Religion is now, not just increasingly a part of our politics, but also, and even more so, of our economics
There has been a palpable rise in religiosity all across the country, evidenced by the visible accretion of places of worship and with it an aggressive assertion of identity either by appearance, statues, processions and loud calls to worship and music. This should worry us. The US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report finds a co-relationship between religiosity and poverty. It found an inverse relationship in countries where the percentage of people who prayed daily was high and low per capita GDP. Clearly, if you are too obsessed by damnation, you are condemned to live it here and now!
This rise in religiosity is across the religious spectrum. Following the increasing employment of Muslim youth in the Middle East and the flow of oil money into India, we saw a surge in the number of mosques. The mosques had their effect on Muslim attitudes. Christians were well placed during the British era and churches got prime locations. The flow of missionary money still continues, and more houses of God are manifestations of this. True, no great churches have been built but there is a profusion of small churches all over the country. Both these religions are institutionally well organised and regulated. But the Hindu response to this has been pretty laissez-faire with unregulated expansion.
I was recently in the rural areas of Telangana and noticed that even small villages now have two or three temples, when very clearly one could do. This is not just because of the wide choices of gods available to Hindus; it owes more to the fragmentation of Hindu society into myriad castes, gotras, jatis and clans. Many of them are side by side and it seems that they are actually competing with each other. I have been noticing how the growth of temples and their embellishment are a response to each other. In this respect, they are not very different from sari, jewellery and sweetmeat shops.
There is also another very basic, more worldly, reason for this profusion of temples. We are increasingly seeing a profusion of extra-constitutional civic organisations that informally sanction or condone economic activity in villages, like we have been seeing with resident welfare associations in urban areas, where incomes are derived from “licensing” parking agents, fruit vendors and petty services. The village committees too have discovered such income streams, quite a few of them patently illegal like sand mining, unlicensed liquor vending, etc.
Religion is now, not just increasingly a part of our politics, but also, and even more so, of our economics. Tourism contributes as much as 9.6 per cent of our GDP, with domestic tourism accounting for 88 per cent of it. In 2019 the number of foreign tourists who came to India was around 90 million. By contrast, domestic tourism totalled over 1,400 million visits, clearly suggesting that its implied economics are far bigger than the foreign business. It also suggests that very many of our people make several trips for tourism every year. While the concentration of the Centre’s tourism promotion efforts focuses on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur “Golden Triangle”, the highest number of foreign tourist arrivals (20.1 per cent) are in Tamil Nadu. Delhi draws half that.
The southern states see the most foreign and domestic tourist traffic because of the number of important religious places like Tirupati and Madurai. The location of Tirupati within it makes Andhra Pradesh India’s biggest domestic tourist destination. Religious tourism is now very big business. What does this suggest? Must we be worried?
A Pew Global Attitudes survey shows that more than 25 per cent of Indians reported having become more religious over the past 4-5 years. The trend is valid across religions and in keeping with other attitudinal surveys. Between 2007 and 2015, the share of respondents in India who perceived religion to be very important increased by 11 per cent to 80 per cent now. A NSSO report shows that average expenditure on religious trips has more than doubled during this period. Clearly, this is a rapidly expanding business sector and also, given the trends, the sky is the limit (no pun intended).
While the economic activity and employment it generates is a cause for happiness all around, we must also ponder about the other ramifications of this growing religiosity. The growth of blind faith, superstition and aggressive religioneering (my two-bit coinage) presents a clear and present danger to India evolving as a modernised society which values reason and tempers collective behaviour. The building of temples is a profitable business. That’s why unscrupulous entrepreneurs and social scoundrels build more shrines, increasingly usurping public spaces. And we know from experience that once the gods and religious figures get installed in a place, they cannot be dislodged. A good share of our traffic bottlenecks are due to them.
Sant Kabirdas posed this telling question in a simple and beautiful verse: Pathar puje hari mile, to main puju pahar/ tante te chakki bhali, pis khaye sansar? Sadly, the truth now is that a stone idol (now increasingly often made of POP and plastic, sometimes from China) offers a better rate of return (RoR) than a chakki, that calls for enterprise rather than irrational faith. Thus, with religiosity and religioneering big business now, it is increasingly common to see governments promoting “religious tourism”.
Actually, there is increasingly an unstated and subtle competition now implying that my idol is better than yours. The Venkateshwara temple at Tirumalai is India’s biggest money-spinner. This Vaishnavite shrine attracts 40 million devotees each year. Telangana has now embarked on promoting the Yadagirigutta temple near Hyderabad to become a religious tourism draw. This is also a Vaishnavite temple, but devoted to a different avatar of Vishnu, and manifestations of that avatar -- Jwala Narasimha, Gandabheranda Narasimha and Yogananda Narasimha. Under the CPI(M) government, Kerala temple boards actually advertise the magical powers of their stone idols. Communism was supposed to make us rational and believe God was a figment of mankind’s fervid imagination. After all, what else can be expected from a philosophy that derives inspiration from mummified corpses in Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen?
Jawaharlal Nehru, our first PM and foremost founding father of the new India, then contemplated the new India to be guided by reason and infused with the scientific temper. Instead, we are now increasingly a people driven by dogma and blind faith. Religion and blind faith are our biggest faultlines and the cause of much social friction and breakdown of orderly public behaviour and order.