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The cosmic glass ceiling

india Updated: Jul 07, 2006 03:38 IST
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Not one but two women have created a storm of protest by claiming that they have entered the shrine of Sabarimala. The Sabarimala shrine, where women between the ages of 10 and 55 are strictly prohibited, is a shrine to male celibacy. Lord Ayappan is said to be the god of the brahmachari. If women are allowed into Sabarimala, says the thantri or priest, the entire edifice of the temple will collapse and the very reason for the arduous pilgrimage will be nullified.

An ancient monastic pilgrimage will be demolished for the sake of contemporary notions of gender justice. A sanctified tradition that exists precisely because of its transcendental distance from the 21st century will be brought into the dull ambit of everyday political correctness. Are the voices calling for the entry of women into Sabarimala guilty of forcing a lumpen modernism into the stern austere place where the god’s traditions have been kept alive for hundreds of years?

According to Sanal Edamaruku of the India Rationalist Association, Sabarimala might originally have been a Buddhist site, where men came as monks to a monastery. So while Sabarimala’s restrictions on women may not be consonant with modern notions of gender equality, its traditions are Buddhist and monastic, where celibacy is the philosophical undertow. Rahul Easwar, the long-haired, English-speaking grandson of the thantri, says Sabarimala is about a certain ‘psychological space’, the space for the brahmachari ideal. If that ideal is lost, an important distinctive cult will be ironed into the uniformity of ‘modern acceptability’.

To call for Sabarimala to be open for women is like saying that women should be allowed to enter monasteries, or men should be allowed inside nunneries. It’s like saying that the orders of the Jesuits and the Benedictines should admit women, or that the Loreto order of nuns should admit men.

A deeper question arises from the Sabarimala controversy. Are religions hostile to women? The writer Polly Toynbee believes many of them are. Eve, forever the reason for Adam’s lust, must always be subjugated. Sex pollutes god and sex invariably means women. Thus religion is pure and women are dirty. Women must, therefore, be shaved, bathed, purified, placed in a convent or isolated behind purdah, and unclean menstruating woman must be kept out of holy rituals. The perverted hatred of a woman’s body, Toynbee believes, places religions on a collision course with modernity, and unless religions reform themselves, societies will never change.

The Catholic Church’s ban on abortion and contraception has long placed it in opposition to feminists worldwide. Many have suggested that the reason why Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is so successful is that it revives an old heresy within the Catholic Church, the heresy of a female apostle. After all, if Mary Magdalene was so close to Jesus, is it not possible that she too could have been one of the carriers of the word of God, just like Luke, John and Peter?

By contrast, women in Hinduism seem nowhere near as subjugated as they appear in the Catholic tradition. The mother goddess, the Shakti cults, the naked, rampaging Kali, the avenging Durga, and the hundreds of little traditions of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati and Santoshi Mata are all evidence of a plethora of female goddesses. On the face of it, there are no strictures against birth control; women participate in worship as equally as men, pilgrimages are undertaken as couples, and whether it’s a ganga snan, an evening arti, temple entry or Amarnath yatra, men and women are relatively equal in the holy realm.

But gaze a little closer at the practice of Hinduism today and you’ll find that women, for whatever reason (because of the dominance of the Brahmin male or because women have perhaps never needed to assert themselves in a tradition that is seemingly open), have not played as vital a role as they could have given the role models in the form of goddesses.

Every student of history learns about the debate between Yajnavalkya and Gargi in the Brihadarnyaka Upanishad. Gargi Vachaknavi was the ancient Upanishadic scholar, who was seen to challenge the men of an elite Brahmin academy when she asked Yajnavalkya, the leading scholar of the time, to participate in a debate with her. But all Gargi did, we learn to our disappointment, was simply ask two questions of Yajnavalkya about space, at the end of which he shut her up with the firm retort: “Do not question beyond this. You may go crazy.” So much for Gargi.

The ladies of the Hindu epics are truly feisty dames. Yet, at the same time, none of them seems to ever leave the wife/mother trap and play roles that show her acquiring any sort of direct relationship with divinity. Kunti refused to play adoring mother. Instead she floated her son down a river and had five other sons from five other fathers. But Kunti’s chief identity seems to be frozen as the errant mother of Karna, rather than as a woman with a complex relationship with divinity, as represented perhaps by the ‘Sun’, the ‘Wind’ or any of the ‘fathers’ of her sons. Aditi, according to a captivating play I had the privilege of seeing, was so determined to win the battle of egos with her sons that she buried one of them under the earth with an elephant for company!

But in the end her son triumphed over her too. Savitri stared down Yamaraj himself but only to rescue her husband Satyavan from untimely death. And Draupadi, bless her soul, was not only married to five husbands, but according to some accounts, even had Krishna for a lover. But again, the former fact remained her main identity. The sexuality of the Hindu woman is neither apologetic nor hidden, yet the Hindu woman’s path to God seems to always be through her family, her husband, her children or her lovers. 

In a universe teeming with female goddesses, there are still very few women priests or religious scholars today. Most godwomen exist outside the ambit of formal religion. Tulsidas’s notorious phrase, Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, nari, yeh sab taadan ke adhikari (lower castes, animals and women should be thrown away), is still recited.

One of the few goddesses of the big league, a woman who seems to have broken the cosmic glass ceiling, is Durga, who rules supreme in her corner of Bharat. But again Durga’s is hardly a mainstream Vedic cult and is located primarily in the folk traditions of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

In north India, Karva Chauth and Raksha Bandhan are festivals centred around appeasing a male relative. As for Manu, the doughty law-giver, didn’t he roundly declare that a woman must be protected by her father, husband and son at different stages of life, as she is never fit for independence? Many Hindu traditions seem to clothe their exclusion of women under a shimmering veil of superficial freedom.

So Sabarimala may be a brahmachari shrine where women should not enter. Yet for all Hindu women who meekly accept their religion’s rituals and pieties, the Sabarimala shrine is also a symbol of a need to question why their ancestral faith tries to exclude them.

(The writer is Features Editor, CNN-IBN: sagarika.ghose@gmail.com )

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