Gender bias in temples as old as the walls around them

temple11Published on 31st January, 2016, in The Times of India

Why were temples built in India? They did not always exist. Before temples, people worshipped rocks and rivers and stars: Kumbh Mela is a classic example of Hindu ritual that does not involve any artificial structure. If one goes to the temples of Kamakhya in Assam or Vaishnodevi in Jammu, we realize that what is assumed to be a ‘temple’ is essentially a structure built around very simple natural rock formations. The structure then is the boundary that defines and delimits the sacred space around something very organic and natural. This creation of boundaries is the essence of patriarchy, for with boundaries come divisions and hierarchies, that prop up the privileged. The physical boundaries express psychological boundaries that emerged long ago, before the structures, before gods and goddesses, in the earliest phases of civilization, when humanity emerged out of the animal kingdom and sought meaning.

Every village of India is associated with grama-devis and grama-devas, often classified as fertility goddesses and guardian gods. The female divine provides, and the male divine protects. For the female divine, the male minion is just a seed provider. Nothing more. The male divine protects the female divine. Sometimes he is also the seed provider. At other times, he is celibate like Hanuman, Bhairo baba and Aiyanar. Through celibacy these guardian gods express their respect for the Goddess, their mother. Celibacy, hence semen retention, also makes them powerful.

This notion of celibacy giving supernatural power gave rise to monastic orders. Monks sought to control the natural forces: the ability to walk on water or fly through air, the ability to change shape, be immortal. They also sought control over the mind: freedom from suffering, from fear. These accomplished ascetics (siddhas) shunned all things sensual like the female temptresses (yoginis) who wandered in groups as matrikas and mahavidyas.

Buddha created the earliest organized, institutionalized, monastic order in India. In his monasteries (viharas) women were not permitted. When they were, finally, they were forced to follow more rules than men, as they had not only to control their own desires, they also had to ensure they did not ‘tempt’ men. These viharas were built around chaityas which housed the stupa that contained a relic of the Buddha. These were the first grand structures of India, carved into rocks. Before that shrines (devalaya) of fertility goddesses and guardian gods existed only under trees, beside rivers and inside caves, unrestrained by artificial walls and roofs.

Temples of stone were built to counter Buddhist thought by highlighting the joys of household life. Temple walls and temple customs expressed song and dance and food and pleasure. The enshrined deities got married in grand ceremonies (as in Brahmotsavam in Tirupati). They were taken care of by priests and temple dancers. These complexes were a far cry from the serenity and silence of the vihara. They celebrated power and pleasure and beauty on a grand scale. But like Buddhist monasteries, these temples were controlled by men, the Brahmins. When the devadasis became too powerful, they were kicked out by being declared ‘prostitutes’, with a little help from the British.

Ironically today, temples — that embodiment of household life — are controlled by Hindu monks (mahants). Celibacy is seen as the hallmark of religiosity and purity, and embodied as celibate, women-shunning deities such as Shani and Ayyappa. In ashrams of modern-day gurus, male sanyasis are called ‘swami’ or master, while female sanyasis are called ‘maa’ or mother, thus endorsing traditional roles of man as protector and proprietor and woman as procreator and provider.

Is celibacy a sign of respect for women, or just a clever form of misogyny? Why do the guardian gods, gurus, monks and male devotees shun the feminine? Is it to retain their semen, hence gain supernatural powers, a common belief in tantrik texts? Or is it because they want to purify themselves, and so stay away from pollutants, such as menstruating women? These are popular ideas (traditional beliefs? superstitions?) that most activists do not want to engage with, for it will open a huge can of worms.

We prefer the sterility of neo-Vedanta popularized by male-dominated monastic Hindu ‘missions’ in the early 20th century, where God has no gender, or sexuality, hence looks upon men and women equally. Women breaking into men-only temples may be dramatic, like storming of the Bastille, but it does not challenge the patriarchal psychology that makes ‘celibacy’ purifying, and ‘sexuality’ polluting.