The Price of Devotion

With diversity in practice and fragile co-existence essential parts of its identity, religion emerges as a fascinating concept in India. Two key components of religion- the religion itself as well religious institutions, despite their differences, have grown complementary to each other. Religious institutions like temples, churches, mosques, etc. have become such visible symbols of the ideas they represent that now, devotion to a religion has become synonymous with devotion to the institution that propagates it. This article analyses the practices that have help transform these institutions into one of the most massive business institutions that operate in today’s world, under the guise of one abstract concept- religion.

In the recent times, there has been a massive growth in what is called, ‘Institutionalised religion’. It refers to a set of traditions, beliefs and rituals are systematically arranged and organized. Also known as ‘Organised Religion’, it characterises an official doctrine, a hierarchical leadership or bureaucracy and a codification of rules and practices. This terminology came into being only in the recent times, in contrast to just ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’, which is purely an individual approach to devotion. Organised religion, on the other hand, is a societal concept, where certain pre-determined practices ought to be followed by a community in order to ‘prove’ their devotion. The practice of devotion within this system, in India and all over the world, makes it a very constrained space. This is primarily because of the nature of practices that constitute it, and how they have manifested themselves- through traditions, practices or hierarchical models.

The growth of institutionalized religion has been so profound, there seems to be a tectonic shift occurring in the balance of power-towards the institutions that propagate a particular religion and away from the religion itself. This shift has been accompanied by the growth in the transactional nature or religion. Religion, today, is a transaction between a person and the institution that propagates a certain religion. In 2009, Karnataka minister G. Janardhan Reddy gave a crown of gold and diamonds worth Rs 45 crore to the temple at Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh. According to the temple’s website, Tirupati got 3,200kg silver and 2.4kg of diamonds in just one year. It gets over 1,000 kg of gold a year on average. The temple encourages these practices and advocates that such donations are a sign of devotion to the ideas it propogates. In 2011, the temples introduced another practice of encouraging donations by offering ‘VIP darshan’, that is, providing expedited access to the object of devotion, to those who gifted more than Rs 28 lakh. Today, the temple offers a range of such services in return large sums of monetary donations, starting at Rs 1 crore.[i]

Another instance showcasing the transactional nature of religion occured in 2016, where a news article titled, ‘A holy dip and Rs 11 is all it takes to be certified free of sins’ highlighted the practices of temple in Rajasthan, dedicated to Shiva, wherein the priests would distribute certificates of being ‘paap-mukta’ (sin-free) to all those who paid 11 rupees. A part of this practice is to ensure ‘dosh-nivaran’, that is, removal of any and every future obstacle. [ii]Such instances are a grim reminder of the growing elitism in organized religion. The right to devotion is turning into a privilege that only the elite can afford. A large number of religious institutions charge people entry fees. This treatment of devotees as customers and devotion as a service has led a kind of marginalization that is actively ruling out the possibility of people who can’t afford to pay this fee. However, it is important to note that irrespective of the growing price of practicing devotion, the number of people who take part in religious activities, pilgrimages and donate to religious institutions continues to grow.

Several instances of people taking loans, borrowing money, or selling off their valuables to pay for donations or religious services have been recorded all over India. This has led to the religious institutions becoming significantly wealthier relative to their devotess. The richest of all, the Padmanabhaswamy temple is estimated to have an estimated wealth of $20 billion. The Venkateswara temple in Titupathi collects about Rs 650 crore annually. Even institutions propagating the teachings of Shirdi Sai baba, who was known for following asceticism all his life and renouncing materialistic pursuits, are said to have donations of Rs 350 crore annually. Figures coming out of these institutions are in stark contrast to state of its devotees in India, where more than 30% of the population is forced to live on less than 30 rupees a day.[iii]

Religion, an idea that once claimed freedom from oppression, is turning into a reason for the oppression of its devotees. The growing transactional nature of religion is denying people the right to practice their religion. It is evident that the current ‘system’ is in desperate need for regulation. Limits on the amount of donation and charity, detailed records of the usage of the money that is collected along with awareness and education regarding the profit driven nature of practices that operate within the institution of religion are some of the reforms that can be incorporated in order to prevent the ever growing business of religion from turning into a source of oppression.

[i] Patel, Aakar. 2016. “The Business Of Religion”. Https://Www.Outlookindia.Com/. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/the-business-of-religion/296929.

[ii] Pillai, Geetha. 2016. “A Holy Dip And Rs 11 Is All It Takes To Be ‘Certified’ Free Of Sins – Times Of India”. The Times Of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/A-holy-dip-and-Rs-11-is-all-it-takes-to-be-certified-free-of-sins/articleshow/52426177.cms.

[iii] Sundar, Pushpa. 2016. “Rich Gods And Poor People In The Era Of Commercialised Religion”. The Wire. https://thewire.in/religion/religion-commercialisation.

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Arpita is a first year undergraduate at Ashoka, studying as a prospective Political Science major. Her interests lie in politics, pop culture and everything in between. She considers words to have the potential of driving change and aims to do the same with what she writes.

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