Before you start imagining people coming to voluntary organisations’ offices to pray, let me clarify: the context is the amount of funds which temples have versus the struggle that NGOs face in generating money for their work.
Of course I understand that we have a long, long tradition of donating money to temples. It is customary to drop a coin or two, at the very least, into the donation box in front of you as you stand with hands together and head bowed. Some people do a lot more than drop coins and currency notes. People have been known to give gold, jewellery and lots more.
How else would the Vaishno Devi shrine achieve collections of Rs 500 crore annually? The Jagannath temple in Puri owns thousands of acres of land donated by former landlords and kings.
And these are not the richest Indian temples. That list is topped by the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala where recent discoveries of treasures in locked vaults are supposedly worth 20 billion dollars! The Tirupati temple has treasures worth Rs 650 crores. The Sai Baba shrine in Shirdi receives Rs. 350 crores from devotees every year. (If you’re still wondering, 20 billion US dollars would be a staggering 12,400 crores in Indian Rupees!)
I’m sure all these temples do charitable work. In fact they were perhaps the original NGOs in the old times, with the tradition of feeding the poor being something that most Indian temples do in some form or the other.
But I’d like to propose that food is a basic welfare requirement now, and for a fewer percentage of the population than ever before. I read somewhere that India’s real income per person has quadrupled since 1960.
The point being that what is needed is more than what temples have been traditionally doing. We need interventions in a lot of areas ranging from improving hygiene with toilets in all homes, increasing access to education, to combating social evils of all kinds and encouraging traditional arts and crafts.
Some progressive temple boards may be doing more than feeding the poor, but I think their traditions and conservative nature definitely prevent them from embracing a wide range of welfare activities.
On the other hand NGOs are driven by a mission to effect a positive change, unfettered by anything other than resources. I can imagine dramatic change happening if some of the brilliant, driven leaders of social organisations (whom I have personally met) had more funds and resources to work with.
And that will only happen when we start asking whether by giving more and more money to temples, our prayers have more and more chances of being answered. Or if our gods will be more pleased when we serve fellow humans by aiding NGOs who are doing real good work for the needy. That’s true God’s work in my dictionary.
And by that logic shouldn’t we start thinking of good NGOs and welfare organisations as temples? Half a century ago Pandit Nehru referred to infrastructure projects like dams as “the temples of modern India”.
I pray for the day when we’ll start thinking of, and donating generously to NGOs like we’ve always done to temples.