Swamy Nityananda is back in the spotlight. This time, the godman is not caught up in a controversy over 'bedtime stories and videos'. Instead, what's making news is his appointment as the junior pontiff of the Madurai Adheenam, one of the oldest and richest mutts in the state .
It was at the Madurai Adheenam that the Saiivite saint Thirugnanasambandar engaged in a heated debate with Jain religious heads, defeated them, and established Saivism as the prevailing religion 14 centuries ago.
Today, that adheenam has become a focal point of debate on Nityananda's appointment. Hindu religious outfits, opposed to the controversial godman's appointment have done everything possible - challenging it in court, starting a 'Save Madurai Adheenam' movement and calling upon the state government to intervene in the issue.
On April 27, Arunagirinatha Gnanasambanda Desikar the current pontiff named Nityananda as his successor and the 293rd pontiff of the mutt. The fact that the heads of other mutts with a hoary tradition, such as the Dharmapura and Thirupanadal Adheenams , have expressed regret over the unilateral manner of Nityananda's appointment , underscores the fact that not all is well with our wealthy religious mutts.
Opponents say the crux of the issue is over eligibility. Can a man who is embroiled in a sex video scandal be made the head? And shouldn't there be norms for selection, such as a candidate's qualification as a 'sanyasi'? Shouldn't the views of other mutt heads be heard ?
Religious mutts and rulers have always been strange bed-fellows in Tamil Nadu, right from the time of the Chera, Chola and Pandya empires. It is believed that there are over 62,000 temples, established by various dynasties. Most of them came with the grant of a swathe of land, capable of generating income that would render the mutt self sufficient. It was also mandated that a portion of the temple's income would accrue to the mutts.
B Kumar, an expert on temple matters says historically, administration has always been a huge headache for rulers, who found it easier to establish mutts (adheenams), and pass on the responsibility. "Most of the adheenams were established only around 600 years ago, and interestingly, non-Brahmins were at the helm. In fact there was a feeling that the Kanchi mutt was dominated by Brahmins, and hence, other adheenams came up, as a leveller,” he says.
Historically, there are 18 adheenams and the richest is the Dharmapura adheenam, with over 27 temples, big and small, under its ambit. Many of the mutts also rent out property, run businesses and educational institutions. In recent years, many of these Saiivite adheenams, as well as Vaishnavite mutts, have been embroiled in controversies, largely over succession issues.
The reason for such a sorry state of affairs? The huge tract of land, the income accruing from them and above all, factionalism within mutt members, say insiders. "There are very few who automatically command respect, like the late Kanchi acharya , Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, fondly called by everyone as 'periyaval' or Kundrakudi Adigalar. Both were known to be highly disciplined, well read, and men who had forsaken the demands of the flesh. Nityananda's appointment is also to be viewed in this context," they add.
However, there is an even more compelling reason for the state government to take a keener interest in the temporal affairs of thesemutts. From being a fountainhead of scriptural dissemination and abodes of peace for the world-weary, mutts have turned into an accountant's paradise. Temple mutts are required to submit their audited accounts to the HR & CE department , but there are numerous sources of income, a sizable portion of which is in cash, claim insiders. According to S Mani, a legal expert, there are around 62,000 temples in the state, collectively in possession of a staggering five lakh acres of land in the state.
Insiders like Kumar say a sizeable portion of the property is leased out by the trustees, and the rentals are a dream, even by celestial standards. For example, a two acre property belonging to the Kapaleeswarar temple, in the posh Boat Club area in Chennai , has been leased out to a condiment manufacturer for a paltry Rs 1500 a year.
Many other tenants pay a 'fair rent' which is a figure falling somewhere between the market rent and the guideline value . Combined with other sources of income - such as a percentage from the 'hundi' collections - mutts such as the Madurai Adheenam, (it enjoys the benevolence of Meenakshi Amman temple) are sitting on a rich hoard.
"Such places should be run in a transparent manner, with accountability at every stage, and led by men of a spiritual bent of mind. That is what the 'save the Madurai Adheenam is all about' say devotees. Even the courts have asked the outfits to approach the HR & CE. When the Hindu Makkal Katchi filed an affadavit on Nityananda's nomination, the courts directed the religious outfit to approach the HR & CE court.
Will the TN government take suo motto action and ensure that the mutts, like 'Caesar's wife', are beyond reproach?
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist