Choose another temple? An Open Ramble to Madhu Kishwar

Rahul Nireaswar January 18, 2013

"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for the diversity of India’s belief systems and have taken it upon themselves to reform everything they perceive as outdated and incorrect" says Madhu Kishwar.
Image Credit: The New Indian Express


"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for the diversity of India’s belief systems and have taken it upon themselves to reform everything they perceive as outdated and incorrect" says Madhu Purnima Kishwar, noted academic and founder editor of Manushi - a journal about women and society.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.

Menstruation Tent
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!

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Good retort but slightly flawed

Dear Rahul,
Thanks for your article. It is really very nicely written. However, I couldn't help but to point out a few things in your article, which I believe are flawed. I don't blame you for it, because as you proclaim yourself as an aethist, you may not have knowledge of the religious scriptures:

1. Bhagvat Purana writes about the taboos of menstruation period. While none of the scriptures mention not allowing Dalits to enter a temple. Now, this is a religious dictum. Unfair and outdated? yes,of course. But it has some foundation in the Hindu scriptures. This is not like the Dalit case.

2. You mention that one can't critique Hindu religion without doing the same for others. What is wrong in comparison,especially if the comparisons are close enough? Ah, I know why. Because then, suddenly the liberals start squirming...

3. About your vague blathering about diversity of moral underpinnings. Do you even understand the concept of sects within any religions? Try to send an Ahmadi in a Sunni mosque and you will understand. Or a Protestant in a Roman Catholic Church (my friend was thrown out of one such church). Similarly, there are diverse beliefs within Hinduism and thus there are various sets of rules for their followers. Therefore, for every sect it becomes imperative to decide as to where the rule of the establishment will supersede everything else and till what extent. Perhaps, you need to study this aspect closely.

Is this the worst logical fallacy competition?

The point 2 that you mentioned is a perfect example for the same kind of logical fallacy which the original Hindu article too based its premise on. The cry that "they discriminate", is not even an argument. It is a pathetic diversion tactic. One do not need any special status with respect authority or affiliation to point out that the sh*t stinks. And it becomes worse when you demand why did you just mention this sh*t, what about other sh*ts and bull-sh*t! May be all of them stinks, but do you have a reason to say that it doesn't?

The Sabarimala temple, along many other major temples in Kerala, were under the patronage of earlier 'Royal Govts' which got transfered to the civil Govt after the treaty they signed with GOI. This puts a totally different complexion on this issue, since it is a de-jure civil issue-- may be restricted to the "believers of Hindu denomination", I'll give you that. An atheist have every reason to oppose a discrimination, or stand in solidarity with the group that demand parity, even though he/she may not be a member of the denomination (in this case 'Hindu women') affected by it. And as an Atheist myself (and I guess it applies to Rahul too), I perfectly understand the concept of "sects"-- much more than you could imagine. In fact, read and studied about them before even beginning this "vague blathering" (although, I fail to understand in which universe it is "vague"). Having different sets of believes under a large umbrella group does not give you the licence to adicate all elements of reason and reasonability, as far as civil issues are concerned.

Your point No 1 was a pathetic excuse. Dalits were (and are) systematically discriminated with explicit religious and social consent. They might not have used the same jargons, but Manusmritis to Ekalavyas remain as some of the testimonies. Some were direct, while others subtle. Religion is not a phenomena limited to some scriptures. Even if one argue that they are, there is no reason why Gita or Vedas need to be any more fundamental than Yajnavalkya's opinion on women or Manusmriti given the long history of violence perpetrated against such communities or women was influenced by them. Therefore,both excluding Dalits and women have social equivalence. More over, this is linked to the purity rituals which need to be wiped off. I don't see that as an issue of diversity and there is no diversity in being a bigot. You just become one.

reply to sandipan

Ah! the arguments of apologists of hindu dharma are no different from other religious fundies be it islam or christians...now to your points
//1. Bhagvat Purana writes about the taboos of menstruation period. While none of the scriptures mention not allowing Dalits to enter a temple. Now, this is a religious dictum. Unfair and outdated? yes,of course. But it has some foundation in the Hindu scriptures. This is not like the Dalit case.//

So what? So by that token gays are bad because the abhrahmic religions says so...tell me how does a women get defiled during her periods...puranas were written by ignorant guys claiming sadhus on a high on soma bhana aka marijuana

//2. You mention that one can't critique Hindu religion without doing the same for others. What is wrong in comparison,especially if the comparisons are close enough? Ah, I know why. Because then, suddenly the liberals start squirming...//

atheists do not discriminate stupidity be it xtian or muslime of yahwah nonsense...remember sanal's exposure of leaking urinal from the jesusucks statue?

//3. About your vague blathering about diversity of moral underpinnings. Do you even understand the concept of sects within any religions? Try to send an Ahmadi in a Sunni mosque and you will understand. Or a Protestant in a Roman Catholic Church (my friend was thrown out of one such church). Similarly, there are diverse beliefs within Hinduism and thus there are various sets of rules for their followers. Therefore, for every sect it becomes imperative to decide as to where the rule of the establishment will supersede everything else and till what extent. Perhaps, you need to study this aspect closely.//

if discrmination exists in other religions it is equally condemnable...so why should your hinduism be an exception?

Religion is not a construct

Religion is not a construct of a psecular government nor of streetwallah reformers such as yourself. Religion is a construct of tradition honed in by the allegiance, devotion, worship and penance of a few thousand years. If tradition dictates that Lord Ayyappa has an aversion for women, you better stick to the tradition, or else you have no regard for that tradition and hence will not benefit from that tradition. Unless you are are great seer of the order of Saint Sankara or Saint Ramanuja, you are just another mass of flesh and blood wallowing in its own ego with little right to dictate the Hindu tradition. The concept of a -saakara daivam- was the contribution of ancient seers and sages, accordingly every -saakara- deity has a personality that has to be respected by those who wish to pray to that deity. Madhu Kishwar is right - choose another temple or do not go to a temple.

Apologist of saffron flavour

None of your retort has coherently presented me one logical reason as to why women should not be allowed in temples. If you think women are impure during their mensurating years, you should update from the 200 year old ideas and google "for growing stem cells using menses". how was sankara and ramanuja different from rest of us? and how is their claim empirically verified to accept their ideas to be acceptable? instead you give me a hopeless "argumentum ad authoritium" that if they say something is right, we have to accept it, whether it has reason or logic...i thought we are living in 21st century with heightened enlightenment than the feudal submissive society...btw travancore devassom board is not run through upper caste private property, it gets government patronage and donations from all sections of society, so it is morally responsible to answer why women have to choose another temple...madhu kishwar's apologia or not!

A Reply to Ayyappadas and all Anonymous Aethists

Please understand one thing. Religion is a congregation of believers of a certain faith. Not everybody needs to stick to it. And people don't, when they find that their views are not accomodated within the religion. They form factions, sects etc.
In the same vein, temples, rituals, liturgy, food habits are all specific to a particular stream of thought, call it a sect or a religion. One does not change these things unless the change comes from within. One is free to choose another temple, religion, way of praying. Now this aggrieved person can be a woman (or women), a dalit, a pundit or whatever else. I don't see any "logical fallacy" here.

Think through these questions, I think you will have the answers yourselves:
1. Who has forced the aggrieved person(s) in question to attend the same temple?
2. Is the temple funded by the state or is it funded by private individuals and trustees?