Some of the Hindu temples, pre-eminently Tirumala Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati, Siddhi Vinayak Temple at Mumbai, Sai Baba Shrine at Shirdi, and Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi together have combined assets worth more than Rs 1.32 lakh crore, according to a recent study.

The wealth is much more than the asset value of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. These four temples together receive more than Rs 3000 crore every year. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, whose wealth exceeds $ 20 billion is India’s richest temple. These shrines together have the capacity to address India’s developmental deficit.

It has been suggested by critics that only two per cent of the total earnings are spent on the upkeep of the temple and the deity. Around 40 per cent of the temple revenue is allegedly taken over by the priests and members of the Governing Board.

The story is not very different as regards the donations and charity received by the famous shrines of other religions, such as the Golden Temple in Amritsar or the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. The latter is said to receive Rs 200 crore every year as donations which is allegedly shared by the 5000 khadims who provide voluntary service to the shrine.

As most of these religious institutions have no system of financial and social audit, people like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Agnivesh and Baba Ramdev recently appealed to people against donating money.

After all, one who can create such a mind-boggling cosmos is definitely capable of taking care of Himself and without charity from the people He Himself has created. If we are all children of one Almighty, why would he demand money or donations in kind from His children to grant their wishes? Are we not trying to bribe our way through our problems of spiritual evolution?

The critics have also vehemently opposed the acquisition by shrine authorities of thousands of acres of prime land when hundreds of thousands don’t have a decent shelter for themselves.

While problems of the homeless are generally related to poor policy execution and administration, it is also true that many temple trusts utilise the donations received for the benefit and welfare of the underprivileged, including shelters, food and health for the disadvantaged.

Generally, no one remains hungry at such places because of the relentless flow of compassion from the devotees. As such, these places have a huge functional value as centres of care and welfare for the poor and deprived.

The temples, shrines, places of pilgrimage or religious institutions in themselves may not be useful as mere buildings and structures, but most of them are important for our architectural and cultural heritage.

They are also important as centres which attract devotees from all corners and strata of our society, thereby affording an opportunity for strengthening of societal bonding, consolidation of collective consciousness and inculcation of a nationalist feeling.

The places of worship, thus, have functional value for society; they are socially relevant. The charitable work and welfare activities some of these religious Trusts are engaged in also underline their social relevance.

More than the inherent miraculous powers of these religious places, it is the positive feelings and emotions that the devotees carry to these places which are more important. The positive vibrations are very powerful because almost everyone who visits leaves his/ her negative thoughts behind.

Usually, all are charged with positive and uplifting thoughts. One experiences inner peace and an elevating ambience while visiting such places. However, devotees have often recounted distressing behaviour from the authorities and priests at some of these religious places.

The human wish to share and care is greatly fulfilled by such places as people don’t feel any qualms to donate to the Gods and deities rather than to some shady and unscrupulous NGOs whose credentials are questionable.

Common people’s craving for a creditable channel to show compassion to fellow humans or to wash away their sins is served by such places. Tapping on the same, the religious places attract huge donations in cash and kind. As such, these centres come across as a socially institutionalised arrangement for compassion and care for one another.

Moreover, all religious places and institutions are important components of our economic system. Thanks to religious tourism, they are a huge source of employment not only in the projects associated with the management of these institutions, but also in the ancillary activities of provisioning and supplying required materials and manpower.

The manufacturing and services sectors will suffer if people were to stop visiting and donating to these places. So, it could be no one’s argument to dissuade people from offering donations to the religious institutions. The question is how to make the functioning and management of the same more transparent and accountable.

All the donations including cash and kind should be duly accounted and audited, as done for many of the bigger temples including Tirumala in Tirupati. Some of these religious institutions have become so gigantic that they require direct Government control and management as already done for temples like Triumala Tirupati or Guruvayur Devaswom.

Originating from the people, the donations and charities should go back to the people. So, there must be clearly laid-out policies to productively utilise the funds of these places on public welfare. The recent Supreme Court directive to all religious institutions to furnish an annual account of their income and expenditure is a milestone in this regard.

There have been Supreme Court interventions in recent times to ensure that Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution, relating to the Right to Equality and Non-Discrimination, are also extended to places of worship as in the case of Haji Pir Shrine in Mumbai or the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

But, there are still many places where such direct or indirect discrimination is prevalent. The Temple Entry Movement, as launched during India’s freedom movement, needs to be taken to its logical conclusion through further judicial interventions.

The hereditary dominance of certain communities and castes over the affairs of these religious places should also be discontinued, with specific attempts to induct and recruit priests from all classes and castes depending on the fulfilment of the required qualifications specified for the purpose. A uniform government policy framed in consultation with all stakeholders should ensure the same.

If utilised properly, religious places could become an instrument for promoting harmony and concord in the country. As society evolves and people go beyond their primary needs of survival, they start looking for nourishment of their mind and heart.

So, with the societal affluence growing, people tend to become more religious as is happening in this country. The rise of so many religious cults and sects under the leadership of different religious leaders is an index to the trend.

If all such well-meaning leaders were to come together and all such places of worship were to become centres for facilitating societal dialogue with the people of the same and other communities, the insidious societal discord, as noticed these days, could be reasonably resolved and fixed.

The same would also take care of the human alienation and stress which are at the root of the discord and friction in our society today. With the policymakers and societal leaders coming together, one is sure that these places of religious worship could actually turn into places of societal harmony rather than discord.

The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views are personal and not the Government’s