When Indians were celebrating the participation of an all-women’s contingent in their Republic Day Parade for the first time on 26th January, elsewhere in Maharashtra, a 400-strong group of women activists was trying to forcibly enter the Shani Shignapur temple to break the age old custom that prevents women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The attempt was more of a symbolic act to assert women’s rights and to fight against the discrimination against them.
Women in India have for long been asserting for equal rights with men, and with the spread of education, we are seeing more and more women joining the corporate world and the government. Against this backdrop of women’s empowerment, several incidents where women have been barred from entering temples come as a rude shock, especially when women have been deified in India from the Vedic times. Durga, Sarawati and Lakshmi, who symbolise power, education and wealth respectively, are worshipped by all Hindus.
Priests and Hindu religious scholars had defended the custom of barring the women from entering the sacred platform of the Shani temple saying the vibrations emerging from Lord Shani had harmful effects on women, who should not worship him from too close. They argued that it was not an issue of gender inequality. But the argument that a temple dedicated to Saturn would hurt women or be hurt by them is ludicrous.
“Women should not be allowed in the temple because Lord Sabarimala had taken a vow of celibacy”
Gender equality activists have approached the Bombay High Court seeking the implementation of the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (entry Authorisation) Act of 1956, which reads: “No Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall in any manner be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place of public worship or from worshipping or offering prayers, or performing a religious service.” As per the law, prohibiting any person from entering a temple would result in six months in jail.
In a major blow to religious groups, the Bombay High Court asked the Maharashtra government to ensure that women were not denied entry into any temples. If men were granted entry to a place of worship, the court said, women should enjoy access to those places too.
But instead of reforming the decadent customs, Indian religious leader Shankaracharya Swaroopanand made matters worse when he claimed allowing women into a temple devoted to Lord Shani (Saturn) would increase incidents of rape. Such insensitive remarks only help the cause of all those who are against women’s empowerment and don’t want to treat them as equal citizens.
There is a similar controversy involving the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in Kerala, which bars menstruating women between 10 and 50 from entering the place of worship. This violates their constitutional rights, including the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution. The argument is that women should not be allowed into the temple because Lord Sabarimala was a chronic bachelor or “brahmachari” and he took a vow of celibacy. There was a huge uproar when the chief of the Sabarimala Board said “women will be allowed into the temple the day a machine is invented to detect if they were menstruating”.
India has a long tradition of discriminating against women and people belonging to the lower strata of the society, especially barring them from entering temples. It is for this reason that many among the poor have embraced Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Even Mahatma Gandhi had fought on behalf of the Dalits to allow them to enter temples.
Like the Hindu women in Ahmednagar, the Muslim women in Mumbai are also demanding that they be allowed to pray in the sanctum of Haji Ali, the famous shrine in Mumbai. It is surprising that many clerics in Islam, a religion that gives women equality, are against women entering graveyards and shrines.
Meanwhile, India’s Young Lawyers Association has filed a petition in the country’s Supreme Court against the prohibition on women to enter the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala, stating that such a practice had no constitutional basis. They hope that the court will settle the matter once and for all, and ensure that women are allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of temples. In the meantime, there is a need for all religious communities in India to revisit their customs and rituals to bring them in line with modern liberal values of equality and justice.
At a time when the women are fighting for equality, banning their entry into temples is discriminatory.
The author is a columnist and political commentator from India