Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala is a prominent religious destination nestled in Karnataka’s Western Ghats in the district of Dakshina Kannada. What makes this holy place unique is the synthesis it brings among the people of different religions, standing tall as a beacon of secularism at a time when the society is deeply polarised.

The holy place is deeply revered by the Hindus as much as it is by the Jains. Lord Manjunatha or Shiva is the presiding deity of the temple, believed to have been established over 600 years ago. Interestingly, the daily poojas and ceremonies are conducted by Vaishnavaite Brahmins, who are worshipers of Vishnu and not Shiva. The temple itself is managed by a Jain family, the Heggades.

While a 39-feet tall statue of Bahubali lords over the bustling town, the Chandranatha Swami basadi attracts Jain pilgrims from across the country. Dharmasthala is truly a confluence of religious faiths and traditions where every visitor is provided with free food and shelter without having to face any discrimination.

Spiritual hub to one of social change

With time, Dharmashtala has metamorphosed itself from a hub of spirituality to a catalyst for social change and economic empowerment. The head of the temple, Dr D Veerendra Heggade, reverentially called Dharmadhikari, is not only seen as the earthly representative of Lord Manjunatha himself, but as the saviour of dharma, the dispenser of justice, a humanitarian and a philanthropist.

Heggade has patented a distinctive model of inclusive and sustainable development based on self-reliance, which is popularly called Heggadenomics for its focus on the basic needs of the people through community-based welfare schemes. The ideas are not taken out of any textbook, but evolved over a period of time, mostly through trial-and-error, based on a thorough understanding of the harsh reality of economic inequalities in rural areas. Heggade was recently conferred with the Padma Vibhushan and nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

Dhamrasthala, a Mantra of Development by senior journalist and writer Nagesh Prabhu not only delves into the history of this unusual pilgrim destination, but also documents the socio-economic development, societal reforms, educational programmes and the uplift of women that the temple administration has brought about.

While this well researched book presents a comprehensive picture of the ‘Dharmasthala Model’, the author does not gloss over the various controversies that the Heggade family found itself embroiled in over time.

Barrage of protests

The most recent one was the rape and murder of a 17-year college student, Sowjanya, with an accusing finger being pointed at a member of the Dharmadikari’s family. The Heggades had to face a barrage of protests, ironically from some local Hindu organisations, until they were given a clean chit by the state’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

This, no doubt, came as a temporary setback for the family which had transformed Dharmasthala with secularism, socialism and welfarism as the bedrock of development, but Heggade surged ahead undeterred.

Heggade heads over 100 institutions in diverse fields across Karnataka. Among them, two flagship institutions — Shree Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project and Rural Development and Self-Employment Training Institute — have been specifically set up to give voice to the voiceless and facilitate social and economic inclusion. In the past four decades, they have touched the lives of millions of people cutting across caste and religious barriers. Heggade does not believe in the one-size-fits-all approach and all his programmes are tailor-made to suit local requirements.

Both these programmes, according to the book, have transformed many youth from job seekers to job creators through entrepreneurial training and financial aid — nearly 75 per cent of young beneficiaries have launched their own starttups.

These institutions have played a vital role in replacing moneylenders and have offered institutional support to self help groups, scholarships for students and pension to the destitute.

Dharmasthala model

Unlike the concept of trickle-down effect that both central and state governments have adopted, the ‘Dharmasthala Model of Development’ relies on the bottom-up approach that envisages ensuring socio-economic justice not by giving alms, but by economically empowering the poor, particularly women.

There is perhaps no sector that has been left untouched by Heggade be it education, housing, health, naturopathy, farming, banking, mass marriage, de-addiction, total sanitation, alternative energy, dairying or insurance. The manner in which Heggade converted a sleepy pilgrim spot into a powerhouse of social service over a period of four decades, is unbelievable.

The story of Dharmasthala which is vividly brought out in the book could be a model to emulate not only for other prominent temples, but for the government too. Eminent jurist Nani Palkihivala was so impressed with the scale of Heggade’s work, that he had exclaimed, “The world needs a Dharmasthala in every country.” Dharmasthala is truly an example of how society can be transformed through enlightened leadership, compassion and selfless service to humanity. India needs many more Veerendra Heggades.

Author: Nagesh Prabhu
Publisher: Manipal Universal Press, Manipal
Rs 850

Check out the book on Amazon.