The storm about entry of women at certain religious places calls for redefining of rituals in the light of conventional wisdom and changing times
Temple is a symbol of man’s gratitude towards God. The scope of this statement by Aurobindo can be extended to a Mosque, Gurudwara, Church or other places of prayer. You will see that in villages there is a temple with magnificent splendour and good environ around even if people do not have pucca houses. Even in cities the most magnificent buildings are invariably temples or worship places. People pray there, expressing their gratitude towards God for all the riches they get in their mundane life. But these very places of gratitude are of late getting converted into points of confrontation or they are being made into centres of testing political or social strength.
The latest in the dispute is the Shani Shingnapur Temple. Here the dispute is related to whether women have the right to offer puja and oil at the sanctum sanctorum. Till now, the puja was offered at Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra in a most traditional way. Women were not permitted to offer oil at the altar of Shani. But they had the permission to offer puja like men. However, the Temple Trust banned the entry of both men and women to enter the Shani Shila Chabutara following growing number of devotees. Even then there has been dispute since long in the name of equality. Some women activists tried to catch fish in the troubled water. A section of the media also found it fit to increase their TRP. Interestingly, the management of Shani Shingnapur Temple is looked after by the trust which is controlled by local Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) workers. A lady, Anita Shete, is president of the Trust and she herself has been opposing the entry of women at Shani Shila Chabutara. But now she says the Trust is in favour of a dialogue on this issue. A process of dialogue has also begun. Last year, a lady from Pune rushed to the altar and offered oil to Shani idol. Naturally, it evoked strong opposition and the Trust reportedly purified the idol. The woman who offered oil to the Shani idol tendered an apology, but the women organisations made a hue and cry over the reported purification.
Tripti Desai of Bhumata Ranrangini Brigade called for offering the oil at any cost and said the dictatorship of the Trust would not be tolerated. She sought the support of women in this ‘revolution’. This created a social misconception not only in Maharashtra but also all over the country. In no time the matter took a political turn. Hundreds of women under the banner of Bhumata Brigade attempted to forcibly enter the temple. But they could not succeed following strict security and the opposition by a large number of local people including the women. The Shiv Sena women activists also joined the group of women who were adamant to enter the temple at any cost. They also enjoyed the support of Aam Adami Party and some Left parties. But the Trust members were not ready to permit the entry.
The matter was raised by the BJP-Shiv Sena combine government about 17 years back. Prior to the present BJP-Shiv Sena government,the Congress-NCP combine ruled the State for about 15 years but they did not show any interest in resolving this dispute. Interestingly, no women organisation then tried to raise this issue then. A Congress leader told media persons when the issue was raised now, “Every (religious) place has its own traditions and rituals and they should not be breached.” But on the other hand the Congress supported the agitated group of women. The political analysts apprehend that the dispute is deliberately being created because Devendra Fadnavis led BJP government is seriously trying to expose the rackets of Congress-NCP leaders. This has created trouble for both the parties—the Congress and the NCP. In such a situation there are attempts to divert the attention from development programmes launched by the government by raising new issues with the support of Left outfits.
Noted spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has rightly suggested to resolve the matter through dialogue or adopt the system followed at Kashi Vishwanath Temple where only the priest enters the sanctum sanctorum. He has also planned to visit Shani Shingnapur this week to meet the concerned people. Whether the agitating groups will accept his suggestion is still doubtful. Meanwhile, Dhyan Guru Swami Deepshankar Maharaj of Mahakaleshwar Ashram situated at Devikund, Deoband, in Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh) on February 4 claimed that the Temple Trust has agreed to grant equal rights to women. But one of the temple managers Shri Sanjay Bankar did not confirm it. However, Tripti Desai of Bhumata Brigade admits that the dialogue process is on.
The issue of allowing entry of women in the Shani Shingnapur Temple was raised immediately after the Supreme Court’s comment on an old PIL which challenged the centuries old tradition of banning entry of women under age group of 16-50 in Ayappa Temple of Sabarimala situated at Western Coast of Kerala. The Court commented that the ban on the entry of women at Ayappa Temple is unconstitutional. The court, however, has not yet delivered its final verdict in the case. On the other hand there is a Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Kerala itself where only women can enter. Called as Sabrimala of women, this temple is famous for Attukal Pongla when lakhs of women devotees reach the temple. Due to the unique tradition and presence of huge number of women devotees this has found a place in the Guinness Book of Worlds Records also.
Amidst the Shani Shingnapur issue, Muslim women under the banner of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and Vaghini have raised the demand to allow entry in Haji Ali Dargah situated at Mahalakshmi Coast of Mumbai. Lakhs of devotees and tourists visit the Dargah everyday from all over the world. The Muslim women under both these organisations staged a demonstration at Azad Maidan of Mumbai. The Dargah Trust had banned the entry of women about four years back arguing that entry of women in the Dargah is against Islam. Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan has also filed a petition in Bombay High Court demanding permission to enter the Dargah.
Puranas provide detailed information about the management and performance of rituals in temple. ‘Agni Puran’, a 15th century religious documents, deals in detail regarding management of temples, dos and don’ts etc. During this period the sanctity of temples was at stake and people were attracted to their inner wealth and riches. According to some critics various rules and laws were made with regard to arrangements and worship in the temples. But this is a different issue. According to the 6th century treatise ‘Brihatsamhita’ temples should be built at secluded places on the banks of rivers, or in the hills. The glory of God easily blossoms there. According to ‘Vishnudharmottara’, temples should be made in hills, caves and natural surroundings. There is a technique of construction and management. According to Sri Aurobindo these temples are live bodies besides being homes to Gods and Goddesses. They were competent of protecting themselves. Various religious rights were performed to keep their life intact. Therefore attention was paid to proper arrangement of these rituals performed there rather than the protection of these temples.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, these temples and prayer halls became a part of popular life. These centres were divided on different levels. The temples are divided in four categories like ‘Teerthmandir’, ‘Utsavmandir’, ‘Gram Mandir’ and ‘general temples’ labelled as deval, devara or devsthan. Those temples built in memories of sadhus, sanyasins, ancestors or teachers are known as memorial. Reference to them is not available in treatise like Agnipuran, Vishnudharmottara or Brihatsamhita. People used to visit ‘teerthmandirs’ occasionally, during the pilgrimage of places related to gods and their incarnations and offer their prayers. The ‘Char Dham’, ‘Saat Puris’ and ‘Barah Nagri’ ‘Bawan Teerthas and Shakti Peethas are included in this category. Utsav Mandirs are dedicated to development of art and culture including dances, music, theatre etc. Gram Mandirs are located in almost localities, sometimes their number may increase according to population of the locality. These temples are related to daily routine of the people and any bigger ceremony related to birth, marriage, death etc. in a family would begin from these temples.
Shakti Peeths were reserved for the tantric activities in a village. People come here in times of distress and offer worships and prayers. In view of all these varied types of temples it was obvious that they had different styles and rules of management and discipline and restrictions. At some places entry was barred for the males while in some others women were restricted to enter. Some other temples were taboo for children and adolescents.
There have been reforms in the rules of temples as per the changing needs but while initiating any move to improve or amend these rules and regulations care was taken to preserve the tradition, and prestige of these places. The major challenge before the followers of different sects and faiths in changing time today is how to maintain balance between the spiritual dignity of temples and the social rights. It is not difficult for the ways of worship which believe in all inclusiveness.
Jyotirmaya (With inputs from Rajesh Salgaonkar and Surender Singhal)