Historically, religion has been an area often ignored by economists. Nigel Tomes observes, “economics is fundamentally atheistic. Religious beliefs, practices, and behaviour play no role in the life of homo economicus.” Till date most of economics studies reflect a lack of acknowledgement of religion as anything but an obstacle to economic growth, usually used interchangeably (and almost always in a negative context) with culture. This is quite strange considering the role religion plays in influencing not only mindsets and actions of individuals but also economic decisions at a larger scale. What makes this ignorance even stranger, and for some even questionable, is the exponential rise in religious interference in economy and polity. The resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the United States, the development of Protestantism in Latin America, the wide range of catholic churches in Africa and the spread of Islam globally have all contributed to the reshaping of how we should approach these subjects keeping in mind that the line separating the two is no longer set in stone (Shrivastava, Economic Shocks and Temple Desecrations).
These religious institutions springing up all across the world do much more than just preach the ideal way of life, they contribute to a growing economy. In some instances their contribution to the economy is so massive that they invariably influence economic decisions as well. The temple economy refers to the monetary facets of shrines and temples which has a great influence on economic growth, especially in a country like India . This industry is propelled to unparalleled heights by worshippers who prove their faith by the value of their donations.
The industry holds an iron-clad stronghold across the country; the mass unemployment in the temple industry due to Covid-19 cast an immensely dark shadow over the national economy. The temple industry operates in the informal sector prohibiting workers from being protected by labour laws. Due to this, they were hit much harder financially and mentally. Other than these workers, independent shop owners who also earned a significant amount of income during religious festivities were at a loss . This unfortunate turn of events reinforces the fact that stunted economic growth is one of the many dominoes that falls when the first piece – temple activity– falls. This industry’s influence is not just limited to employment, in 2018 almost 18.2 billion pilgrims from all over the world visited religious sites in India.. This created a massive flow of income, allowing them significant power in the matters of the country. This is just a peek into the power they hold above us, like a dangling sword threatening to serve those under it.
Most of the central government’s tourism promotion efforts focus on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur ‘golden triangle’. Yet the highest number of tourist arrivals (20.1%) are in Tamil Nadu; Delhi struggles to draw half of that. The southern states see high levels of foreign and domestic traffic solely because of the concentration of religious places. The Pew Global Attitude survey shows that more than 25% of Indians reported having become more religious over the past four-five years. The trend is valid across religions and faiths as can be seen by behavioural and attitudinal surveys. Between 2007 and 2015, the share of respondents in India who perceived religion to be very important increased by 11% to 80%. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report shows that average expenditure on religious trips has more than doubled during this period.
At the helm of the glittering Indian temple economy sits the Tirupati Balaji (located in Andhra Pradesh), a shrine to Lord Venkateshwara and managed by the organisation – Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD). The fixed deposits, owned by TTD, spread across several banks crossed the Rs 12,000 crore mark in 2019. The deposits made with several nationalised and private banks by TTD earns an annual estimated interest of Rs 845 crores. The temple continues to get richer and richer with an annual income of Rs 31 billion . It is said to have about 8.7 tonnes of pure gold, besides the 550 kg of gold jewellery set with stones and offered by the devotees.
India’s one of the largest consumers of gold and the past government’s efforts to curb the nation’s insatiable appetite has gone in vain causing a severe current account deficit. The Narendra Modi government – soon after coming to power – realised that the wealth, if used well, could bring down India’s trade imbalance. So, in 2015 itself, it asked temples to start investing their gold in deposits. While the gods haven’t parted with their gold yet, India’s richest temple – in terms of donations received and income – has finally decided to try out its mettle in the country’s booming stock market. On August 3, 2015 Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, said it had opened a dematerialised or demat account. A demat account allows investors to hold stocks and securities electronically, instead of physically possessing them. The temple, as a result, will now accept donations in the form of equity shares from devotees. This will make it a shareholder in India’s equity markets. Prior to this, many faithful devotees would donate physical shares which could not be processed by the temple’s management. TTD was the first shrine management in the country to do so and it was expected that other temples would follow suit, which they did.
The Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai, Maharashtra located in a wealthy area is another temple that boasts of high annual income, high investments, high gold reserves. A few months after TTD declared the opening of their demat account, Siddhivinayak also took to its footsteps. They are allowing their devotees to donate through the ‘shares and securities’ option. However, there is a difference in how these two temples treat their shares. TTD holds onto the shares, earning bonuses and dividends while also being an active shareholder in those companies whereas Siddhivinayak does not use it for trading purposes and converts them to cash. TTD’s method, one would believe, helps it influence the firms it has an active role in. While there are estimated values of how much TTD earns through its demat account, the details about who the key donors are and their donations continue to remain a mystery.
The capitalisation of the temple economy in India does not end solely there, the huge fairs, or more commonly known as ‘melas’, are also huge avenues for money-making purposes. The Kumbh Mela is not just a celebration of faith, it’s revenue continues to grow every year and so do the expenses that facilitate this mega festival. In 2019, it generated employment for six lakh workers across various sectors. The Uttar Pradesh government allocated Rs 4200 crore for the 50-day festival, not only making it almost thrice the amount spent in 2013 but also the most expensive pilgrimage across years. The mega Mela extends its employment creation to other informal sectors that align with it, taxi drivers, hotels and ashrams, food vendors- all are profiting off the back of the Kumbh Mela. Overhauling of the key infrastructure is a significant component as well, including upgrading nine railway stations and the construction of a new airport terminal in Allahabad. Roads stretching 250 km are being drawn across the town and around it, pontoon bridges are being created elevating this town to a temporary city status solely for the purpose of hosting the Mela (Gurukkal, Political Economy of the Temple Treasure Trove).
But these temple’s riches are not a lucky consequence, instead it is a result of smart and carefully devised financial management. These institutes, like any efficient corporate entity, explore all instruments of capitalism to attract wealth. From streamlining the production of prasad, and sale of offerings by pilgrims to facilitating donations online to welcome global devotees and through banks, and building top-class infrastructure for visitors. Temples are no longer just a place of worship, they are brands that their devotees want to flaunt proudly. This strategic calculation is doing more than just filling up the coffers of temple management, it is a gateway for religious leaders to enter politics. These leaders base their campaigns on religious sentiments of voters without any repercussions. Their close-to-god divine status affords them a level of impunity that nobody should be provided with allowing them to do whatever they want at the expense of voters and the country.
With such deep entrenched involvement of religion, economics no longer continues to be atheist in nature. By ignoring the role religion plays, we are simply running away from the issue at hand. Religion no longer remains a social force and temples no longer are just places of worship, both of them have economic identities and shape the economy and polity which exist today. To understand the great ramifications it might have, economists need to acknowledge this ever-growing presence, because whether they do so or not religion will continue changing the power dynamics.
Yasashvi Paarakh is a first- year student at Ashoka University, majoring in Economics and Finance and hoping to minor in Political Science. Her research interests lie in studying the ramifications of religious interference in the modern political arena across the world.