The imperious missionaries of liberalism have no respect for the diversity of India’s belief systems and have taken it upon themselves to reform everything they perceive as outdated and incorrect

Do we want to create a world in which everyone thinks alike? A world in which there is no space for divergence of views or foolish people? I write this after witnessing poor Rahul Easwar, one of the young hereditary priests of Sabarimala, being flagellated on television for the nth time on January 7, 2013, for allowing the presiding deity of his temple to shun the company of female devotees.

The media’s job is first and foremost to inform and not browbeat people to “reform.” TV news programmes in particular have come to resemble inquisitions or kangaroo courts with anchors and their hand-picked panellists flagellating those with politically incorrect views, issuing diktats on everything from political views to religious practices and rituals, and even the conduct of gods and goddesses.

Intolerant

Just as our colonial rulers with their faith in the superiority of their monotheistic faith, despised Hindu religious practices, with their millions of gods and goddesses, our modern day missionaries can’t stand the temperamental nuances of our diverse deities. They have no problem in accepting that women are barred inside friaries meant to house Catholic priests who have taken a vow of celibacy. But they can’t stomach the idea of a male deity who has likewise vowed eternal celibacy avoiding the company of women. They take it upon themselves to cure this kink because in their moral universe with its borrowed vocabulary, this amounts to misogyny and gender discrimination!

Rahul Easwar has asked each television anchor who has grilled him over the years how would they deal with all those temples which only allow female devotees, where the presiding goddess forbids men’s entry. Would they likewise force “women only” temples to open their doors to men? Not one has ever condescended to answer this simple question; nor did any of the anchors tone down their aggression or hostility towards Rahul’s intelligent defence of his faith and his Ishta dev.

Following in the footsteps of our British rulers, who despite their disdain for our gods and goddesses, took away shiploads of priceless ancient idols to display as art objects in their museums and living rooms, so also our westernised elites have taken to displaying paintings, bronze and stone carved idols of diverse gods and goddesses as decoration pieces in their homes as proof of their aesthetic lifestyle. But their disdain for those who treat them as objects of worship remains as ferocious as that of our colonial rulers.

Respect for differences

If that were not the case, they would have no difficulty in appreciating that Hindu divinities are not unknowable, distant entities. They have distinct personalities, character traits, likes, dislikes. Even in matters of food, floral offerings, puja ritual, each deity has his or her preferences. If you don’t respect their unique temperaments, you are free not to worship them and choose the devata or devi that suits your taste.

Even the most illiberal among Indians do not insist on uniformity of rituals or modes of worship. They let each faith group, each sect decide for itself how to define their relationship to their chosen deity, what foods to offer her, what modes of worship they think appropriate to express their devotion and how they interpret her likes or dislikes. This spontaneous, mutual respect for differences in ways of being, ways of worship, singing, dancing, clothing, cooking and so on, is what enabled the rich diversity of India to survive through millennia.

But our self-proclaimed modern liberals can’t deal with these lived forms of diversity. They can only relish in museumised versions such as folk dances on Republic Day or as consumer goods. For example, possessing a collection of Kanjeevaram, Ikat, Chanderi or Patola saris, Madhubani and Worli paintings, Moradabad brassware, wood carvings from Kashmir, Tanjore paintings, Rajasthani miniatures, etc. is a fashion statement. But the moral universe of those who create these diverse art objects is unacceptable. It is assumed that they all need a dose of reform to cleanse them of antiquated beliefs and values.

For engagement

I won’t be surprised if tomorrow someone decided to reform the food habits of our gods and goddesses saying, for example, that modak and laddoo are both high cholesterol, high calorie food items. They encourage devotees to have pot bellies. Therefore, they should be banned in favour of sugar-free diet chocolates!

It is time the imperious missionaries of “liberalism” understand that our temples are not meant to be tourist centres — where entry must be free for all. Most of our traditional temples are run by specific sects for the devotees of that particular deity. If you don’t like the values of that sect, if the preferences of that particular deity are offensive to you, just avoid going to that temple. There are lakhs of others to choose from.

If I walked into the homes of our self-appointed reformers and insisted that they change their lifestyles and food habits, I’d be shown the door and asked to mind my own business. What gives these non-believers the right to dictate to Lord Sabarimala how he should live and act in his own abode or dictate terms to harmless little sects among Hindus who prefer to indulge in the whims and wishes of their chosen deities?

Young Rahul Easwar has been pleading for respectful engagement with faith leaders in order to bring about changes in allegedly outmoded customary practices and cultural values. In the Hindu faiths, nothing is written in stone. Devotees have the right to dictate their deities to change with changing times. But they can’t be ordered around by those who only have contempt for them. They cannot be bullied into surrendering their unique

Being and become colourless and soulless robotic creatures that yield to every new wave of political fashion we import from our intellectual mentors in distant lands.

(Madhu Purnima Kishwar is founder, Manushi, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

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