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How Hinduism got distorted in the Sabarimala debate

Author: Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta
Publication: The Print
Date: January 10, 2019
URL:      https://theprint.in/opinion/how-hinduism-got-distorted-in-the-sabarimala-debate/175794/

An attempt to homogenise Hindus using state power erodes the diversity of Hinduism.

Since the Supreme Court’s judgment on 28 September, 2018 overturning the bar on the entry of women aged 10-50 years into the 800-year old Sabarimala temple in Kerala, there has been a spirited debate on the issue of government interference in religious affairs, with passionately argued views and counter views offered on the merits and demerits of the court’s judgment.

Interestingly, those projecting the Sabarimala issue as one of gender justice and women’s equality are quick to draw comparisons with the Modi government’s effort to end the practice of triple talaq. There is an argument that permitting the entry of women into Sabarimala is not only about ensuring women’s rights, but also to be seen in the context of the so-called innately discriminatory attributes within Hinduism—if the entry of women is to be barred, will banning individuals from lower caste groups from worshipping at Hindu temples also be accepted?

We find both these arguments to be specious. The Sabarimala issue is not about caste or gender justice. The Sabarimala temple has a well-defined raison d’être—the Ayyappa deity here is worshipped as one who has renounced the world and is celibate. The richness of the Hindu tradition is that there are other Ayyappa temples across southern India where the deity is worshipped in different forms and through varying methods. At the Kulathupuzha temple, Ayyappa appears as a child. At the Achankovil temple, Ayyappa is worshipped as one who participates in family life.

This is not different from how Ravana is worshipped in some parts of India, even as his likeness is set on fire on Vijayadashmi all across the country. The key fact is that no centralised, institutional gender or caste discrimination is being corrected by the court’s diktat on allowing a certain age group of women to pray at the temple.

Just as Sabarimala temple bans the entry of women of a certain age group, the Kamrup Kamakhya temple in Assam allows only menstruating women to worship. Moreover, there are prominent Hindu temples that do not permit the entry of men. The 600-year-old Brahma temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan does not permit married men to worship the deity, for example.

Hinduism weaves a rich tapestry of multitudinous deities, gods and goddesses that are worshipped in myriad ways. There is no one book to follow—and no central authority that dictates terms.

The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, overturned the 1991 judgment of the Kerala High Court that upheld the customs of the Sabarimala temple. The judgment itself is discriminatory in that it does not seek to provide equality to all women irrespective of religion: non-Hindu women can still be barred from entering their places of worship and indeed Hindu women who may be barred from entering other Hindu temples are also not affected by the apex court’s judgment. When three women tried to enter a mosque in Kerala, they were promptly arrested by the police.

The court has picked on a particular temple and provided for a specific judgment that only applies to that temple, rather than pronounce that equality in worship applies to all religions and regions, and that no women can be discriminated against by anybody in the matter of access to a place of worship. Is it justice to say, let another PIL be filed and only then the honourable court would decide on that issue after a few more decades have passed?

The second, and even more problematic, issue is with India’s judges anointing onto themselves spiritual-theological exegesis in their drive to determine what ‘essential religious practice’ is. Justice Indu Malhotra, in her dissenting opinion in the Sabarimala case, said as much. She noted ‘what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide’.

The genesis of this unfortunate situation emerges from shying away from stating that there is, indeed, a basic minimum standard of human rights and constitutional guarantees available to each and every Indian, without regard to their ascriptive identity.

Unable to raise itself to the level where it can proclaim that a given set of freedoms and liberties is inviolable, no matter what any religion or group asserts, Indian jurisprudence has taken refuge in selectively picking on the Hindu faith under the Nehruvian rubric of ‘protection’ to minorities. This has usually been to the advantage of Hindus, where state power has pushed Hindus towards more social liberalism. The confusion and absurdities created by this mindset can manifest in ugly, unexpected ways – when the Lok Sabha moved a bill removing leprosy as a ground for divorce earlier this week, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MP Asaduddin Owaisi opposed it, saying “don’t interfere in Muslim personal law”, holding up the example of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which still allow divorce on this discriminatory ground. Owaisi echoed Jawaharlal Nehru, who also wanted to “protect” Muslims and declined to reform Muslim personal laws in 1955 when Hindu laws were reformed.

But leaving minorities out in the cold in the name of ‘protecting’ them is only widening the fissures in Indian society, where one section of the population experiences liberal state policy—such as freedom to divorce only with mutual consent and freedom to adopt children—but a large minority is subjected to ultra-conservative religious law that is provided state backing in the name of ‘protection’.

Given both the executive and the judiciary’s hesitation in pushing for equal laws, a uniform civil code and equal treatment of all religions, the incumbent legal regime and juridical practice have ended up splintering Hindus. Politically, of course, a fissiparous Hindu society works to the great advantage of those who are allied with conservative Islamists.

There is a fundamental difference between monotheistic, centralised Abrahamic faiths and the polytheistic, pantheistic, ‘pagan’ Hinduism. When individuals decided to build temples for living figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth and Sachin Tendulkar, nobody could stop them.

Hinduism has no barriers to entry, unlike the Abrahamic faith that are controlled by a centralised clergy or theology. There is no one Vatican or one Mecca for the Hindu—there is no codified directive to the Hindu on how to worship, where to worship, when to worship or even whether to worship, and Hinduism should be recognised for its uniqueness. An attempt to homogenise Hindus using state power erodes the diversity of Hinduism and only semitises it.


-The authors are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.
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