Choose another temple? An Open Ramble to Madhu Kishwar

"The imperious missionaries of liberalism have no respect for the diversity of India’s belief systems and have taken it upon themselves to reform everything they perceive as outdated and incorrect" says Madhu Purnima Kishwar, noted academic and founder editor of Manushi - a journal about women and society.
This fitting response exposes the flaws in her arguments and reiterates the need for eradicating the prevalent odious rituals of purity, whether in the family or the temple.

Dear Ms. Madhu Purnima Kishwar:

It was with much fascination that I read your article in The Hindu [Don’t like this temple? Choose another - dated January 17, 2013] on the media's browbeating of Rahul Easwar over the ban on women devotees entering the Sabarimala temple. But, let poor Rahul Easwar and his ways remain a subject for later.

Today, let us examine that strand of your argument which is bound to strike a powerful chord with readers –

The need for “respectful engagement with faith leaders in order to bring about changes in allegedly outmoded customary practices and cultural values.”

Or, as you thunder,

“[devotees] can’t be ordered around by those who only have contempt for them. They cannot be bullied into surrendering their unique Being and become colourless and soulless robotic creatures that yield to every new wave of political fashion we import from our intellectual mentors in distant lands.”

At the outset, it appears that you do not seem very interested in “respectful engagement” with those who disagree with you. Your descriptions of them include “modern day missionaries”, “westernised elites”, “self-proclaimed modern liberals”, “imperious missionaries of 'liberalism'” etc – hardly the most respectful form of critique. By that standard, I, an atheist, should label all believers 'ignorant fundamentalists', something I refuse to do because it is an insult to the very possibility of the diversity you keep tom-toming.

That said, let us move on to “the idea of the male deity who has vowed eternal celibacy avoiding the company of women” and “those who seek to “dictate to the Lord [of?] Sabarimala how he should live in his own abode.” Let me suggest that this is not really about encroaching on the precious 'freedom' of the deity but a larger question of purity. I am sure you would be aware that the bar is not on all women entering the temple but women of a menstruating age. So it really is not about whether men are not allowed in one temple or women in another but one of 'purity' – and the very close associations it has with a patriarchal order.

As an aside, I wonder about this notion of celibacy. As another response to your article so eloquently puts it,

“What if I say that the entire premise of Sabarimala makes permissible one popular notion of our rape culture? That women are responsible for men and their sexuality, that the presence of fertile women can be tempting and tantalizing to men. What use is a god who can’t even be held accountable for his choice to remain celibate? Even in the case of THE Delhi gang-rape case, a version of this argument is being propagated.” 1

The malaise goes much deeper. Women who are menstruating are often sent to other households for a four-five day duration if anyone in their house has taken a vow to go to Sabarimala. This is of course in addition to your everyday practices such as not allowing them in the kitchen or anywhere in the vicinity of any ritual. So do forgive those who might take exception to these rituals for their implications go beyond entry into a temple and are clearly reflective of a larger social bias.

(So yes, if you barge into houses and suggest these odious practices be changed, I would be happy to join you. These rituals of purity, whether in the family or the temple, are a blot on society and it is high time they be eradicated. That perhaps would be changing with changing times. And yes, terming such practices “temperamental nuances” of the deity reminds me of nothing more than the 'boys will be boys' attitude that is still the standard response to the harassment of women.)

You speak of temples of where men are not allowed. But to the best of my knowledge, no temple bars men because they are likely to defile the temple or the deity or distract him/her.

That women are responsible for men and their sexuality, that the presence of fertile women can be tempting and tantalizing to men. What use is a god who can’t even be held accountable for his choice to remain celibate? From Sruthi JS's Blog Image: Flickr @ GorillaSushi

But many of these arguments have been done to death. What interests me here is your (and Easwar's) convenient inversion of the 'equivalence' argument. You know equivalence – whereby you cannot level a critique of Hindu religion or ritual unless you present (in triplicate) proof of your having criticised all other religions to the same extent. Incidentally, you are happy to invoke this equivalence when you wonder why no one talks about the visitors to Catholic friaries. Meanwhile, what you are also doing here is inverting this equivalence – thus, when someone asks you of an instance of discrimination, point to another seemingly similar instance in the same religion and ask 'Is that discrimination too?'

Of course, in neither case (equivalence or inverted-equivalence) is the real question addressed. So much for reasoned engagement, I guess?

Allow me to digress here and ponder your hilarious statement about those who possess “Kanjeevaram, Ikat, Chanderi or Patola saris, Madhubani and Worli paintings” etc. but find the “moral universe of those who create these diverse art objects...unacceptable.” Err. Yes. That is the whole point. Else, I would not be able to hum most Hindi movie songs without believing in the eternal love of those made for each other. Nor for that matter would I be able to quote the Declaration of Independence without believing in slavery. After, all most of the framers of the document did believe in a moral universe where slavery was very much present.

Reinterpreting art, ritual,and tradition is of course inevitable as is contesting them. Sometimes, this contesting works better than an engagement with “faith leaders.” It is obvious that religion is not merely a matter of some airy notions of faith but is mediated by powerful institutions with political and economic power. It does not make much sense to discuss drug control with an opium cartel, no?

But these negotiations, contestation and conflict over religion and ritual still happen - sometimes during arguments over coffee, sometimes through hard-fought struggles. Some of my favourite instances have involved Leftist and Dalit activists participating in the struggle for temple entry for Dalits.2 Predictably, the intermediate castes, whose stranglehold over the temple's cultural and economic resources was being challenged, were not too happy when the Dalits finally entered. They kept asking the same question:

They have their own temples. Why don't they go there?

Postscript 1: Regarding the “flagellation” of Rahul Easwar on TV, I urge you not to worry. Sooner or later, people will figure out that TV shows are just like the WWF 'wrestling 'bouts' that so entertained us as children. The TV presenter gets a loud debate on his hands and profits from more eyeballs, the panellist gets her five minutes of fame and an opportunity to put across her views. The more the conflict, the merrier for both concerned.

Postscript 2: I am genuinely curious why The Hindu published a piece like this. Considering its abject surrender some days ago after outrage over a random comment about Vivekananda in an article3, its following it up with a piece that was uncritically adulatory4, and then a two-page feature on Vivekananda 5, this article's appearance is indeed food for thought. So, either The Hindu's doing an Arnab or worse, indulging in some mild appeasement. Sigh!