The recent revelations of financial irregularities at Tirupathi Tirumala, the abode of Lord Venkateswara is indeed troubling. Dr. A V Ramana Dikshitulu, the former chief priest, who has served the temple for more than twenty years, has come out with a series of stunning allegations that has literally thrown the Tirupathi Tirumala Devasthanam (TTD) Board as well as the Andhra government under the bus. Ever since he went public, a continuous steam of alleged serious irregularities are tumbling out indicating that all is not well in the management of the famed temple of Lord Venkateswara.
The allegations range from missing jewels offered to the temple by various kings in the past to diversion of cash donations by devotees to fund government projects and expenses. Also the discontinuation of the age old practice of annual public audits of the temple’s jewels and the secret digging up of the prasadam kitchen where huge treasure of jewels were purportedly hidden during Muslim invasion around circa 1150 AD have stunned the public. Further, the TTD management seems to have deliberately employed non-Hindus at the temple in direct violation of its own rules and the matter is said to be in the courts.
The ‘Raj Pink’, a rare 37.3 carat diamond considered as the rarest of the rare variety of diamonds, donated by the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore is also mired in deep controversy. The former chief priest claims that while a vigilance report by a senior IPS officer recorded it as ‘broken due to pilgrims throwing coins at it’, the actual stone was auctioned by Sotheby’s.
The allegation of diversion of temple funds to non-temple related expenses is nothing new. This has been going on for several decades in almost every temple in south India. For example, in Tamil Nadu, there have been several allegations of using temple funds to buy official cars for the use of government officers, building bus terminals etc. Many fear that the scale of diversion of funds and jewelry theft at Tirumala may be massive.
So what is happening at Tirumala? Some of the allegations are very serious. The TTD administration is yet to issue a convincing point by point clarification on the alleged irregularities - particularly the issue of jewels offered to the temple by Chola, Pallava and Vijayanagara kings – specifically Krishnadeva Raya.
The response of the Andhra government to these allegations is also far from satisfactory. The deputy chief minister has issued a statement warning the former Chief Priest, but has obviously not said anything about the allegations per se. This is on expected lines from a political party in India and unfortunately no one is buying it.
Secondly, in another response (TOI 5/21/2018,) the executive officer (EO) of the temple has offered to display the temple jewels if the Agama shastras so permit. While this is indeed a welcome move, this has raised more questions than it answers. For example why now and not earlier? Many question the timing of the offer too. The EO’s statement also conspicuously does not address the concerns or explain how huge ruby that bedecked the Lord was broken by impact of coins thrown by the devotees.
Thirdly, the Andhra government, in a move to punish Dikshitulu, has sacked the chief priest by changing retirement rules of priests. This is nothing short of political vendetta and a blatant attempt to silence him. Dr. Ramana Dikshitulu has vowed to fight it legally in the courts. Given that temple priests have no formal retirement age, it is unclear how this action by the state government will stand legal scrutiny.
To view the unsavory happenings at Tirumala in isolation is to miss the woods for the trees. Every temple in India has been violated and its jewels and offerings by public stolen. With nauseating regularity precious statues and deities have disappeared in India and reappeared in museums in the developed world or on the sale tables of world’s leading auctioneers. Yet this should not be dismissed as mere petty and isolated criminal offences but part of a larger design to desecrate holy temples of the Hindus.
India’s treasures have been repeatedly plundered – from the Muslim invaders to the systematic draining of the country’s wealth by the British. Now it is the turn of the corrupt political class to pillage. This hemorrhaging of India has to stop now. Period.
The unfolding scandal at Tirumala is yet another wakeup call for the Hindus who, over the ages, have suffered direct and indirect threats to practicing their religion in India. Despite all the hogwash of religious freedom and constitutional guarantees, the fact is that today the practice of the Hindu faith is under great pressure. It is fighting for its very survival in its own land.
The problem here is that the political ecosystem in India stinks and anything short of an impartial enquiry by a retired or sitting Supreme Court judge will only heighten the suspicion of the people. The findings of the inquiry must be published immediately to create confidence in the public. If the allegations prove true, the guilty – however high and mighty they may be - should face the full force of the law.
Regardless of the outcome of this inquiry, the central and state governments must bring in a new administrative body for the efficient and transparent management of temples all over India. It should be noted here that eminent Indians like Dr. Subramanian Swamy have advocated the return of control of temples from the government to the worshipping community, albeit with sufficient safeguards to prevent financial irregularities.
While the jury is still out on the veracity of the allegations of Dr. Ramana Dikshitulu, the TTD move to sack him only hints at a cover up on a massive scale. This has now made him into a martyr and endeared him to millions of devotees of Lord Venkateswara.
In another recent development Dr. Subramanian Swamy has tweeted (May 21st 2018) that he will seek a Court monitored CBI investigation into the financial misappropriation of temple funds by TTD. He has also termed the sacking of the chief priest as illegal. This scales the problems to a new level of complexity and embarrassment for TTD. Given Dr.Swamy’s track record in filing public interest litigations and achieving the desired judicial outcomes, it could spell disaster for the TTD.
The unfolding Tirumala scandal also has a larger message for the Hindus. The price of religious freedom is eternal vigilance and never can they take it as a god given right, for mere mortals – be it the barbarians or the vile politicians - can pillage this precious right.
The scandal in the hills of Tirumala will be keenly watched. Most certainly, this will wind its way to the highest court of the land, and will also determine the future management of all temples in India. But for the present Hindus can only hope the Lord’s jewels and offerings by millions of devotees over hundreds of years are safe.