Astronomers tell us that the Rings of Saturn consist of countless small particles of varying sizes orbiting around the planet. We could extend its complex logic to the controversy surrounding the entry of women into the inner sanctum of a temple to the Hindu planetary deity of astrological significance in the town of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra.
The state administration is in no hurry to comply with an order of the Bombay High Court that ordered that women be allowed to worship alongside men in the temple, ending a 400-year-old tradition. Activist Trupti Desai accuses the BJP-led government of contempt of court after alleging violence with local villagers.
In another temple at Trimbakeshwar in the state, authorities have barred both men and women from the inner sanctum, in an apparent attempt to avoid charges of gender discrimination. In a secular democracy, religion is a private matter, but then, India is also committed to social justice and equality, which implies gender rights. In a nation that sees questionable practices in all religions, intervention by courts in the affairs of one religion can stir unrest over others as well. We would advise all authorities to be cautious on such issues as they can tie us down in tricky knots.
There is little doubt that Hinduism has been going through a big churn through the centuries. Sages of the Bhakti Movement have led spiritual uprisings to erase boundaries of caste, language or gender. But it is equally true that some matters pertaining to faith have their roots in occult practices not amenable to the simple logic of human rights. Eighty years ago, the then Maharaja of Travancore lifted a ban on lower castes entering temples in Kerala after a long-drawn social movement backed by Mahatma Gandhi, triggering a revolution that seems to be moving in slow motion.
Habits that have their roots in social discrimination must end, but others need to be considered keeping in mind both sentiments and matters of faith. While faith may be a private matter, religions follow well-documented principles that must also be brought into the picture by organs of the state. Local priests and temple administrators cannot be allowed to have ad-hoc control without being challenged.
Be it the ban on sati, in which widows were forced to die on the funeral pyres of their husbands, or in women taking part in cremation ceremonies or lower castes taking part in rituals, Hinduism has steadily moved forward with reformist intent. That spirit should stay, while allowing room for esoteric practices. Saturn is a planet of justice and caution in astrological parlance, and its significance needs to be upheld in the worship of its deity.