In any one article with a strict word limit, no one can deal with all the aspects and nuances of an issue. I am thankful to Prachee Sinha for her rejoinder to my article Don’t Like This Temple? Choose Another because it gives me an opportunity to clarify my stand on key issues regarding Hindu temples and faith traditions.
While I respect diversity in our faith traditions, I do not accept or condone the shameful treatment meted out to all those castes branded “untouchable”. Whatever its origin and justification, “untouchability” is an unforgivable crime. I would personally never enter a temple that bans the entry of Dalits. Mahatma Gandhi and others were right in leading protest Satyagrahas against such temples. Any religious authority — no matter how high and mighty and any text, no matter how sacred-- that justifies the demeaning of fellow human beings as lowly or untouchable is not worthy of respect. I believe the curse of untouchability has revenged itself on us all by making India one of the filthiest countries in the world. Disdain for those who help keep our cities and homes clean has resulted in most of our public spaces and buildings — including government offices, water bodies, and even our temples — being among the filthiest in the world. I am as appalled at the shoddy upkeep of our temples, the filth and squalor of most of our mandirs as I am at the cruel treatment meted out to “untouchable” castes. That is why the sacred deity of Manushi is the broom wielding Devi Swachhnarayani. (For an account of how and why this goddess took avatar to lend strength to our battle for the rights of street vendors read: http://manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1586&ptype=campaigns. The aarti of Manushi Swachhnarayani can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m5qQzLunK0)
There is much that is seriously wrong with our temples which are supposed to act as dharmasthans. A place deserves to be called a dharmasthan only when it actually carries out “dharmic” activity — dharma defined not as meaningless rituals but as acts aimed at promoting the physical and spiritual welfare of the entire community. Our temples used to be places of learning and scholarship. They ran quality pathshalas as well as supported higher forms of learning. They were designed to run open langars so that no one in their vicinity goes hungry. They were given land grants for this and related welfare activities such as providing shelter to the needy. Many of them were centres of healing. Last year I partook of langar in one such South Indian temple in Singapore. It was a truly uplifting experience. Very few temples in India have kept these practices alive.
By contrast, all Sikh gurudwaras have preserved some of these traditions. For example, no gurudwara is complete without daily langar which is sustained by the sangat — rich and poor alike. No Sikh farmer takes his harvested crop to the market or even his home before offering a certain portion to the local gurudwara. Even urban Sikhs, including those living in far away countries routinely make monthly offerings to their neighbourhood gurudwara.
This is the best possible food security system anywhere in the world because the food is offered as the deity’s prasad not as humiliating charity whereby rich and poor alike sit together to partake it. Not surprisingly, one rarely sees Sikh beggars in Punjab or elsewhere in India. Similarly, while anyone in distress can claim shelter in gurudwaras, most of our temples have abandoned these essential services and have become mere collection centres for money and other offerings. The cash and other valuables offered to the deities are being used for supporting decadent lifestyles of temple owners and managers. Even the prasad in many of these temples, including the wealthiest Tirupathi temple, has to be purchased. Pujas also have price tags; you can skip queues for darshan if you pay more.
One doesn’t experience a sense of sacred when one witnesses such visible signs of greed, corruption and total disorientation. Since temples have become money churning enterprises, politicians and bureaucrats vie each other to be on management boards of important Hindu shrines and devasthanams. In many places, people with criminal antecedents have donned priestly robes and taken charge of these temples as mahants and pujaris. (For an insightful scholarly study on the process that led to disorientation of Hindu temples, see Annam Bahulya Kurvita by Dr. Jitendra Bajaj and Dr. M.D. Srinivas, published by the Centre for Policy Studies Madras, 1996).
The crime and corruption that has come to infest our temples is no less serious than that afflicting our machinery of governance. It is puzzling why Hindus have remained mute spectators to the steady erosion and destruction of the dharmic content and spiritual worth of their places of worship. Even gurudwara are in danger of losing their dharmic essence while retaining some of the outer forms of dharmic activity because they have become battlegrounds for party politics between various Akali factions and the Congress party. Many gurudwaras treat the really poor with such disdain that the destitute dare not enter in them anymore. To register a quiet and dignified protest against the creeping disdain for the poor in gurudwaras, a group of Sikhs hold a daily morning langar right outside Delhi's Sheeshganj gurudwara in Chandni Chowk, for the poor and destitute of the area.
I am reminded of the words of Sant Longowal who said in the interview he gave me a few months before his assassination: “Jad tak saade Gurudware kacche si, saada dharam pukka si. Jyon jyon saade Gurudware pukke aalishan bande gaye, saada dharam kaccha honda gaya” (As long as our gurudwaras were made of mud, our dharma was strong. As our gurudwara buildings kept getting more and more solid and glamourous, our dharma became weak). This is even truer of Hindu temples than of Sikh gurudwaras. Apart from daily langar, one can at least enjoy listening to gurbani in classical ragas in every gurudwara, big or small. But most Hindu temples, especially in the North, don’t provide anything better than garrulous aartis based on filmy tunes blaring at deafening pitch on loud speakers. Like Prachi, I too am not willing to live with such noisy and intrusive displays of religiosity because this is not what I mean by the respect for diversity.
The sanctity of our dharmic sthans, sacred rivers and mountains need to be restored by evolving better institutional mechanisms for managing them. Fortunately, the task is easy for those who care to undertake it. This is because neither Hindu deities nor our diverse scriptures issue non-negotiable commandments in the way Semitic Gods and their faith Books do. Hindu deities allow their devotees to criticise their unjust actions and demand improved behaviour. That is how we have hundreds of versions of Ramayana and Mahabharat. (See my article Yes to Sita, No to Ram and Of Humans and Divines in the Hindu Faith Traditions. Our faith traditions allow for constant charge in customs and social practices with the changing requirements of times. However, in order to earn the right to demand desired changes, we must learn to differentiate between what is intrinsically unjust and what makes for the colourful rich diversity of Hindu faith traditions. Most important of all, we must learn to engage and listen with respect to those whose faith and social practices we wish to see improved. Reform cannot be a one way street.
In short, I go by Mahatma Gandhi’s words of wisdom: “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.”
An abridged and edited version of this response was published in the print edition.
(Madhu Purnima Kishwar is founder, Manushi, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)