RELIGION, CASTE AND GENDER

By Dr A Nagraj


1.   Introduction
Gender caste and religion are three significant factors that are deciding the individual’s fate in India and it is impossible to escape these three. The nineteenth century India under the British rule to some extent tried to set right the inequalities by bringing new laws and regulations to govern the multi-cultural, multi-religious multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-race inhabitants, and the adoption of western principles in India was a challenging task for the colonial government. In coordination with the western thinking many social reformers from India have contributed to the eradication of many such inequalities, especially with regard to gender and caste that they considered the prime evils of the society. Prominent people like Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Jyotiba Phule and many others were championing the equality for women at par with men were also actively fighting the evil caste system in India, many social reformers got support from colonial government (Shukla-Bhatt, 2008);men and women equally were taking part in the social movements that were also transforming the western world. The abolition of sati in 1829 was the greatest achievement for the Indian women under the colonial rule. The southern part of India was more ready for reforms than the rest of India during colonial period. Though many people fought for their rights and social equalities for men and women it was Dr B R Ambedkar who stood tall among the reformers. The torchbearer of the constitution made sure of equality and justice for every citizen of India while drafting the constitution. He championed the cause of underprivileged and also guaranteed the basic rights for the citizens irrespective of religion, race, caste and gender. Ambedkar fought against cast and its evils through various movements until his death.

The temple entry movement by women groups in Maharashtra under the leadership of Trupti Desai to enter into the temple of ‘Shani Shingnapur’ and ‘Haji Ali dargah’ has once again brought the social issue to the forefront, but this time again with the gender angle. "We will try to visit the inner sanctum next time; this is a fight for gender equality" (Trupti Desai, 2016). The women wanted to enter the temples sanctum sanctorum that was denied to women by temple authorities during her earlier attempts. The Bhumata Brigade chie fTrupti Desaihas been successfully campaigning in the last few years to break the laws with regard to temple entry for women and she has been successful in leading the women into Hindu temples like Shani Shingnapur,Trimbakeshwar and now ‘Haji Ali dargah’. The temple entry for lower caste and women has a long history starting from 1919 with T.K. Madhavan and Kunju Panicker in 1920 (Srivathsan, 2013). According to the history the 1924 temple entry campaign started in Vaikom, and this was the historic movement in the history of India and with regard to temple entry movement, the movement had immediate repercussions throughout India, as this movement also had the full support of Gandhi. The struggle was unsuccessful, but it had succeeded in managing to open the roads around the temple (Srivathsan, 2013). The temple entry movement gained momentum after this, and in the year 1936 the Maharaja of Travancore issued order to open all the temples under the government of Travancore to the people belonging to backward and lower caste communities.

The Travancore Proclamation, as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar cautioned, was “not the be-all and end-all of social reforms.” Nor did things dramatically change for the better for Dalits immediately after 1936. But there is no doubt that the Proclamation indeed was a big step in establishing the rights of the lower castes in Kerala, and indeed the nation as a whole(Srivathsan, 2013).

Taking the Travancore governments order and the movement’s inspiration as an example more social movements and satyagrahas started to take place in rest of India. The Parrati Temple Satyagraha and the Kalasam Temple Satyagraha in the year 1928 for temple entry for dalit’s and other backward communities are also some of the historical events in the history of India. The Temple Entry Authorization and Indemnity Act in Madras presidency was passed by Sri. C. Rajagopalachari in 1939. It was Vaidyanatha Iyer, the president of Harijan Seva Sangh who led the Dalits and Nadars into Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple and this paved the way for more such entries into temples throughout Madras Presidency

The entry of the depressed classes (Dalits) and people belonging to other oppressed castes into the temple on July 8, 1939, holds greater significance in the socio-political and cultural history of Tamil Nadu, as it paved the way for similar entries into famous temples in Tiruchendur, Thanjavur, Tiruchi, Kumbakonam, Mayiladuthurai, Kanchipuram and Tirunelveli (Karthikeyan, 2013).

2. Temple entry and Conversions
Temple entry Agitations in the south became a socio political issue and people from the lower sections were demanding the right to enter the temples across the southern India. Though many attempts were made by the backward communities and other movements led by strong leaders who belonged to the upper class but with left inclination most of them were unsuccessful. The movements failed at various places due to the strong opposition from the upper class, the non-participation and division within the groups at the national level also let down the movement. According to Robbin Jeffery (1976) the rising nationalism throughout the country also played a vital role in the temple entry movement that began in the Travancore princely state under the British rule. Gandhi and his followers in the Indian National Congress played a vital role in the temple entry movement that started in the early nineties Gandhi himself played a vital role by not only participating but also leading a social revolution. The fear of social structure collapse and division and disintegration among the people and regions made the national leaders to go slow on the Temple entry issue. Though the Christian missionaries have made inroads in the country side with their religious propagation, the slow approach of the national leaders especially the congress, gave the Christian missionaries an opportunity to convert many from the lower sections into Christianity fold. The conversions under the colonial rule also made the Indian National Congress and others to rethink the temple entry for the dalits and other backward class (Young India 1920). After many attempts and fights at various platforms even Ambedkar had to renounce the religion that he was born into, as a form of protest, he converted to Buddhism   and lived as a Buddhist till his death. The mass conversion of dalits into Buddhism was also a revolution in India, as thousands of dalits have converted to Buddhism and rejected Hinduism in the year 1956 led by B R Ambedkar. Conversions from the backward communities and dalits throughout India also helped in spread of Christianity and Buddhism in India. Gauri Vishvanathan (1998) argues the conversion to other religions was a political tool to fight the dominance of the majority. But this form of protests and conversions didn’t help the backward communities much in their socio-political life. Though many people converted to Christianity and Buddhism they are still backward and untouchables for the upper caste. Enlightenment by education had no impact on the minds of the upper class, as they are well aware of the fact that, the real power is vested in those hands that have a control over the politics, religion, and education and these are very much controlled by the elite and the upper caste. E V Ramaswamy’s Self Respect Movement, in the year 1925 was actively involved in awakening the people of lower caste with regard to self-respect; the movement challenged the upper class dominance, superstitious beliefs, and other issues concerning women, education and basic rights. The movement was a turning point in the history of Tamilnadu politics, the two major parties of Tamilnadu are closely associated with the Self Respect Movement started by E V Ramaswamy. Many of these movements later gave birth to the regional parties to emerge from various states in India; and all of these regional parties are known to champion the cause of backward communities and the oppressed dalits in independent India.

The right wing organizations that opposed Gandhi and many other social reformers over the decades are slowly but gradually changing their mindset, especially on gender and religion issues, this is evident from the various statements and publications through their organizational mouth peace Panchjanya, The corrective steps taken by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) can be considered as a healthy step for democracy and secular India. Welcoming the gender equality and temple entry for all is highly appreciated by one and all, including the political parties that have ideological differences. The change in India has to come from above and not from below, especially on issues concerning with religion, caste and gender including equality. Though the constitution of India guarantees its citizen the fundamental rights with regard to religion and equality, in true sprit these are far from reality, especially for the backward communities the dalits and women in general.

Being denied entry into certain temples or mosques is not a spiritual issue. It is only a legal issue. That so-called “places of worship” are man-dominated and seats of discrimination must open their eyes to the fact that these are places where god is routinely mocked. Practicing discrimination in the name of god is the worst form of irreligion. A place where this is done has nothing to do with god or spirituality. Why do you want to waste your time and money there? I am sure that the women in this country have better sense than that. (Swami Agnivesh, 2016).

The historic event for women in India has taken place in the year 1927, when the Margaret cousins started the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in Pune. This land mark conference had inspired generations of women in India over the last 90 years; women have been fighting for their rights and in the process have secured themselves the basic rights that were denied by the patriarchy, but were upheld by the courts. Women who were fighting for the self-respect few decades back are now are fighting for equality at par with men. Though these basic human rights are guaranteed in the constitution it was difficult to implement them at the ground level, as the patriarchal dominance still exists in many communities. People who are literate also fall into the religious trap easily and get carried away with emotions rather thinking rationally. Today we need more rational thinking from the educated people irrespective of gender. The impositions and manmade barriers that are put in place do not have any significance with regard to caste, gender and religion.

Today the courts have to intervene and ask the government to set right things, but before that, we have to understand the history for having exceptions to religion in independent India. Though the colonial rule tried to establish a uniform law with regard to administration and law and order functions in different parts of India, it gave liberty to the religious groups and communities to follow their own Religious laws or Religious Personal Laws (RPL) and this in turn gave few individuals within the communities and groups with vested interest to exert their pressure and control over the religion and various other issues, in different parts of India.

One marked feature of most RPLs is that women have fewer rights than men. The history of legislative reforms of RPLs in the independent Indian state shows that the goal of gender equality is frequently subordinated to other political considerations. The state has selectively used the argument of religious sanctity of these laws but at other times introduced legislative changes (Archana Parashar, 2008).

While many laws are religious specific and also region specific, on the whole the gender equality with regard to temple entry and prayers for women are ignored by all religions in India. The understanding of god and the whole concept of offering prayers in the sanctum sanctorum and restriction of people belonging to certain caste and gender are constructed by man for various reasons, and much of these laws are patriarchal in nature, many of these laws undermine the women’s role in the society.

I am tired of this world created by men, ruined by men. I want a woman now to build the world or mess it up. I also realize that a woman is the Dalit in every case. Even when you look at savarnas [forward castes], the woman is secondary. Even a Dalit man would look down upon a savarna woman. Yet, the fact is that half the world is populated by women. We are fighting small fights — Hindus versus Muslims, Dalits versus upper castes. Gender is the bigger battle. You get unconsciously trapped in male values.(Nagraj Manjule, 2016).

Women in the forefront of the various feminist movements/women’s movements can enlighten the women both literate and illiterate to a higher level of understanding ‘God’ by just ignoring the laws. The women who do that are treated as outcaste anti-religious and labeled as atheist. The concept of understanding God or offering prayers in the sanctum sanctorum and abiding by the code of conduct (religious) according to Agnivesh is a futile exercise.

The purpose of prayer is to attain the strength to lead a godly life. It is an insult to women to assume that they can receive it only from manmade temples with which god has nothing to do. Women should know that not only they but god is also not allowed in these temples and mosques (Swami Agnivesh, 2016).

3.   Education and Enlightenment
 The growing scientific temperament in the country is making the present generation immune to certain age old forms of traditions and customs, but still majority of the men and women are into superstitious beliefs, and it is this voluntary submission by the individuals, that gives the religion its supremacy and the power to certain groups and individuals to control the majority. “In many communities, women themselves are taking active interest in the process of re-interpretation, creating a current of faith-based feminism. (Neelima Shukla-Bhatt,)Detaching oneself from the religion and challenging it on the rational grounds can be more of self-sacrifice and this is evident from the deaths of Prof. M.M Kalburgi (Writer and Rationalist) Govind Pansare (Leftist and Rationalist) Narendra Dabholkar (Rationalist and Founder of Anti-Superstition Movement) in India. Justice is a distant dream for those who are fighting the cases of Prof. M.M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, and Narendra Dabholkar as one can understand the nexus between the religion and state. We have also seen what can happen when someone challenges the religion people like Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen, But many writers and social activists are undeterred and are moving ahead with their mission, such writers and activists are to be encouraged as they lead the way for others and in the process bring in the change required in the society.

The recent high court direction with regard to temple entry for women can be treated as victory in a partial way, rather one would like to see the women from the present generation to ignore and do away with certain traditional customs and rituals that are culturally inherited and do not carry any significance in the modern world.

The feminist interpreters of religious sources recognize that historically women have suffered injustice in their communities. They maintain however, that this is because men have had the monopoly of interpreting the texts and defining norms for women based on their interpretations. They argue for equal rights of women not by severing their ties with their faith but by re-interpreting religious texts and practices from a feminist perspective (Shukla-Bhatt, 2008)

Very often it is required to challenge the patriarchal society to prove the gender equality. It is also required to prove that the age old traditions barring women and backward communities into the temples have no cultural, religious or scientific significance in the modern world where ‘God’ can be accessed online and puja can be performed by any anonymous person with a fake identity.

Men may be irrational enough to believe that god lives in only their temples and that they have a monopoly over such a god. That is why they are, quite rightly, worried about women entering their temples. They are right to worry that if women are allowed into these structures of make-believe, serious harm could come to their gods. The reason is that women are feared to be more rational. Rational creatures will know only too soon that omnipresent god does not stay confined to man-made temples (Swami Agnivesh, 2016).

Rather fighting for the temple entry into temples such as Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala Haji Ali Dargah at Mumbai, Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Kerala, Patbausi Satra at Assam, Lord Kartikeya Temple at Kerala, Pushkar, Ranakpur Temple, Rajasthan and many temples across the country it is better to reach the ‘God’ in many different ways, ultimately it is the mental satisfaction that counts for the individual when it comes to ‘God’.  And women being more rational then men in their thinking can lead the humanity to enlightenment in the modern society.

4.   ‘God’ Online/through Media
 The Invention of the first movable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 had a major impact on the religions, especially the Christianity. Printing of the first bible was also the historical event in the religious history, as many people started to read the bible. People, who earlier believed in the sacred texts and the interpretations by the religious heads, found out that many of their interpretations were completely untrue. From printing press to the present internet, media is found to be the primary catalyst is transforming the religion. Media has brought the religions across the world closer to the people and by doing so, it played a vital role in interpreting the religious texts. Today media is the major source for not only entertainment, but also plays a vital role in information dissemination, and it is this information from various sources that is transforming the religion and people to evolve according to the needs, and to do away with the age old practices and dogma. Over the centuries people across the world were able to understand the religion better with the help of media; the more advanced inventions like Televisions ushered in a new revolution, as people were able to see the holy sites and were able to hear their favorite televangelists. Today the live programmes and other religious events have brought people much closer to the religion and in better understanding of ‘God’ and the Holy Scriptures. The internet has also brought in a new revolution in understanding the religion, as people are able to interact, interpret and exchange ideas through the virtual medium.

People around the world are able to ‘reach’ prayand receive the ‘blessing’ online, rather having to wait in line for hours in church congregations and temples and other religious sites. In a way seeing ‘God’ online is easier, and is more popular among the youth than having normal visits to the temples. As such you do not have any hurdles with regard to gender, caste and race in reaching/seeing “God’ online. Many of the social reformers who fought for the temple entry for the backward classes and other communities would have preferred on line/live darshan of ‘God’ including Ambedkar. The technology has in a way has eliminated the manmade barriers with regard to ‘God’ the numerous television channels that show the live programmes of god, have become popular among the Indians, seeing your house hold deity ‘God’ on television and being able to watch him/her closely (close up) is far better than seeing the ‘God’ from 100 meters way. The technology has made the sanctum sanctorum more transparent and it has the brought the sanctum sanctorum into our living rooms, the sanctum sanctorum is open for everyone including the backward castes, the dalits and women who are denied entry into these manmade temples. The ‘God’ we see in our living rooms through television do not get polluted, by the touch or by women who are in their menstruation periods.

One would wonder, what would happen if the backward communities the dalits and women in Indian stopped going to the temples as they are able to see‘God’ on television and internet? Though it has been argued that viewing ‘God’ through television may not give the same gratification, but here we are not talking about the gratification by an individual, but one could fake the gratification in certain circumstances. If it is only about the gratification, then the present society is experiencing gratification through virtual media and to a large extent it is true. The virtual reality is what the present generation is experiencing and wants to live in. Not going to temples by the backward communities, the dalits and women in India as a form of protest would make the temples in India go dry, as many of these temples are survive on offerings by the common man and at times the blind belief. In India the appropriation of ‘God’ through television and other forms of virtual media can have major consequences, the enlightenment with regard to religion and ‘God’ and rational thinking by an individuals would one day make people more conscious and challenge the superstitious beliefs, I think this will break the patriarchal dominance and manmade religious laws with regard to temple entry for backward classes, the dalits and women. The consequences on the religion through media were evident from the statement below that happened during the early televised Televangelism in United States.

Strident attacks on televangelism have come from mainline denominations and from the National Council of Churches. The primary conflict has been over resources: money and members. The first concern here is that significant numbers of people may stay home and watch televised worship services rather than attend and contribute in other ways to their local congregations. Televangelism is feared by mainline denominations as an alternative to activity in the local faith community and therefore as a threat to the viability of individual churches (Roberts and Yamane, 2012)

In India we know that the age old traditions and superstitious beliefs keep the religion (Hindu religion) going, the myth of ‘incarnation’ is accepted by the majority, and this belief makes the individual to abide by the religious laws. We also know that the majority of the temples are able to sustain because of the money that comes from the common man, who blindly believes in ‘God’ and wants to return the favor for the good things that happen in the course of his/her, life. But the present technology has helped in deeper understanding of religious scriptures from different sources; the interpretation of religious scriptures is no more confined to one particular person or the source. The present generation of women can be more practical in their approach towards the religion.

Whether a woman wishes to be religious or the way in which she embraces religion is a matter of individual choice. But for women in whose lives religion is an important component, participating in its interpretation from a feminist perspective can be an empowering experience. Like their sisters in other traditions, Hindu women could express their aspirations for equality with men in their society through re-interpretation of some resources of their tradition. Hindu women can attempt to add a faith-based current to their own feminist aspirations and to the larger feminist discourses, all of which ultimately aim for greater rights for women in their respective societies (Shukla-Bhatt, 2008).

5.   Conclusion
The digital India and literate India is ready for a revolution with regard to religion and doing away with the age old tradition and superstitious beliefs as this is evident from the increasing literacy rates among the lower sections (caste) and women in India. People today are able to understand the religion from different source and are able to challenge the dominance of the upper caste and the religious heads on various issues taking the some references from the epics of Hinduism such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and including the sacred texts. The various movements led by women and many other social reformers and organizations are becoming highly successful with the interference of justice system and the mass support by the people around the world. Media has been able to play a crucial role in highlighting the issues especially concerning with women in the past few years, be it Nirbhaya gang rape case or the Shani Shingnapur temple entry movement by women of Maharashtra, media has been doing justice to issues primarily concerning with the gender religion and caste issues. It can be true, that the coming years would be increasingly difficult for the religious institutions, and other social institutions and heads to convince the common man with the age old religious traditions and laws that do not hold any significance with the present world.

References

About the Author: The author is a faculty (Assistant Professor) in the department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam, India. Having nine years of teaching experience and specialization in Electronic Media, Television Production and Editing.

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