Sacred Sabarimala: ‘Right To Destroy A Tradition’ versus ‘Ready to Wait’

Sacred Sabarimala: ‘Right To Destroy A Tradition’ versus ‘Ready to Wait’

by Sankrant Sanu - Aug 31, 2016 05:47 PM +05:30 IST
Sacred Sabarimala: ‘Right To Destroy A Tradition’ versus ‘Ready to Wait’Photo: Twitter
  • With the #ReadyToWait movement, a group of Hindu women are standing up against the judicial encroachment of their traditions.

    The debate on the so-called #RightToPray at Sabrimala has heated up once again.

    There is no evidence that forces behind #RightToPray have any belief in Hindu traditions for reform nor any interest to secure any “right” for “Hindu women.”

With the #ReadyToWait movement, a group of Hindu women standing up against the judicial encroachment of their traditions, the debate on the so-called #RightToPray at Sabrimala has heated up once again. A lot of the impetus of the so-called “Right to Pray” or rather to forcibly violate the traditions of particular temples, is coming from many people who would otherwise not step into any Hindu temple at all.  Some of the “feminists” advocating this, such as Ranjana Kumari, run NGOs heavily funded by Church groups from abroad. Whatever the motivations of assorted proxies in this campaign, there are also a number of well-meaning dharma-parayana Hindus who are confused about the restrictions on women in certain temples. This essay is to address that.

Sabrimala (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sabrimala (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Temples are linked to energy, not congregation.

Let us start with a higher seeing. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudeva’s note on the Shani Shingnapur controversy brings unique clarity to this matter.

It needs to be understood that these temples are not places of prayer – they are different types of energies. Since we are aware that the planets in the solar system have an impact upon our physiology, our psychological structure, and the context of our lives, we have created temples for the different planets.

Hindu temples are not congregational halls like a Church or a Mosque. What does that mean? A church or mosque are places for believers to assemble and pray together. For instance, if a mosque no longer suits a congregation, it is permissible to break it, or sell it and move to a bigger place. Similarly a cathedral is a larger congregational building that is associated with a specific rank, a bishop, in the Catholic Church. Famous, popular Cathedrals are those known for their size, majesty or architecture.

In contrast, a temple is not primarily a place where people “gather for prayer.” Some of the most powerful and highly visited temples are actually very tiny, with barely space for dozens of people to stand near the murti before they must move on, nor do they have any architectural magnificence. These popular temples are loci of energy which lend them their importance.  Whether or not one “believes” in this is unimportant; certainly those without faith should have little interest in being allowed into a temple in any case.

Continuing about the Shani Shingnapur temple,  Jaggi Vasudeva says:

Currently, there is this controversy about allowing women to enter a certain temple in Maharashtra, the Shani Shingnapur temple. Very powerful processes are conducted at this temple. Shani temples are mainly used for occult purposes and exorcism. People come there mainly to ward off occult influences or because they feel they are possessed. Because occult processes are conducted there, the energies are not conducive for women. As a woman is entrusted with the significant responsibility of manufacturing the next generation, her body is far more receptive and vulnerable to certain types of energies – especially during pregnancy and menstrual cycles.

So restrictions on women are based on certain energetic particularities associated with a temple not because of some kind of “anti-woman” bias that needs to be erased. In fact, women and the feminine principle are highly honoured in Hindu traditions. Most puja ceremonies require women for their completion. There is also no notion of menstruation being “shameful” though there are certain energetic restrictions around it. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hindu traditions have rituals and ceremonies to honour girls on the onset of menstruation and certain Tantric rituals even use menstrual blood.

By temples not being congregational, it also means that this issue is quite separate from whether or not women may be allowed into mosques, for instance. While many Islamic scholars argue against any such restriction, some favour restrictions based on Hadith, emphasising modesty, mixing of the sexes or of men being “distracted.” These are quite different issues from women not being allowed in a few temples.

This brings us to a second contrast with monotheisms. Monotheism looks to “God’s Word” to tell human beings what to do. Moses brought the Law, Jesus fulfilled the Law, but human beings are simply stuck to following “God’s Word” in religious matters. Similarly, in Islam, the Quran is supposed to be Allah’s immutable word; and the Quran, together with the Hadith, a collection of Prophet Mohammad’s life and sayings, circumscribe what to do.

In contrast, Hindu traditions are diverse. There is not “one book” to follow though the Vedas and the Agamas form a major corpus of traditional authority.  A number of articles and social media commentary replicate the monotheist question, “does God ban the entry, or did humans?” This is a nonsensical argument in the Hindu tradition which is not based on interpreting the “Word of God.” It is another example of trying to force-fit Hindu diversity into a monotheistic religion.

For instance, the Supreme Court reportedly asked on the Sabarimala case:

“If God does not discriminate between men and women and even the Hindu scriptures, Vedas and Upanishads, do not discriminate against them, why should the discrimination exist in temples.”

With due respect to the Court, these questions are utterly ignorant.  Every temple has a story and tradition associated with it.  The idea of what “God does” based on determining the “Will of God” through a “Holy Book” is a nonsensical projection of Abrahamic monotheistic book-based religion onto Hindu traditions.

Yes, this them is found repeatedly in social media and in commentaries of those advocating “Right to Pray.”

This theme, repeated in @VindoBhattu’s Tweet is commonly bandied about to invalidate specific temple traditions. “Traditions are made by a human, not God.” What is this really saying?

According to the Protestant critique of Catholicism, they’d added man-made traditions to the ones God made (a charge the Catholic Church denies).  Only the latter are legitimate. Thus all the charges of doing not “what God wants” and “made by humans, not God” simply replicate Christian theology or a Protestant critique of Catholicism.

In trying to argue over “God’s Will” which is universal, in arguing that all temples must operate in the same way, follow the same restrictions, adhere to the same “Holy Book”, the Court and the “Right to Pray” activists are trying to force the immense diversity of Hindu traditions to be a bad replica of Christianity.

Of course, Christianity has a terrible track record of misogyny, from the Witch Hunts to the contemporary denial of women to be Priests in the Catholic Church (since per “God’s Word”, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

Hindu traditions are not based on interpreting “God’s word.” Nor do they have to be based on the Vedas. There is a rich body of agama that governs temples and rituals. Much of the transmission is also through ritual and oral traditions, through stories and practices.

The tremendous diversity in India has survived precisely because it does not need to force-fit everyone into one mould. There are plenty of women-only temples in India. There are even at temples where thousands of rats run free (the associated belief is that these are children born as rats), which have luckily seen no protests yet from the musophobic. All these temples are associated with different stories and traditions.

The Savitri temple on the Ratnagiri hills in Rajasthan’s Pushkar… men are barred entry as the temple marks the rage of its deity, Goddess Savitri. “According to religious beliefs, Savitri, the wife of Lord Brahma, was enraged when Brahma married for the second time. She cursed Brahma and started staying at the Ratnagiri hills. This temple is devoted to her and is maintained by women. Men are strictly not allowed to enter here…”.

These different stories, just as the story of Lord Ayyappa, the Brahmachari deity at Sabarimala, and traditions add a richness and beauty to Hindu traditions unlike any other.

The Hindu tradition is one in which each can find one’s own path based on one’s own inclinations and nature, your pravritti and prakriti.  As Madhu Kishwar argues, if you don’t like the practice at a particular temple, you can always go to another.

Kerala also hosts Pongal, the largest women-only festival in the world. In light of this, the Supreme Courts comments regarding the Sabarimala temple border on an abusive disregard for the rich diversity of Hinduism when it asks.

“Is spirituality a domain of only men? Are women incapable of attaining spirituality?’

Is the Court seeking a right to pray or enabling a right to destroy?

For it should be clear that the forced entry into Sabarimala has practically nothing to do with women devotees of Kerala wanting to visit the temple. The petition in the Supreme Court is filed by Delhi-based Indian Young Lawyer’s association and its President Naushad Ahmed Khan. We have already documented the large Christian funding for “feminist” NGOs demanding entry. It is a complete travesty that this forcible overturning of Hindu tradition is being sought by those that have no locus standii in the case and can show no harm to themselves from the continuation of the tradition.

Those demanding this “right to pray” have no interest in going to the temple. A temple is not a congregational place. Its faith aspects are not divorced from its story. If you have no faith in the story, the temple is just a tourist spot for you. And there is no reason that a place that is sacred to the devotees needs to become a tourist spot for others on a whim. Sabarimala is the focus of the attack since it is a huge devotional Hindu site in Kerala, which has become a battleground for Left and Abrahamic forces for conquest and erasure of Hindu traditions. Anything that invalidates the stories that form the basis for people’s shraddha, and attacks their practices, is fair game.

The indigenous feminist #ReadyToWait movement, on the contrary, is Kerala women reaffirming their faith and devotion in the Ayyappan tradition and stories. There is no evidence that forces behind #RightToPray have any belief in Hindu traditions for reform nor any interest to secure any “right” for “Hindu women.” Rather, the intent is destroy the sanctity of the temple that Hindu devotees, men and women, don’t wish to see destroyed. Hinduism is liberal, precisely in the sense that it allows a range and variety of practices to flourish unmolested and lives by this acceptance of diversity. Forcing conformity of all temples to one norm, however high-sounding it may be, is an illiberal blow against this richness and diversity of the Indian traditions. We must not succumb to this right to destroy.

Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, writer and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon.
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