Toilets, Temples, Modi and Development
by Senthil on 07 Oct 2013 52 Comments

Some months ago, this writer met a regional co-ordinator of an NGO which focuses on sanitation in rural areas. During the course of a casual conversation, he complained that each village family spends more than Rs. 10,000 for festivals annually, but is not ready to spend Rs. 3000 for building a toilet. The writer felt outraged at this linking of toilets and the celebration of divinities.


Anyway, one asked if the toilet system his NGO was promoting was water intensive, and if so, how were village people to manage the water, when they had to struggle daily to get their drinking water from public taps. The gentleman had no answer.


Most NGOs and persons who speak on the issue of sanitation operate on the basis of urban stereotypes, without any real understanding of our society or the issues it faces. More importantly, running NGOs is an easy way to build a career and it is rewarding to continue upholding the stereotypes rather than to seek genuine solutions.


But when a prime ministerial candidate speaks the same stereotypes, it is a matter of grave concern. At the finale of a youth gathering, Manthan, in Delhi recently, Narendra Modi stated that we (Indians) have to build toilets first and then temples later. As reported in the media, he said, “I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is - pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya” (toilet first, temple later).


The statement sent tremors of dismay all over what may be regarded as Narendra Modi’s “natural constituency”. The utterly cavalier fashion in which the Gujarat Chief Minister juxtaposed toilets with temples with an eye to score secular brownie points, shook the confidence of all who hoped he would shatter the tentacles of the entrenched anti-Hindu ethos of the Nehruvian State system. Instead, he played along.


Clearly, Narendra Modi does not understand either the concept of temples or the concept of personal hygiene (sauch) in our civilisation. He seems to have surrendered himself completely to the Western framework of sanitation, as programmes in Gujarat suggest. 


True, the pressure of population, growing urbanization, and the absence of open spaces has made and is now making toilets a rural imperative. But before we move to condemn a whole nation, we must understand the system we are trying to overturn. Are we merely trying to ape the West, or counter criticism from the West, or are we interested in improving the quality of life of our people in conformity with the new social reality of their lives?  


In the West, society wants people to dress properly, regardless of whether or not they have taken a bath. But in our dharmic civilisation, personal hygiene, cleanliness, mental purity, and kula acharams are the parameters within which a person must function. Here, the need to maintain personal cleanliness is more important than personal comfort. Hence, traditionally, people preferred to perform their ablutions in places far away from home, even if it involved discomfort. The toilet system has long been alien to rural India; people hated defecating in confined spaces, having to bear the bad smell.


The sastras prescribed strict rules on how to defecate. Manu Smriti says one has to roll out his sacred threads and put them on the right ear, and look at the sky while defecating. Manu Smriti Vishnu Purana gives guidelines regarding the distance to be maintained from a water source, a river, a temple, while urinating or defecating. There are several rules regarding the direction to look, and how to clean oneself after defecation. While rules may differ in different sastras, the core idea is same - defecation has to be done in the open, and far away from home, temple, rivers and water source.


Scientifically, it has been established that toilets are breeding place of germs, more than any other part of the house. The toilet tap has the highest concentration of germs. 


More pertinently, the western toilet system is water intensive and totally unsustainable in the Indian reality. Each flushing of the toilet takes at least 10 litres of water. An average person thus consumes around 50 litres of water for toilet alone. A family of four needs around 200 litres of water daily for toilets alone. For 25 crore families of India, one would 50 billion litres of water daily. Does India have it?


Already in villages, there is water scarcity. In my own village, people buy water for drinking and cooking in summer, when the bore wells go dry.


More pertinently, the water used in toilets is flushed into septic tanks, where it remains stagnant for years and become poisonous. When the tank is full, the water and solid waste are drained into the rivers and water sources. Toilet water forms the bulk of sewage discharged by major cities and towns. Is this sanitation? Our holy rivers, the Ganga and Yamuna, are virtually sewage dumps today, and if there is no fresh water from the Himalayas, all these wastes would stagnate there and devastate the metros.


Septic tanks are one of the largest breeding grounds of mosquitoes, leading to spread of germs. They also emit greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. Imagine, crores of such systems emitting methane on a daily basis.


A major question which none of those who advocate the toilet system will answer is – who will clean all the toilets being built?


Construction and NGO lobbies are using the sanitation propaganda for their own interests. NGOs in particular are using this route to dump foreign funding in India for all manner of purposes, one of which is conversion.




Urbanisation is destroying our dharmic civilisation. After 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru who claimed to be last Englishman to rule India, unleashed a massive westernisation programme, of which urbanisation was a part. Most Hindu intellectuals mistakenly believe that as Indian civilisation also had Nagaras in the past, urbanisation is not wrong. But the urban system of the west is not same as the Nagara of our civilisation, and villages of the west are not the same as the Gramas of our country. The wrongful equation of western concepts with Indian concepts has led to the devastation of our dharmic society.


Grama is the permanent living place in our traditional society. Nagara is an administrative capital, and people come to the nagara on a temporary basis for trade and not for permanent settlement. A typical grama had all the facilities needed for the people, and even today we can find at least a dozen different jatis living in a grama practicing different occupations.


The nagara and grama are not an ever-expanding entity. The Nagara is designed within a fixed boundary. Protective deities (usually male gods, eg Karuppanar and Muneeswaran in Tamil Nadu) are installed at the borders of the grama and nagara and other temples at the center. In our civilisation, these gods protect the people living there and these gods are still worshipped as kula devata.


Within a nagara and grama, different jatis live in their own colony, with their own god or goddess which they worship regularly. The King would build a magnificent temple (Shiva temple, Vishnu temple and the temple for the king’s kula devata) at the center of nagara. When the population increases, new gramas & nagaras are created rather than mindlessly expanding the current one, as we are doing today.


These indigenous civilisational designs are completely ignored by the policy designers of our country. Our Hindu Intellectuals utterly failed to understand these aspects, and there has been no indigenous research on any of our civilisational designs.   


For six decades, the western urban system has been indiscriminately built over our well designed Indian nagaras and gramas, continuously expanding by destroying and engulfing the villages in the periphery. The protective border deities, and the gods of each jati settlement (Sthana Devata) and the grama devata all become unwanted street temples in the new westernised urban center. Later, in the name of development, these street temples are demolished on the order of the Indian Judiciary. (When Modi destroyed more than 300 temples in Gandhinagar in the name of development, there is high possibility that those deities were once the protective gods of villages destroyed for urban expansion.

(See Radha Rajan &


Open Spaces


Open defecation is never a problem in a typical grama environment. People go to nearby fields and the waste is automatically decomposed within a day or two. Traditionally, the villagers dig pit in the fields, defecate and close them with soil. The problem arises only when this grama structure is destroyed to expand the city, and all open space is colonised for commercial purposes.


As in all propaganda against our dharmic society, here too, the victim is accused by the perpetrator. Urban India which accuses villagers of being unhygienic, ignores the fact that it has colonised the villagers’ land.


Another reason for the problem of defecation is the collapse of the traditional Grama Panchayat, which regulated the daily administration of villages. Before 1947, every grama was a self-governing autonomous entity, with rights to regulate their own land. They religiously protected the forest land within and around their villages through collective decisions.


But westernised urban India paralyzed the functioning of the traditional grama panchayats and deprived rural people of the power to regulate themselves. Thus open space within the grama became prone to occupation by both insiders and outsiders. Dharampal, in his book “Panchayat Raj”, explains the existence of two kind of panchayats in the gramas of Rajasthan during the 1960s. One, the Sarkar Panchayat, which is run for name’s sake, and the other the traditional Panchayat where all important decisions are taken. This latter is now most probably extinct, thanks to the tsunami of globalisation.


UN standards


The present sanitation programme is not designed by Indians for Indian needs, but defined by the United Nations as a Universal Standard of development, which is being foisted on every nation. An illusion is created that if there is no toilet, there is no sanitation. A casual analysis of current toilet system, however, shows it is the most unhygienic entity in the world, and spreads germs and diseases rather than open defecation.


Toilet and Women


An emotional point raised by Narendra Modi in support of the toilet system is that it is humiliating to women to defecate in public. His concerns are right, but his understanding of the issue is wrong. The issue here is about privacy for women and not about the toilet system.  Women in villages have no issues with open defecation as long as they have a private space. That calls for an appropriate village design. And it is cheaper and healthier than forcing them to build individual toilets.


Open defecation is not suitable to the European climate, where decomposition is not easy. Hence they need to build toilets for protection from the weather and for sanitation. Our traditional system was based on our environmental situation.


Indus Valley Civilisation


Many urban Hindus often cite the Indus valley civilisation to claim we had toilets in that remote era, but there is no proper substantiation for this. The photographs available indicate only bathrooms and not toilets. If indeed toilets were part of the Indus Valley civilisation, why were they not present in latter day nagaras? Kautilya in Arthasastra provides a detailed account of how a nagara should be designed, but never mentions toilets there. Similarly, all major nagaras of the pre-Islamic period, had no toilet system.


Nor do we find references to toilets in our Itihasas like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Our gods Rama and Sita did not build toilets in forests; nor they build toilets in their palaces. Our people who built magnificent temples, did not build magnificent toilets. Why?


The entire history of the world has been written on the basis of the western thought framework. Civilisation is also defined according to the western paradigm. Big buildings, drainages, sewages, and other infrastructure are the benchmarks of this definition. In contrast, in our dharmic system, personal hygiene, conduct, and simple living are the benchmarks of civilisation. The term kalacharam itself denotes the “Acharams” that everyone follows, and not the buildings or palaces. But urban India which inherited unlimited absolute power from the British, sees everything from the western perspective and frames policies that are hostile to our traditional life style. 


Toilets or Temples


Now we come to the core question. Which is important for us - toilet, as urban Indians demand, or temples that traditional society gives priority to?


Again, it is a matter of perspective. Urban Indians see temples as a place of worship at par with a church or mosque. But Indian tradition views the temple as the place where the Deva / Devi resides. The whole grama / Nagara belongs to the Deva and Devi who protects the people living in her place. In the Ramayana, when Hanuman lands in Lanka, it is the Lankadevi who fights him and is defeated by him. Even in our recent history, the Travancore ruler announced that his entire kingdom belongs to Sri Padmanabha Swami.


There is an inherent consciousness in our traditional society that the deity of the grama and nagara is supreme and hence it is a foremost duty to conduct the poojas and rituals to the grama devata as per established schedule. This consciousness was undermined by the colonial administration which introduced the concept of private land ownership 200 years ago. Hence the urban centres consider land as private entity, and urban Indians think toilets are more important than temples or divinities.


Modi’s attitude more damaging than his words


Whether Narendra Modi has insulted Hindu sentiments is not the issue. But the attitude he conveys is a matter of concern. Modi is conveying a message that human comfort is supreme and gods and temples are secondary and take second place. This is a western capitalistic mindset that is very dangerous. It creeps into the mind insidiously and destroys society and nation from within.

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