Thursday, June 14, 2007

The politics of religion

I was planning to post on existential philosophy over the next few days. But, I came across something in the Hindustan Times that spurred me on to posting earlier, and about a topic entirely different from existentialism. It was about the apology issued to the son of Congress politician Vyalar Ravi's son, Ravi Krishna for some kind of purification ceremony conducted on him at the Guruvayoor Temple. For those who are as clueless about the issue as I was when I read that article, let me explain.

The Guruvayoor Temple, in Kerala in Southwest India is one of the most sacred Krishna shrines in the region. It is a beautiful temple, built in typical Kerala style and the idol of Krishna there is one of the cutest I have ever seen. Many families come to Guruvayoor for the rice-feeding ceremony for children. This means that the first solid food given to the infant must be rice and paayasam (a delicious milk-based Indian dessert) from the temple. It is popularly believed that the child will grow up to be healthy and live a long life. So far, so good. According to news reports, Ravi Krishna came to the temple for this rice-feeding ceremony for his kid. And the head priest ordered a purification ceremony on him because he was accompanied by his wife, who happens to be Christian. Naturally, Ravi Krishna was infuriated. I would have been if my religious affiliations were suddenly questioned because I am married to a Christian. He demanded an apology, which was eventually tendered by the temple management. The priest still refuses to apologise because according to him, he was "protecting the sanctity of the temple."

That brings me to the reason for my rants. Quite apart from the fact that this incident only became public because the said Ravi Krishna is the son of a hot-shot politician, what infuriates me is the attitude of some people as the sole protectors of the Hindu religion. The regulations of the Guruvayoor temple clearly states that no non-Hindus are allowed into the premises. Not only that, certain types of clothes are not permitted inside the temple. I would not be allowed in if I were to wear a salwaar-kameez (a traditional north Indian dress). I would have to settle for a sari or a long skirt. Similarly, men are forced to wear dhotis. Heaven help them if they are not used to it and it slips off their waist!!

While the temple authorities have every right to restrict entrance to the temple, restrictions solely based on religion are simply not acceptable to me. It appeals to my sense of justice and every cell in my brain rebels against the practice. For long, I was told that Hindu temples only restricted entry because mosques did not permit access to non-Muslims. I actually believed that until I realised that most mosques only have rules of conduct within the building itself. Of course, you would be denied entry if you went there looking like the epitome of the Hindu mother goddess. Just like you would be denied entry if you entered a temple wearing a huge cross. That's normal. But, in this case, I find it unjust that a random priest decides on whether a person is Hindu or not. From what I learnt, Hinduism is a philosophy, not a religion. What difference does it make what my certificates say if I believe in it? Why would someone who does not believe in it come all the way to Guruvayoor to feed his child? Is it not infinitely more practical to make your rice and paayasam at home? Finally, who is the head priest to decide on whether I am a believer or not? What gives him that power?

We take pride in the fact that Hinduism is all-inclusive. But, if it is indeed all-inclusive, why do we insist on clinging to age-old, bigoted and meaningless beliefs? It is my personal opinion that temples, being centres of spirituality, should open their doors to people of all faiths. So what if mosques in India don't do it? Who said that religious tolerance and acceptance of the other should be reciprocal. Can't we try to set an example?

PS: For original news item, click here.

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