Prime Time at 9 at my place is quite interesting every time I visit. My family and I indulge in this incessant battle of watching either fictional shows or the News Hour with Arnab Goswami, with fictional shows almost always winning (mostly because my mum’s not a fan of the volume Mr. Goswami and his fellow speakers operate on). On the exceptional evening of 25 January this year, though, the News Hour won, what captured our attention was watching a group of Muslim and Hindu men arguing on the same side passionately. In the light of Trupti Desai and her brigade attempting a revolution to break the chauvisnist doors of the Shani Shignapoor temple in Maharastra the issue was whether there should be discrimination against women from entering temples and mosques.
I was both delighted and disappointed with the issue. Delighted and proud over the fact that women were demanding equality in matters of religion, disappointed that it was coming after 67 years of the Indian republic.
A speaker parroted that the reason for discrimination was that, Shani, the God of the temple controlled anger and imbalance and the rock in the temple consisted of harmful vibrations, and worshipping that would be disastrous to women; reflects the typical mindset of Indian society I thought, first they impose rules, and then, upon resistance, you will be fed with inventive arguments and goody goody stuff of how this works as a boon. This is the case with every religious discriminatory practise in Hinduism. Women are led to believe that they are the weaker sex and the society’s doing them a favour by imposing such arbitrary discrimination. One such instance comes from a subset of Hinduism, the Swaminarayan Dharma, in their guide to the religion they say that one of the reasons for discrimination against a menstruating woman is that “at this time of the month, the woman is a Devta, as Brahma (the creator) who resides inside her reveals himself, and therefore she is on a higher spiritual level than us all and so we must avoid touching her.” I am reminded of the millions of worshippers visiting Chardham and other spiritual areas yearly, touch a menstruating woman instead and according to what they say, you will be blessed for life! The News Hour debate that day, did not conclude on a satisfactory note and I dismissed the reasons for discrimination proposed by the speakers as rhetoric non-sense.
Historically, In the early Rig Vedic society, women and men were completely equal. Women were able to take part in both their political institutions i.e. the Sabha and the Samiti. Women had a choice of either becoming Brahmavadinis or Satyavadinis. As a Brahmavadini, a woman chose to devote her life to learning and to never get married. As a Satyavadini, women studied for the purpose of getting married. This civilization boasts of women scholars like Apala and Ghosa who have composed Vedic Hymns. Along with legal scholars like Maitreyi (the wife of Yajnavalkya), Ancient India was home to the world’s first woman philosopher Gargi. None of the Vedas, provide for a ban of entry to women anywhere. The only time their movement appears to be restricted is during menstruation, owing to the cramps and pains associated with it. I believe it was only positive discrimination to allow them to rest.
The Later Vedic Period however, was otherwise. Women were categorically discriminated from men. Isolation of women from the society and its institutions was highly encouraged. They were confined to the walls of their houses and treated as highly dependent individuals. Opinions of accomplished scholars like Chanakya and Manu turn out to be biased and highly disappointing on this point. Mughal and British eras further degraded their positions.
The advent of the Indian Constitution in 1950 turned the situation in the favour of women. With the fundamental right to equality, the constitution categorically bans any form of inequality between the sexes. The misguided, chauvinistic proponents of religion however, still deny the entry of women in certain religious places basing their reasoning upon the fundamental right of freedom of religion. The basis of this argument though is inherently flawed. When you restrict a woman from entering a temple, first of all you are messing up with her right to equality guaranteed by Article 14, her right to freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 19 and her right to a equal and scar free life guaranteed by Article 21. Most striking among these rights, is her right to equality. The Honourable Supreme Court has long ago made all the fundamental rights subject to the right to equality. Thus, you cannot deny equality in order to practise your religious freedom under Articles 18-25. Secondly, The Honourable Court has defined Hinduism as a way of life. No human can then be subjected to any sort of arbitrary norm while going about their normal lives.
It is indeed surprising that a group of women were forbidden entry and denied their fundamental rights by law enforcing authoritites on the inception of the 67th year of the Indian Republic. What irked me further is the lack of political will on this mindset. The most surprising change was to see spiritual gurus often the pioneers of patriarchy come out in support of women over this issue.
What led to the denial of entry though is the unsettled position of personal law till date. The pro patriarchal mind sets prevailing in the highest court of the land often refuse to interfere with personal laws and practices which is why such blasphemy continues. This can however, be the subject matter of an altogether new article. The recent acceptance of the wrong Sabrimala Temple practise though has driven my inner critic into a hibernating state. I hope that a custom of denying entry to a woman during her biological life cycle is recognised non-sensical and thereby ceases to exist.
Photo Credit: Flickr (Dominiqueb)