God's Golden Hoard

Discoveries in an Indian temple confirm that religion can be a very effective wealth creation scheme

"If you want to get rich," advised L. Ron Hubbard, "start a religion". Today's news from Kerala, that archaeologists investigating the long-neglected vaults of the Thiruvananthapuram temple have unearthed treasures worth up to £12 billion, suggests that his maxim wasn't simply a reflection of 20th century cynicism. God has long been where the money is.

The Indian temple's treasuries haven't yet been fully explored, but already they have yielded up tons of gold coins, sacks overpouring with diamonds and rubies, and spectacular individual items including a six-metre long necklace. Kerala chief secretary K Jayakumar estimated the total value at 500 billion rupees (around £7 billion); while other sources put it at more than $23 billion. No-one really knows, of course, and such figures are highly speculative. But it's certainly an awful lot.

The treasure represents the accumulation of centuries. The temple dates back to at least the 8th century and for many years was under the protection of the royal dynasty of Travancore. Its position at the hub of trade routes helped it grow rich with the offerings of passing merchants and wealthy pilgrims. Much of the wealth, though, seems to have been locked away and forgotten about until a recent decision of the Indian Supreme Court ordered the contents to be itemised and secured.

Though the quoted sums may equal the entire Indian education budget, there seems little prospect of a sell-off. This is sacred treasure, after all, not just loot. The hoard may make the temple of Thiruvananthapuram officially the country's richest, but there are several others whose wealth is known to run into billions of dollars and many more whose precise holdings remain unclear.

It has also just been revealed that the guru Sai Baba -- best known for his Afro hairstyle and for performing a conjuring trick with "sacred ash" -- left behind property worth around £5.5bn when he died in April. The world's richest Christian pastor, by contrast -- Nigeria's Bishop David Oyedepo -- has to make do with a paltry $150 million, although that is enough to keep him in four private jets as well as homes in London and the United States.

In scenes strangely similar to those in Kerala, officials at Sai Baba's ashram recently decided to investigate the guru's private chambers, previously off-limits to everyone bar himself and a single assistant who alone understood the security. They found treasures of £1.6 million in rupees and 98 kilos in gold, worth almost £3 million at today's prices. But that represented only a small part of his accumulated wealth from what Gethin Chamberlain tartly described as "a lifetime of claiming to be the incarnation of God."

But why single out India? We may be accustomed to drawing a sharp distinction between things spiritual and temporal, between filthy lucre and religious transcendence, but for long as temples have existed they have proved effective as money magnets. Some economic historians argue that organised religion began as a mechanism for collecting and redistributing resources. The gods, like middlemen everywhere, would have taken their cut.

Jesus may have told the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but the Christian churches have rarely applied that stricture to themselves. Instead, the wealthy were encouraged to ease their passage through the eye of the needle by giving (or at least leaving) their money to God. It was an offer many kings, aristocrats and bankers felt unable to refuse. Some of the results are currently on show at the British Museum's aptly titled Treasures of Heaven exhibition. Featured are bejewelled boxes, golden crosses, gilded disembodied limbs and other striking pieces of medieval bling, all designed to contain the saintly bones and other relics that for centuries formed a vital element in popular and elite religion.

As Martina Bagnoli points out in one of the essays in the catalogue accompanying the show, the precious reliquaries were not simply containers of spiritual treasures whose value was unquantifiable, they were also ways of storing up material wealth. In Mainz, a solid gold cross weighing 600lb was made in 983. Bits of it were chopped off and melted down during various emergencies over the following two centuries. By 1161 there was nothing left.

But other sacred treasures have been better preserved, and while no-one has (so far as I know) tried to put a value on every cathedral, artwork, statue and piece of real estate owned by the various parts of the Roman Catholic Church it would surely dwarf even that of the Thiruvananthapuram temple. Or, for that matter, the estimated $30 billion assets of the Utah-based Mormon Church. An even bigger -- and probably impossible -- job would be to establish what proportion of the world's tangible wealth is held by religious organisations of every kind.

After all, it pays to invest for the long term. And you can't get much longer-term than eternity.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump