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India Coin Portrays Hindu Deity
By Richard Giedroy, World Coin News
January 16, 2014

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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The separation of church and state isn’t isolated to religion and politics in the United States. And, since the images on coins have been used for propaganda purposes almost as long as there have been coins, the subjects selected to appear on coins can have an agenda that can also intertwine church and state.

This mix of politics and religion is the question now being raised in India, where a recent 5-rupee coin on which the Hindu deity Vaishno Devi appears. Vaishno Devi is a manifestation of the mother goddess. Five of the major non-Christian religions in India are Buddhism, Hindu, Islam, Jainism, and Sikhism. About 80 percent of the nation is Hindu. Islam is the largest minority religious group in India.

Article 25 of the India Constitution grants religious freedom to all citizens, as long as they practice and propagate their beliefs in a way that doesn’t impact public health or morality, nor does it disrupt public order. This sounds good on paper, however since India became an independent nation in 1947 there have been many religious riots. Despite the dominance of the Hindu religion no official state religion has been suggested.

Many of the coins of modern India depict the Ashok-Stambha or Ashkoka’s Pillar as a symbol of India. Although the origins of this four-lion pillar are Buddhist no one has complained that the symbol threatens the separation of government and the many domestic religions. The symbol of Vaishno Devi on the 5-rupee coin has not been treated as kindly.

The Mumbai newspaper DNA has been particularly vocal. An article appearing in the Nov. 27 issue begins, “Coins and currency notes were never meant to promote any religion.” Later in the article it reads, “Does this mean that the RBI [Reserve Bank of India] and the government have abandoned their constitutional obligation of being ‘secular’ and has now even begun promoting religious symbols and organizations from this year onwards? After all, unlike Vivekananda and Malaviya who were national leaders, Vaishno Devi has religious overtones. Is the government now becoming a promoter of religious symbols?”

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India commemorative coins issued during 2013 have honored 150 years of the Kuka Movement (1857 insurrection against British rule), the 150th birth anniversary of the Hindu Swami Vivekananda, 150th birth anniversary of Nehru-Gandhi family patriarch Motilal Nehru (who was a Hindu), and 150th birth anniversary of Hindu politician Madan Mohan Malaviya. Any of these could be argued to emphasize the Hindu religion, however since 80 percent of the population is Hindu it makes sense that a majority of India’s prominent modern political leaders have been likely Hindu.

The Mumbai newspaper doesn’t accept this logic. It interviewed an unnamed investment banker who was quoted as saying, “This is rather curious. This has never happened before. I don’t think the RBI could have done this on its own without some persuasion from the ministry of finance or even the prime minister’s office.”

The article continues, “There has been no explanation or justification to promote the introduction of such an unusual practice. In fact, the numismatics department of the government has been adopting practices that go against the very grain of sensible principles followed by monetary authorities the world over.”

Admittedly, the Vaishno Devi 5 rupee is a circulating commemorative rather than a non-circulating legal tender issue as were the other 2013 commemorative coins.

This is the second time in recent years that the symbols selected for a coin of India have been criticized. The 2006 2-rupee coin on which an equal-armed cross with a beam divides into two rays was meant to represent four heads sharing a common body. The Reserve Bank of India defended the design as representing the theme of “unity in diversity.” Hindu nationalists insisted the design resembled the Christian cross on medieval European denier coins of Louis the Pious (AD 778-840), king of Aquitaine and the Franks.

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