The sacred and profane


We need to urgently rethink what we call a dharmasthan, or an ashram

Madhu Kishwar

Illustration: Samia Singh

THE MEDIA thrives on sensation and nothing provides more titillation than the sight of sanyasis and godmen being arrested because of financial fraud, sleaze or sex scandals. But this is symptomatic of a deadlier disease that has come to inflict our religious and ‘dharmic’ institutions. It is because our society has stopped defining the roles and responsibilities of our religious institutions that they have lost accountability. Many have become centres of corruption. Most of us flock to temples to cut a deal with our chosen deity, and have no interest in the health of the institution. Likewise, we flock to holy men to seek miracles, not spirituality. Not surprisingly, many have become con men.

To start with, we need to rethink when a place deserves the nomenclature of adharmasthan. Just as in Delhi it is common knowledge that properties which don’t grow a single sprout or potato are called farmhouses, so also we have ashrams that are into money and power. Just as the rich take advantage of laws that govern agricultural land to escape taxes by calling their luxury resorts “farm houses”, so also many charlatans set up ashrams or mandirs as a cover for land grab and other unholy deeds.

Traditionally, a lot of emphasis was placed on careful selection of locale for situating a temple. It is no coincidence that our important dharmasthans and maths are up in idyllic locations in the mountains, by the river or sea, or at places or ‘sthans’ considered sacred. You feel the power of the place by just being there. The rishis who set up ashrams by the sacred rivers were expected to act as guardians of the sanctity of those rivers. It is symptomatic of the moral decline of our dharmic institutions that today they are releasing their own sewage in our supposedly holy rivers. It has become a common business to build a structure on a piece of land you covet and grab it by installing an idol or a ‘holy book’, performing a few mumbojumbo rituals and calling it a temple or mosque. Most of these are simply land grab operations.

A place qualifies as a dharmasthan only if dharmic activity is carried out in that institution on a routine basis. By dharma I mean the moral code of society that binds people together. It does not mean just reading religious scriptures or performing this or that puja. Temples once provided a whole range of social and spiritual services. Besides, most traditional temples were places of scholarly learning and centres of arts and music. Many were also places for physical healing and dispute resolution. Even today there are large maths in south India where thousands of people come to settle their disputes without having to pay a single rupee. Their verdicts are more honourable and honoured than those of modern-day courts.

It is noteworthy that invariably, fraudulent gurus and sanyasis set up their businesses by first wooing politicians and the police

Some of the problems faced by spiritual centres today date back to when the British took away their land grants, starving them of resources to carry out their social obligations. In addition, they bureaucratised their structures to control them.

In post-Independence India, we have continued debasing these institutions. It is noteworthy that invariably, fraudulent gurus and sanyasis set up their businesses by first wooing politicians and the police, because without their patronage no one can get away with racketeering. Yet, millions of people flock to ashrams and temples because they need the spiritual refuge as much as they need food and water. Therefore, it is important to restore the health of our ‘dharmic’ institutions by demanding accountability, immunity from partisan politics, and responsibility from the media in looking beyond the fraudsters and highlighting those who serve society selflessly.



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