope.

References:

Indian Temples: Do They Have Any Economic Significance? – E-Journal Times Magazine (journals-times.com)

Author Guidelines for 8 (ijrtspublications.org)

How India spent ₹3.02 lakh crore on Gods — 2.32% of GDP (msn.com)

Temple Economy: Bolstering Economy Sanatan Way (organiser.org)

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