Sabarimala And The Passive Aggression Of Swami Agnivesh In The Name Of Gender Equality
Swami Agnivesh’s recent article displays a lack of balance and perspective in discussing the Sabarimala temple entry and Kerala sexual blackmail cases.
It also surprisingly espouses the Christian idea of god and sin without ever mentioning that Hinduism doesn’t have such a concept of sin.
One wonders why an Arya Samaj swami should be so clueless on how he has been taken for a ride. Or is he a willing partner?
One had lots of sympathy for Swami Agnivesh when he was roughed up by goons in Jharkhand in July, but one cannot but doubt his wisdom, if not intentions, in the kind of passive aggression he displays when it comes to mainstream Hinduism. (Some examples can be accessed here and here.)
A case in point is an article he co-authored with Valsan Thampu, the man who took Delhi’s St Stephen’s away from its liberal traditions to Protestant Christian moorings, in The Times of India today (23 August). The article’s title – “Time to Rescue God from Priestdoms; Both Sabarimala ban and Kerala sexual blackmail cases exemplify the rot that has set in” – is itself a dead giveaway. What promised to be a polemic against patriarchal cultures in all religions turns out to be a subtle diatribe largely against Sabarimala, which excludes women in the menstruating age from entry, with the church’s own misogyny getting away lightly and in general terms.
The title itself is unbalanced; Agnivesh and Thampu have no problems mentioning Hindu Sabarimala, but when it comes to “blackmail” involving a church father, the reference is to Kerala, as though that state is the fountainhead of all regressive ideas in all religions, but mostly Hindu ones.
The tendentiousness begins in the first paragraph of the story. Agnivesh and Thampu make a reference to two court cases, the first of which “relates to women within an age group being banned from the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala temple, and the second (to) priests (who) have been blackmailing a woman, abusing her confessions.” The allusion to sexual transgressions by church fathers is elliptical, while the Sabarimala issue is up there in black and white.
For a swami wearing saffron, it does not even occur to him that Sabarimala is an exception and not the rule about female exclusion from temples, and that this flows from the nature of the celibate deity who is being worshipped here. Also, there is no bar on young girls or older women entering the temple.
On the other hand, this exceptional case of discrimination is being contrasted, without any naming or shaming, with a long history of sexual abuse in the church (sample this and this and this ), not just in Kerala, but all over the world. The Catholic Church has paid billions of dollars in recent decades to settle child and other sexual abuse cases around the world, and the Kerala case is hardly an exception. But the article glosses over this comparison of an exceptional case, involving no abuse, with extensive abuse, and that too without naming the institutions perpetrating them.
Worse, Agnivesh goes along with Thampu’s version of god and sin, making it clear that this is no joint production, but one influenced more by Thampu.
While a large part of the article makes arguable points about the nature of god and his/her relationship with humankind, it then veers off in the direction of a Christian notion of god.
The authors first ask: “By what spiritual provision does a priest have the authority to forgive the sins of others? Second, by what logic can men assume that the biological state of one half of the human race pollutes and imperils the divine?”
Both valid questions, but the article’s answers are one-sided. “The core spiritual truth, relevant to the first issue, is that all sins are committed primarily against God. Secondly, all human beings are sinful.”
One wonders what kind of alleged Arya Samaj swami can sign up to the Christian idea of all of us being born sinners without explaining that Hinduism has no such concept of sin, and that notions of wrongdoing are based on ethical notions and are contextual in nature. It is also common sense that men can harm or commit “sins” against other men, and not god, however you define him/her or the power that represents god.
While one can broadly agree with the authors that “something is seriously wrong with our religiosity”, and even applaud them when they say that “it is demeaning for women to beg to be accommodated in a priest-controlled, man-centred religious establishment,” one wonders why they think Sabarimala needs to be singled out. The peripheral mentions of the positions of women in church seems to be an attempt to balance the picture. It seriously skirts the issue of widespread sexual exploitation in churches around the world.
After raising important questions, the article ducks the real issues. One wonders why an Arya Samaj swami should be so clueless on how he has been taken for a ride. Or is he a willing partner?
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