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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

In Sabarimala, it’s Hindu vs Hindu

mumbai Updated: Nov 04, 2018 00:51 IST
Deepanjana Pal
Deepanjana Pal
Hindustan Times
Lord Ayyappa devotees display placards during a protest rally against the Supreme Court order that allowed entry of women of all ages into the Sabrimala temple.
Lord Ayyappa devotees display placards during a protest rally against the Supreme Court order that allowed entry of women of all ages into the Sabrimala temple.(HT Photo)

On Monday, in anticipation of Sabarimala’s reopening, Section 144 (which prohibits a gathering of four or more people) will be in force in Elavunkal, Nilakkal, Pamba and Sannidhanam. While many of us get ready to celebrate Diwali in the rest of India, police patrolling will be intensified in these parts of Kerala, in anticipation of violence from protestors who believe the presence of women devotees defiles the temple dedicated to Ayyappan. Why? Because Ayyappan is a celibate god and women in his temple would distract him.

Arguably, if there was ever an age that would be sympathetic to the problem of getting distracted, it should be the 21st century. After all, social media and the internet have successfully whittled our attention spans down to microseconds. Except the question of who can say a prayer at Sabarimala is not about our (in)ability to concentrate and neither is it really about women entering the temple since Sabarimala was open to women until 1991. What Sabarimala is forcing us to figure out is the nature of Hinduism in present-day India.

On one hand is the Hinduism of Sabarimala’s unyielding devotees and Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangha’s alphas – rooted in Brahminical ritual, rigidly conservative and committed to glorifying the upper caste Hindu male at the expense of the rest of society. On the other, is a Hinduism that values questions and ambiguities, is open to change, absorbing influences and bringing others into its fold through retellings and reimaginings.

It’s ironic that Sabarimala is the site of this reckoning. In folk songs, Ayyappan is a child of the forest who is adopted by a local king and goes on to achieve divinity because of his military genius. Legends say he is the son of Shiva and Mohini, Vishnu’s only feminine avatar. In Ayyappan, we see a fusion of a tribal, Dravidian deity with Puranic Hinduism. Given his stories speak of privileging talent over genes and unconventional love, Ayyappan is a deity born of the more open version of Hinduism. Yet, it is the temple dedicated to Ayyappan that has become the bastion of conservatism.

Devotees (and those seeking to politicise the issue) would rather privilege Ayyappan’s celibacy, which is the Brahminical aspect of his identity – considering all the stories in which libidos get the better of sadhana, celibacy seems to be highly-prized as an aspirational quality among Brahmins – rather than the aspects that are a nod to his unconventional background.

If women can’t enter Sabarimala, it’s the rigid version of Hinduism that gains ground and we’re a step closer to losing the details that point to Ayyappan’s non-Brahminical background. Privilege this Hinduism and we run the risk of countless myths and legends being saffron-washed because they don’t fit a narrow-minded worldview.

The beauty of Hindu myths with their multiplicity and difficult-to-digest details is that they prod you into alertness and encourage curiosity. For instance, when Lakshmi Puja is performed during Diwali, you could be satisfied with saying a prayer to the blandly-beaming goddess sitting on a lotus or you could take a moment to think about the stories associated with her. Before she became Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi was linked with Varuna, Soma, Indra and Shiva. Is this a metaphor to show good fortune can be fickle? Or do these exes of Lakshmi suggest hers is a goddess cult that resisted being assimilated into mainstream Hinduism and therefore had to be retold repeatedly? However you see it, she is a goddess who is determined to be independent. Even when she’s subsumed under Vishnu, we’re told that one of her avatars is Radha, the perfect devotee and also a woman who flaunts convention by falling in love with someone other than her husband. Radha remains distinctly independent, unattached to Krishna and detached from her husband.

With the clamour for conservatism growing louder in India, it seems we’re poised to redefine Hinduism in conservative terms that alienate many of us. Religions are social constructs, which means Hinduism will be whatever the majority of its followers want it to be. If that’s the rigid version, keep the faith. The un-Hindus have the better stories.

First Published: Nov 04, 2018 00:51 IST