Calling out misogyny

Resistant to change: For all their chanting of the glories of Gargi and Maitreyi, Hindu reformers have been unable to alter traditions such as the one in the Sabarimala temple. Photo: Leju Kamal

Resistant to change: For all their chanting of the glories of Gargi and Maitreyi, Hindu reformers have been unable to alter traditions such as the one in the Sabarimala temple. Photo: Leju Kamal   -  The Hindu

J Devika

J Devika   -  BusinessLine

With her decision to enter the Sabarimala temple, ardent believer Trupti Desai denounces notions of impurity and inferiority of the female body

Trupti Desai has announced that she will enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, where an allegedly age-old tradition prevents women worshippers of child-bearing age from entering the shrine. Desai’s decision has brought back the question of women’s full access to places of worship into public discussion. Desai is an intriguing figure — a self-professed ardent believer in the Hindu faith who does not hesitate to proclaim aloud that the Hindu community is woefully riven by gender inequality. And that no number of citations of evidence of ‘respect for women’ in Hindu traditions will remedy this gap. Indeed, she lays bare the small-mindedness of Hindu conservatives, and the hypocrisy of Hindu reformers alike.

For all their chanting of the glories of Gargi and Maitreyi, Hindu reformers have been unable to alter traditions such as the one in the Sabarimala temple. Observances at the temple continue to be presided over by the male members of the Tazhamon tantri family. One of the many controversies that dogged Sabarimala concerned the reigning tantri’s attempt, some years ago, to permit his daughter’s son into the sanctum sanctorum. The Devaswom Board refused to allow this, pointing out that the daughter’s son could not be counted as the spiritual heir! Hindutva supporters tended to argue against the Devaswom Board, claiming that the tantri had the sole right to lay down practice. Now, in that case, it is indeed intriguing why that very grandson, who was so keen to secure his right to enter the most sacred spot in the temple on the strength of his maternal ties, is so hostile to Desai. He has issued her a challenge to enter the temple, and called her an ‘ultra-feminist’.

But it is not at all clear to me how his claims to authority are justified. If women are condemned as ‘impure’ when they are of child-bearing age, that surely indicates they are not of equal worth as worshippers. Such patriarchal ethos can only generate a severely patrilineal logic of spiritual authority. By this logic, it would follow that a male heir connected through his mother’s ‘inferior’ line to the tantri family should not enjoy the same privileges as a male progeny connected to it through the ‘superior’ patrilineal line. Oh, let’s not summon up the ghosts of matriliny here. The Hindus of Kerala have buried it deep — and the Hindutvavaadis here still cannot stomach the fact that Golwalkar himself lauded it as a ‘eugenics experiment’ conducted by the Brahmins to improve the population of the land they settled in, and as proof of Hindu scientific temper. Desai troubles these men simply because she refuses to be cowed back into accepting the allegation of impurity and inferiority of the female body; she troubles Hindutvavaadis because, intentionally or not, she keeps alive Ambedkar’s insight that for all their claims of being sacred spaces, temples are, in the final analysis, public spaces. The Hindutva women supporters’ campaign ‘Ready to Wait’ appears ridiculous because that is exactly what Hindu women have been doing since centuries: waiting for equality. A fancy hashtag does not remedy their pathetic endorsement of status quo.

Recently, at a Queer Studies conference, I encountered a young, sophisticated, NRI queer man who announced that he was a ‘proud Hindu’ because the Hindu faith was tolerant of queer desire. The example cited was of Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala, who, according to the myth, is the fruit of the union of two male Gods, Siva and Vishnu. I was struck by his inability to see anything more — for example, the blatant misogyny of the Ayyappa myth. According to it, Ayyappa’s birth is allegedly for the destruction of a ‘demoness’, Mahishi, who acts against the Gods in anger against their murder of her brother, Mahishasura (and maybe, thereby, merely following matrilineal morality?). Mahishi is untamed feminine energy, and stands in contrast to Mahisha’s killer Durga, the benign feminine energy born from the Gods. The villainess of the story, too, is a woman — the step-mother who sends the child Ayyappa — Manikanta — into the forest in search of the milk of a tigress. It appears that the misogyny of the myth does not matter to many who treat it as evidence for Hinduism’s sexual tolerance even when the latter seems limited to divine beings.

If I were in Desai’s place, I would have set up a temple to Mahishi instead of entering a space made sacred by an incredibly misogynist myth which bolsters the vile male homosociality so prominent in Kerala’s social life. And that queer person, if not blinded by Hindutva, would have noticed the misogyny of the Ayyappa myth. He would have also seen that homosociality in Kerala remains one of the most troublesome hurdles in the way of queer assertion. And that homosociality is one of the pillars of compulsory heteronormativity here, and everywhere.

J Devika is a historian and critic based inThiruvananthapuram

Published on January 13, 2017

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