Dwarika Prasad Sharma
India represents a coexistence of centuries. These words of socialist Ashok Mehta six decades ago still hold true. Rocket science, information and communication technologies and medical surgery mark some of the cutting-edge modern advancements. The ancient art and science of Yoga, which has spread all over the world, is the single most important feature of its soft power.
On the road, one sees handcarts, rickety tongas being pulled by equally rickety ponies, overloaded cycle rickshaws, along with the latest-model automobiles. In the spiritual field, you meet Swamis, with vast followings, who have the most rational and advanced outlook. You also meet other Swamis, with equally vast followings, who have a rigid and obscurantist outlook. In matters of religious faith, you see condemnation as well as celebration of human physiological functions, in various shrines spread across the country.
Siddaganga Mutt seer Shivakumara Swami, who died recently in Karnataka, was a humanist to the core. He was above considerations of religion, caste, creed and class. He believed in the equality of women with men and never ever practised, or allowed in his Mutt, discrimination with, or segregation of, menstruating women. Ironically, women themselves have played no small part in the degradation and humiliation of their own gender.
The frenzied opposition to the entry of menstruation-age women into the Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala, has been spearheaded by women.RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has called the protests as assertion of the faith of millions of Hindus. At the Dharma Sansad organised by the VHP at the Prayagraj Kumbh tent city, Bhagwat equated the Sabarimala and the Ram Temple sentiments as compelling Hindu movements.
The protests during the two months of the pilgrimage season, which ended on January 20, were joined by right-wing groups. These have obviously weaponised the issue for political ends, as the order to implement the SC verdict has come from the leftist government. Nominally left-of-centre Congress party has also been leading groups of protesters.
K.Sudhakaran, one of three working presidents of the Kerala Congress, who has been a prominent standard-bearer of the protesters, has been, in other contexts, making remarks against Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan which are in effect insulting to women. For example, he called Vijayan “worse than a woman”, thus thick-headedly branding women as inferior beings. Rahul Gandhi had recently committed a similar perfidy when he said that the 46-inch-chest Narendra Modi had “run away and left it to a mahila (Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman) to defend the Rafale deal”. Mama Mia would do well to counsel him to guard against sexist remarks.
Commenting on the left-inspired Kochi event Arpo Arthavam (Hurray Menstruation!), Sudhakaran said that Vijayan had “backed out of entering the vagina-shaped entrance” of the pandal. Some BJP ministers and saffron-clad public figures have been making weird remarks about women, and Congressmen, ironically, have been going to town verbally hauling them over coals. In fact, motley politicians of all stripes have been making pottymouthed sexist remarks about women.
Some badass women themselves, like UP BJP legislator Sadhana Singh, have been making cynically sarcastic remarks about other women. After the announcement of the SP-BSP alliance in UP, Sadhana said at a rally that Mayawati was “neither a man nor a woman—she is worse than a eunuch”. She recalled that in 1995, SP goons had tried to disrobe her in the Lucknow state guest house, and BJP workers had come to her rescue. “This woman is a blot on womanhood, as she can sell her self-respect for the sake of power,” Sadhana Singh said.
Coming back to the Sabarimala protests. In the midst of the pilgrimage season, two women activists, aged 39 and 40,who had the backing of the LDF Government, managed to climb right up to the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine. The tantri, or head priest, closed the sanctum later in the morning to “purify” it. The Travancore Dewaswom Board, the controlling authority of Kerala shrines, issued a show-cause notice to the tantri. The state Commission for STs and SCs also issued a notice to him, as one of the two women is a dalit, and the Commission suspects that the purification was on account of her entry. So there are sub-issues within the main issue, which does not look like being resolved any time soon. Review petitions on the verdict of the Supreme Court are pending.
A conversation with a few well-educated and aware homemakers here, however, elicited a general view that there should not be narrow interpretations even in matters of faith. They all said that periods are an integral and essential part of their physiology which signify their maturity to conceive and keep the human race alive. They said that Ayyappa was sure born of a mother, and was very much a sacred fruit of her sacred menstrual cycle. In this context, they said that Hanuman was a celibate and they had no problem praying before him in a temple.
The Kamakhya Devi temple in Guwahati in Assam, where Shakti or Sati is worshipped as the Bleeding Goddess, represents the ultimate in the veneration of the menstrual cycle. The sanctum sanctorum, called Garbhagriha, is believed to house the womb and vagina of Shakti. In the month of Ashaad, the Brahmaputra river near the temple turns red, when Kamakhya Devi is said to be menstruating. The yards of Muslin which are sent over to the Yoni through the pujari are brought back to the devotees soaked red.
Rationalists would view the tantri’s purification episode at the Ayyappa shrine as illustrative of the tyranny of discriminatory and obscurantist usages that priests generally have worked to perpetuate over the ages, in order to slyly guard their own authority and relevance. Unfortunately, such tyranny has also been sought to be perpetuated by elder women in families to assert their own authority.
Among the Rajputs of Jammu, it was common till not very long ago to bury alive a newborn baby girl. This was often at the dictate of the mother-in-law. The male members went along because, number one, the girl would be a “financial burden” and, number two, she had the potential of bringing “disgrace” to the family with possible pre-marital dalliance!
Times have moved on, and now daughters-in-law with jobs are seen enjoying the privilege of their babies being looked after by their mothers-in-law when they are away to work. Such arrangements are as much a result of the changed family structures as of the new economic compulsions, as the daughter-in-law is seen to be adding to the family’s kitty in these expensive, consumerist and aspirational days .
A close friend’s wife, who had been radiant and bubbling in her day, had developed migraine and other nagging aches when she was over the hill. When asked how she was feeling after the medical attention, she said ruefully: “How would I feel? First I was raising my children, now I am raising theirs!” Yes, not much alleviation of the tussle. Women, in their interpersonal relationships, are seen to be moving from one kind of complication to another. Happy tales, however, also abound, in situations where mothers-in-law have ceased to assert their toxic status and mellowed.
(The writer is a Senior Journalist)
Dwarika Prasad Sharma