MyInd Interview with Shilpa M Das, the President of People for Dharma
Ready to Wait was a campaign initiated by a group of Hindu women devotees from India, explaining their willingness to respect the traditions regarding entry to the famous Sabarimala temple located in the South Indian state of Kerala.
It started as a social media campaign with people taking selfies with the #ReadytoWait sign and sharing, but this soon went viral and garnered support from people around the world. According to legend of the temple, Lord Ayyappa who is the chief deity of the temple is celibate and hence the shrine restricts entry to women of reproductive age.
People for Dharma, the society registered by founders and supporters of #ReadyToWait have filed an intervention petition in Sabarimala PIL case in SC saying they are not against the traditional customs and restrictions and are ready to wait till the age when they are allowed to enter the temple that is at the age of 50.
Shilpa M Das, An Entrepreneur, Artist and the president of People for Dharma talks to MyindMakers about this movement and the issues around it.
- Should Governments be interfering with temples like the Kerala government has said that it has no objections in admitting women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple? What is your position on this?
Governments are formed by political parties which have specific political agendas. Governments come and go, and their policies change according to the party in power. We are not into politics. We are only concerned with faith and devotion and feel we are also stakeholders in this debate. Ultimately it is the view of the devotees that should prevail in this matter. When government banned NDTV for a day recently, we heard pseudo-liberal bleeding hearts cry and demand that government should not interfere in the affairs of media and the media should have a self-regulatory mechanism. Even educational institutions are now demanding autonomy. Then why have separate rules for temples? Why should governments that run on political agendas interfere in matters of faith and devotion? This is double standards. Let experts in Sanatana Dharma interpret and adjudicate on Hindu matters.
2. Is the issue of women’s entry in the Sabarimala temple any different from practices that have been discontinued by certain sections of the society? Do they have a basis in scriptures?
Answer to this question must begin with a counter question. Scientists are now discovering that there are philosophical implications of scientific discoveries. They trace these philosophical roots to our scriptures. How does one answer that? The fact is our scriptures have a scientific basis, but we never made any attempt to study that.
Each temple has a unique custom and practices rooted in scriptures - Tantra Shastra - and tailor-made for the kind of deity invoked in them. These traditions cannot be standardized just because some people don’t understand it.
There is a basic principle in law - ``ignorantia juris non-excusat’’, and it means that ignorance of the law cannot be excuse for violating it. In a similar vein, ignorance of temple rituals cannot be an excuse to trampling on them.
Everything has a text and context which needs to be studied in detail to understand what it means before we jump into conclusions about them. It will be unfair and uneducated to compare actions that were adopted in the past to meet specific situations (sati for example) and which over time metamorphosed into social evils with the scientific practices drawn from the scriptures. It will be quite foolish to assume that everything from the past is bad and should be banned. Look at Ayurveda which is also a contribution from the saints of the past. The world now realizes its health benefits.
Planet earth is millions of years old, and so is the story of human evolution. We will be the biggest fools if we believe that the story of the human race is only 2016 years old. Civilizations have existed before us and will exist after us too. It will be to our advantage if we can set aside our ideological bias and try to study the wisdom our forefathers left behind.
Scientists are now realizing that modern science has its philosophical implications. To quote noted theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra who studied the links between Physics and Eastern Mysticism (religious philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) and whose book on the subject `The Tao of Physics’ was an international bestseller; ``the purpose of this book is to explore the relationships between the concepts of modern physics and the basic ideas in the philosophical and religious traditions of the Far East. We shall see how the two foundations of twentieth-century physics – quantum theory and relativity theory – both force us to see the world very much in the way a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist sees it., and how this similarity strengthens when we look at the recent attempts to combine these two theories in order to describe the phenomena of the sub-microscopic world: the properties and interactions of the subatomic particles of which all matter is made. Here the parallels between modern physics and Eastern Mysticism are most striking, and we shall often encounter statements where it is almost impossible to say whether they have been made by physicists of Eastern mystics.’’
What I wish to stress is that there certainly exists a link between the past and present. The need of the hour is to decipher it and harness it for the benefit of humanity. But for that, we have to delve deep into the subject. A poet once said that from a distance a waterfall would only appear to be a beautiful streak of white. But go near it, and we will find it brimming with life - the gush of millions of gallons of water, the sounds and the eerie beauty as the water hits rocks hundreds of feet below. Similarly, for an outsider, the Sastras (scriptures) may appear merely as some archaic document. Only those who have studied them will realize their value. So let’s make an attempt to study and interpret these treasures before judging whether they are good or bad.
It will be intellectual dishonesty to term social evils of yesteryear as customs and use that to condemn the tantric practice at Sabarimala. The mode of worship is something exclusively prescribed for each deity based on its Nama (name), Roopa (form), and Svaroopa (essence). And it’s a pretty complex system that cannot be understood by compartmentalizing it. How do you explain that while there are certain kinds of restrictions in Sabarimala temple, there are also unique practices like yoni (vagina) worship in the Kamakhya temple; a woman as head priest in the renowned Mannarassala temple in Kerala, Bhagavati's (Goddess’s) menstruation as the major festival in a temple in Chengannur (in Kerala), restriction for men in the Pongala festival in Attukal in Thiruvananthapuram and the festivities in Chakkulathu Kavu Temple (in Kerala) where men dress up as women on the festive day and worship the deity. Far from being regressive, these were part of our ancient wisdom to respect and empower all genders including what we currently call the third gender.
The diversity of rituals, practices and traditions protect the beautiful tree of Sanatana Dharma from the onslaughts of the expansionist ideologies of organized religions. There is a politics behind the attacks on temple traditions. Sanatana Dharma has long been the target of religious bigots. They tried to capture us with the sword but failed. However, they did not give up. They have devised more sophisticated ways to conquer. The first step in this surrogate war is to cut us away from our cultural roots. And they are employing every institution and means they can think of to achieve this end. We, the deracinated indigenous lot, fall prey to such sophisticated methods of brainwashing. And we feel ashamed of our traditions and knowledge systems that our ancestors gifted us. We confuse modernity with rationality.
3. Has the government and judiciary overreached when it comes to Hindu temple affairs and festivals? Should the community respond to this?
Yes, the level of intervention is unprecedented. The Constitution proclaims India as a secular state, but the very notion has been twisted to selectively target Hindus. Government after government has interfered in Hindu affairs. Too many Hindu places of worship have been taken over by governments on the excuse of 'better management' while other faiths are allowed to manage their shrines despite many of them becoming part of bitter power struggles. This is not fair in a state which calls for separation of state and religion. Moreover, the governments which control the temples do not spend even a single rupee from the donations they receive from the faithful for the spiritual upliftment of Hindu society.
Hindus by their very nature are not organized. Their belief in fatalism made them ignore the transgressions for long, but that has done more harm than good. This is not the first time in history that the followers of Sanatana Dharma have faced grave challenges. Every time it happened, they fought and defeated it. Once again we are at that point in time when we have to rise in unison to fight and save Dharma.
We live in a democratic system supported by institutions whose structure was mostly borrowed from the west. We blindly believed or were made to believe that the system will deliver justice to all citizens irrespective of their religious or other differences. But vested interests cleverly manipulated things to their advantage, and the majority was the loser. Fresh challenges demand fresh strategies. It’s time we realize the games that our detractors play and suitably recalibrate our response.
This fight has to be at two levels. One – at the intellectual level, by channeling public opinion and educating the society. Two - at the legal level. Our disillusionment is currently confined mostly to the social media. We need to extend this to the real world. We must have more people taking up our cause with the government and those in authority, more journalists writing on the injustice meted out to us, more lawyers fighting our cause, more movie makers portraying our pain and sufferings on the screen, and more artists sharing our agony with the world.
4. Has the government’s unusual interference in Sabarimala regarding the ‘ban’ intensified the protest? If the Hindu community was the internally come up with a framework for allowing women into the temple, would it be taken differently?
Let me say this again - there is NO BAN on entry of women in Sabarimala. Thousands of women visit the shrine every year. What is there is a restriction on women of a certain age. That has to do with the tantric practices followed in the worship of the Sabarimala deity. Vested interests are behind this false propaganda that there is complete ban on entry of women in Sabarimala. They think they can influence public opinion by spreading such canards.
The question `whether the opposition to changing Sabarimala traditions is because of the antagonism towards state intervention in temple affairs’ is a doubt many people have and in a nutshell, illustrates the confusion in the Hindu ranks. Such doubts arise because we are unsure of what we really want and why we are fighting for it.
We must ask ourselves some questions to understand this better. Why do we pray or even visit temples when Sanatana Dharma doesn’t list such practices as mandatory for a seeker of spirituality? Even an atheist like Charvaka is worshipped as a saint in our philosophy. They why should anyone go to a temple, let alone pray? How did temples come into existence? Do they have any role in a society?
To find answers, we will have to delve deep into the science behind our traditions. But unfortunately, we lack the will or wherewithal to do it. There was a sense and purpose in the way of life devised by our ancestors, but centuries of invasions and colonial rule have managed to confuse us. It cut us away from our scientific and cultural roots and reduced us to robots who blindly do what they are programmed to do without realizing why we do it. We visit temples but are ignorant of their significance. We swear by Sanatana Dharma, but somewhere in our semiticised minds, we find its practices regressive. We say we stand for the Bharatiya view of things, but continue to apply colonial constructs to evaluate situations.
The invaders went away but did everything in their capacity to deracinate us. The education model they left behind taught us to be ashamed of our own past. Their successful marketing ensured that we forgot our own cosmopolitanism and trusted their models.
Our resurrection will depend on how effectively we manage to decolonize our minds – the minds of our journalists, legal fraternity, our politicians, our teachers, our doctors, our economists, our scientists, our priests, out students, the common man.
The Sabarimala debate is not about who decides. We are not in a game for political one-upmanship. The temple was established and its rituals codified by experts in Tantra Sastra. And they did not impose any ban on women. We do not realize its significance because of our conditioning, the success of the western model. But the fact is, if we are going to apply the western scale of rationalism to our belief systems, then everything that we follow can be challenged and branded as primitive. That’s because we are basically nature worshippers and Western rationalism has always treated us as barbarians. Today it may be the entry question, tomorrow it might be the Prasad (bhog ). The `prasadam’ (bhog) that is offered to devotees in Sabarimala is a local delicacy called unniyappam and a kind of `payasam’ (kheer). The unniyappam is very hard and difficult to chew. The concept of `prasadam’ is that food items which the deity likes are made and offered to it. It is believed that the deity consumes it first and what remains is distributed to devotees. What if someone challenges this saying there is no proof that the deity eats the food and so why waste money on it? Or why not replace the hard unniyappam with something tastier like doughnuts? What if someone says they want to enter the temple with their shoes on because it doesn’t matter what one wears as long as they have devotion in their hearts? What if someone questions the need to spend money on flowers for the deity, on the need for temple festivals, why worship snakes on nag Panchami or the nine planets (nava grahas)? The list is endless.
5. What is the future for the #ReadyToWait campaign from here? Were its objectives fulfilled?
#ReadyToWait was basically a hashtag campaign started by some individual devotes on the social media. Its success was unanticipated and spontaneous as it gave vent to saner voices hitherto drowned in the cacophony of the fake liberals. The result was overwhelming and a restatement of the truth that there is a silent majority which resents the fake liberal anarchy.
India has a glorious tradition of not just worshipping and respecting women, but also ensuring that they are equal stakeholders in the story of life. They enjoy pride of place in our history, as opinion makers, as rulers and what not. But with the passage of time, they came to be restricted to households due to a host of reasons. #ReadyToWait was also a call to them to come out of their cocoons and join the fight to create a Dharmic society.
#ReadyToWait exposed fake feminists, who claimed to be fighting for the rights of women but were actually fulfilling narrow vested political interests. But that’s not enough. The conspiracies against Sanatana Dharma are more than one can even imagine. This is a struggle for existence and it’s going to be long and risky. Collective action is the need of the hour. This calls for a platform where people can put their heads together and carry the fight forward. This inspired us to give shape to a society, `People For Dharma’ (P4D). The society aims to identify areas where people’s intervention is necessary to save dharma and lend a helping hand.
As a first step, the society has impleaded itself in the Sabarimala litigation pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.