The Poor's Treasure

July 6th, 2011

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is a Hindu temple that sits near the Laccadive Sea, near the extreme south of the

Laksha Deepam at Sri Padmanabhaswamy | Wikimedia Commons

mainland. It is housed in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the Indian state Kerala. Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is one of the 108 principal centers of worship of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Every six years, devotees descend on the temple to celebrate laksha deepam or the festival of one hundred thousand lamps. For 51 days leading up to the celebration, devotees chant prayers and recite three vedas. When the festival commences, the temple lights one hundred thousand lams, illuminating the temple in a bright yellow glow.

No one could have imagine that under the temple there is a treasure burning just as brightly. On Monday, after India’s Supreme Court ordered a search of the temple’s underground vaults, investigators uncovered gold, jewels, and statues, worth an estimated $22 billion. That figure continues to grow as searchers have opened more vaults. This is not a scandal, just a surprise. Many of the vaults have remained sealed for over 150 years. In fact, it is not unusual for an Indian temple to hold gold and other endowments, which pilgrims and wealthy followers donate with the intention of aiding administrators in operations and assisting the poor. An endowment of this size, however, is unheard of.

This discovery has launched a debate over who should manage the wealth. V.R. Krishna Iyer, a retired Supreme Court judge, is among those advocates who believe the treasure should be used for the public interest. He has said “The treasure should be handed over to a national trust and spent for the welfare of the poor.” Kerala’s government has steadfastly rejected the notion of seizing the treasure, however. P. T. Chacko, the spokesman for the chief minister of Kerala, has noted “The treasure is donated to the temple from disciples and believers; it’s the property of the temple. It has nothing to do with the state.” Likewise, Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, has himself reiterated that “The treasures are the property of the temple. We will ensure the utmost security for the temple and its wealth.” Others believe the treasure belongs in a museum.

Ultimately, the fate of the temple rests in the hands of India’s Supreme Court, which will decide the treasures’ destiny once its final value is assessed. But the debate raises an interesting perspective. It is not so often that an endowment this large is all but ownerless. Particularly when the funds were once amassed under the intent of religious service or aid for the poor.

It is coincidental that India has only recently uncovered another religious treasure—although this one is of questionable origins. After the death of Sai Baba—an Indian guru with a worldwide following of tens of millions—in April, a group of aides ventured into the guru’s private chambers within the ashram. They found staggering piles of gold, cash, and diamonds. While its impossible to know the origins of the treasure, suspicious run high that it could be the proceeds of cash donations from followers, who believed the money would be used for education, medicine, or to spread Sai Baba’s teachings. This is a scandal.

We are horrified every time we find evidence of corruption by a charitable entity or individual. Whether that is Greg Mortensen, the famous protagonist of Three Cups of Tea, who is now under fire for mismanagement of his global school-building charity, or an Indian holy man. Their wealth is social, not personal. Likewise, the imperative to share ownerless wealth is a moral, not a legal, one. We believe this wealth should be used for the poor, regardless of its origin’s intention, because of the medium in which it is held. A temple. A religious man. A charity. The temple’s wealth may belong to the temple. Sai Baba’s wealth may not have come from those seeking social justice. Regardless of the origins, we believe these entities should serve the social good, particularly the poor. This is not socialism. This is moralism.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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