Mumbai: One day recently, homemaker Viral Ruparel dropped a wad of Rs100 notes into the donation box at Mumbai’s famous Siddhivinayak temple after praying for divine intervention to let her husband keep his job.
Ruparel’s husband, who works at a steel trading company she refused to name, has been told by his employer that if sales don’t pick up, it might close in a month or two. “I come here and pray to god to look out for us. We live in a rented house. We have two children who go to school,” she said, her eyes clouding over.
Keeping the faith: Devotees at a temple in Delhi on Monday. Temples, mosques and churches have seen a surge of visitors since the crisis began. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times
“Coming here makes me feel strong; like there is someone who knows what I am going through.”
Thousands of people waited for hours at the Babulnath temple in Mumbai on Monday, when Hindus celebrated a festival dedicated to the Lord Siva. Oldtimers said the crowds were so large they had to spend twice as long queing up. “Usually we get done with the darshan (viewing) in three, maybe four hours. Today I have been waiting in line for six hours and it will still take me another two hours before I am done,” said Chandrakant Malusare, a municipal clerk.
As the economic downturn deepens and bad news gets worse, people, regardless of the faiths to which they belong, are increasingly turning to the gods for comfort, hope and sometimes rescue. The fear of losing jobs or pensions or homes and the fear of not being able to care for their children is sending people to places of worship, said Subhash Mayekar, administrator at the Siddhivinayak temple.
At the shrine, dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good luck, weekly contributions in the donation box have increased to an average Rs16 lakh from about Rs10 lakh over the past quarter.
“The number of people visiting us has increased in the last few months since all this (economic crisis) began. We see more than 200,000 people here every holiday and about 40,000 people every day. People hear about what is happening around the world. They see it happening in India now. They are scared,” Mayekar said.
There is reason to be scared. Nearly 500,000 Indians have lost their jobs because of the current economic slowdown, according to a recent labour ministry report. Economic growth is forecast by the government to slow to 7.1% in the fiscal year ending March, the slowest pace in six years.
“People all over the country are going more to the temples, mosques and churches. I have been interacting with administrators at the Ajmer dargah and they tell me that they have seen a 30-40% increase in the number of visitors since this crisis began,” said Muhammad Suhail Yakub Khandwani, trustee of the Mahim and Haji Ali dargahs in Mumbai. “Even at these two places, we have seen a 25-30% rise in the number of footfalls,” he said.
Ajmer, in Rajasthan, is home to the Dargah Sharif, the tomb of Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chisti, which is venerated by both Muslims and Hindus.
The increase in the number of visitors hasn’t translated into more business for the flower, coconut and incense vendors around the temples, churches and mosques.
“The fall in (the) share bazaar (market) has made a big difference to us. Now, even though more people are coming to pray here, they are not buying offerings like before,” said Mohammed Rafiq, who sells flowers and perfumes outside the Mahim dargah.
“In fact, the person who used to buy for Rs100 is also buying flowers for just Rs25 now. They are donating directly into the donation boxes now. Not here.”
His neighbour, Abdul Gani Gondaliya, who runs a small hotel where people donate to feed the poor when their wishes are fulfilled by the 14th century Sufi saint Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, who lies buried in the mosque complex, agreed.
“Since November, there has been a 25% drop in my earnings. This recession is affecting us too. I see more people coming every day, but few are stopping to feed the poor. After all, people can donate only when they have something for themselves. Right now, people don’t know how to make ends meet. So they are coming to the dargah to keep a mannat.”
Mannat is a sort of agreement in which people ask god for a favour and promise to do some good when the wish is granted.
“We will do business only when he (the Sufi saint) starts granting people’s mannat,” concludes Gondaliya, owner of the Garib Nawaz Hotel.
Some corporate leaders say their faith is keeping them anchored through good times and bad. “I am quite a religious man by nature and I look up to god. Period. My faith has nothing to do with the economy being good or bad,” said Sanjiv Goenka, vice-chairman of RPG Enterprises, a conglomerate with an annual revenue of Rs13,500 crore.
Goenka, who is known to carry a Tirupathi Balaji picture with him always, refused to explain his daily rituals. “It is a very personal thing and I am not comfortable discussing it.”
But in some places, the usual rituals are simply not enough.
Inside churches, while priests remind the congregations to have faith with comforting homilies such as “The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want”, they say it is inadequate.
“Many people who are coming to churches have either already lost their jobs or fear that they might lose their jobs. It is a very stressful time for everyone. The Holy See has already asked corporates to display greater social responsibility, but at our level, we are trying to figure out what we can do,” said Father Anthony Charanghat, director of the Catholic Communication Centre in Mumbai.
In an attempt to become more relevant to these people, the church has adopted a practical approach, he says.
“We don’t want to become a cult organization. We want to remain relevant to the problems of people today. Right now, we are running counselling sessions for people who have lost their jobs. We want to make sure they don’t do anything drastic, like committing suicide. We are also running programmes in colleges and call centres, encouraging people to live within their means. These days a credit-card culture has pushed many young people into debt. If they lose their jobs, I don’t know what they will do.”
Most religious leaders, across faiths, agree that times of crisis force people to think differently about their lives, who they are and what they want out of life. “It is natural that they turn to god for answers,” said Mayekar.