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Last year, when it was announced that a treasure worth some $20 billion was found in vaults beneath the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, India, observers around the world wondered how it got there and what would become of it. The New Yorker sent a reporter to find out and the result is a fascinating account (subscription required) in this week's issue not only of Indian history and politics but also a completely foreign (to Westerners anyway) perspective on charity and wealth.

How the wealth got there involved not only the deep devotion of Hindu followers, giving what little money they had to the god Vishnu, whom they believe resides within the temple walls. It was also the result of conquests by previous rulers of the area who looted the purses of the vanquished. And finally it was the result of a political arrangement in which the royal family who were custodians of the temple were  compensated for their loss of power when India became a modern state.

After chronicling this story and the extraordinary poverty of the area in which the temple is located, author Jake Halpern has a conversation with a local Christian shopkeeper about what should be done with the money. "It is necessary that we use the money for the well-being of the public," he tells Halpern. But he cautions that he is a "socialist" and so has a different perspective. The Hindus, he warns Halpern, have a much different reaction. He speaks with the shopkeeper's son, Ganesh, who is Hindu, and who gives any money he can -- even just a few cents -- to the Hindu god. He believes the wealth should remain in the temple. The conversation begins like this:

"Wouldn't it be a good thing, I asked, if the deity's wealth were used to help people? By that logic, Ganesh said, valuable objects should also be removed from churches and mosques." Is this underground treasure the equivalent of the adornments of other religious institutions. Perhaps Ganesh is right that this is a different of degree not of kind. But more and more churches are under some pressure in the modern era to scale down their decoration, lest is seem like they care more about their appearances than they care about people in need.

Ganesh goes on to say that he thinks if the money were given to the public somehow, it would be misused. He explains, "If the government takes hold of the temple's wealth, they will loot it." And the record of corruption in the Indian government suggests that Ganesh's suspicions might be correct. The only faction in India that seems to agree the money should be distributed by the government are the local Communist party leaders. Even they are reluctant to say so publicly, however, since they would risk losing the support of the Hindu population.

Can it really be better to leave $20 billion in the ground than to distribute it to people in need? In an ideal world there would be some legitimate plan to put the money to use in ways that would help people to fish -- give them an education, training, build the kind of infrastructure for clean water, help them build businesses, etc. But who would do this? It seems that Hindu temples and their caretakers are not exactly used to acting as the equivalent of religious nonprofits distributing funds to the poor, certainly not the way we think of such organizations in the West. Maybe Mother Teresa's mission can open up a branch in Trivandrum?

The whole situation seems like it must be a hypothetical out of some college ethics textbook. But now there are even suspicions that other temples in India may possess similar stashes. India may be a real-life test of whether vast wealth can in fact provide a real solution to extreme poverty.

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