Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A temple is not a secular space

Posted on 01 October, 2006
By Sandhya Jain

The “reform industry” is still at work questioning the tradition of barring women between 10 and 50 years from Sabarimala. It needs to be stated in this context that there are several Ayappa temples in India, including one in Delhi, where women devotees are welcomed.

Although the Kerala Police have not spelled out the larger conspiracy to defame the Sabarimala shrine, there can be little doubt that actress Jaimala acted at the behest of her Christian co-religionists to secure non-Hindu intervention in the affairs of one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimages. The so-called incident became a useful tool for the anti-Hindu industry to fight for the right of non-believing Hindu women to enter the temple in the name of equality and women’s rights, when all devout women have hitherto accepted the ban on entry for women between the ages of 10 and 50.

Since the “astamangala devaprasanam” that led to the actress’ so-called confession is linked to the defamation scandal concerning Chief Thantri Kantaru Mohanaru, who denied the veracity of the “devaprasanam” and refused to participate in the prescribed “purification” rituals, the police would do well to ensure early rehabilitation of the affected priest. The incrimination of the priest in a sexual scandal, again involving the Christian woman of allegedly loose morals, is not an individual matter, but as in the concocted case against the Kanchi Acharyas, involves the prestige of the entire Hindu society.

The Kerala crime branch has now found that the claim by the Sabarimala Thantri that astrologer Unnikrishna Panicker, who conducted the “devaprasanam,” has old links with actress Jaimala and had conducted pujas in her Bangalore residence in 2000. The actress shot into the national limelight when, after Panicker’s claim in June that the sanctity of the Sabarimala temple had been breached and therefore the deity was angry, she “confessed” that she had made the pilgrimage 19 years ago at the age of 27, entered the temple undetected after the long trek and the ritual bath in the river, and even touched the feet of the deity.

This created a nationwide furor. On the one hand, the astrologer insisted that all Kerala temples should undergo purification rituals, which many agreed to, just to be on the safe side. But the Sabarimala Thantri declared the incident a fraud, and when he refused to have purification in his temple, he was conveniently embroiled in a sex scandal and ousted from his job. This created further outrage among the people, and the police soon began retracing their steps on that story as well.

But even as the “human rights industry” got into the act, declaring that all Hindu women were suffering untold discrimination by not being permitted to enter this one temple in their child-bearing years, another Christian actress, Meera Jasmine, decided to disrespect Hindu sentiments by entering Raja Rajeshwara temple where non-Hindus are prohibited and women may enter only after evening pujas. She was spotted by the temple staff and claimed to have taken permission from the TTK Devaswom, which administers the temple, but authorities denied this, pointing out that only Hindus are allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Raja Rajeshwar temple. As a result, the temple has to undertake an expensive and time-consuming purification process.

The fact that the actress later shelled out Rs 10,000 for the purification rituals does not detract from the fact that she willfully defied Hindu temple rules. It needs to be emphasised that unlike Islam and Christianity, where the mosque and church are mere congregation halls for collective prayers by the community, the Hindu temple is actually the house of god, where the deity is believed to be physically present (virajman) to listen to the entreaties of devotees. The Hindu temple therefore has a sanctity that does not apply to the mosque and church, which are in a fundamental sense, very secular places. The Hindu temple, therefore, cannot be considered a tourist spot for the idle and curious, and non-Hindus must accept their limits if certain temples do not welcome visitors who are not devotees. There can be no equal right of access to temples for outsiders.

The “reform industry”, meanwhile, is still at work questioning the tradition of barring women between 10 and 50 years from Sabarimala. It needs to be stated in this context that there are several Ayappa temples in India, including one in Delhi, where women devotees are welcomed with open arms. The partial ban on women is explicitly limited to this temple, for reasons lost in history, but genuine devotees do not feel the need to make it a prestige issue.

What is known, however, is that the baby God Ayappa is an ascetic and celibate, born of a union between Shiva and Vishnu in a female avatar (Mohini). Raised by a local ruler, he became the Lord of the jungle with magical powers over all living creatures, especially tigers that roamed the forests. A tradition somehow developed that male devotees would worship the deity and pre-puberty and post-menopausal women. Male devotees making the journey have to purify themselves by observing celibacy and sleeping on the floor for 41 days prior to the pilgrimage. A strict religious diet is prescribed for this period; and the eventual journey is no picnic.

Interestingly, Kerala also has temples exclusively for women, but the ‘rights’ of male devotees are not a paying industry! It needs to be emphasised that it is the right of temple authorities to decide who may enter the temple, and who may not, and the government would do well to be more vigilant of Hindu rights in this manner. Some months ago, a television channel reported that when an American visitor was denied entry into the Jagannath temple of Puri, he set up his own replica of the temple in Orissa, and said it was open to all ! This is simply scandalous. A temple is more than an architectural construction or tourist resort. It is sacred, and cannot be secularized.


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