Right to faith, right to worship

Another shrine has sparked a controversy and triggered high-decibel debate over its policy and rituals. Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple has captured headlines after the Supreme Court asked why women are barred from entering the temple premise. But Sabarimala is not the only temple that restricts entry of women. There are many temples, mosques, and other shrines that fully or partially ban women, non-adherents, foreigners, the improperly dressed, etc. Then why the debate only over Sabrimala? Why just highlight the discrimination against women? Why not against the ban on certain communities?

People who worship idols also believe that all are equal in the eyes of God. There is no discrepancy amongst the believers, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female, etc. Who places such restrictions on these groups from entering some temples?

There have been many debates on banning entry of foreigners and Dalits in temples. Considering Hindu scriptures and traditions, restrictions on certain groups in certain places seem manmade. The restrictions are not uniform even if the religion is the same. There are many temples where Dalits and foreigners are also allowed. Why should gender or caste be hostage to age-old discriminatory traditions? It must be changed. The Law must intervene, and regulate religious matters. If we believe in gender equality, should we tolerate a discriminatory practice? Why should gender or caste be compromised in the name of religious conventions?

Now, the issue has come up regarding the prohibition of entry of women in Sabarimala temple. Don’t  women deserve equal right to worship? If restrictions on Dalits and foreigners  in temples is injustice, how is banning  women alright?

After the recent development on the Sabrimala temple issue, there is a debate on constitutional rights, human rights, freedom of expression, etc. If a faith’s essence is inclusiveness, don’t such restrictions violate that? If everyone has right to equality, do places of worship not uphold that principle?

According to Vedic rituals, women wear sacred thread and perform puja. The Rig Veda emphasises on equality of sexes. It doesn’t restrict gender-based entry into temples; rather it describes husband and wife (male and female) as equal halves. The Atharv Veda allows women to take part in decision making, family maintenance and gives them equal right in society and property. In many Hindu scriptures, it has been observed that women have played  prominent roles. If women have freedom in scriptures, then why not have the right to enter temples?

These are century-old customs and traditions in many temples. In the era of science and technology, when we talk about digital India, when we talk about 21st century, these old customs and traditions need to be looked at afresh. Such unnecessary, unreasonable stigmas should be erased as much as possible to protect the spiritual sentiment of people.

Some arguments can be made referring to ancient history. In ancient India, many temples were built having its own “pratistha” or idol concept, and the rules and regulations are specifically created for this, even though there is no logic to it. Nobody bothers to understand how consistent logic is with such practices. But these practices have been followed blindly for many years. Sabrimala temple is no exception. The belief is that Sabrimala houses “Ayyappa God” who is a celibate. As per tradition, the journey to Sabarimala is a 41-day long pilgrimage. Menstruating women inevitably have a cycle before this pilgrimage is completed. Hence, they are not allowed to enter the temple as religious experts argue that women cannot remain “pure” during this menstrual period. But, there are hundreds of Ayyappa temples which don’t have such restrictive practices against women, and that Attukal Bhagavathy, the Sabarimala exclusive to women, even holds a Guinness world record for organising the largest congregation of women on earth – about 30 lakh women.

Religions of the world place restrictions on menstruating women. Be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Sikhism is the only religion where the scriptures condemn sexism and don’t impose any restriction on menstruating women. A menstruating woman is treated and viewed differently in the major religions. Accordingly society treats and views menstruating women differently as well. Similar taboos exist across religions and cultures. 

Some of the most consistent practices followed include isolation, exclusion from religious activities, and restraint from sexual intercourse. Women are still prohibited even by the “modern” religions to enter the temples. Also, what is common in all religion is the age-old idea of spiritual impurity, which doesn’t seem to go. However, there are exceptions too. It seems, when it serves their purpose, some are willing to break the traditions.

Therefore, it is high time we try and break such stigma around some age-old beliefs. We need to create an environment where all can access information and exercise their freely and openly. 

(The writer is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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