Just a matter of belief?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

Published - January 31, 2013 04:18 pm IST

A response to Madhu Kishwar’s article “Don’t like this temple? Choose another” in The Hindu, 17 January 2013)

Dr. Madu Kishwar’s approach to the question of the entry of female devotees into the Sabarimala temple merits attention, as it is representative of a popular viewpoint. While our disagreements with Kishwar are not new in terms of evidence or argument, as illustrated by a large body of scholarly work, it is worth reiteration nevertheless. This is particularly in the light of the fact that every time a new issue on the question of religion in public life comes up, we need not start from the basics.

Kishwar argues that Hindu deities have temperamental nuances, which believers are obliged to satisfy. Non- believers have no right to interfere in these practices, because their ‘liberal’ ideas are ‘imported from the West’. For instance, misogyny and gender discrimination for her are part of a borrowed vocabulary of the ‘imperious missionaries of liberalism’ , the ‘westernised elite’ who treat idols as art objects, and who want temples to be turned into tourist centres free for all. She insists that Hinduism is uniquely accommodative of diversity, and people are free to choose any deity with any ritual/temperamental preferences. Further, if the preferences of any particular deity are offensive to anybody, the matter can be settled by just avoiding visits to that temple.

Our disagreements to such an understanding can be summed up in the form of a few basic questions. First, are believers a homogenous community? Is such a community not marked by persistent structures of power and exploitation? Second, what is Kishwar’s understanding of religious reform? Who are the agents in such a process? Third, are all believers illiberal or are all liberals non-believers? Fourth, where are the temperamental nuances of deities derived from? Fifth, is choice in religion as porous and passive as the author makes it to be?

It is important to problematize the uncritical characterisation of a ‘community of believers’ vis-a-vis ‘non- believers’, which is based on the assumption that faith contributes to the creation of a homogenous group. There have been instances of prolonged violence between various sects belonging to the ‘Hindu fold’ across the country, not divorced from political and economic considerations of dominant groups, from time to time. Besides, the emergence of Bhakti and other religious movements of dissent has been a response to the ritualistic, rigid and exclusionary practices of Vedic Brahminism. They have been expressions of democratisation in the arena of religion. Scholars who studied the institutionalisation of such movements have pointed out the continuing persistence of caste and gender divisions even within them, forcing us to question the idea that a community of believers is impervious to social structures or history. If the boundaries of choice in Hinduism were as porous as the author makes it out to be, it is worthwhile to ask why thousands of Dalits under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar left the Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism. Why have marginalised groups historically converted out of Hinduism with the hope of transcending its discriminatory strictures?

Even a cursory glance at the history of religious reform in India reveals a contested terrain. For instance, the temple entry agitation in Kerala was not just a mobilisation in favour of the right of temple entry, but also a call to end civil disabilities of lower castes in general. The movement saw the participation of religious reformers, political leaders and huge sections of peasant and working class populations. In short, the agitation was not an internal affair of the ‘community of believers’, but part of the larger movement to end caste based oppression.

Kishwar’s argument presumes that the Hindu tradition is essentially one of a basic unity within diversity, while eminent historians have amply proved that the case is otherwise. It is important to understand that the staunchest advocates of a unification of Hindu belief and practice, the apologists for a Hindu Book, a Hindu God and a Hindu ritual system are the Hindu Right (note for instance, the insistence on cow protection despite significant sections being consumers of beef). It has, in addition, tried to impose such a unificatory ideal through the use of violence, coercion and also the portrayal of the ‘other’ as the enemy.

The article indulges in a number of collapses, like that of non-believers and liberals, and of western and liberal. The process of reform has not been one of a mechanical response to ‘external stimuli’. Streams of Indian philosophy have articulated varied traditions of materialism and scepticism, and even atheism. The basis for the argument of the inherently western nature of concepts like rationality is then flawed. Is the willingness to blindly accept dominant diktats on religious practice a prerequisite for being considered ‘non-western sons and daughters of the soil’? It must be remembered that places of worship have never been only sites of distilled piety, but have also been social sites, of congregation, carnivals, and in some instances, protest.

Kishwar highlights the ‘moral universe’ of the artisans who labour behind the works of art that are mentioned in the article. But she insists that their work is infused with religiosity while their consumers are impure agents of liberalism. Are these works of art in themselves testimony to religiosity in any way? It would be amusing if the author is unaware of some of the ‘idiosyncratic’ deities in India being the richest gods in the world, of the range of interferences that the market has made into religious institutions and practice. In the backdrop of increasing informalisation of labour, and the failure of the state to intervene in any significant manner, is the author willingly neglectful of the extreme conditions under which the artisans survive, and their constant struggle with the powers that be?

The author asserts that ‘our temples’ are not meant to be tourist centres where entry must be free for all’. Her prescription is hard to miss- Dalits should have their own temples if they are not being allowed into Hindu temples. Clearly, ‘women only’, ‘men only’, ‘caste-Hindus only’ or ‘Dalit only’ temples are not the solution. No yardstick to measure peoples’ varying degrees of belief can be employed simply because no uniform degree of devotion exists in the first place. For Kishwar, the answer lies in segregation, without addressing the basic question of equality. However, segregation is not an innocent matter of choice but one marked with dominance and tension. The point precisely is that there has to be a democratisation of opinion, public spaces (such as temples) and opportunities. The thrust of secularism is, among other things, on the inclusion of religion in the quest for equality and the right to lead a dignified existence.

(The authors are pursuing their Ph.D in sociology and history respectively at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed here are their own.)

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