Discrimination Against Women’s Right To Temple Entry In India: A Critique
By Meenakshi Gogoi
26 May, 2016
In Indian society, a vast section of Hindu men are an ardent devotee of goddesses. Be it goddesses like Durga, Kali, or Mahalakshmi, the popular among female deities, one can never escape the astonishing sight of large swarming of men in these women goddesses temples. No wonder, men of all ages worship them as mother goddesses and believe them as devi or adi-shakti and not like any other ordinary women. Men often, keeps their daughters names on women goddesses names like Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati etc but surprisingly, the same men fraternity disregard the dignity of a woman by imposing prohibitory rules on her in case of temple entry. More correct to say, prohibiting women from entering the inner sanctum of some famous temples in India. What makes a man naming his daughter on female goddesses names when he do not give equal rights of worshipping to his daughter, who is a woman and more so, make it conditional for her when to offer prayers and when not? Men can worship the yoni (private part) of a renowned goddess Kamakhya or to say, a bleeding goddess but prohibits a menstruating woman from entering the inner sanctum of the temples. What an irony! Men restrict women from offering prayers even though women are no less devotees than men. Undoubtedly, patriarchy has won too, over subjugating women in matters of worshipping and snatching away her very rights from entering the temples. Devotees of all ages and irrespective, of genders should be allowed to offer prayers in the inner sanctum because it makes them feel close proximity to the god or goddesses they worship. After all, it is a matter of one’s devotion and not regulation.
In some famous temples of India, women are debarred from entering the inner sanctum of the temples because of some very conservative reasons like menstruation and if the male deity is a bachelor. Like in lord Ayappa’s temple situated in Sabarimala, Kerala, women are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum because the male deity is a bachelor. In Shani Shingnapur temple, Maharashtra, it is believed that lord Shani may curse women so, women are debarred from entering the temple since, decades. In Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai, women are not allowed to visit the grave of the saint, as it is believed that close proximity to the Muslim saint is considered as a sin in Islam. In Kartikeya temple, Rajasthan, it is also, believed that lord Kartikeya would curse female devotees, instead, of blessing them. So, women are debarred from temple entry. In Patbausi Satra, Assam, menstruation is the main reason for not allowing women to enter the inner sanctum. In Ranakpur temple, Rajasthan, a large board is kept outside the temple which clearly, shows that women cannot enter the temple during her menstruation period and a strict dress code is also, maintained for the women devotees to enter the temple, possibly, when they are not menstruating. In Shree Padmanabhaswamy temple, Kerala, the temple allows women to worship the deity but they are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the temple.
Moreover, the imposition of certain fixed age limits on women as to when they are not allowed to enter temples, by some temple trusts have certainly, sealed the patriarchal norms over women devotees. Men can worship a female deity, who signifies the worth of women power, but they cannot respect the dignity of a woman devotee. When it is religiously believed that god and goddesses do not discriminate between men and women, for that matter anybody on this earth and everyone is welcome at worshipping places, then who are men to prohibit women from entering the inner sanctum of the temples? It is obnoxious and a sheer hypocrisy.
With news reports on women agitations over denying women entry into temples, has once again, proved that how women have been fighting for their rights and freedom till date, in a male dominated society and against the conservative traditional norms imposed on her since ages. It is a difficult task to break away such age old patriarchal norms prevalent in society within some days but any such courageous attempts made by the female fraternity to protest against the traditional patriarchal norms like prohibiting women from entering temples needs to be appreciated. Agitation launched by activist Trupti Desai and her brigade, is indeed, a very welcoming step and deserves much appreciation.
While talking about agitations over denying women entry into temples, it is pertinent, to talk about the stand of judiciary in matters relating to women rights and temple entry. In the Shani Shingnapur case, the High Court passed judgement in support of women devotees. The Court said it is the fundamental right of every woman to enter into places of worship and the government is duty-bound to protect it. Following the Bombay High Court order, the temple trust of Shani Shingnapur temple, allowed women to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. The Supreme Court in case of the Sabarimala temple, Kerala also, said that neither a temple nor a governing body can ban a woman from entering the temple. The Court said it is the personal choice of a woman to enter or not to enter a temple and the Court further, questioned the age old custom of debarring women from entering the temple since, several decades. The Court’s order strictly stated that Indian constitution rejects discrimination on the basis of age, gender and caste. One cannot discriminate and prohibit women from worshipping at the shrine.
Judgements made by the Courts truly uphold the constitutional values and provides justice to the women fraternity. Such a discriminatory act of debarring women from entering temples needs to be protested louder. Temple trusts should amend the discriminatory and prohibitory rules for women devotees. Because the temple trusts are responsible for maintenance of the temple and certainly, not to make laws for prohibiting women from temple entry. After all, worshipping is a matter of spirituality, one’s choice and freedom as a human being. Broadly, speaking, it is absolutely, a question of human rights in India. In a democracy, women too, are citizens like men and she should have equal rights and freedom like men.
Recently, my visit to the famous Kamakhya temple situated in Guwahati, Assam, has enlightened my thought provoking mind about the question of women’s temple entry in some ways. A longing desire was fulfilled when I finally, visited the Kamakhya temple. More than desire, it was curiosity that brought me to the temple. Legends has it that lord Shiva had performed the tandava, an Indian classical form of dance, out of anger at the death of his wife, Sati by self-immolation at her father’s place. In order, to stop lord Shiva from performing the tandava, lord Vishnu cut the body of Sati through his chakra (weapon) into many pieces. Because the deep fury of lord Shiva would otherwise, destroy the whole universe. Those body parts of Sati is then believed to be fallen in several places on earth, which later on, became the famous shakti-peeths (pilgrimage centres) according, to Hindu religion and myths. It is widely, believed that the yoni (private part) of Sati was fallen in the Nilachal hill area, where the Kamakhya temple is situated today. Since, ages maa Kamakhya has been worshipping with great fervour and devotion. The famous Ambubasi mela, depicts the arrival of menstruation period of goddess Kamakhya, once, in a year and the temple remains closed for three days during this period and on the fourth day, the yoni is worshipped in the inner sanctum. There is no idol or sculpture of goddess Kamakhya and the yoni is worshipped in the form of a stone. A natural spring always keeps the yoni wet which is considered as the holy water flowing inside the inner sanctum.
What is striking about the Kamakhya temple is the fact, that I was neither debarred from entering the inner sanctum of the temple nor prohibited from touching the holy water flowing inside the inner sanctum. Question arises then, is it because Kamakhya temple is a woman goddess temple and so, women are allowed to enter the inner sanctum of Kamakhya temple? Or is it because of the already prevalent practice in our society that women during menstruation do not visit temples and only non-menstruating women visit the temple? Possibly, I was not prohibited from entering the inner sanctum of the temple because, it is an established fact today, that menstruating women are not supposed to visit the temple and rest of the non-menstruating women and those whose periods are over by the time they visits the temple are understood to be entering into the temple. Such an understanding, also, makes it very clear the rooting of patriarchal set norms imposed on women, as to when can a woman be allowed to enter temples in India and when not.
Menstruation, has always been a taboo in Indian society and is used purposively, to prohibit women in matters of religious activities. Along with questioning patriarchy on issues of menstruation, the biggest reason for debarring women from entering temples, one also, needs to understand how menstruation has been dealt in our households. In rural areas, a menstruating girl or a woman is often, not allowed to visit any auspicious occasion in the neighbourhood, she is not allowed to enter kitchen and cook food, she cannot touch idols and pickles at home or else, it would get rotten, she has to sleep in a separate room, to use a separate bed and has to wash her hairs, bed-sheets and pillows once, her period is over, etc, are some of the popular norms that girls have to follow during menstruation. The conservative outlook to menstruation, though, changing a little in urban areas, but the notion of impurity attached to it has not been completely, uprooted from human psychology and society.
Caste Dalits were also, discriminated as impure souls and so, debarred from entering temples and they are still, not allowed to enter some famous temples in India. Impurity is attached to women due to menstruation. Rather, than seen as a natural biological process of a woman’s body, menstruation is considered as an impure and unholy thing in society. No wonder, today, young educated girls and women are coming together in solidarity to protest against such taboos of menstruation which the society has witnessed in the ‘Happy to Bleed’ campaign, some months before, that went viral on social media and garnered people’s attention and responses to it. It is one such ways, to deter and act against the misogynist attitude of patriarchy on women which makes use of any illogical reason to subjugate women even in religious matters
The issue of purity and impurity needs to debated, seriously, as it is used purposively, to discriminate between castes and genders, too. In order, to remove the conservative attitude towards menstruation, elderly women in the households should stop passing on the rules of menstruation, to be followed by their daughters and granddaughters, the next generation.
Interestingly, in some parts of the North-East like in Assam and South India, the celebration of first time menstruation of a teenage girl is still, in practice. Though, it is rare to see in parts of North India. Specially, in rural parts of Assam, rituals are followed and a small feast is also, organised for the near and dear ones of the girl’s family to celebrate the occasion of puberty. In Assam, it is known as the Tuloni Biya or Xoru Biya (small wedding). It is very much a paradox, to understand menstruation in our society. Because, on the one hand, menstruation is celebrated to mark the entry of a young girl into an adolescent age, as to welcome the age of fertility in adolescent girls and on the other hand, menstruation is used discriminately, by patriarchy for prohibiting women from entering temples.
Discriminating women from entering temples is not a part of any Hindu ritual but with passing of time, since, several decades, the patriarchal brigade has imposed discriminatory norms on women that snatched away her very rights to worship. Recently, with the passing of courts verdict on securing women’s rights for temple entry, has not only attacked the misogynist attitude of patriarchy on women but also, make it realisable to our society that worshipping is very much a matter of personal choice and devotion. The message is very sound that women are equally free, like men to enter temples. It is a question of human rights, from a larger perspective and Indian constitution has granted everyone to worship and practice their own religions, freely, irrespective of, different castes, genders and religions in our country.
Meenakshi Gogoi is a PhD Candidate, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, Delhi.