Universal Translator

Friday, July 8, 2011

You Lose the Right to Your Treasure When You Lock it Away

I came across this amazing story last night in the Asia Times Online about the discovery of $22 billion worth of treasure in an Indian temple -- and what should be done with it.  As Raja Murthy puts it, the question presented is:  "Who owns this ancient wealth of the gods:  priests or the people?"

As I understand it, a legal dispute arose a year or so ago about whether the priests currently charged with caring for the 9th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandarum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, were doing so properly.  In an effort to resolve the dispute, the Supreme Court ordered that an inventory of the temple's holdings be taken.  This involved -- among other things -- opening up temple vaults that had been sealed for over 130 years.  Although temple records indicated that some treasure was contained in the vaults, nobody knew how much treasure was there or of what it consisted.  I can only imagine what went through the mind of the guy who turned the key to find:
over a ton of gold, sacks of diamonds and precious stones; gold necklaces over three meters long and weighing over 2.5 kilograms, gold crowns, thousands of pieces of antique jewelry, idols, and artifacts studded with diamonds and emeralds.

* * *

It easily displaces the Vatican, estimated to own about $15 billion in wealth, and the Tirupati temple, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, with about $11 billion of worldly properties.

Antique collectors' valuation of the find, to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, could be over $100 billion.

(emphasis added)

Of course, the temple priests are insisting that the treasure belongs to them, or at least should remain in their keeping -- after all, all of this wealth was donated to the temple for the gods so, y'know, who else would it belong to?

But as Murthy goes on to note "[t]he increasing clamor is for the treasure to be used similarly for welfare of the many.  The Mubai-based Times of India edition of July 5 calculated that the Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure would meet India's entire education budget for the next two-and-a-half years.

Count me firmly on the side of those who would take this windfall and put it to use for the Indian people.

* * *

Look, I get that this stuff was donated to the temple and -- notwithstanding that I do not regard myself as a religious person -- I would certainly not denigrate the important aesthetic benefit provided by places of sanctity and holiness.  Had this stuff actually been put to use by the temple to exalt their gods, then I would never be among those arguing that it should be stripped and slagged down and put to more mundane purposes.

But the priests did not do that.  Entrusted with the care of a great fortune, donated for the greater glory of the gods and indirectly (as Murthy also points out) for the benefit of the people, the priests of this temple locked the loot up in some vaults and forgot they even had it.

I'm sorry, but that abdication of responsibility for this treasure means to me that the priests don't get to keep it. Money is the life blood of an economy, but it only works if it circulates. Spending this fortune on education, or infrastructure, or any of an infinite number of other uses for India itself, for its citizens, should outstrip whatever claim the priests might make on what really can only be described as a windfall -- a windfall for which the priests did not look and to which they should not be entitled.

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