Recently, Sai Baba devotees in Maharashtra and elsewhere were shocked with the controversy raked up by ruling Nationalist Congress Party – Indian National Congress – Shiv Sena alliance. An indefinite bandh was called in the temple town after the controversy broke but was called off earlier this week after BJP leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil met CM Udhhav Thackeray. The ruling alliance declared that the state government intended to develop a grand temple complex at Pathri – which is believed to be birthplace of Sai Baba by many – with a budgetary allocation of 100 crore rupees. This was seen as attempt to shift the main Sai Baba’s Temple from Shirdi – where Sai Baba took samaadhi – to Pathri, a city 275 Kms away from Shirdi.
Here it is pertinent to note that a Sai Baba temple already exists at Pathri, but it was never polularised the way Shirdi is popularised. This is why devotees of Sai Baba flock only to Shirdi to offer prayers and seek blessings. Now with the controversy of creating a bigger temple at the birth place of Sai Baba, i.e. at Pathri, the state government intends to popularise one more place of worship where devotees of Sai Baba can visit.
This controversy has shaken everybody in Shirdi, which recently observed a total shutdown to oppose the proposed move. Shirdi is a small village with a population of around 36,000. The town depends on religious tourism arising from Sai Baba Temple. With diversion of devotees from Shirdi to Pathri, people in Shirdi are bound to be impacted economically.
This brings the whole story to the economics of religion and the religion of money. Shirdi Sai Baba Temple Trust is one of the richest temple trusts in the country with annual donation income of Rs. 689 crs in FY 2019 and investments of Rs. 2,238 crs as on 31st March, 2019. Beyond this, Shirdi Temple Trust controls the development of Shirdi village. This includes issuing permissions for development of hotels, lodges, guest houses, and other accommodations for pilgrims and all other commercial development in the village. This is to highlight the influence and financial and other control that the temple trust wields on the village and resultant powers of the people who control the trust.
This trust was controlled by Congress with Congress’ strongman from Ahmednagar District – where Shirdi is located – Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil at the helm. When Vikhe Patil quit Congress to join BJP, Congress lost its control over Sai Baba temple trust. It appears that Congress is not in a position to now shake off Vikhe Patil’s control over Shirdi Sai Baba temple trust.
Hence, to counter the said loss of control over Shirdi Temple, Congress–NCP came up with the idea of developing and promoting the Pathri Temple. This is done with the intent to reduce footfalls at Shirdi and divert them to Pathri. This would naturally impact donation income at Pathri Temple in a positive manner, while hurting finances at Shirdi Temple.
It is fairly understood that the temple trust at Pathri is under the strong control of NCP and Congress. This is why Congress–NCP intend to push for development of Pathri. The intent is very clear. With growth of Pathri as an alternate pilgrimage destination, the trust and in turn the trustees would wield disproportionate power and reap dividends from development of Pathri village.
Here it is important to highlight the fact that Shirdi Sai Baba Temple is under Government control, by virtue of The Shree Sai Baba Sansthan Trust (Shirdi) Act, 2004. This brings us to other interesting and important debate on whether temple trusts must be under government control.
Governments have repeatedly proved that they have hardly cared for promotion of culture, social and other aspects around the temples. Rather they have focused only on milking temples for very selfish financial and secular political agenda. Same situation is now playing out at Shirdi, with secular parties working on breaking the unitary influence of Shirdi over Sai Baba devotees to promote their selfish personal economic goals.
It’s high time we start thinking more seriously on the utility of Government control over temples and comparing it with benefits of communal and societal control over temples. It’s high time we start thinking over what is expected from temples beyond creating sacred space for religious and spiritual activities to various socio-cultural agenda of the community and society. It’s high time we start thinking on how the Hindu community can build adequate competencies and capabilities to manage these temples that not only focus on religious and spiritual aspects but also socio-cultural aspects.