Mandirs for devotees or tourists?
By Sandhya Jain
The Hindu mandir has once again become the focus of secular controversy. Reformists have taken umbrage at the refusal of Orissa priests to let a White American Hindu woman and a Thai princess enter the Jagannath and Lingaraj temples. There is also outrage that the famous Guruvayoor temple in Kerala announced it was repeating five days of puja after a deranged Christian was found disturbing devotees on the premises.
This anger is misplaced, and derives not from a sense of dharma violated, but from embarrassment at what others will think and say about believing Hindus. This is nothing but a hangover of the inferiority complex instilled in Hindus during the colonial period when Christian missionaries unleashed a barrage of propaganda against the tradition, in their quest for converts.
To understand the issue in its proper perspective, we must understand the difference between the Hindu mandir and monotheistic houses of worship. The mandir is literally god'spalace; it is built according to shastric specifications, and once the images are consecrated it means the gods have accepted the invitation to reside in the respective temples. This is what gave temples their power and sanctity in all ancient traditions.
In monotheistic traditions, the synagogue, church and mosque are houses of congregation where the respective gods are remembered in community worship. But monotheistic gods do not descend from their heavenly abodes to dwell with the believers, even during the hour of worship. This is an important distinction, because the congregation itself has no special sanctity, and can meet anywhere. Hindu tradition, on the other hand, shares divinity with the believers, because man is made of the same atman as Parambrahman. Hindus can invite god to be present at a ceremony (wedding, satsang) or sacrifice, and both the devotee and the devoted have sanctity.
Mandirs thus belong to god and the devotee. In India, priests of all except some especially sacrosanct temples have allowed free access to temples to visitors who may not be Hindus, but this is not a right that can be demanded by anyone. Yet media publicity has put Hindus so much on the defensive that they have been quick to blame ?Brahmin? hegemony for the behavior of the priests of Lord Jagannath and Lord Lingaraj. This is ironical, because both these gods are popular Hindu deities worshipped by all castes. Jagannath was the god of the Sabara (Savara, Saora) tribe, and even today, only Daityas (descendants of the original tribal worshippers) can dress and move the god and renovate his wooden image. At Lingaraj, only the tribal Badu priests can bathe and adorn Lingaraj!
At Jagannath, medieval iconoclasm destroyed the images of the gods and the temple ceased worship for 144 years before Raja Man Singh assisted in reviving worship. Even thereafter, there were several threats to the temple. Since the story of the molestation of the gods and the devotees is well known on an all-India plane, it was only natural that some of the most prestigious temples protected their sanctity by denying entry to non-believers.
Temple entry cannot be a secular right of non-believers. It is a privilege of the believer, and that is why truly reform-minded Hindus in previous centuries fought for the right of underprivileged believers, like Harijans (Dalits), to enter temples. This is an issue to which Hindu society urgently needs to rededicate itself.
The custodians of each holy site must have the right to decide who shall be permitted entry. At Pushkar, priests hitherto permitted foreigners in the sacred precincts and then discovered them acting contrary to the sanctity of the place. They have now prepared a code of conduct for outsiders. It is humbling to recall that the great Vaishnava acharya, Haridas Thakur, being born in a Muslim family, never tried to enter the Jagannath mandir at Puri, even though many persons wanted him to have darshan. I believe this is because he felt he should be born as a Hindu in order to enter the temple. Even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, personally a very devout Hindu, was denied entry to the Puri temple because she married a Parsi and thereby shared that identity. She accepted the decision with grace and withdrew.
The American-born Pamela Yadav may do well to emulate this example; she should visit the innumerable temples where entry is free, and not enervate devout Hindus by calling our priests ?racists.? Tomorrow, another American will protest that not getting meat and eggs in holy cities is a violation of human rights, and Amnesty will breathe down our necks. It is time we drew the line somewhere. It may be mentioned that the priests of the Jagannath temple have traditionally recognised Hindus, Buddhists and Jainas from undivided India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, as officially entitled to enter the temple. There may be a case to extend this privilege to practicing Buddhists of Asian countries which have a civilisational affinity with India, but this is a decision the priests must take with due consideration, and cannot be forced upon them by external agencies.
In Guruvayur in Kerala, priests of the famous Shri Krishna temple discovered a deranged non-Hindu had been present in the temple for five days, which affected the sanctity of 15 pujas conducted in that period. Temple administrators pointed out that though there were boards requesting non-Hindus to keep out, the rules were difficult to enforce if people did not respect the sentiments of others. They said that whenever non-Hindus were detected, they sprayed punyaham (holy water) inside the temple. Such a ?purification ceremony? was held after the son of Congress leader Vayalar Ravi and his Christian wife entered the temple during his wedding some years ago. That time also, far from supporting the besieged Hindu community in protecting the sanctity of its holy spaces, secularists tried to brand the priests as intolerant communalists.
Temple entry cannot be a secular right of non-believers. It is a privilege of the believer, and that is why truly reform-minded Hindus in previous centuries fought for the right of underprivileged believers.