Business of Religion

Lord Tirupati opens an offsite campus, for its devotees in Bay Area, California. I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard it. It exactly sounded like it is, an infomercial about a top tier business school opening a campus right in your neighborhood.  A gruffy man in thick telugu accent was explaining how on very bhaari demand from devotees, Lord Tirupati will make an appearance right here Bay Area where His thousands of less fortunate devotees (from spiritual perspective) will be able to darshanam and offer their prayers and hard earned money to the Lord.

I am always intrigued by the business of religion, but it never hit me in the nose until a few years back. It’s one of those transformations you undergo when you turn from an I into an NRI. Back in India, religion is everywhere, it’s in the air you breathe, the water you drink. The point is you don’t notice the organized business like structur around religion. You fool yourself that you are doing it all voluntarily, nobody is selling you anything. You visit the temple on Tuesday because you want to. You offer prasad simply because your parents always taught you and it gave you a good feeling, not because the temple on the main nukkad and the crowd in it on Tuesdays gave you a guilty feeling that you are not remembering your Gods. You do get a bit uneasy when you get hit by the nosy and obnoxious pandas at Haridwar or any other religious place, but you ignore them as exceptions. But, here in the land of the westerners, where you are trying to retain the last few traces of Hinduism in you, to be able to pass onto your off springs so that they remember who they are when you are long gone, the business aspect of the religion is very hard to ignore. You realize that in the world of super powerful capitalism, everything is business. The Panditji you hire for doing small puja at your place has a day job and tells you his rate list for various rituals you may want to perform. You can ignore the first panditji you meet and go around asking for a more authentic pujari who has slightly bigger portion of the day dedicated to the service of the God, instead of writing Java code, hoping that the puja will be more effective and more authentic Gods will show up. Then you realize that this new panditji who didn’t tell you his price in the first meeting and said, “de dena, jo apka man kare” (Give whatever you feel like) was only better and more suave at his business. You realize that you ended up paying more money to him than the one with the rate list. What more, you realize that he has a way to upsell you to get more money out of your pocket. I once went to one such panditji and asked for advice to calm some grihas (planets for Hinglish), as we were going through some tough time and parents from India advised that we visit a panditji. I was taken aback when I was offered 5 different types of pujas, depending on how much peace I was looking for. I thought I was the one looking for advice here, but it I soon came to terms with the fact that I am in America where there is a choice for everything.

I then met a panditji whose holy attire convinced me that this is the Godman I was looking for. He was always dressed up only in a white dhoti, any time of the day you meet him. And, his house in Sunnyvale spelled religion. The auspicious atmosphere, the smell of agarbatti burning all the time and the cleanliness made you conscious of even your own breadth. I invited panditji couple of times to my place and he was perfect, did everything per the procedure, sang shlokas in pure Sanskrita and he even sang Om Jai Jagdish Hare perfectly, which I was a bit surprised about as he was a typical South Indian Brahmin, with limited knowledge of Hindi. I thought, what the heck, may be  Om Jai Jagdish became popular in South India too, after Rani Mukherjee sang it in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. My wife was a bit more skeptical; she thought he was adapting his marketing skills to be more appealing to his North Indian clientele.  I had one of those moments with wife, where you feel like saying, “Oh honey, you know nothing and I know what I am doing, so don’t worry”. Overtime pandtiji cajoled us for regular visit to the mini-temple in his house on Friday nights. On couple of the occasions I went, I was amazed to see the crowd in his small house and the garage that had been converted into a temple. There was puja, there was aarati and of course there was food. Before long, I learned that Panditji had now built his own full blown temple and was the defacto head of this new temple and wasn’t available for house calls as he was too busy. I used to keep getting chain emails and occasional cold calls from his devotees, after the full blown temple was set up. And then we had another one of those moments where wife says, “see, i told you in advance and i was right”.

Have you ever seen a better business strategy? Build early customer successes, convert them into references, spread through the word of mouth, leverage your early customers to scale up, grow and expand and before you know you are a large corporation, listed on Nasdaq.

When we came to Bay Area in 2000, there were two major Hindi temples. One was a church converted into temple and the other a brand new construction from scratch. Being the naïve, Hindu Indian, it made perfect sense to me and I felt like saying , “Amreeka is great”. After all, people need religion as a way of life and two temples made a lot of sense, keeping in mind the size of the Hindu population. Overtime, we saw new temples creeping up in every corner of Bay Area. If demand exists, supply would show up, says basic principle of market economics and in this case, we were seeing almost a glut of supply. And yet, every temple was doing thriving business. Even in the midst of the recession, when restaurants started going empty even on weekend nights, temples would always be full and of course their demands for extra donation wouldn’t slow down.  Gods are not easy to please and their service costs money. The temple in the church, ran a long running fund raising campaign for further construction and raised humongous amount of money. We paid our share too, it just felt good and all of a sudden we felt grown up and mature because we were contributing to a temple construction, first time in our lives. The temple committee ran hard to resist offers. For mere $11, you could offer a brick. Now isn’t that better than even the Godfather offer, the one that you can’t refuse. In fact if I remember, so impressed I was by the sincerity and commitment of the temple committee that I sold the plan to many of my friends and appealed to the guilt in their minds and forced them to donate.

Construction did take place, we got a new façade, that made the temple look more like temple and less like church. Of course, the original walls were kept intact, the carpet from church days stayed and so did the benches in the halls. The bathrooms also remained intact as they were too scared to be remodeled, after all they were blessed by Gods of two religions. But a lot of construction did take place in the back side of the temple, the side you cannot see and the side where the temple houses its priests and other staff. Some of the atheists may find faults with that, but hey people serving God also need places to live, don’t they? And, what’s your problem, you did get your receipt and claimed tax exemption it, didn’t you?

Hinduism is not the only religion run as an organized business. Christianity and Islam have been doing it for centuries. Even though Hinduism is supposed to be the oldest religion, Christianity developed most of the business principles that then got adopted by other religions over time. But unlike Hinduism, Chritianity is run like a monopolistic, all powerful business empire, with big money and strong lobbyists in every part of the world. Any slight bit of resistance is quashed easily by all means, mostly bought by money in this day and time. Hinduism is a little less control freak and anybody and everybody is allowed to set up a shop, associate themselves with any of the hundreds of big brands from Shiva, Vishnu and Lord Hanuman to countless others. Hinduism is like Indian democracy, anybody with slight bit of ambition and entrepreneurial skills can start a part or set up a temple and secure the future of the next 7 generations of his family.

There is a positive side to organized Hindusim too. Even big brands like Tirupati or Vaishnodevi have a big volunteer side to them. Big business houses or people who believe that the almighty has been generous to them, donate lot of money and offer services to young and old, rich and poor who visit the place from far and wide. On the positive side, they don’t try to control anyone or advertize to anyone to come and visit them. The brands exist and keep growing stronger every year because of the faith in people’s heart.

Coming back to Tirupati, I didn’t mean to disrespect or hurt the feelings of the believers. I visited Tirupati once and like any other big shrine in India, Tirupati was full of devotees from far and wide who had come there on their own, without anyone telling them or advertising to them. The temple is obviously very rich, keeping in mind how much money gets offered by rich and poor and the management does an excellent job of keeping order. When I went there, I stood in a line that took 4-5 hours after which I found myself locked inside a big hall. I enquired around after finding someone who could speak Hindi and was told I was in hall number 26. There were 25 halls before me, full of people in them and our turn would come after they were done. It was almost like going to a ball game or IPL game, whichever one you like. There were vendors selling idlis and other snacks. After waiting for another 2-3 hours, I panicked, climbed the netty wall and jumped on the other side of the hall way. Two security personnel came and I requested them to just escort me out as I was no longer interested in darshanam and had to get back to Chennai, then Madras for my job next day. The security personnel showed pity on me and I was asked to get in another line that took only 3 more hours to reach the deity. I got my 3 seconds in front of the deity before I got ushered away, politely yet forcefully. Later I learned that I could have completed the whole process if I had paid some extra money and got into a different line, instead of the line for common men.

My experience of going to Vaishnodevi, was equally full of heroic tales. The hero was my newly married wife back then, because of whom I was visiting the temple for the first time in my life. She was heroic for tolerating me for the entire duration of 14 mile hike while I cribbed and whined the whole way. There it was not the wait, probably because we had gone in off season, but the sheer length of the hike to get there that made me panic.

I do not have any personal problems with religions being run as organized business, as long as they don’t turn into an organized mafia like business or try to control or kill people. I try to stay conscious of the fact that I came to the temple for a specific purpose and should not get distracted by the rampant commercialism around me. After all, they are not forcing me. They are appealing to the guilt inside me, but making the whole act very dramatic so that you end up offering more than you came planned for. But hey, that’s still better than some religions that turn people into killing machines or try to overtake people’s daily lives. Besides, organized business nature of the religion makes it accountable to the clientale in some direct or indirect form. But still, the idea of bringing Tirupati maharaj to Bay Area is a bit too ludicrous. Leave Lord Tirupati alone, please! Let people come to Him, they way always have.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: