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The Female Touch on Faith, Religion and Religious Tolerance

What actually happened in Sabarimala? It was alleged that 18 years ago, a woman had breached the temple’s security and got within touching distance of the idol of Lord Ayappa and might have placed her feminine fingers on the deity. The woman had confessed to the deed and the temple authorities believed that her because an astrologer had discovered that the poor, dear celibate deity was disturbed and this could only be because a naughty girl had touched him.

The temple authorities were now drawing up an action plan to purify the site so that no traces of the accursed female presence of nearly two decades ago remained.

Now, this is not about getting too self-righteous about the perceived lack of logic of all religious belief or about regarding the traditions surrounding places of worship as necessarily irrational or idiotic.

Faith cannot be judged on the basis of rationality and science.

But something about the Sabarimala story strikes as deeply offensive. Part of it is the credulousness of the media. Nearly all newspapers have been eager and willing to buy into the temple’s line that the mere suggestion of a female presence in the sanctum sanctorum constitutes a terrible outrage.

The regressive streak in all religions, including Hinduism is shocking in that it is believed that the furore is about Ayappa’s bachelor status so fragile, apparently, that it was threatened when a woman touched his idol. But the truth is that it is about the primitive notion that the bodily functions of women are unclean.

The injunction against women extends to those between the ages of ten and fifty. In real terms this means: women who menstruate. Children are okay. Menopausal ladies are fine. But any woman whose ovaries are in working order and whose womb is still in operational condition is to be regarded as dirty.

It is an injunction that is raised against many of the world’s great religions though, of course, it is usually expressed more subtly. Why is it that a menstruating woman is not supposed to enter a Hindu temple? Why can she not take part in a puja, even within the sanctity of her own home if she has her period? Why does the ability to give birth demote a woman’s moral credentials? Why do we worship the Kumari in Hinduism? Why is it so important that the most important female character in the New Testament should be portrayed as a virgin? In contrast, the sexually active Mary Magdalene is written off as a whore.

You need only to observe the bizarre ritual of the living goddess in Nepal to understand how twisted Hinduism’s take on a woman’s reproductive powers can be. Each year, a pre-pubescent girl is selected as a living goddess and venerated till she reaches puberty. Once she is menstrual, she is cast aside and condemned to live a sad, neglected life. Some former living goddesses end up begging. Some sell their bodies.

No intelligent, educated man, let alone woman, can respect this notion that menstruation -- and the reproductive ability it symbolises -- is unclean and accept that the mere touch of a menstruating woman can desecrate a holy shine.

So why does nobody tell the Sabarimala trustees where to get off? Why do we so faithfully reproduce their regressive, primitive nonsense about restoring the sanctity of the temple? Why don’t we go in there and drag them, kicking and chanting, into the 21st century?

The answer is well known to everyone.

In today’s India, we have come to confuse secularism with a respect for the most regressive traits in every religion.

Each time there is a conflict between what we see as religious tolerance and some basic liberal value -- free speech, gender equality or anything else -- we choose ‘religious tolerance’.

In the beginning, this secular suspension of liberalism extended only to minorities and especially to the Muslims. Whenever there was an issue that involved, say, gender rights, we ignored all our traditional values and plumbed unhesitatingly for what we saw as the Muslim position.

Take the Shahbano case. In the beginning, when we first read about the manner in which Muslim men sought to be exempted from the normal provisions about paying maintenance to their wives, we were outraged. But barely had the outrage sunk in when a second, more powerful emotion took over. We learnt that Muslims treated judgments about alimony as an interference in the practice of their ancient religion. Almost at once, we abandoned our liberal principles and embraced the mantra of mindless secularism: if the Muslim community believes that, we said, then it must be okay.

A similar knee-jerk response overrode our normal pro-free speech reaction to The Satanic Verses. Few of us had read the book; none of the people who rioted in the streets were likely to read it anyway. But the moment we heard that Muslims were offended, we resisted the urge to say the right thing. We should have said: “If you are so offended, don’t read the damn thing, but don’t deny the rest of us the right to read it”. Instead, we quickly supported a ban.

That misplaced respect for minority religious sentiments exists to this day. Some of us were outraged when a minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s UP government offered a reward for the head of the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet. But most of us decided that it was best to let this thug get away with an incitement to murder; after all, minority sentiments were involved.

Even now, we shy away from any reform of Muslim Personal Law which has many provisions that are clearly gender discriminatory. Why should a Muslim man be allowed to have four wives if a Muslim woman can’t have four husbands? We don’t approve of the regressive laws, of course, but our secularism stuns us into silence.

Sadly, the Christians, once regarded as India’s best-educated minority, have now taken to exploiting the misplaced belief that all religious issues are best left alone. It is truly shocking that so many state governments have banned The Da Vinci Code -- a film that ran to packed houses in Christian countries in the West -- on the grounds that a few crackpots have agitated against it. Most disturbing is how little indignation this blatant abridgement of free speech has provoked. As usual, we have told ourselves that if it involves religion, then it is best to keep our mouths shut.

If the BJP, with all its diatribes against pseudo-secularism, achieved anything it was that we extended this misbegotten tolerance for religious bigotry across minorities and to Hinduism itself. Thank LK Advani for teaching us what pseudo-majorityism means.

It means that any scholarly work that considers whether Vedic Aryans ate beef is to be condemned. It means that a bogus Saraswati civilisation has to be invented to cover-up the non-Hindu Indus Valley Civilisation. It means that assorted sangh parivar-ists, a trend started by the late Vijayaraje Scindia, will sing the praises of sati. And, eventually, it means that Hinduism will get official sanction to regress several centuries.

In fact, history has taught us that no religion can be static, that it must adapt and evolve to changing times. Hinduism is a living example of that truth. Had reformers like Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda not pushed for change, Hinduism would never have taken the form it has today. Had the British not banned child marriage and criminalised sati, we would still be living in the Middle Ages.

Our unquestioning acceptance of the sexist abomination that is the so-called ‘desecration’ of Sabarimala shows how far we have travelled from the path of reform. Our fuzzy, confused secularism and respect for all religions has led to bizarre political correctness. Sabarimala is okay because Dalits are allowed -- how loathsome, shameful and pathetic is that argument?

But any fair society cannot be based on an acceptance of sexism or prejudice. It must be based on strong liberal principles.

The challenge before us is to reform religion so that it respects those principles. If we abandon our values in the face of religious prejudice, then we will have failed -- as a society, as a nation, and as human beings.

Copyright © 2006 Jishi Samuel