Women, spirituality & social taboo

The denial of entry for women into famous religious shrines is a hot-button issue, which refuses to die down in the national media. The issue first came up in the context of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Since then, the issue has made its way to the Shani Shingnapur shrine and the Haji Ali Dargah.

There are about 400 million women between the age of 15 and 50 in India. There are approximately 600,000 temples in India. But many temples across India have a different rules for women. For example, the Trimbakeshwar temple in Maharashtra and the Mahakaleshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh do not allow women to enter into the sanctum sanctorum. However, in the ancient Hindu text, Shiva Purana, it is said that Lord Shiva listens more to the prayers of women. If that is indeed the case, then why do different standards exist for women? Is there any valid reason or is it just because of some old tradition or belief based on superstition?

India has a rich culture and spiritual tradition. But, there are instances of “superstition” and “blind faith” in Indian society. Many such instances have originated on account of ignorance and fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, women have always been the target of such superstitions. Suffice to say, such practices profoundly affect the lives of women. In the past, women were brutally killed in the Sati Daha tradition. Widows would also face restrictions on their lifestyle. What’s worse, women have also been executed on irrational charges of witchcraft, among others. These superstitions have gradually vanished in the past two centuries due to the development and spread of scientific knowledge about nature and her manifestations.

Let’s look at the example of ancient India, where there were no temples. People worshipped rocks, rivers and stars etc. Even now we have the Kumbh Mela, which is a Hindu ritual that does not involve any artificial structure. Cutting across the caste, creed and gender, many people participate in this pious festival. In ancient India, women occupied a very important position, and in certain instances superior to men. It is a culture whose only words for strength and power are feminine -”Shakti” means “power’’ and “strength”. Literary evidence suggests that kings and towns were destroyed because a single woman was wronged by the State. In the Padma Purana, it is said that Sri Ram could not perform Ashwamedha Yagya without Sita. Instead, Ram performed these rituals seated besides a golden idol of Sita. If such rituals are believed to be incomplete without women, then why are they denied entry into certain temples today? 

Surprisingly the reasons given by temple authorities are bizarre. The shrines advocate that the ban is for the benefit of women. More or less the reasons for such rules hover around the anatomy of a woman. One such bizarre obstacle for women is their “menstrual impurity and cleanliness”. It is sexism disguised as religion. There is no constitutional provision that prohibits women from entering religious shrines. Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CCLXII clearly states that one should practice what one considers his/her duty, guided by reasons, instead of blindly following the practices of the world. It is not usual for Hindu women, who are menstruating to go to temples anyway. Sri Ramakrishna allowed women to practice religion and rituals during that time. Even Sarada maa asked women to go to temples. The Ramakrishna mission does not deny women entry into temples during that period. It simply boils down to superstition. These regressive rules are created by Orthodox priests.

It is pertinent to mention that a wrong understanding of the Sanskrit word “Ashaucha” has dominated such decisions. Ashaucha has two interpretations – unclean and impure. ‘Unclean’ is related to physical objects; ‘impure’ is related to mind. It includes outer cleanliness of the body as well as the inner purity of mind. Orthodox priests have a tendency to apply the ‘impure’ terminology for external objects. They demarcate certain random objects as ‘impure’ and others as ‘pure’. Cleanliness is overlooked due to too much attention to purity of objects. This is the origin of religious fanaticism. Probably this is reason most religious places and rivers are unclean, even though they are still considered “pure”. 

Meanwhile, in certain cultures, a menstruating woman is considered sacred and powerful. According to the Cherokee, the menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength. They believed that it had the power to destroy enemies. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. In Africa, menstrual blood is used in powerful magic charms in order to both purify and destroy. In Shaktism, the Earth’s menstruation is celebrated during the Ambubachi Mela. The annual menstruation course of the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the Kamakhya Temple in Assam. When there are so many belief systems, it is better to leave it to the woman to follow what she wishes instead of perpetuating social taboos.

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