I can't say that I was surprised on hearing the news about a temple dedicated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the second of its kind, being built in Meerut. Disappointed but not surprised.
The first temple, which was built in 2014, removed Modi's idol when he publicly disapproved of it and said: "This is shocking and against India's great traditions. Building such temples is not what our culture teaches us… If you have time and resources, please devote the same towards fulfilling our dream of a Clean India."
The construction of the temple cost Rs 7 lakh and had a small idol (which was covered by Ramesh Undhad, who donated funds for temple building, when he realised that he had "hurt the sentiments of our God"). The new temple is set to cost around Rs 10 crore and proposes a 100-feet statue of Modi. The Prime Minister's silence this time makes one wonder if his disapproval of his idol and support for a Clean India the first time around was merely a PR exercise or damage control after a recent election win.
One wonders what a Modi bhakt will pray for in his temple. GST reduction? Exile of Rohingyas? Uniform Civil Code? Reservations? No more demonetisations?
Indians are already reeling under the pressure of worshipping 33 crore gods and goddesses so it's strange that they turn their living icons into gods too (maybe that's how we got to 33 crore in the first place). In a country as poor as ours, fame or political power wields an extraordinary pull which is why India has a number of weird temples where the line between sycophancy and devotion is blurred.
One wonders what a Modi bhakt will pray for in his temple. GST reduction? Exile of Rohingyas? Uniform Civil Code?
There's the temple dedicated to Sonia Gandhi in Telangana's Mahbubnagar and a temple for Amitabh Bachchan in Kolkata (the head priest apparently recites an "Amitabh Chalisa"… one wonders if Panama finds a mention in it). The former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, late Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, has a temple dedicated to him in Chennai. M Karunanidhi, a self-declared atheist, has a temple to his name in Tamil Nadu's Vellore district. There's a Sachin Tendulkar temple in Bihar. Fans of actress Khushboo made a temple for her in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, but razed it to the ground after she spoke in favour of pre-marital sex (it's almost like we want our gods to have the worldview of a regressive landlord). A Mayawati temple never materialised.
These temples reveal a peculiar Indian trait of prostrating before anyone we like. While history is replete with stories of rulers who wanted to make monuments dedicated to themselves, it boggles the mind why in the 21st century we Indians are so preoccupied with making monuments dedicated to the living. Until a human life is complete, we have no way of knowing if the person we revere is going to disappoint us or not. So why elevate these icons to the level of gods?
There's a temple dedicated to Sonia Gandhi in Telangana's Mahbubnagar.
As a teenager I became disenchanted with Hinduism and turned an atheist precisely because of its obsession with idolatry. It is well accepted that these idols are only used as a symbol of spiritual ideas or the embodiment of the divine. They were used as a means to focus one's religious pursuits and worship (bhakti) but somewhere down the line we started to mistake the idols' embodiment of the divine with the divine itself. Even bhakti, which used to indicate devotion, has in the modern parlance come to mean blind devotion. With the message getting muddled, it is no wonder that conmen masquerading as spiritual gurus are running rife and temples dedicated to celebrities and political leaders keep springing up.
One of my favourite writers, Will Self, had grappled with the question of religion and specifically the perils of believing holy text in his novel The Book of Dave. In Self's novel, an angry and mentally ill London taxi driver named Dave Rudman maintains a journal of his ranting against women and thoughts on custody rights for fathers. These stem from his anger with his ex-wife, Michelle, who he believes is unfairly keeping him away from his son. Dave buries the book, which is discovered centuries later and used as the sacred text for a dogmatic, cruel, and misogynistic religion that takes hold in the remnants of southern England and London following catastrophic flooding. The future portions of the novel cover the period from 523 AD (After Dave).
I found the book interesting because it asks an important question: what if everything we know about religion (any religion) is just an elaborate game of Chinese Whispers? Self said that he was inspired to write the book after having read The Bible Unearthed, a text that shows how archaeological discoveries imply that large elements of the Old Testament have no basis in historical reality whatsoever. He intended to suggest imaginatively that revealed religion is a necessary function of state formation, and that the content of this or that holy book is irrelevant, compared to what people make of it.
I find it hard to believe that any religious text wasn't tampered with and doesn't further the cause of a select few when I watch history being rewritten before my eyes in the 21st century. When it is possible to do so in the modern era despite computers and satellites by calling the real fake and the fake real then is it not possible that this could have happened in the past?
What if like the book of Dave, even our sacred text was just the opinion of one man which we took literally and are now shaping our society on? What if the temples where we go to worship gods are in fact just monuments dedicated to the Modis and Gandhis of an earlier era? You may laugh now at this possibility but the people who worship a 100-feet statue in Meerut, hundreds of years from now, may have a different opinion.