As a grand military parade rolled out in Delhi to raise a toast to our great republic, a few thousand kilometres away in Shingnapur, Maharashtra, a strange spectacle unfolded. Hundreds of women tried to enter the Shani temple in the town, a place that traditionally does not permit women entry into its sanctum sanctorum. They were stopped by other women and the police. The group that sought to storm the sanctum sanctorum sparred with the police and some of its activists were consequently detained.
The clash at the Shani Shingnapur temple had built up over the past couple of months, in tandem with the demand to let women enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. When Pune-based Bhumata Ranragini Brigade announced that they will 'breach' the innermost sanctum of the temple, a prohibitory order was placed against people gathering outside the temple.
"It's a black day," the leader of the protest told the media. The temple's trust, whose chairperson is a woman, couldn't explain why women cannot enter the sanctum sanctorum. In contrast, the Sabarimala temple authorities had blithely offered that since the resident deity was a bachelor, women of reproductive age aren't allowed to enter the temple. The Shani Shingnapur trust's inability to explain the ban on women inside the sanctum sanctorum holds a mirror to how religion is followed everywhere--with blind and unquestioning trust.
The Shani Shingnapur trust's inability to explain the ban on women inside the sanctum sanctorum holds a mirror to how religion is followed everywhere--with blind and unquestioning trust.
When religious institutions that are influential in society excludes women on the logic of "menstrual impurity" or other spurious reasoning, honoured by time and tradition as it may, it nonetheless perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, which is the lifeblood of all discrimination.
So the struggle to gain temple entry is worthwhile, and very much rooted in a long history of such movements that fought back 'tradition' that banned lower castes from entering temples, for instance.
But the paradox here is that the language and logic of progress and modernity is speaking to an institution based on mythology and whose promoters have demanded absolute, uncritical adherence to it. The rational demand of gender equality, therefore, has only met with criticism and opposition from supporters of an institution that is not built on logic.
Facade of the Shani temple in Shingnapur.
Demanding entry into a Sabarimala or a Shani Shingnapur, therefore, amounts to seeking a better, more comfortable place within patriarchy, when the need of the hour is to outright reject it. It amounts to seeking a compromise with a social narrative that for ages has actively discriminated against women and curtailed their rights in plain sight.
Most people's religion is not a choice they make, but one that they follow due to the accident of birth. The propensity to adhere to what a religion allegedly preaches is a part of our upbringing. We follow rituals in an act of grudging respect for the wisdom of those older than us. Most of us don't even bother to read what our religious texts say or question what we have been told is right. The reason for this acquiescence is not typically a fear of an afterlife without air-conditioning, but a cultural reluctance towards offending relatives and parents, who hold these ideas dear and wish the same from us. We don't question several regressive religious practices because we don't want to question people who we love and are important to us.
However, if religion in practice has to be reformed, if not completely rejected, it has to begin with the smaller battles. It has to begin with questioning and protesting discrimination thriving in plain sight. For example, several intelligent, informed people we know, who have extensively rejected patriarchy on social media will not make an effort to question peers and relatives why a Lakshmi Puja at home has to be officiated by a male priest. In fact, in average Hindu pujas at home, women priests are nearly unheard of, even though the women in the family are traditionally the ones doing the preparations for the ceremony. Now consider the irony: we are praying to a woman god, but we need a male interlocutor.
Now consider the irony: we are praying to a woman god, but we need a male interlocutor.
We probably know more than one smart, bright woman, who enthusiastically rejected patriarchal excesses in several occasions, but have probably not questioned why she has to be walked down the aisle by her father or 'given away' in sampradan by the father during her wedding, instead of both the parents.
Or why, the same wedding, has to be officiated my a male priest and not a female one.
And it's not just in average Hindu families. One hasn't heard of a female maulvi or a woman priest in either Islam or Christianity. The right to be the spokesperson for 'god' lies exclusively with men in almost all religious narratives.
Devotees wait in a queue to get inside the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala.
That is the kind of religious discrimination that's more immediate, rampant and practically unopposed. However, this is also the kind of discrimination that's within our power to end. Opt for a registry wedding instead of a religious one, stay away from the religious shenanigans of ceremonies even if you are participating in the social interactions and copiously explain why. Question a few people in real life, answer their questions and don't hide behind the convenient aloofness of social media accounts.
Question a few people in real life, answer their questions and don't hide behind the convenient aloofness of social media accounts.
Twelve years back, my maternal grandfather passed away from a massive stroke. As relatives swarmed around our house--some stealing smoke breaks in dimly lit corners and others noisily organising tea for the mourners--an anxious debate broke out in hushed tones. Which of my uncles, my mother's cousins, will light the pyre, they debated enthusiastically, studiously weighing who qualifies to be the closest to my grandfather. Or will it be my father? My mother after all, was their only child and custom says only a man can light a pyre. My grandmother, a devout Hindu and a fiercely practical woman, ended the argument with one question: "Who else but the man's own child, who he had cared for all his life and vice versa, deserves to light the pyre?" It didn't matter to her, like it shouldn't have mattered to anyone else, that the child was a woman.
Later, my grandmother, on her part, tried to put away her old life as per custom by shoving all her saris with red borders to the back of the wardrobe and then gingerly looking away from non-vegetarian food cooked in the kitchen. "Widows don't eat fish," she told my brother, shaking her head vigorously. "How do widows who love fish then plan to live?," my mother quipped, spooning a big serving of fish curry, fragrant with green chillies and mustard oil right on to her plate. A wave of delight mixed with guilt washed over her sixty-two-year-old face. "God can't hold me to task for this. It's your fault," she retorted at my mother, delicately picking the bones off and sticking them on the edge of the steel plate to form a scraggly fence. That was the last we ever heard of 'things-widows-can't-do'.
This was a story that had taken various faces and names in homes of my friends, my colleagues and people I knew. If our country knows how to tighten the fences of patriarchy and regression preached by religion, it also knows exactly where to strike so that it all unravels, slowly but steadily. We just need to choose a few more battles than we have.
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