Study finds that ancient texts did not bar anyone from temple rights. Here’s to knowing more.
According to ancient texts, neither women nor people from any particular caste were ever denied temple rights. So, is the stigma that India is living with only a recent invention? Let’s find out.
In a recent article published in The Indian Express, Kalaiarasi Natarajan, a Chennai-based Shaivite priest, notes that “According to the Agama Shashtra (a manual for worship at temples) neither women nor any particular caste is barred from performing rituals… Also, menstrual bleeding of women was never seen as an issue of impurity but only a biological process, just like discharging urine and human waste.”
Photo: Agama Shastra
India is a holy land of gods and goddesses. Religion has seeped into all spheres of life, including political, cultural, and economic areas. Taking the case of Sabarimala Temple in Kerala where Lord Ayyappa is worshipped didn’t now allow women of menstruating age i.e. 10–50 years to enter its premises since 1991. The Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States revealed the restriction was prevalent even two centuries ago, and the Kerala court in 1991 ruled in its favor saying “such a restriction was in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.” The Supreme court finally lifted this ban in 2018, calling this religious practice illegal and unconstitutional.
However, after the decision, when women attempted to enter the temple, they were blocked by the protestors and hartals. After successful entries, the shrine was often closed for purification. Last year in December, the online portal for the temple reimposed the entry restrictions on women. However, a few days after, the curbs were withdrawn. This evidence is enough to understand that the matter is yet to be resolved, and women devotees might have to struggle to enter the temple in the future as well.
Photo: Sabarimala Temple
Earlier, menstruation was considered a biological process as it should be, with emphasis on hygiene. It had nothing to do with impurity. Women were offered extra care, considering they might feel physical weakness during the five days of bleeding. It is important to note that the stigma we are currently fighting against menstruation is a recent invention. The ancient text reveals that it is merely a natural process, and that bleeding doesn’t make women impure. This is also evident in the Sabarimala case, where the petition to restrict women was filed only in 1991 based on a two-centuries-old text. The country may be progressing, but such instances always take us back years due to our prejudiced traditions.
Coming to the subject of caste, India is a country where the caste system is deeply entrenched in its psyche. A simple google search will open a long list of cases, with a few as recent as early 2021. People belonging to “lower castes” are denied temple entry and even thrashed and beaten to death for trying to enter. We often hear that everyone is equal in the eyes of the lord but not if you are a Dalit in this country. Casteism runs in its veins, and people are subjected to maltreatment based on caste and also religion. On the contrary, Natrajan elaborates in the article that there’s no discrimination based on caste and gender in the Agamas. The caste-based divisions were actually labor-based divisions back then, like farmers, goldsmiths, etc. She also argues that old Tamil texts such as Tolkappiyam and Tamizhagam had no mention of caste. The only possible explanation for this is that the system was developed much later.
Photo: Kalaiarasi Natarajan (V. Satishkumar)
She also talks about the long history of Tamils, believing that it’s wrong to segregate people on the basis of their castes. She condemns the debate over women priests and says that those who have read the Vedic texts carefully that both men and women have the right to perform sacred rituals. Also, as far as the appointment of women priests is concerned, she proudly states that around 25% of the priests in the local temples in Tamil Nadu are women.
Women have always been on the receiving end of gender inequality. But did you know that sometimes the space we provide to women also reinforces the idea of inequality? Read this blog here to know more about it. Also, check out our other blogs on the website.
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Image credits: Google