Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | In India, temple-building can be an antidote to the slowdown

Karl Marx could not have got it more wrong when he reduced religion to “opium of the people". Nor is it easy to quite agree with these words of Jesus, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God", as quoted in the Gospel of Matthew. The Chanakya sutra probably got closest to the truth. It held, among other things, that the basis of dharma is wealth (“dharmasya moolam artha"). Dharma and economic well-being, here, are inextricably intertwined.

So, whatever the pros and cons of the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgement, which awarded the disputed site to Hindus and five acres as compensation to Muslims, we should not miss the economic dimension of the Ram Mandir. It will result in big economic gains for the relatively poor eastern Uttar Pradesh.

In a country struggling to create jobs for our millions, temple tourism offers one major focal area for investment with a huge job multiplier potential. Unlike manufacturing, agriculture and even services, which are increasingly being automated, tourism is one sector where people and storytelling will always be important. Add the infrastructure and commercial potential of other tourist spots, and one wonders why Ayodhya was such a contentious issue. The temple’s construction will benefit both Hindus and Muslims.

Tourism is driven by four key attractions: natural beauty, esoteric adventure and sports, historical monuments, and religion. While the first three are driven by the quality of upkeep of the assets and attractions involved—something we have simply not managed to ensure—the last one, religious travel, is driven by the inner spiritual drive of individuals. It needs no marketing. The sheer fact that badly kept temples still draw the faithful by the million should tell us what a little bit of investment in better temples and well-managed charitable trusts can do to boost religion-related tourism and commerce.

A Gujarat state tourism official has been quoted as saying that the 3,000 crore Sardar Patel statue earned 57 crore from the sale of tickets to 2.6 million visitors between November last year and mid-September. The Taj Mahal, in 2018-19, earned 78 crore from 6.8 million tourists, according to replies to questions in the Lok Sabha. If an artificially created tourist spot like the Patel statue—the world’s tallest—can, in less than a year, draw revenues to rival the centuries-old Taj, consider the revenue that can come from religiously motivated tourism around the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Not only the temple, but the entire ecosystem around it will generate huge revenues and jobs.

North India, in particular, has huge potential for religious tourism because it cradled the birth of major Indic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. According to historian Meenakshi Jain, author of Flight Of Deities And Rebirth Of Temples, temple-building in the North tapered down in the wake of sporadic incidents of Islamic iconoclasm, as a result of which the best Indian temples are in the south, out of the reach of iconoclasts.

This is the right context in which to view the Supreme Court verdict in the Ayodhya case, assuming it stimulates new temple-building activity, not only in Ayodhya, but also other places in the relatively poor north without causing the heartburn that Ayodhya did.

The problem with the Left is that it thinks of religion as retrograde. Marx’s big contribution was his materialist interpretation of history, but beyond basics, men are not driven only by economic motives. The Left traces the evolution of modern-day India to political unification under the Mughals first and the British later. But this view is highly questionable, for India is really a ground-up nation, a country created from below through a common and deep reverence for the sacred. Diana Eck, a Harvard scholar on comparative religions, described India as “a sacred geography", one created by the footprints of pilgrims who traversed the length and breadth of India from ancient times in pursuit of the spiritual and the sacred.

This is true not only of Hindus, but also Buddhists, Jains, Sufis and Christians, as Jerry Rao points out in his book, The Indian Conservative. There is a religious tourist circuit in India for all religious groups.

But this too is only one side of the story. The other-worldly Indian is also a myth, for Indians do not pursue the spiritual at the cost of the temporal. Commercial motives are almost always embedded in religious impulses. In today’s situation of an economic slowdown, our economists prescribe antidotes like investment in infrastructure, and boosting jobs through rural employment guarantee boondoggles, or even direct cash payouts to the poor. But the one thing they have not talked about is investment in religious places and related infrastructure. When economists do not think about the culture they operate in, their remedies fail.

There has been much breast-beating about people being unable to buy cheap glucose biscuits or even undergarments in this slowdown, but they will be proved wrong when it comes to funding the Ram temple. People and philanthropists will contribute to building the temple even in the midst of a slowdown.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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