Shani's law

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Who better than the disruptive god to bring an end to the gender discrimination latent in certain matters of faith?

Sometime in the February of 2008, I was sent to the city of Nashik on work, along with a few other colleagues. After finishing what we had come to do, my seniors decided that we would take an extra day to “sightsee”. Normally, this would mean some aimless wandering in interesting places, but my seniors, who were due to write their Chartered Accountancy (Final) exams, had other plans — they wanted to visit every temple in the town. Our itinerary, which was carefully put together by my recently pious senior, originally involved only Panchavati and Shirdi, but at the very last moment, another senior who discovered that he was going to be affected by Saturn’s retrograde that year, added Shani Shingnapur to the list.

Shani Shingnapur is, to date, one of the most interesting temples I have been to. There are no doors, no roofs, just metal railings that lead to a barely decorated, majestic black rock on one side, and a set of bathrooms on the other. We were informed the moment we entered that women couldn't do the puja. After spending close to 8 hours in a car with 4 other people, I was too exhausted to feel anything but relief at that point of time. My other female colleague and I went as far as we could to the idol and then sat around as we watched our seniors go up to the idol in the traditionally-mandated dripping-wet dhotis, and pour oil on the idol as they prayed for the misdeeds of their past to not seep into the question papers of their future.

On our way back, I purchased a little doll of Lord Shani. I still have it. It’s a small doll barely as long as an index finger, made of black cloth with a threatening face drawn on it with white ink. It’s said to be representative of Lord Shani himself, and that it would negate the effects of any evil eyes that may glance your way. The lady I purchased it from gave me instructions on how to hang it (upside down) where I wanted it to be, and assured me that Lord Shani protects everything, and everyone.

Two months ago, a female devotee at the Shani Shingnapur temple bypassed the rules of the institution by taking nine, very small, steps into the main platform where the idol stands. The management was shocked, the villagers were appalled, and it was decided that the only way to right the wrong was to purify the deity who was now allegedly polluted by a woman’s touch. An abhishekam of milk followed, as did controversy. Feminist groups threatened to enter the shrine by helicopter if they had to, politicians threw around statements without actually taking any kind of action, and drama ensued. The activists who lobbied for equal rights tried to hire choppers, but were prevented, the temple authorities deployed two thousand women to prevent these women from entering, and the news anchors had a field day running discussions on this topic without letting anyone actually talk.

In order to understand the tradition of the Shani Shingnapur temple, one must first understand Lord Shani. Lord Shani is the deified form of the planet Saturn. Per mythology, the Sun God, Surya, was married to Sanjana, the daughter of the great mythological architect, Vishwakarma. Within a few months, Sanjana realised that she was unhappy, and decided to escape for a while by creating a shadow of herself, a Chaaya. Sanjana then came home, only for her father to tell her that she must take her rightful place next to Surya, and understand how to deal with his hotheaded nature (pun intended), instead of escaping it. When she returned to get rid of her stand-in and start life afresh, she finds that her copy has already given birth to a son — Shani.

Lord Shani is the most misunderstood God in the Hindu pantheon, and in Indian astrology, to the point where he is even used as a cuss word in Tamil — if you’ve ever heard anyone call you a “Saniyane!”, they were (not so) pleasantly referring to your nature to disrupt things. Before he took his place as the one in charge of everyone’s karma, he had a difficult childhood where he was loathed by his stepmother, Sanjana, and sidelined by his brother Yama. Perhaps that is why he became the taskmaster that he is said to be. Lord Shani is never stationary. He delays, and he destroys. He is constantly changing, and he is constantly challenging. Every two-and-a-half years, he transits, bringing in new obstacles for believers and new revenues for astrologers. If his gaze is on you, they say, then you’d better watch out. The time has come to pay your dues.

Interestingly, one quality of Shani that doesn’t get as much attention as his abilities to create problems do is his chivalry, and his benevolence towards women. His father, Lord Surya, is considered to be the ultimate symbol of virility, to the point where women of ancient India were advised to go out during the day with some cover or the other so that they don’t get affected by the “lusty gaze” of the sun (today we call it UVA and UVB Rays). Shani’s gaze on the other hand, although capable of chaos, is said to be much kinder on women. During the early days of Shani worship, tradition had men perform puja to appease the god because they had no escape from the difficulties that Shani could create, whereas women didn’t need to, because Shani, while severe on their sons and husbands, would not do anything to them. After looking at present events, it feels like the ancient traditions of Shani worship have undergone a very long game of Chinese Whispers.

When I’d first read the news about women considered to be “polluting” the shrine, while any man was allowed on to it, I was as outraged as any one else. Freedom to pray! I said. How could they discriminate this way? But the more I read about Lord Shani, and the way he is meant to be worshipped, it threw up a rather curious conundrum — the women devotees of Lord Shani would know — should know — that his supposed ill effects are practically null on them, and that they aren’t required to placate him. If you are a woman, then what are you even doing at the temple?

Unfortunately, what transpired at Shani Shingnapur was more than just a question of faith. In order to understand its crux, we must look to the annual festival at the Sree Nagaraja Temple in Mannarsala, Kerala. The tradition of this festival is such that the chief priest who conducts the rites must be a woman, referred to as “Amma”. The position isn’t transferable, and if the Amma cannot partake of the festival, then the festival itself stands cancelled. You may ask: doesn’t equality work both ways? Why isn’t this getting as much attention as Shani Shingnapur? Why aren’t men allowed to be the chief priest?

There are two reasons why it is different.

The first is that it is the men who do the puja on all other days.

The second, and more pertinent, reason is that many explanations have been given as to why it must be a woman: one is legend, another tradition, but the impure nature of men has never — ever — been one of them.

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