Monday, April 22, 2019
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'Temple Entry' for women -- and untouchables


Trupti Desai of Bhumata Brigade was beaten up the other day simply for entering the sanctum of Mahalaxmi Temple at Kolhapur in Maharashtra in a dress that is generally used by women in Punjab. Once used only by the Punjabis, the dress is now common all over India, including remote places of the North-East and South India, presumably because it offers ease in carrying out regular activities and daily chores inside the house or outside.

The sari seems to hamper women in that and is also, apparently, cumbersome. The Punjabi outfit is no less Indian than sari and yet she was assaulted in a display of the extreme orthodoxy of the locals. But, that does not seem to be the actual reason for her being roughed up. The staunch Hindus of Maharashtra have been against entry of women in the sanctums of their highly venerated places of worship.

Ms. Desai has been spearheading the women’s movement against this discrimination. On the basis of a judgment of Mumbai High Court, where a case had been filed in this regard, she led women into the temple of Shani Shingnapur in Ahmednagar district after the Court delivered a verdict in favour of the women. The faithful, true and steadfast Hindus did not like it one bit and had developed acute antipathy for her.

Orthodoxy has never had any rationale and even if it had any it wouldn’t adapt to the changing environment. The kind of rigidity displayed by the devout Hindus in Maharashtra was utterly reprehensible, particularly, at Kolhapur where they indulged in violence and that too against a woman. The court had already ordered that the discrimination was not legally sustainable.

The Shingnapur Shani temple authorities fended off the attempts by the Bhumata Brigade for a couple of days after the court ordered in favour of the petitioners but later women entered and worshipped the deity in the sanctum only under police protection. Those were a few days of tension which may continue for some time as the staunch Hindus are not likely to give in so easily. One expects civil disturbances to occur whenever women attempt to enter the sanctums.

One might mention that another instance of this kind of discrimination is being fought out in the Supreme Court of India. A case is being heard of entry in temples of women down in the South. The famous Ayappa temple of Sabarimala in Kerala has prohibited entry of women of the ages between 10 and 55.

Hundreds of millions of people visit the temple trudging for miles through difficult terrain of hills, rivers and valleys of dense forests but menstruating women cannot join the pilgrimage. The reason handed out is that Lord Ayappa is a celibate (Brahmachari) and hence women are barred – an absurd argument if ever there was one.

The Apex Court has decided to give the matter extensive and detailed hearing and has asked uncomfortable questions embarrassing the lawyers defending the indefensible practice. The matter, however, is yet to reach finality at the Court. What is, perhaps, ironical is that these very men wouldn’t flinch from worshipping a goddess. For them, perhaps, goddesses do not menstruate.

In the meantime, the Hindu religious head of a monastery (math), Swami Swaropanand Swaraswati of Sharda Peeth, Dwarka in Gujarat, waded into the controversy. He gave an avoidable statement and said that women should not worship Shani (Saturn) as it is a cruel planet and that women will be raped in increasing numbers if they did so. A greater nonsense perhaps was never uttered by a Hindu high priest whose position as Shankaracharya is traceable back to Adi Sankara of 9th Century AD, the great reformer of Hinduism.

Of late he seems to have appropriated the exclusive right to articulate views that at best are idiotic. He gave another statement in which he viewed the drought in Marathwada region of Maharashtra in another context. He said that Marathwada was undergoing an acute spell of water scarcity because people there have been worshipping Sai Baba of Shirdi – a deemed god who, according to him, is unworthy of being worshipped. He has thus made himself a subject of ridicule for millions of Hindus who have unshakeable faith in Sai Baba.

Speaking of women’s movement of “temple entry” one is reminded of another such movement more than a hundred years ago. This movement was one for “temple entry” for Dalits, the erstwhile untouchables. India has had the scourge of untouchability since times immemorial and as a consequence the Dalits, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, were never considered equal to higher castes.

They were not only suppressed, shunned and humiliated, they were also prevented from making use of various common facilities, for instance, the roads leading to temples or the very essential facility of a common well. These practices still continue in several parts of the country in the north and south even sixty years after independence and promulgation of the Constitution that guarantees absolute equality to each and every citizen regardless of caste and creed.

If the Dalits were prevented from making use of facilities that were vital for sustaining their lives, the question of their being allowed into the Hindu temples would naturally not arise. A simmering discontent was, therefore, pervasive all over, particularly in the southern parts of the country where orthodoxy was and still is at its worst.

There it is a litany of agitations, riots and largely unsuccessful litigations in the courts since the 19th Century. However, the “temple entry” movement gathered strength in the early years of the 20th Century. Even Mahatma Gandhi lent his moral influence to the movement which, though, had little effect on a bull-headed Hindu orthodoxy.

Eventually, the erstwhile state of Travancore (Thiruvanantpuram, earlier Trivandrum of Kerala) became the epicenter of the movement, though before that the movement was active elsewhere in the region. Despite the uninterrupted agitation for almost a decade it was only in 1936 that the Maharaja of Travancore signed the historic Proclamation of Temple Entry for Dalits, thus in one fell swoop doing away with the age old injustice meted out to them.

This happened more than 80 years ago but even now one hears of the discriminations against Dalits in the South where they not only are harassed in their day-to-day lives, their women are raped with impunity and they are hacked to death if they ever displayed  the audacity to marry a member of the upper caste.

Divisions are inherent in the Hindu social and religious fabric. It has been like this for ages and the abominations in the system have developed deep roots. It will take years, decades, even centuries to get a level playing field for everyone in this society. Women who have won the right to worship in the inner sanctum of temples have to face up to the Hindu extreme Righ – a fringe that is a tough nut to crack. It might take some more years before they are able to visit temples without any fear or apprehensions. Shaking off their complacency, they have to be prepared for a few more fights that seem to be in offing for them.

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