When I lived and worked in Bangalore as a journalist, I remember once having an argument with a male Malayali colleague on the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. My argument was this: why should women be barred from entering a temple or not be allowed to touch a deity when she is menstruating? And how this is the height of regressive sexism, given, that we pride ourselves in being a nation that worships the Mother Goddess and how almost every Hindu God has a consort, and, in many cases, multiple wives.
The man in question, had offered an almost bizarre logic, that ran along the lines, that the custom of barring women in 10-50 years age group was intrinsically linked to the ‘naishtik brahmachari’ character of the deity, who did not want women from 10-50 years to visit him.
‘For centuries, many Hindu rituals have been performed by male priests, have you ever seen a woman priest in a temple?,’ he retorted, when I asked him why it was that women in India are the biggest consumers of organized religion – why my grandmother prayed for hours, fasted and cleaned our puja room with her own hands, with devout dedication?
Why in most households, that observe Hinduism, as a faith, it is the women who fast on certain days of the month to appease the Gods, prepare bhog for the deity, do the nittya (daily) puja, every morning and evening, unfailingly? How religion subversively turns women into passive recipients? How women turn to Godmen, the same way, for their counsel and blessings and to protect the family during bad spells – how women are sexually abused, in the name of a holy intervention?
Why should a man stand between me and my God?
“You won’t understand, you are a Buddhist,’ my colleague, then much senior to me, had sniggered in the end, walking out in a huff.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court decreed that temples are public places where there can be no discrimination based on sex, gender and age. Women must access the temple as a basic fundamental right. But, yesterday again devotees of the temple sought to dissuade the Supreme Court from applying Constitutional principle of equality to areas of faith posing to them a question – would you order an Imam for every mosque, a priest in every Church, a Sevadar in every Gurudwara?
As an Indian woman who is a proud, practising Buddhist for the last 23 years, and who was trained to read the Gita and the Upanishad, by my maternal grandfather who was a proud Bhramo atheist, I sometimes wish our female deities could speak?
All of them?
Kali? Chamundeshwari? Lakshmi? Parvathy? Durga? Saraswati? Sita? Shitala? Ganga?
The others I have missed, here.
One by one?
Tell us how they feel?
To be venerated as epitomizing Shree Shakti? Be relegated to temples of gold and silver and bronze, built by powerful kings as extensions of their worldly achievements or to celebrate victory in a bloodied battle? Be worshipped by bare-chested, celibate men, who utter complicated shastras and shoklas? To be gazed at, from a safe, serene distance? To hold out its own sex, on certain days of the month? Be seen as objects of worship, and not creatures of desire and flesh and blood and fantasy? For its power to be associated with procreation, victory over evil, and wars, and not ever be associated with pleasure and touch and feeling, anything?
To always stand next to a male deity?
A wife of someone…
A part of something…
If in our battle to defeat patriarchy, a Goddess is not an equal contender, then?
Fighting for the same thing?
Equality. Dignity. Freedom.
Access. Arousal. Awakening.
(The writer is an acclaimed author. Her works include Faraway Music. Sita’s Curse, You’ve Got The Wrong Girl! and Status Single. Sreemoyee is also a columnist who writes on gender & sexuality.)