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From Temples to Urban Dreams: India’s Shifting Landscape of Religion and Development

On January 22nd, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over a majestic unveiling ceremony for the contentious Rama Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Celebrations marking the temple’s completion reverberated in major cities across India. Governments, corporations, and educational institutions in numerous locales throughout India declared a half-day respite, the stock market shuttered its operations, and the nation nearly halted in its tracks. If the protracted dispute surrounding the Ayodhya temple, spanning nearly a century, were to be likened to a theatrical performance comprising four acts: then the initial act would entail the contention over the historical narrative surrounding the temple; the ensuing act would portray the clash between factions of Hindu nationalists during the 1990s, epitomized by the widespread ‘temple destruction and reconstruction’ campaign instigated through grassroots political mobilization; the subsequent act would chronicle the gradual departure of the Indian state apparatus from secular principles, culminating in a state-sanctioned embrace of religious affiliations; and the ongoing ‘temple development’ would constitute the crux of this dramatic denouement, Act IV. This four-act saga presents the world with an experimental paradigm delineating the incremental fusion of religious nationalism and neoliberal economic reforms. Nonetheless, it is somewhat disconcerting that this narrative not only contravenes the Gandhian socialist economic ethos cherished by the ‘old guard’ of Hindu nationalists but also deviates from the original secularist aspirations of the architects of India’s economic restructuring in 1991.

The historical maxim of ‘fostering agriculture through education and urbanization through temple construction’…

While numerous religious sects in India aspire to spiritual transcendence, clergy and sacred precincts do not exist in isolation. Yijing, a monk hailing from the Tang Dynasty, elucidated the symbiotic relationship between the Nalanda Temple in India and the agrarian endeavors that sustained the temple through monetary patronage, sustenance, and labor, in “The Biography of Nanhai Jigui Neifa”. During that epoch, besides catering to the spiritual needs of Buddhists, the Nalanda Temple also served as a pivotal institution wherein scores of non-Buddhist students imbibed knowledge, subsequently assuming bureaucratic roles. The sustenance extended to Nalanda Temple by the state, society, and devotees encompassed patronage toward educational establishments.

During the Mughal Dynasty (16th to 19th centuries), the politico-economic functions of Indian temples and religious sects assumed increasing prominence. In 1577, the Mughal emperor Akbar promulgated an edict safeguarding Vitternath and his adherents residing in Gokul Town, Mathura County, from bureaucratic interference. Vitternath, the leader of the Valappa Order, venerating the Hindu deity Krishna (deemed the eighth avatar of Vishnu), benefitted from Akbar’s decree, which granted the order tax exemptions and recognized its grassroots autonomy. Across subsequent centuries, the order accrued privileges from successive monarchs, including exemption from land taxes, utilization of pastures, and even the authority to levy commercial tariffs within delimited precincts. Consequently, it emerged as one of North India’s most influential religious factions.

The Mughal rulers’ endorsement of the Krishna faith held substantial pragmatic import. Situated in the fecund Ganges-Yamuna alluvial plain adjacent to the Mughal capital Agra, Mathura necessitated the cultivation and upkeep of farmlands in a region characterized by sultry climates and dense forests, a labor pool that was scant at the time. Further complicating matters for the rulers was the predation wrought by nomadic tribes, utilizing forests and rugged terrains to stage ambushes, pillage merchants and officials, and even mount armed insurrections against fiscal impositions. By championing the Krishna faith, amenable to Mughal suzerainty, and facilitating land reclamation and annexation by religious orders, the Mughal dynasty harnessed the twin forces of religious enlightenment and agrarianism to gradually metamorphose unruly nomadic tribes into semi-sedentary agriculturists. These erstwhile nomads evolved into a novel social stratum, the Jat caste Hindus, predominantly reliant on agrarian pursuits for sustenance. The agrarianization of these erstwhile nomads not only furnished labor for agricultural expansion but also engendered a more secure milieu conducive to commercial enterprise and trade. Consequently, Mathura and its environs burgeoned into urban centers like Vrindavan, characterized by an abundance of temples, underpinning thriving industrial and commercial economies predicated on religious pilgrimages and markets.

Contemporary endeavors in temple construction and religious community development…

The ethos of ‘utilizing education for agrarian advancement and temple construction for urban development’ in the agrarian epoch has not been obviated by the onset of modernization. Quite the contrary, the fiercely competitive religious milieu has spawned cohorts of ‘religious entrepreneurs’ adept at discerning societal currents. Since the Indian government embarked on liberalizing economic reforms in 1991, the urban bourgeoisie has burgeoned. While devout adherents may not demur from traversing labyrinthine alleyways to reach time-honored temples nestled in the old city, a sentiment echoed by their progenitors, the emergent middle class and returning expatriates may prefer journeying to the hinterlands during holidays to visit resplendent, meticulously appointed new temples ensconced in verdant environs. Furthermore, the illustrative religious literature and technologically enriched multimedia presentations proffered by more contemporary religious sects can ensnare the curiosity of middle-class progeny, simultaneously satiating parental aspirations for cultural legacy.

The Akshar Tam Temple, ensconced on the outskirts of Delhi, epitomizes such a seminal modern temple. In 2001, the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh allocated land to a branch of the Swaminarayan Order, the Akshal Purushantan Swaminarayan Sect (BAPS), headquartered in Bhogathan, Anand district, Gujarat. A tract spanning 36 hectares along the Yamuna River was earmarked for the construction of the Akshar Tam Temple. Analogous to the contemporary political landscape of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wielded authority at both the central and Uttar Pradesh governments at the time. Originating in Gujarat, the Swaminarayan Order venerates its founder, Swaminarayan, as the divine progenitor. The order’s inaugural temple, erected in 1822 in Ahmedabad, a commercial nucleus in present-day Gujarat, presaged its subsequent ascension. Among the most dynamic sects, BAPS leveraged the Indian diaspora network to propagate its precepts across East Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond since the mid-20th century, amassing considerable wealth in the process. The Akshar Tam Temple in Delhi stands as a sprawling temple complex, eclipsing its antiquated precursor in Ahmedabad both in grandeur and amenities, attracting a steady stream of devotees and tourists alike.

At the onset of the 21st century, the nascent religious group Dada Bhagavan embarked on a distinct manifestation of modern ‘religious infrastructure’ in the suburbs of Ahmedabad—procuring land to establish its own religious enclave. Assimilating tenets from Jainism and Hinduism, the Dada Bhagavan Order erected a religious community predicated on the veneration of the 24th Tirdankara, Heman, a figure espousing salvation in Jain theology. Dubbed Dahl, the community exhorts adherents to relocate to Himandal city, fostering proximity to their spiritual mentors and brethren. Over the past two decades, this sect, anchored by the mercantile middle class, has painstakingly fashioned a holistic community centered around temples and monastic abodes. Apart from erecting venues for collective devotions and ancillary amenities such as lodgings and eateries, the religious faction spearheaded the development of villas, apartments, and commercial edifices for adherents and their enterprises. Bolstered by Gujarat’s rapid economic growth, real estate ventures spawned by religious community construction have conferred substantial dividends upon religious factions and adherents, fortifying faith, augmenting economic clout, and amplifying societal sway, thereby beckoning devotees from across India and beyond to embark on pilgrimages, worship, and property acquisition.

‘New wine in old bottles’ tested in Ayodhya

Although they all involved the construction of temples and supporting facilities, the above-mentioned cases were all developed on wasteland allocated or purchased by the government. However, the Rama Temple in Ayodhya was violently demolished in 1992 by a Hindu right-wing organization mobilizing a large number of volunteers. It was built on the basis of the Babri Mosque built during the Mughal Dynasty. Although this seems to reproduce the religious and political violence in Indian history of “destroying the temples of the previous dynasty to establish the power of the current king”, India’s political and economic changes since the 21st century and the experience of “modern religious infrastructure” that have been successfully tested in the outer suburbs have given “demolition” The new operating logic of “Building Temples and Building Temples” is a path that puts violence first and uses religious infrastructure to drive urban economic development.

After India’s independence, the Muslim community developed slowly and even lagged behind the Dalit group at the bottom of the caste system. A series of sectarian conflicts in North India in the 1980s and 1990s led to a vicious cycle – Muslim industries were suppressed, and the community gradually moved out of mixed-sectarian communities and moved to Muslim areas mostly located in old cities. The modernization process The setback has accelerated the resurgence of religious conservatism in the community, and coupled with the problem of poverty, it has led to a general lack of investment in education among the community, which in turn has weakened the competitiveness of the next generation of Muslims in entering school and finding jobs, further causing the community to lag behind in development. However, the lagging development of the Muslim community, the polarization between rich and poor, caste discrimination and other phenomena that seem to be detrimental to the development of the Indian country may actually be conducive to the formation of “Hindu identity developmentalism.” Vulnerable groups in Indian society, including Muslims, generally lack a say in the distribution of wealth and power, but they can continuously provide cheap labor to India’s domestic and foreign markets, thereby helping India develop industrial infrastructure or earn large amounts of remittances, while also helping India maintain low prices. The urban service industry reduces the cost of living for the white-collar middle class. All these will help India maintain or even enhance its industrial competitiveness.

Not only that, as the economy develops and the urban landscape changes with each passing day, the contrast between the poverty, backwardness, and powerlessness of the Muslim population in the old city and the increasing commercial value of the land in Muslim areas has become increasingly apparent. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was certainly not a well-planned real estate development plan, but as more and more signs show that India’s increasingly mature “religious-political-industrial complex” has the ability and willingness to include Akshar Minar After transplanting the experience of “modern religious infrastructure” including the Mt. At the expense of the group, they obtained old urban land with considerable development value.

However, the “depressed” cost of land through sectarian conflict may not have actually reduced development spending on the Rama temple and surrounding areas. Many critics in India have pointed out that the trust institution established by the central government acquires land at a high premium through middlemen, and many of the people who receive excess returns are political and religious elites related to the Indian Party. Although there are different opinions on the details, it is not surprising that collusion between politics and business occurs in large-scale infrastructure projects. However, compared with large-scale livelihood infrastructure, “religious infrastructure” that can quickly attract a large number of people, receive generous support, and promote the development of surrounding industries combined with the reduced land acquisition cost of religious violence can indeed provide a more complex exchange of interests. Wide space.

Central government-dominated Ayodhya is not necessarily the end of the experiment, but may be setting a dangerous precedent for local political elites inside and outside the BJP. Since Modi came to power in 2014, a series of measures such as the demonetization order (2016) and the goods and services tax (GST) reform (2017) implemented by the central government have weakened the financial strength of local governments and political elites. The expansion of the infrastructure business of large consortiums that have strong support from the central government has a strong impact on local political and business interest alliances. Amid the wave of celebrations for the unveiling of the Rama temple, slogans calling for the demolition of two controversial mosques in Varanasi and Mathura, taking into account the Ayodhya experience, have resurfaced. However, what supports this slogan today may no longer be mainly religious nationalist fanaticism, but the Indian political and business elites who are looking forward to shining growth data, the international capital market, and political elites at all levels who are fiercely competing for cheap land and labor. and a strong desire for extra-system transaction space.

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