Cutty Snark: Spot the Good Hindu
An edited version of this column (the trials of writing within the word count continue) was published in the Mumbai edition of today’s Hindustan Times.
On Monday, in anticipation of Sabarimala’s reopening, Section 144 (which prohibits a gathering of four or more people) will be in force in Elavunkal, Nilakkal, Pamba and Sannidhanam. While many of us get ready to celebrate the festival of lights in the rest of India, police patrolling will be intensified in these parts of Kerala, in anticipation of violence from protestors who believe the presence of women devotees defiles the temple dedicated to Ayyappan. Why? Because Ayyappan is a celibate god and women would distract him. (Mysteriously, he wasn't distracted by their presence until 1991. Also, why are we encouraging Ayyappan's elaborate plot to avoid marrying Maalikapurathamma? Just meet her and explain you don't want to marry, Ayyappan Sir, she'll be fine. She may even have moved on by now. Who knows?)
While there’s enough Hindu literature on men losing sight of end goals because there was an attractive woman in the vicinity, the question of who can say a prayer at Sabarimala is not about Ayyappan’s celibacy or levels of concentration. Neither is it really about tradition versus modernism since women were barred from entering Sabarimala by a court order of 1991. (Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you tradition demands women stay away from the temple.) What Sabarimala is forcing us to figure out is the nature of Hinduism in present-day India.
On one hand is the Hinduism of Sabarimala’s unyielding devotees and Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangha’s alphas – rooted in Brahminical ritual, rigidly conservative and committed to glorifying the upper caste Hindu male at the expense of the rest of society. On the other, is a Hinduism that values questions and ambiguities, is open to absorbing influences and bringing others into its fold through retellings and reimaginings. This is not to say it's woke – the politics of how some of the others have been assimilated don’t seem… pretty – but alarms have gone off repeatedly so it's sleeping less soundly. As far as the alt-right version of Hinduism is concerned, the alarm clock is yet to be invented.
It’s ironic that Sabarimala is the site of this reckoning. In folk songs, Ayyappan is a child of the forest who is adopted by a local king and goes on to achieve divinity because of his military genius. Legends say he is the son of Shiva and Mohini, Vishnu’s only feminine avatar. In Ayyappan, we see a fusion of a tribal, Dravidian deity with Puranic Hinduism. Given his stories speak of privileging talent over genes and unconventional love, Ayyappan is a deity born of the more open version of Hinduism. Yet it is the temple dedicated to Ayyappan that has become the bastion of conservatism.
The unwillingness to allow women into the temple complex is not adherence to tradition as much as resistance to change in the social order. The anxiety of losing privilege and socio-cultural capital is being fanned by political groups like the RSS who would have you believe that India is facing a future when Hindus will not be a majority. This, incidentally, is not backed up by the numbers. As per the 2011 Census, Hindus form 79.8% of India’s population. The RSS would have you know that the Hindu population is growing at a slower rate, and this is true. It is also true that the growth rate of the Muslim population is slower than that of the Hindus. Statistically speaking, there’s no chance of Hindus losing the majority in India in the foreseeable future, but what could happen (and hopefully is happening) is that different elements from within Hinduism could come to prominence and change the way the religion is practiced. Evidently, that’s frightening a lot of people.
Devotees (and those seeking to politicise the issue) would rather privilege Ayyappan's celibacy, which is the Brahminical aspect of his identity – considering all the stories in which libidos get the better of sadhana, celibacy seems to be highly-prized as an aspirational quality among Brahmins. Consequently, the aspects that are a nod to Ayyappan’s unconventional background are overshadowed. The celibate warrior god fits a certain worldview, particularly at a time when the alt-right in India is doing its best to project a muscular, militant version of Hinduism.
If women can’t enter Sabarimala, it’s the rigid version of Hinduism that gains ground and the religion loses the very quality that's enabled its survival for so many generations: its flexibility. As things stand, we run the risk of countless myths and legends being saffron-washed because they don’t fit a narrow-minded worldview. The faithful will tell you the reinterpretations are blasphemous and seek to corrupt the religion. Those who have actually heard and read the stories will know that it’s hard to blaspheme when you have gods (and goddesses) who are constantly making mistakes and engaged in damage control.
The beauty of Hindu myths with their multiplicity and difficult-to-digest details is that they prod you into alertness and encourage curiosity. We’ve inherited stories that ignite the imagination, that encourage the listener to peer into its darker corners and loopholes. That’s what the conservative Hinduism doesn’t want because this means questioning, and questions need (and find) answers, whether or not the conservatives can provide them.
For instance, when Lakshmi Puja is performed during Diwali, you could be satisfied with saying a prayer to the blandly-beaming goddess sitting on a lotus or you could take a moment to think about the stories associated with her. Before she became Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi was linked with Varuna, Soma, Indra and Shiva. Is this a metaphor to show wealth and good fortune are fickle? Or do these exes of Lakshmi suggest that hers is a goddess cult that resisted being assimilated into mainstream Hinduism and therefore had to be retold repeatedly? Whether you view Lakshmi through the eyes of a believer, a sociologist or a philosopher, she is a goddess who is determined to be independent. Even when she’s subsumed under Vishnu, we’re told that one of her avatars is Radha, the perfect devotee and also the woman who flaunts convention by falling in love with someone other than her husband. Radha remains distinctly independent, devoted but unattached to Krishna, who is her equal, and detached from her husband, who is forgotten. She is not anyone’s dependant.
With the clamour for conservatism growing louder in India, it seems we’re poised to redefine Hinduism in conservative terms that alienate many of us. Religions are social constructs, which means Hinduism will be whatever the majority of its followers want it to be. If that's the rigid version, keep the faith. The rest of us may lose the tag of being Hindu, but we can claim the better stories.