The Devotee and Modern Society

Published - January 31, 2013 04:05 pm IST

The age-old Indologists who never tired of showering praises on the benignity of the Hindu believers must be delighted in their graves with Madhu Kishwar’s outlandish praise of “the rich diversity of India”, more correctly the Hindu India (‘Don’t like this temple? Choose another’, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, The Hindu January 17, 2013).

Before coming to the glaring oversights and questionable generalisations that are rife in the article, a curious point calls for attention. Throughout her article she conveniently criss-cross the boundaries of her personal identity as a Hindu, Hinduism and Indian. From the reference to “temperamental nuances of our diverse deities” to “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”, there are many instances when the Hindu and the Indian is easily conjured as one and the same. Even if the writer does not consciously take such a position, the way these terms have been used is not unusual for those who revel in India’s Hindu glory.

Significantly, this convenient mixture of Hindu/Hinduism with Indian has direct links with the most reactionary and vicious communalist trends that our country has witnessed. One is surprised if Kishwar ever has time to reflect on the positions she has been taking of late.

Media and Reforms

Kishwar’s argument that “the media’s job is first and foremost to inform and not browbeat people to “reform” is seriously flawed. I do believe that the first and foremost task of media is to inform. However, this act of ‘informing’ is never done, rather cannot be done in an ideological vacuum. Even if one tries to be absolutely objective in reporting any incident, the very fact that media makes a choice right from what is considered as newsworthy and what is not is an ideological act. And an ideological act will be biased. The point is what sort of bias one chooses to adopt? For example, when TV channels show live telecast of religious rituals or fashion shows, is it simply a plain act of ‘informing’?

Kishwar is particularly disturbed by “media issuing diktats on everything from political views to religious practices and rituals, and even the conduct of gods and goddesses”. For her this amount to ‘reform’ that is outside the legitimate province of media. Of course, she has no problem when babas and sadhvis keep divulging every form of middle-age nonsense to people through the same media.

In fact, contrary to what Kishwar claims, most of the media is quite positively receptive to everything that is politically regressive including superstitions and reason-defying religious rituals and practices. We have seen TV channels telecasting nonsense tales of ghosts and magical occurrences in name of news. Religious sermons by babas are given prominent space in the local editions of most of the Hindi newspapers (I do not know what is happening in other Indian languages). She must be relieved that most of the media is not at all interested in ‘reform’.

“Temperamental nuances of our diverse deities”

No liberal can ever object about the ‘temperamental nuances’ of the ‘diverse deities’ only as long as they remain in the fine limits of mythological tales. The problem occurs only when jealous devotees fail to see and accept that temperamental nuances of living human beings should be given a preference over that of the deities.

In her simplistic argumentation Kishwar overlooks the important fact that religious practices are never performed in a social vacuum. Religious practices, rituals or modes of worship are not only an expression of the form(s) of social organisation, social hierarchies and the dominant ideologies, but are also instrumental in perpetuating these. Such practices develop a consent for such structural inequities and dispossession which would have otherwise been found intolerable by most of the people.

The temperamental nuances of the deities are reflective of the social biases of the devotees which have definite connection with the social values and ideologies. Thus, when Kishwar defends the idea of “a male deity who has …vowed eternal celibacy avoiding the company of women”, she easily ignores the fact that such an idea of avowed celibacy shunning the company of women is a result of misogynist patriarchal conceptions that have always seen women as narak ka dwaar (the gateway to hell). Hinduism, Catholicism and indeed almost every religion has its own share of such conceptions.

Of Sects and their Values

The writer then moves on to an even more dangerous territory. To quote her again, “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”. This is scandalous. If I don’t like the practise of deploying women in temples as devdasis , I should avoid going to such temple! No more? This means that every sect should be free to observe its practices, rituals and beliefs howsoever irrational, reactionary, diabolic and inhuman they are.

It’s nobody’s argument that human beings should be regimented into uniform robotic creatures, but it baffles to the mind how diversity and freedom can be realized only within the confines of fossilized age-old social orders? Autonomy as a social and political value is definitely a right of not only groups (such as sects) but also individuals. But this does not mean that its claims are absolute. Every claim of autonomy or freedom, whether of an individual or a group, has to be tested on some standards of universal values that we have evolved as a modern and humane society.

The writer, it seems, has no idea what the “most illiberal among the Indians” are capable of doing. Idle intellectual conjectures about sects deciding their ways of relating to the chosen idols is very likely to ignore the complex historical processes that go into formation of sects and their gods or goddesses. Any mindless praise of “spontaneous, mutual respect for differences in ways of being, ways of worship, singing, dancing, clothing, cooking and so on”, which is itself a product of colonial-western gaze, runs the risk of ignoring the violence and suppression this diversity has accompanied.

Lastly, about the question “Would they likewise force “women only” temples to open their doors to men?” In typical Hindu households, presence of men is not approved in certain parts of the house usually inhabited by the women. This women-only space enjoys certain sanctity but only within the general supervision of the men. It is typical for patriarchal societies to have women-only space that exists as a reciprocal to and also subordinated to the men-only space. It is not an exception but a part of the complete structure.

Opposing tradition does not means replacing modak or laddoo with sugar-free diet chocolate. Such simplistic notions can only be proffered by arm-chair intellectuals far away and secure from the whims of the harmless little sects that they extol. At the same time, this is also not a plea to denigrate or to reject the past or the cultural tradition out rightly but to apply the test of modern reason to check the viability and acceptability of every such tradition. The ‘unique Being’ of the devotees have too many taints of practices that have denied equal and humane status to millions for centuries. It has to stand the critique of modern reason and radical change eventually.

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