Friday, January 20, 2006

With Your Holy Permission

This relates to to the posts here, here and here by Uma (Indianwriting), Anand (Locana) and Aishwarya (Kaleidoglide) respectively.

To put it very briefly, the point all of them raise is this: are temples justified in raising a hue and cry about who they allow in, and who they do not?

Simple logic suggests that it is not a fundamental tenet of Hinduism itself that debars non-Hindus from entering places of worship. I say this merely because many temples (albeit 'inconsequential' ones, if I may venture to call them so - those temples that are not the sort of 'popular' places to attract pligrims from outside cities and states) do permit entry to non-Hindus. Thus, as far as I can infer, it is the concerned temple that has sole jurisdiction over its ingression laws

Consequently, IMHO we have here what is known in IT-parlance as a paradigm-shift. The question is not whether Hinduism is justified or not in preventing entry to its places of worship - the religion never did debar them in the first place (notwithstanding the shadow of the reprehensible caste-system hovering over this veneer of tolerance - a discussion on that would take a whole new post !). Instead, the question is whether such denominational entry policies imposed by certain temples make sense or not.

My opinion is a firm 'NO'. Notwithstanding the likes of Thakeray and his ilk, I am of the firm belief that Hinduism is an 'open' religion that did, does and should encompass all cultures & religions. Denying somebody access to a temple based only on his / her religion is as distasteful as refusing to share the same table with somebody because of the color of his / her skin. A common counter-argument here seems to be that our temples would be somehow 'defiled' if 'sceptical' people of other faiths entered 'our' temples merely to gawk. Several flaws here though:

(a) Are all people of other faiths automatically sceptics? If not, is it ok if we let the 'believers' in?
(b) Are all Hindus automatically non-sceptical, or does being born a Hindu automatically compensate for being a sceptic / a practising atheist, and
(c) Can places of worship be defiled that easily?

I could go on, but you get the drift.

A related issue here is that of dress-code for temples. For instance, in Kerala a man can enter a temple only if he removes his shirt. Now, being bare-chested has nothing to do with Hinduism or devotion - it is just a vestige of the times when everybody entering a temple had to be bare-chested so that non-Brahmins found inside a temple could be instantly identified (and presumably, flogged). To 'honor' this 'tradition' even today is deplorable, to say the least. I have similar thoughts regarding the compulsory mundu (dhoti) too, but that is admittedly also because of the 'discomfort' involved while wearing one (I never know when the bloody thing is gonna fall off!). However I really am curious to know the precedent behind the mundu becoming the obligatory garment for most temples in Kerala.

Personally, I am not all that enamored with popular temples in general. I like to associate a certain sense of tranquility with places of worship. Queuing up for 3 hours, with somebody's armpit (smelling of sweat-tinged 'Rexona' deodorant) at your face while somebody else is busy sniffing at (or rather, because of) your armpits, is not exactly my idea of serenity - what little peace of mind I have is lost by the time I see a corner of the idol. And when its your chance at a one-to-one with the deity, you always have a grumbling priest ready to shoo you away within the first 5 seconds. Sorry your Holiness, give me the 'inconsequential' ones any day!

There are exceptions, of course - for instance, the Padmanabhaswamy temple at Trivandrum. The main deity here is Lord Vishnu, depicted in the mythological Ananthasayanam posture where he reclines royally on the giant snake Anantha. The complete idol can be viewed only through three different doors. This temple, which overlooks a famous tank (too lazy to look it up - think its the Padmatheertham tank), is incredibly beautiful and serene. Of course, I believe it does have the usual trappings of dress-codes, DoS (IT term for denial of service - sorry, couldn't resist) to non-Hindus etc, but at least it looks like a place of worship. Also, there's a rather interesting story behind the idol of Vishnu in the temple. It was recently discovered that the whole idol was made of pure gold, but seemed to have been coated with charcoal, carbon and other such material due to which the idol appeared to have the usual black 'n' greasy look. Legend goes that this camouflage was done to protect the idol from the imminent threat of an attack from Tipu Sultan - dunno how far that is true, though. But now, the gold idol as well as the gem-studded room enclosing the idol look spectacular .

But I digress. Slowly, more and more temples are being forced to relax some of their more senseless rules. Hopefully, within the next decade or so, we will not have to dress up for a visit to the temple ! And I might just be able to take along my Christian / Muslim friends (not that I haven't already, despite awe-inspiring glares from family friends at the temple who knew that my friends were 'non-Hindus'). Hallelujah to that !


redrajesh said...

People talk about temples not allowing people of other religions,having codes etc...but why do they not talk about churches and mosques which are worse? In UP I have seen mosques which have boards with bold lettering saying "Hindus are not allowed inside". And there are people who stop people who are not wearing the muslim cap from entering the mosques. And I am sure churches have their own no point in just hollering about temples alone without giving a complete picture of other religions to balance the view.

Ranjit Nair said...

Redrajesh, I know abt mosques having restrictions, but have not encountered any discrimination in churches until now. The reason why I (and maybe, some of the others too) talked about temples is because being a Hindu, most of the my personal observations/experiences have been at/regarding temples. I know a bit about churches too, but my knowledge about mosques and synagogues is nil.

I agree with you that it is equally shameful that places of worship for other religions too exhibit such blatantly discriminatory policies too. I believe it'd be great if temples could be the first places of workship to drop such blatantly partisan rules - don't you agree?

redrajesh said...

Well, in today's world, anything which is considerate in construed as a sign of weakness. So if temples first drop all restrictions, then others will only become more callous towards Hinduism. So any removal of restricitions etc has to be in a stepwise negotiated process of getting others to remove their restrictions as well. I know it sounds bad, but in today's world, I think that is the only way out.

Ranjit Nair said...

Redrajesh, do not agree with you about a first step being construed as a sign of weakness. As far as I am concerned, its a wrong to be righted, irrespective of who else does it or not.

redrajesh said...

Ok. Then let us just agree to disagree.

Ranjit Nair said...

Yep Redrajesh - amicable disagreement !!