As a sometimes devout, sometimes indifferent Hindu, I have rarely had any problem with my gods and goddesses.
Temple priests, however, have been rather more difficult to tackle. My family members were never much of ritualists, but many were great artists. So whenever they visited any temple, they were more interested in the architecture, including the carvings of the idols in the sanctum sanctorum, than the rituals per se.
As a child, I remember a conflict with a temple priest in south India who would not let men enter unless they took off their shirts and donned dhotis. Now, as rather westernised gentlemen of modern days, that militated against their sensibilities. They, however, complied grumbling under their breath all the time about the state of public undress that temple rules subjected them to.
Women, of course, fared better so long as they were fully covered. So we marched in in our salwar-kameezes which were not so popular in south India at the time -- practically every other woman worshipper was either in a sari or, if younger, in a long skirt and half sari.
My own encounter with a temple priest came in the Maoist-infested jungles of Andhra Pradesh in the late 1980s but not over the issue of dress. This beautiful temple in the middle of nowhere was rich in architecture (I had imbibed the love for carvings from my father) and wanted to see for myself but it seemed to me entry was allowed only to certain castes.
And if you were a caste Hindu you had to have a gothra. I did not know mine -- we were brought up with a general Hindu ethos in the family but our parents had kept us away from rituals and caste discriminations as well as religious differences in society. Our home was open to all and we wined and dined equally without getting into the nitty-gritty of religious sanctions or otherwise. Even my father’s fondness for non-vegetarian food was not taboo -- though my mother never cooked meat at home. He and I trotted off to the club whenever we wanted to and no one remarked upon it otherwise.
Now, however, when I didn’t seem to know my gothra, the temple priest doubted my antecedents. But he had a fair idea of who I was with in the jungles. Mandal elections were underway in Andhra Pradesh and there was opposition to them by the Marxists-Leninists.
He didn’t dare stop me from entering. “Next time you want to come here, ask your parents for your gothra,” he said rather resentfully.
I was never going to return but my attitude to gods and temple priests ever since has been defined rather clearly -- I will not go where I am not wanted. If I go, I will go on my own terms, not anybody else’s.
So, I have never even been urged to visit the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar where women are not allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. I must appreciate the efforts of the Bhumata Ranragini Samiti to break this taboo and I quite applaud chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s liberal mindset in assuring women that such discrimination will end soon.
However, I understand his second thoughts – there is a huge conflict of interest here within the ruling BJP. Do they cater to half the population (of women) or do they take care of their orthodox constituency which are a huge chunk of their supporters?
It might have been easier for Left parties or those like the Congress and the NCP to enact laws against such discrimination. However, I wonder if legislation is the way to clearing such taboos across religions -- for even the Haji Ali dargah has been banning women and this one might be too much of a hot potato for even the Congress-NCP to handle. The evolution of a liberal mindset in men -- women I believe are by nature more liberal -- who administer these places of religious worship is the answer, but will that ever happen?
After a long battle against such discrimination, there are already women priests in Pune who conduct all rituals. After several years, I recently revisited the temple which had demanded shirtless worshippers. I noticed young men – and women — in jeans and fancy shirts allowed entry as long as they were not wearing leather belts. I have hope.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)