Thursday, January 28, 2016

To Enter or Not To Enter; That is the Question

There is a beautiful story about Meera Bai, whose devotional songs linger on a million tongues even to this day. She once visited a temple at Brindavan, which, at that time, was only open to men. When the priests prevented her from entering, she innocently told them "I thought Krishna was the only male in this universe". The priests were tongue-tied and let her in. 

I wonder if the women who are making a hue and cry about Sabarimala and Shani Shinganapur know about Meera bai. The noise that is being made over Sabarimala and Shani Shinganapur would have been funny (come on, airdrop?) if it were not so pathetic. It is evident that these ladies do not have any love for these Gods or for the religion that endorses these Gods. They are in it just to prove a political point and buy their two minutes of fame, and that is it. 

In a country as diverse as India, there are many, many unique temples and unique ways of worship. In Sandur, there is a Kumaraswamy temple that women of child-bearing age are denied entry to, much like Sabarimala. There is a short wall right in front of the main door, that prevents others from even snatching a glimpse at the icon inside. And there are some Maaramma temples, where traditionally there are priestesses but no priests. Some Gods and Goddesses are worshipped with flowers and fruits and sweets, whereas others need meat and liquor. Yet others are worshipped with song and dance. Flowers are not to be worn in Tirumala, because all the flowers that grow in the vicinity are meant for the Lord. There is room for the devotion of everyone and answers to the spiritual aspirations of everyone. This diversity is what makes sanAtana dharma so charming but yet so difficult to understand. 

The devotees of Ayyappa undergo penance for forty days before visiting Sabarimala. They dress differently. They abstain from meat, alcohol and sex. Can they do these without the consent and help of their wives? The day before the men leave for Sabarimala yatra is a big festival for the entire family. All the people (women included) worship and sing bhajans in praise of the lord. At least, this was what I had seen a few years ago, when I was invited to the celebration before the departure of the yaatris. The women send their husbands and brothers and fathers happily for the yaatra. Women participate in the celebrations with great fervor, even if they don't enter the temple.

And then there is Shani Shinganapur, unique in its own way. The temple does not have doors, like any other house in the village (even the bathrooms do not have doors, believe me!). Contrary to what some of the loud voices of today would have us believe, women do enter the temple for darshan. However, going up on the platform to pour oil on the icon is done by males who have undergone purificatory bath just before entering the temple. My mind simply fails to understand how this is an affront to women.

The vrata men perform before visiting Sabarimala is arduous. Also, it emphasizes self-denial and detachment. The daily duties of women need some level of attachment to the family and worldliness. Taking care of children, for instance. Whatever the feminists say, mothers' duties towards children are more those of the father. This affects other aspects of their lives also. They dress in different ways. They prefer different timings at work. They worship in different ways. sandhyāvandane is for men, whereas Hūvīḻya and kuṅkumārcane are for women. The Kathasaritsagara talks about a weird vrata that was performed by women to ward off diseases that are common in the rainy season. 

The argument that feminists put forth is that the patriarchal society of the day kept women out of places of worship because they menstruate. They try to falsely imagine the shortcomings of Islam in Hinduism too. However, except in places like Sabarimala, women of menstruating age are allowed to enter the temples and offer our worship. Yes, there is a restriction on women visiting temples when they are actually menstruating. But frankly, half the women I know would rather spend those days curled up in a bed and reading, than visiting overcrowded temples (please don't go by the feminine hygiene ads where women are jumping and playing during their periods). Whatever prompted these rules to be dictated, they are a blessing, even if in disguise. This is especially true in India where public sanitation leaves much to be desired.

Finally, the ultimate truth is that Biology is Destiny*. Until technology can make men with uteruses and make them produce babies, there is going to be this difference. But I hope we never get such technology, because we should accept and cherish these differences. A painting with many colors looks far prettier than one that has been smeared with red ink all over. 

*Not my quote, but I love it.

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