Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Women, temples and all that entails!

When one and a half billion people are encapsulated under a single constitution, one inevitable outcome is dissent and divergence. Call it human psychology, or outright arrogance, humans have always felt the urge to contradict and revolt. The new issue at hand is the prohibition of entry to women in certain temples like Sabarimala. There are literally too many stakeholders in this issue, and each of them have a divergent view on it. Many women's group and even the RSS has lent it's voice to the reformist cause, but many pious Hindus still consider this to be a classic case of judicial overreach in a deeply religious issue. There are many temples across India where women are denied entry. In some cases, the reasons cited are biological, while in some other cases the reason is plain discrimination. Like many ardent Hindus across the country, I too have a divided stance on the issue. The oldest Hindu veda dates back to around 5000 BC, which puts the religion at around 7000 years. The fact that a religion this old is still adapting in response to the new tides of change is a matter of immense pride for all believers. In the 21st century, when the equality of men and women has become an adage, why should temples deny entry to just women? The social and civic equality of the two genders has been well enshrined in the Indian constitution, and surely this extends to the sphere of worship! And when these prohibitions are placed on world renowned shrines like Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur, the backlash becomes even more concentrated. On the other hand, the Hindu inside me keeps crying foul. Why should Hinduism be subjected to so many reforms and altruisms, while other religions get a free run? Why should women be given entry to Sabarimala when the popular belief goes that the deity is a strict celibate? The issue has valid arguments on both sides and a compromise seems far from possible.

My cosmopolitan mindset tells me to welcome this move. Two centuries ago, the leaders of the Indian renaissance like Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda had prophesized the true meaning of Hinduism and cleansed it of evils like Sati and Child marriage. It must have been a proud moment for Hindus across the country as the religion stepped over the threshold of archaic dogmas and embraced modernity. Hinduism is an enigma in itself, and has attracted people from across the world with it's aura of mysticism. A religion does not survive for 7000 years without adapting to the changing times. Then why is this move being haggled the way it is? Surely people must know that the strength of a culture is in it's tendons and not the bones. The flexibility of a culture dictates it's longevity and it's rigidness oracles it's demise. Preventing temple entry of women is nothing short of discrimination on the basis of gender, something that is strongly denounced and banned by the Indian constitution. Needless to say, gender discrimination exists in every nook and corner of this great country; from bollywood to the chawls of Mumbai, women have resigned to the domination of their opposite sex. Unfortunate and despicable, but the cold truth! After a hard days labour, where she is paid half of what the man gets for the same job, the little solace a woman can find might be in the nearby temple. But alas! The holy thresholds are a taboo for her, and her religious eyes can only seek but never find the ornate deity! This complication is what the court and the civil societies are trying to do away with. Many decades back, another group had to face the same problem, the untouchables or the harijans. Far from entry to temples, basic human rights was their primary demand. The image of the so-called untouchables entering the temples along with the aristocrats, sent shivers down the spine of the orthodoxy, but the popular pressure was insurmountable, and the leaders unyielding. Finally, the centuries old tradition was demolished with a simple constitutional provision and the temples were thrown open to people of all caste and creed. A great victory for the liberals, a belated gift for the harijans, and a bitter pill for the orthodoxy. There are two lessons to be learnt from this incident. One, providing entry for groups which were erstwhile denied entry will not collapse the roof of the temple. Two, every reform will have a beneficiary and a vanquished! Here the women will benefit greatly from the reform, while the orthodoxy will have to swallow the bitter pill. The sight of women in Shani Shingnapur would have appalled many people, but it has translated to reality and the result has been ceteris paribus! Resisting popular urges and rational demands are never good signs of a civilisation. Fortunately, India has been open to all kinds of reforms since it's inception!

But there is always another side to the coin, and here the other side is highly volatile and valid! Only a few temples across the country can be accused of denying entry to women. The fact remains that women have been and continue to remain active worshippers in shrines across the country! This clearly destroys the myth of anti-feminism in Hinduism, and proves that there isn't any kind of systemic discrimination against women....at least in some cases. Now that the doors of Shani Shignapur have been thrown open to the female population, the focus has shifted to Sabarimala. Women between the age group of 10 to 50 are denied entry on account of the fact that it is their menstrual age. If women are below 10, or above 50, there is no restriction. Now that doesn't sound like systemic gender discrimination to me! If the idea was indeed to deny women entry, why not ban it outright? As in the case of so many other nuances, here too there is an explanation. The deity at Sabarimala is believed to be a perennial celibate who has denounced all sexual pleasures, and popular belief goes that the Lord made his way to the top of the mountain and mandated that menstruating women who were in the peak of their sexual prowess be denied entry to his shrine. The question is not about the validity of this story, as some things are beyond proofs and science, the question is one of belief and custom. The Lord wished to be a celibate, NOT a misogynist! He did not prevent women in general from visiting his shrine, he only mandated that his vow of celibacy not be violated. With this pretext, let us look at the issue once again! If you believe in god, you must believe his words. Why would a true believer of Lord Ayyappa, the deity at Sabarimala demand entry to his shrine when he clearly ruled against it? The deeper question of true religious belief comes to the fore as one must ask at what point, the desire to worship turns to a mere pawn for feminism! If the true desire is to worship, then indeed the words of the Lord himself must be satiable for status quo. If the temple entry pioneers still believe they should be granted entry, then they must burn the Bhagavt Gita at the altar of the Indian Constitution. Surely the sermons of Lord Krishna outweigh the inconsistent provisions of the Indian Constitution. The so called ultra liberals claim to be harbingers of civil equality, but then the first law to be dismantled must be the state-sponsored and glorified discrimination which the constitution affectionately nomenclates as 'reservation'. What can be more discriminating that denying opportunities with regard to jobs and education despite higher merit? Many have tried to paint this issue in civil and progressive terms, but ultimately, the question boils down to- constitution or religion? On account of the sacrality of the beliefs and the highly sensitized intellect of the hardliners, such reforms would bring out the propensity of the Hindus to unite and polarize! A true political nightmare for the minorities and the national leadership. The right thing to do from a religious standpoint would be laissez-faire. Let the religions do as they please as long as they don't violate the boundary of violence and humanism. As in the case of Sabarimala, there are clear historical evidences which have ordained the selected entry. This does not entail that Hinduism is misogynistic, or that Hindus are chauvinists by nature. The stance against temple entry is not a stance against women, it is merely the last stance of the world's oldest religion to remain true to it's roots and customs.

However, my own arguments seem absurd with my Lockean cap on! Surely rationalism must prevail over dogmatism; surely the entry of women in their biological prime would not corrupt the celibacy of the deity, after all it is all symbolism...the Lord is only an idol! But once again the enigma of Hinduism comes to the fore. The Lord might be an idol, but a true believer sees the idol as encompassing all the attributes of the Lord Himself! Hence the 'abhishekam'; hence the food which is offered to god. The idol cannot of course eat the food that is being offered, but our beliefs trump realism in that moment of trance. It is this affinity towards beliefs in the face of realism that edges the debate in favour of the hardliners. The joy of reform is indeed in the air, but many people have reservations about the radicalization that is happening. How is this a victory for women? How is this a feministic success, if the fruits are enjoyed only by Hindu women? While the Hindu women now pour out their sorrows and joys to the deity they so longed to see, Muslim women still remain confined to their zenanas, imagining the hallow insides of the mosques which are beyond them. How is this a victory? How is this a fight against discrimination, if the cause itself is split in two? The true feminist is the one who fights for womanhood as a religion, as a caste and only lastly as a gender. The true feminist considers 'women' to be a religion of their own, as a caste of their own. A true feminist fights not religious dogmas, but misogynistic dogmas!

The issue of temple entry for women has sparked a debate beyond epic proportions, the battle lines have been drawn and sides taken. The rich history of Hinduism refers to another great war which was fought for the triumph of 'dharma' or righteousness- The Mahabharata. The Pandavas triumphed with God Himself on their side. But today the battle is better poised. One side claims to have God on their side, and some part of me believes that claim to be true....but the other side is fighting for a cause that is far from evil, a desire to see God Himself. It is not the humans, but God Himself who is between a rock and a very hard place!

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