Property disputes of many religious institutions are pending in courts and cases of murder of some chiefs or heirs have also come to the fore.

New Delhi: My journalism started in 1968 after meeting the sages who had come to the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain. I started as a part-time correspondent for the Hindustan News Agency, and used to only receive payment for sending news by post and telegram. After listening to the knowledge and discourses of Shankaracharya and many other sages and saints, it was a pleasure to write news and see them printed in newspapers.
There was no television back then. Yes, the news of Kumbh used to come on Akashvani (Radio). At that time too, there were many foreign hippies or some people who were attracted by Indian religious fairs. But in fifty years, the glory of the empire of India›s sages, religious gurus, ashrams has reached every part of the world. Dhirendra Brahmachari and Mahesh Yogi luckily came out of Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, and their ashrams were established everywhere even in the rich countries of the world.
In recent years, gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev have also been expanding India›s religious cultural influence with yoga and meditation across many countries of the world. Therefore, everyone has started paying attention to the religious power of the monasteries and akhadas of the country. After the tragic incident of alleged suicide or murder of Mahant Narendra Giri of Akhara Parishad in Prayag, the details of several thousand crore rupees of property, land, etc, have been made public. The investigation of the incident has now been handed over to the CBI. This is not the only case. The property disputes of many such religious institutions are pending in the courts and cases of murder of some chiefs or heirs have also come to the fore.
With all these episodes going on, the curiosity has been continuously increasing to know about what has been the tradition of Akharas and monasteries. Adi Shankaracharya made provision for the branches of sadhus in the eighth century. Among them Giri, Puri, Bharati, Tirtha, Van, Aranya, Parvat, Ashraya, Samar and Saraswati were prominent.
Adi Shankara established four monasteries for the Dasnami sect—the Atharveda-based Jyotirmath at Badrikashram in the north, the Yajurveda-based Sarada Math at Sringeri in the south, the Rigveda-based Govardhan Math at Jagannath Puri in the east, and the Samaveda-based Kalika Math at Dwarka in the west. It is true that these were made to spread knowledge of the oldest Veda texts of Hinduism. The Akhara tradition started before 1750 to protect Sanatan Dharma.
The branches of the 13 Akhadas of the country were established in many cities including Prayag, Ujjain, Varanasi, Haridwar, Nashik, Triyambak, Udaipur and to facilitate their establishment, the society and the government have been always making consistent effort by providing land and Ashram. In the Indian Income and Wealth Tax Rules Act, religious institutions are completely exempted from tax. This provision is not only for the institutions of the Hindu religion but also for all the institutions associated with Sikh, Jain, Islam, Christian and Buddhist religions.
Due to this, the income and property of these religious monasteries, ashrams, Akharas, and institutions have become worth thousands of crores. Some institutions also contributed towards the spread of religion and education, and the sadhus are following society traditions. The great sages remained in a dispassionate spirit, but in many places, there were serious disputes regarding the heirs and property.
For a few years, the disciples were creating controversy over the rights of properties of the Baghambri Math of Mahant Narendra Giri. The property details are astounding. The monastery is on five to six bighas of land. The Niranjani Akhada attached to it has a school and a cowshed along with the land. He also has a Hanuman temple at Sangam Tat in Prayag. There are more than one hundred bighas of land in Manda attached to Prayag and four hundred bighas in Mirzapur.
Mahant Narendra Giri has 140 bighas of land in two villages adjoining Mirzapur, 250 bighas of land in Ujjain and Omkareshwar near Niranjani Akhara, and half a dozen monasteries and a dozen ashrams. Nashik has one hundred bighas of land, twelve ashrams, and temples. There are also 125 bighas of land, a dozen temples, and ashrams in Vadodara, Jaipur and Mount Abu. There are more than twelve Math temples in Haridwar. There is also temple land in Gautam Buddha Nagar Noida.
Generally, there is no investigation of all these, yet when disputes arise, it is found that properties worth several thousand crores belong to such monasteries and ashrams. No government dared to levy any kind of tax on such property and unaccounted income. That›s why many people associated with Math Ashrams try to take them over.
Many social workers and economic experts have been suggesting that temples and ashrams have been built for the spread of knowledge in Indian culture, then why their income and wealth should not be used for educational institutions. Or, those who have a lot of income, why aren’t they using it to help people? Somehow minimum tax should be imposed on them. There have been protests over the government’s control over religious temples and trusts. Only the present government without hurting religious sentiments can come up with ideas of taking out money from these institutions for social and educational purposes. The work of removing old buildings on a large scale for the beautification of the vast area adjoining the Vishwanath temple complex of Varanasi was not possible by any other government. Similarly, the government and the leaders associated with them can play an important role in resolving religious establishments from controversies and connecting them with social service.

The writer is editorial director of ITV- India News and Aaj Samaj Dainik.