The last occasion I visited the Jagannath temple, jostling my way through the crowds, assisted by a pushy panda (also called a temple servitor), I noticed six white men and women, sitting silently on the street, discreetly separated from the rows of beggars that are a part of Puri’s landscape. I was told they professed to be bhakts who were barred from entering the temple owing to the entry ban on non-Hindus. It was a sad sight and an unfamiliar one since most Hindu temples are open to all.
Among the more prominent ones that are still for the exclusive darshan of Hindus are the Vishwanath temple, the Lingaraja temple, Guruvayur, Padmanabhaswamy temple, Kamakshi Amman temple and Kapaleeshwarar temple.
Additionally, the Sabarimala shrine prohibits the entry of women from the ages of 12 to 50. Considering the lakhs of temples in India, these are the exceptions to the open-entry rule.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court suggested to the custodians of the Puri shrine that they open the Jagannath temple to all worshippers, regardless of their nominal religious status.
The court held that “Hinduism as a religion incorporates all forms of belief without mandating the selection or elimination of any one single belief. It is a religion that has no single founder; no single scripture and no single set of teachings. It has been described as Sanatana Dharma… as it is the collective wisdom and inspiration of the centuries that Hinduism seeks to preach and propagate.” The reaction of the temple community has so far been extremely hostile to the court’s suggestion.
Last week, the apex court also held hearings on a petition seeking the unrestricted right of women to worship Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala. Although the hearings are still on, devotees are concerned that the court may use Article 25(2) of the Constitution, sanctioning temple entry to all sections of Hindus, to overturn an entrenched local tradition.
Radical supporters of the petitioners have also argued that the court should not rely on a dissection of religious custom and beliefs but on secular Constitutional morality — gender justice.
The attempts to change Hindu practices and customs aren’t unique. From the time of Gautam Buddha to the 1950s, when Hindu personal laws were radically modified by Parliament, the Sanatana Dharma has been witnessing unending reformation.
With urbanisation, global exposure and democratic politics, modern-day Hinduism has undergone profound changes without the community of believers perceiving an existential threat to their self-identity as Hindus.
Indeed, it can be argued that a Hindu identity that incorporates faith, social customs and even politics is more all-encompassing today than ever before. To that extent, any court decision won’t affect the integrity of Hinduism, although it may generate momentary regional tensions.
The larger question is: how is change being introduced? Earlier, the Hindu reformation was preceded by energetic social reform movements that were either centred on a re-examination of the shastras or an invocation of human dignity.
Although legislation seemed important to some individuals, the reformers that had the greatest impact — Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, to name only a few — were more concerned with changing attitudes.
Mahatma Gandhi twinned his battle for political freedom with an unceasing crusade to lift the so-called untouchables from social degradation. The reformist features of the Constitution were preceded by his bid to cleanse Hindu society of indignity.
Today unfortunately, reform has become top down. There are many earnest activists in India committed to forcing social change. But their political clout and influence in society is negligible. More to the point, they don’t identify with the institutions and beliefs of Hindu society. Many would even be embarrassed calling themselves Hindu.
For them, what matters is not the cleansing of a religion that has defined India, but Constitutional morality based on Western progressive values. It is this curious alliance between rootless rationalism and the upholders of judicial absolutism — the shortcut alternative to patient, democratic politics — that is driving many of the changes in Indian society.
However, the change is often lacking in social depth, and could even trigger a backlash that is viciously inimical to change altogether. The judiciary can disregard customs and even faith, but it can’t persuade society to regard the new norms as just and necessary.