Recently, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote a scholarly article hailing the announcement by the Tamil Nadu minister in charge of Hindu Religious and Charities Endowment Board (HR&CE) about making women archakas in temples. He quoted sources from scriptural authorities and Supreme Court judgements to justify the announcement by the DMK minister. He wrote:
Some Hindu circles murmur that it is an atheistic DMK reforming temples. This is to misunderstand the historical role DMK has performed in saving Hinduism. This issue is compounded by the fact that any reform process is hostage to communal politics. Why should Hindu practices be interfered with if no equivalent obligations are being put on other religions — on Catholicism, for ordaining women priests, for example? Why should the authority of the state be asymmetrically applied? But remember, this is not about a secular state interfering in religious practices. It is about Hindus reforming their own practice, through their own institutions which, in southern states, happen to be things like endowments departments.
Mehta claims that it is not the state power being impartial to Hindus but Hindus reforming Hindu society. This is a classic doublespeak.
This is indeed a case of a secular state under an anti-Hindu party trying to show its power. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), from its origin till date, is not a Hindu-reformist party. It is an anti-Hindu party.
One should remember that the DMK has its ancestry in E V Ramasamy who was more a demagogue than a social reformer. It was during his life time the single most important agitation for the emancipation of women happened – increasing the age of marriage – the agitation for the Sharda act.
Dr. Ambedkar supported it. Mahatma Gandhi supported it. They all worked for it. The proverbial odd man out was EVR.
In his official magazine Kudi Arasu, articles were written warning Brahmins to learn from what happened in Nazi Germany. The Dravidianist movement sided itself with the Pakistan movement and in one of his last speeches made, the previous DMK supremo M Karunanidhi remembered with nostalgia how he shouted pro-Pakistan slogans with League flags in his hands.
The Dravidianists even penned down an inverted version of the Ramayana assuming Rama to be an Aryan villain and Ravana to be a Dravidian hero. This is not an ideology of reform but of hatred working from false premises and trying to intentionally hurt the Hindus by show of state power.
And let us face it, neither the DMK nor for that matter the AIADMK have earned laurels in temple management so far. The way HR&CE has managed the temples, and how many priceless sculptures end up in the collections of foreigners or in foreign museums, is well known.
The deeper problem in Mehta’s column is the binary between the so-called Brahminism which he maps to ritualism and puts in opposition to bhakti. The term ‘Brahminism’ is a colonial construct. It has its roots in the Protestant views on Catholic priests and on the rabbis of Judaism. They mapped their animosity towards the so-called ‘priest-craft to ‘the Brahmins of Hinduism'.
At the same time, in Indian tradition, the ritualist authority has been seasoned with bhakti. There is no social system, especially a bio-cultural system like religion, in the world which does not have ritualism. Ritualism brings its own transcendental as well as binding qualities to a society. Perhaps it is only in India that a civilisational discovery of how to organically balance the individual spiritual quest with ritualism was made.
The Paripadal of Sangam literature points out that the very aesthetics of Vedic ritual stirs in one the feeling of awe. This is such an experience that even those who deny the Divine feel it through ritual. Naturally, when literary and academic discourses are constructed, the ritualist structure is juxtaposed against bhakti – and not as mutually exclusive categories but as complementary opposites. Colonialism read into this an ethnic narrative of subjugation and struggle for social liberation.
Let me illustrate. Consider the famous parable of Sri Ramakrishna, where the cowherd girl walks on the water chanting the name of Hari while the Brahmin pandit who taught her the name of Hari falls down into the river holding his dhoti. There is every possibility that a social historian from Harvard or a researcher from Ashoka interprets this story as one that signifies Ramakrishna as a progressive Hindu under the influence of British social reforms and propagates through this story the feminist-subaltern resistance to Brahminical patriarchy.
But any Hindu with basic cultural literacy would know how wrong such an interpretation would be for she would feel in her heart the true essence of the story.
Now coming to real Hindu reform movements. One should remember that there are certain class of reforms which indeed need varied levels of state interventions: strong interventions in the case of abolition of slavery, stopping of infant marriages, abolition of untouchability etc.
Then there are reforms which should emerge from the society - one of which is women officiating and increasingly taking the roles of ‘priests’- archakas, purohits, pandits, bishops and imams etc., in the society. These reforms should come from within the society. The government should facilitate an environment that enables the flowering of these reforms. And this the state should do in a secular way.
Let us take the example of two the Abrahamic religions. In the case of Christianity, women are not allowed to be priests in the Catholic sect. The Anglican Church though, allowed women to be priests in the 20th century. In the Catholic Church, informal prayer circles are conducted by women.
In the case of Judaism, there are reform synagogues where women can be rabbis. Among orthodox Jews though, there is still reluctance and refusal. But there are dialogues. No political party in Israel, however leftwing and secular, would speak of imposing women rabbis in all the temples of Jerusalem.
Are there not reform movements within Hinduism which are effecting the change of creating women ‘priestesses’ who are today officiating marriage ceremonies and even cremation rituals? Yes, there are. In fact, Arya Samaj and quite a few Hindu organisations have been doing this. The RSS magazine Organiser highlighted how in traditional the Serpent Temple of Kerala there is a chief priestess. Mata Amritanandamayi has been installing Brahmasthanam temples with women priests.
If so, then what is the problem if a DMK or Communist government enforces women as temple archakas? Here, the real question is not that of Hindus reforming Hindus but a Stalinist state interfering in temple activities.
Our ithihasa-puranas give the answer.
When Lakshmana was near-fatally injured, Hanuman lifted the mountain of life-giving medicines and brought it amidst all hardships. To protect the cowherds from the sky-bound jealous god Indra, Sri Krishna lifted the mountain of Govardhan. Ravana too lifted or at least tried lifting the mountain of Kailash. The act was the same – lifting the mountain. Krishna and Hanuman did it to protect life. Ravana did it out of pride. While the acts of Hanuman and Sri Krishna are to this day praised by poets and devotees, the act of Ravana is remembered for the lesson it brings – the need for humility.
Lift the mountain of social reform. Indeed, it is necessary. But never out of the arrogance of state power. That is a lesson DMK and its intellectual supporters can indeed learn from Ravana.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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