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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Different takes on the faith


Many readers — including several who began by describing themselves as my admirers — made it clear that they emphatically disagreed with my views on temple entry for non-Hindus.


I suppose it was inevitable that my appeal to the powers that be at the Guruvayur temple (“Nature of the Faith”, July 8) to open their doors to any who cared to enter, should have elicited a ferocious backlash. My argument was that temple s exist to open doors to God, not to close them to people; instead of imposing various restrictions on who can enter, I argued, the temple authorities should let even unbelievers in, as other religions do. Many readers — including several who began by describing themselves as my admirers — made it clear that they emphatically disagreed.

For the status quo

R. Rajagopalan of Alappuzha writes on behalf of “a silent majority of ardent devotees who would like to have it as at present — a calm place of only real believers in the Lord, chanting His name, and not crowded with tourists”. Frankly I think that description of Guruvayur is an utter fantasy, since I have never known the temple to be calm or uncrowded. Indeed, Mr. Rajagopalan rather undermines his own case by conceding that “already it takes, on any ordinary day, nearly three hours in the queue for a genuine devotee to get a glimpse of the Lord”. But he adds: “how long will it be if tourists also are allowed in?” My response would be that any tourists who are willing to brave that three-hour queue (and the priests shouting “move on!” in tones hardly conducive to piety) deserve admission: there are unlikely to be so many of them as to make the crowding significantly worse than it already is.

But Mr. Rajagoapalan’s real point lies in the words, “What real business do non-Hindus, opposed to idol-worship, have in the temple? Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism does not believe in conversions. Therefore we don’t believe in saying to unbelievers, ‘come in and see what we have to offer’. We are not on offer.” Let others pursue “other paths to God”, he says, “but let us peacefully follow our [own] path”.

Intrinsically different?

Mr. P. S. Leelakrishnan of Koyilandy in Kerala tells me that mosques and churches “are mere places of worship. A temple, on the other hand, is the seat of an idol installed according to Thantra Sastra and worshipped as a symbol of God and daily pujas are performed by trained priests according to Tantric rituals. Purificatory rites are part of daily pujas. Every Tom, Dick and Harry cannot enter a Hindu temple at his sweet will and pleasure even if he is a bo rn Hindu. One goes to a temple only for worship, not for sightseeing as you suggested. Utmost purity of body and mind should be maintained by worshipper. The Hindu knows when he can go to a temple and when he cannot. Who will teach these matters to non–Hindus if doors of Temples are kept open for all as you wanted?”

V. Jayapal of Thrissur says the exclusionary practices did not exist in the ages of the yagnas and yagas, when temples were open to all, but arose more recently “to safeguard Hindu values and scriptures̶ 1; — perhaps, he speculates, to protect “the valuables of the temples from the Mughal attacks and onslaughts, and by local Muslim Rulers like Tippu”. He admits that such considerations are no longer relevant, and goes on to laud the contributions of non-Hindus to the development of Hinduism, mentioning K.J. Yesudas, Yusaf Ali Kechery and Kalamandalam Hyderali.

The case of Yesudas, the singer whose devotional songs are routinely played at Guruvayur while he himself is refused admission, divides my correspondents. A majority feel he should ideally be allowed in, but several argue that an exception cannot be made for one individual, however deserving. Mr. Rajagopal, however, argues that Yesudas “is only a professional singer. He has sung in praise of not only Lord Guruvayurappan, but also Muhammed Nabi, Jesus Christ etc. He has sung even songs questioning belief in God, even ridiculing God. If he is particular about worshipping at Guruvayur, even now he can, after getting formally converted as a Hindu”. (This from a writer who says Hindus don’t believe in conversions.)

The individualism of Hindu practice is a weapon in the writers’ armoury. As Mr. Rajagopal says, “each temple has its individual customs, which gives it its uniqueness. For instance, even non-Hindus are allowed in Sabarimala; but there women are restricted”. Mr. Leelakrishnan adds: “Of all the temples in Kerala, Guruvayoor has a tradition of its own. Many devotees from the north say real Bhakti flourishes only in Guruvayoor in its pristine purity in India. We should not do anything in haste which may bring discredit to its great tradition”.

The other side

On the other side of the debate, A. Vijayakumaran from (of all places!) Rishikesh, tells me that I have “boldly expressed the sentiments of lakhs of human beings”. Professor S.A.Thiaga Rajan of Tirunelveli recounted visiting Guruvayur with his wife in 2004, “but [we] dared not enter the temple, being Christians. We went round the temple and returned with a sense of disappointment. We enter other places of worship freely and respectfully watch people performing puja or saying prayers — be it Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or any other, where the custodians are not so orthodox about allowing entry”.

Tinatin Japaridze, a young Georgian woman in New York, writes: “I have been increasingly fascinated by Dharmic religions…. However, I could never quite comprehend why of all the different traditional religions, Hinduism has been viewed as more of an ‘ethnicity’ as opposed to a path to spirituality open to all cultures of any ethnic or racial heritage and background. Although there doesn’t seem to be a formal process for converting to Hinduism (which perhaps is for the better, as I personally believe in spirituality more than a set of mere formalities and rules), as an outsider I have noticed how reluctant, territorial and utterly ‘precious’ many representatives of this religion can get if anyone from a group of ‘outsiders’ demonstrates an obvious interest. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard some of my Hindu friends refer to Hinduism as ‘our religion’ or ‘our path to spirituality’, thus excluding the non-Hindus.”

What will it be?

Ms. Japaridze adds: “From what I’ve read and heard, Hinduism is extremely diverse and open-minded in its philosophy, spirituality and beliefs. And yet, its doors still remain closed to most of us…” She laments that this should be so “in the increasingly spiritless world we live in,” where so many are seeking the truths that Hinduism has to offer. Her appeal goes to the heart of my case. Which is true Hinduism — the self-centred exclusionism of today’s Guruvayur, or open hearts, open minds – and open doors?

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