Entry to Lord’s abode: who can qualify?

By Ram Puniyani

On June 11th of 2007, the Guruvayur temple trust issued an apology for the purification ritual carried out by them, in the aftermath of the visit of Vyalar Ravi with his family to the temple. The purification was performed to cleanse the temple as Mr. Ravi’s wife Mercy is a Christian. In this temple the ones’ from other religion are not permitted, as the purity pollution is strongly adhered to in this temple. In the apology it said that since Mr. Ravi’s son Krishna is a Hindu, so performing the purification ritual was a mistake. On the heels of this the minister for temple affairs of Kerala is planning to come up with a law to ensure that all those born in Hindu families are permitted to the temples.

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Guruvayur temple, one of the most famous temples of Kerala, Dwarka of South, performed punyaham (purification), rites in the temple, after the chief tantri (priest) declared that the temple is not open to non-Hindus. And since Mr. Ravi’s wife Mercy is a Christian, his son’s being a Hindu is doubtful, so the need for purification. (May 2007). Minister along with his whole family had come to perform chorronu ceremony (ceremonial rice feeding of the infant) for his grand son. The Chairman of the board of the temple said that the verdict of the tantri is final. Of course he also pointed out that though temple entry is banned for non-Hindus traditionally, we should change with time. Tantri’s son in a press conference said that though this norm should not be violated, if the Government comes forward and makes a law about this they will let the non-Hindus come to the temple.

Temple entry has been an important part of social reform movement. While this case in particular belongs to non-Hindu, the major battle fought by social reformers has been about the entry of dalits to the temple. During freedom movement when many a social movements breaking the hegemony of upper caste and against patriarchal norms were going on, the struggle for dalits right to education, temple entry and the struggle for women’s right to education were the major challenges. In 1920s two major such movements for temple entry were the one of Kalaram temple in Nashik and the other was the one in Viakom, where Periyar Ramasamy Naicker took the lead. Gurvayur temple was also in the news seventy five years ago, when the issue was entry of untouchables to the temple and that of permitting them to use the road crossing in front of this temple.

The lead given by leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar, was taken up by other major national leaders. Mahatma Gandhi registered the dalits plight and went on to initiate moves to appeal to upper caste Hindus to eradicate untouchability in all sincerity, to respect the then untouchables on equal footing. He himself commingled with dalits in a genuine way. While there are many criticisms of Gandhi’s approach to the dalit issue, one thing is sure, he was addressing the upper caste, appealing to their conscience to overcome the age old practices and mind set.

For pioneers like Ambedkar, this temple entry was a symbolic one as he realized that the Hinduism as practiced broadly, the major assertive form of it, is a Brahminic theology and it cannot have respectable place for his people, the low castes. That’s why he declared that he was born a Hindu, that was not in his hands but he will not die as a Hindu. He embraced Buddhism in 1956 along with many of his followers in due course. The same trend is visible even today with mass conversion ceremonies being organized by various dalit groups.

The reform in the temple norms could not go beyond a point. Many an ideologues did call for temple entry for all. In the prevalent social situation, the absence of proper land reforms sustains the hold of Brahmincal norms and landlordism, the twin pillars of pre modern India. The major incidents like the refusal of entry of Adivasis in Lord Jagggnanath temple in Puri, refusal for entry to Indira Gandhi in the same temple on the ground that she is a married to a Parsi, the refusal to permit a woman civil servant to Sabrimala temple on the ground that the ruling deity of the temple is a bachelor so women in the reproductive age group should not be allowed, continues. Still there are diverse rules in different temples, regulating the norms of entry.

Guruvayur must be being ruled by a set of very conservative clergy. The case of singer, musicologist Yesudas is very interesting. This noted singer is very outstanding in his contributions, his rendering in praise of the Lord of Guruvayur, his music is also played at the temple but he himself is not permitted to enter the temple as he is not a Hindu! India’s syncretic and plural traditions are very charming at one level, and at another the orthodoxy of clergy is equally painful. Had poets like Rahim and Ras Khan, the devotees of Lord Krishna, who wrote beautiful songs in praise of the Lord, been alive today, will they be permitted to enter the holy precincts of the Lord in whose praise they have contributed phenomenal work? Would Prophet Mohammad approve of women not being permitted in the mosque? Or would Lord Jesus approve of separate churches for those who have converted to Christianity from dalit background?

Many a major drawbacks still persist in the social reform process. In Ayaapan Temple in Sabrimala the women in the menstruating age group are not permitted. In Jagganath temple, Puri, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Budhists are allowed while those belonging to other religions are barred. In Venkateshwarsa Temple Tirupati also non-Hindus are not allowed though they can go up to the sixth hall. Muslims till sixteenth century used to pray there. Dwarkadhish temple does not discriminate on the grounds of religion and caste and all are permitted. Even today in the interior villages at many a places, dalits are not permitted entry, and most of the times it is not reported, while sometimes this does come in as news though it is a regular feature in the countryside. In Hindu temples the norms are diverse and the rigidity is kept despite marginal changes here and there.

As such the rigidities imposed by the clerical elements are not the monopoly of any single religious tradition. One knows that in Moques, at various places women are not allowed and just a few years ago, in Kerala, Maulvi Kutty opened his mosque to women against strong opposition to the same. Earlier in Kerala again there were separate Churches for dalit Christians. These traditions which have been rooted have been slow to change, in most of the religions, while in current times the orthodoxy of Muslim clergy is highlighted and put forward as an example, the other religions generally escape the butt of criticism. Mostly clergy, priestly class, is the most inflexible part of the institution of the religion. In the popular religious traditions like Bhakti, Sufi and Christian mystiques, religion is seen as the uniting point, inclusive in nature, open to all and regarding all as equals. But where ever clerical elements rule the roost, irrespective of the religion, exclusionism is the norm.

One also hears at times that ‘we’ the Hindus are very liberal and permit all the people in our religious places while the others don’t do the same. This is as far from truth as can be possible. As such the norms in Holy abodes change from place to place depending on the controlling clerics, who claim to be the repositories of the norms and traditions of the particular religion. In Hinduism also, the norms controlled by Brahmanism are more rigid than the one’s around Shramanic traditions like Bhakti, Nath, Siddha etc. Amongst Muslims also the pattern amongst Shias and Sunnis is not the same. Parsi fire temples display a prominent board banning non Parsis to enter their temple. It is also a symbol of times that despite such restrictions many a people feel like going to the same place due to their faith.

While one feels the need for reforms amongst most religious places, to dub it on one particular religion is what is disturbing. The political elements, the one’s operating around the identity of religion, try to glorify their scripture and philosophy and compare it with the practices of the other religions. The whole ploy is to claim the superiority of their religion. As such the correct approach should be to compare the practices with practices and pick up the humane aspects from the moral teachings of religions. This incident should wake all of us again to the ills prevailing in the practices of religions and make efforts to overcome it.