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Sabarimala And The Dark Absurdities Of Religion

30/01/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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by Monsoon Lover - sudip guharay via Getty Images
Bells hanging in temple.

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Temple bells, Badami via photopin (license)

Religiosity in India is so all-encompassing, that religion somehow manages to escape profound criticism even when some peculiar absurdity comes to light. Indeed, one such typical absurdity has been in the news recently, namely the ongoing controversy concerning the Sabarimala Temple. The issue has characteristics that fit very well into the current cultural narrative -- a classic us vs. them, liberal vs. conservative, polarising, mud-slinging, name-calling fest that has already caused considerable consternation on both sides, on social media as well as news channels.

[T]he critics will lay the blame on the individual, and not the institution which fosters and nurtures such bigoted mindsets...

Atheists are, of course, excluded from this debate. As a result, most of us are left wondering whether anyone will criticise the institution from which this absurdity of disallowing women of reproductive age to enter the temple emerges. No, I'm not talking about the people who run the temple (Travancore Devaswom Board), but the broader institution in which they operate, that authorises them to stigmatise menstruation in the name of maintaining culture and tradition, and which functions as an effective tool for furthering patriarchal values.

But the religiosity is so blinding that not even the critics will go there. The religious moderates opine that the temple should allow women to enter -- but will anyone point out that this isn't the only instance where "faith" and "belief" have served as a cover for oppression? Will anyone criticise the religious institutions which have, for centuries, been used as a club to beat down women, the lower castes and minorities, in order to keep them in their place? Will anyone point out that these institutions have been historically used to justify racism, slavery, misogyny, and almost every other kind of bigotry all over the world?

I won't be holding my breath waiting for someone to bring this up. When God's earthly representatives at the Sabarimala Temple make statements like the one below, the critics will lay the blame on the individual, and not the institution which fosters and nurtures such bigoted mindsets:

"The chief deity in the temple is a celibate. So allowing women to worship in the shrine is a sin."

Keeping aside those who agree with this kind of attitude towards women, even those who are critical won't attack religion because they themselves believe in it (in the way that most moderate people cherry-pick the good parts of their religion and discard the unpleasant bits). So whenever their moderate views clash with those of the hardliners, their immediate tendency is to blame the individuals and absolve the institution of religion.

Those who have power and wealth have a proclivity to invoke religion, tradition and "values" in order to prolong the status quo, which is obviously in their self-interest.

Now I understand that the high priests of the Sabarimala Temple don't represent all worshipers and believers of the deity, in the same way that Islamic extremists don't represent the entire Muslim world (not equating the two, but drawing a parallel). I know that most religious people are peaceful and decent human beings and that a few bad apples twist the ideology in a sinister manner to serve their own ends, and that their twisted ideology doesn't represent the "real" religion.

But here's what I want moderate religious people and critics of the Sabarimala Temple to think about -- for an omnipotent being capable of influencing the order of the universe, God seems disturbingly comfortable with allowing fanatics to commit horrible atrocities in his name. For thousands of years now, religious fundamentalists have committed unspeakably violent activities in the name of God, from which three plausible conclusions can be drawn (invoking the old Epicurean argument) -- either God is fine with religious extremists justifying violence in his name (in which case he is not benevolent and hence not worthy of worship), or he is unable to stop such extremists from misusing his name to oppress other people (in which case he isn't omnipotent and hence not very God-like). Or -- and this seems to be the most likely answer -- he simply doesn't exist.

For an omnipotent being capable of influencing the order of the universe, God seems disturbingly comfortable with allowing fanatics to commit horrible atrocities in his name.

Religion is not the root of the problem by any means -- the quest for personal wealth and power is (incidentally, the Sabarimala Temple collected Rs. 300 crore in donations and sale of sacrament in 2015). But religion is a tool -- an extremely potent one -- to ensure that the power structure remains unchanged (hyper-nationalism, xenophobia, anti-communism being a few others, often used in tandem with religion). Those who have power and wealth have a proclivity to invoke religion, tradition and "values" in order to prolong the status quo, which is obviously in their self-interest. So it serves them when they stigmatise menstruation, shame women for expressing their sexuality and take measures to prevent the "corruption" of their thoughts. Similarly, under the garb of religious traditions, Muslim women must hide their faces behind burqas, put up with polygamy and tolerate unilateral oral talaq. That way, the men can be assured that women remain in their place -- in the kitchen or in the bedroom - and that they do as the men say and don't cause any trouble.

I think the fact that there are people who hold such antiquated views about menstruation in the 21st century should make everyone realise how outdated and out of touch these religious institutions are with the modern world. I'm not saying everyone should reject religion solely because of this issue, but shouldn't it give us all -- men and women -- some pause, and make us think about the legitimacy of these religious institutions before we kneel and pray before their deities?

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