Tradition of exclusion

Print edition : May 13, 2016

A 14th century image of Andal, the Alwar saint. With the bhakti traditions, women begin to get agency.

In history, untouchables, be they men or women, sudras or tribal people, were not meant to enter sacred precincts. Notions of purity and pollution were invoked to camouflage their social exploitation and economic deprivation.

At a lecture delivered in the Department of History at the University of Calcutta, where I was discussing the legitimation of violence in a 12th century Tamil text extolling bhakti, the senior professor who was chairing the talk remarked that it seemed implausible that a tradition focussed on devotion could sanction violence. However, if we do read historical sources carefully, we find not only such conspicuous contradictory elements within religions, but also many discriminatory practices. Hence, in the Indian context at least, it would not be incorrect to say that all religious traditions, as they have evolved over the past three millennia in the subcontinent, repeatedly demonstrate sectarian chauvinism, social exclusion and androcentric attitudes as well as patriarchal discrimination. But as Rita Gross, the well-known scholar of Buddhism, argues, we need to understand this androcentrism and patriarchy as part of a context, rather than fall for the claim of unchangingness and continuity, which feeds into contemporary patriarchal constructs. Thus, we can also see that historically there have been attempts to challenge the discriminations, attitudes and structures, and transform the traditions. Women’s spaces within religious traditions were neither a given, nor were they static; in early India, there were several contexts in which women sought spaces for themselves, had to face resistance, and, at times, succeeded in overcoming it. The past can, in this sense, act as a resource to clarify the contemporary debate on women’s temple entry.

Vedic literature has many references to women in the context of religion and ritual, particularly the sacrifice, but there is not a single instance where the woman is seen as the primary performer. The Taittiriya Brahmana (circa10th to 7th century BCE) states that a sacrifice is no sacrifice if the wife is not present. The primary purpose behind the presence of women in the ritual arena was to bring the fruits of the sacrifice to the male performer of the sacrifice, for the appeasement of his ancestors, and the betterment of his progeny. The Manava Dharmasastra (circa 3rd century C.E.) carries forward the Vedic idea by clearly delineating the negative effects a woman could bring upon herself and others, especially her husband, by performing a sacrifice on her own. (Given the proscription rather than prescription, can we read between the lines and suggest that perhaps women were actually performing sacrifices?) What is clear is that Vedic religion, while enjoining the presence and role of women in ritual, does not provide them an equal space as ritual performers.

Buddha relents

The earliest evidence of women seeking entry into religious life on a par with men is also a story of women’s agency, which we very rarely find in historical sources. Buddhism, itself a religion evolving out of the questioning of existing beliefs and practices, provides us with the first such instance, when women demanded to be a part of the monastic institution founded by Gautama Buddha in the 6th century BCE. We are told by the Theravada tradition that five years after his attainment of nibbana, the Buddha was approached by his foster mother, Prajapati, and her companions. Despite asking to be admitted into the monastic order three times, they were refused entry. Their tears notwithstanding, the determined women shaved their heads and adopted the saffron robes of the monks. They followed the Buddha, and found a sympathiser in the trusted disciple of the Buddha, Ananda, who interceded on their behalf. Again, their request was made and rejected thrice. Finally, on being confronted with the question of women choosing the path of homelessness and their prospects of attaining true knowledge, the Buddha relented. Women were allowed entry into the monastic order if they followed, in addition to the established monastic rules, eight special rules. The Buddha also warned that the life of the dhamma and sangha, earlier ordained for 1,000 years, was now reduced to 500 years because of this. He further compares this to the situation where robberies were to be expected in a household with more women than men, etc. What is clear from this example is that Buddhism certainly gave entry to women as equals into the monastic order, but that equality was punctuated by patriarchal attitudes and normative concerns that the social order was being disrupted.

The Jaina text Kalpasutra (circa 2nd to 1st centuries BCE) indicates that both during the lifetime of Mahavira as well as after his death, the number of women ascetics and laity was double that of men. We hear of Jaina ascetics who were heads of monasteries, revered for their wisdom and accepted as teachers. With the schism within Jainism into Svetambara and Digamabara, the ambivalent attitudes towards women become visible. The Svetambaras considered the 19th Tirthankara Malli to be a female; however, the reason given for this was the negative karma earned by a king who had taken to the path of spiritualism but not kept his vows. Around the 5th century C.E., debates on women’s bodies as obstructing their salvation became louder, and both sects ended up agreeing that nudity was a problem in relation to women. The Svetambara sect had a solution in the form of a garment covering women’s (and men’s) nudity, thereby allowing them equal opportunity for enlightenment. The Digambaras, however, maintained that ascetic life was not for women as their nudity was an impediment to their own and others’ salvation. Nevertheless, both sects continued to admit garment-clad women into the monastic order.

Women Bhaktas

The social framework of varna-jati, roughly translated as caste, provided the contours within which the religion having the brahmanas as custodians found its articulation. In its orthodox form, the religion has always been seen as centred around the brahmanas, with the ksatriyas and, to a lesser extent, vaisyas also identified as the privileged sections of society. The access to religious institutions and the opportunities to perform rituals were regulated by one’s caste and class position. Gender also intervened as a social demarcator, and women were at times compared to those at the end of the social ladder, the sudras. It is this brahmanical tradition that poses the greatest complexity in the attitudes revealed towards women’s participation in ritual, be it in its Vedic postulation, as already stated, or its sectarian Puranic articulation. The Puranas are understood as heralding a new mode of worship despite harking back to the Vedas as their source of inspiration. Among the many characteristics of the Puranic religion, the propagation of the ideal of bhakti, or personal devotion, to the sectarian deities Visnu and Siva is conspicuous. Many myths, such as that of bhakta Prahlada in the Vaisnava Puranas and Markandeya in the Saiva ones, recount the fruits of devotion, when offered wholeheartedly and in a mode of complete submission. Not restricted to the depiction in Sanskrit texts, and in fact heralding religious movements in different regions, bhakti inspired beautiful compositions in many languages in praise of the objects of devotion, whether conceptualised in specific forms or as being formless. The Bhagavata Mahatmayam of the Padma Purana mentions that bhakti was born in Dravida desa, grew up in Karnataka, flourished in Maharashtra and became old in Gujarat. Clearly, as an ideal, it had its appeal over many centuries and across several parts of the subcontinent. It is in the bhakti traditions that we see women (and lower caste men) with agency, seeking to be a part of the community of bhaktas, attempting to break social taboos and creating spaces for themselves in a male-dominated domain.

The Tamil saints Karaikal Ammaiyar (circa 6th century C.E.) and Andal (circa 9th century C.E.) present two different paths to salvation for the woman bhakta. The first, abandoned by her husband because of her supposedly supernatural powers, is believed to have chosen the path of the Siva gana. She gave up her beautiful form to take on the appearance of a dried-up hag, taking great pride in her shrivelled breasts and ghost-like appearance. Andal, on the other hand, is portrayed as a young woman blossoming in her love for Lord Ranganatha. If Ammaiyar gave up worldly pleasures, Andal sought fulfilment through sexual union with the object of her devotion. In Karnataka, the 12th century saint Akka Mahadevi similarly proclaimed herself as the wife of the god Channamallikarjuna, the object of her devotion. While she gave herself up body and soul to the object of her devotion publicly and graphically like Andal, she resembles Ammaiyar when she condemns the body as being worthless and impure. Other women saints in different times and different tongues expressed similar ideas that were radical in content; they reveal their carving out of spaces for themselves in a world where men dominated. Undeterred by social norms, they staked their claims to enter male religious bastions and, in their own ways, some of them succeeded. These examples are selective, and perhaps also few and far between. But they indicate the possibilities for change within religious traditions at different historical points.

Caste Barrier

Puranic religion also heralded the building of temples as the homes of the gods ( devalaya). There are many bhakti compositions that indirectly refer to the inaccessibility of the temple to all sections of society. Basava, in a 12th century vacana in Kannada, laments how the rich alone could afford to make temples to Siva; he goes on to build the temple using his own body as the frame—the legs as pillars, the body as the shrine and the head as the golden finial. The hagiography of saints reveals not merely class inequalities coming in the way of access to temples, but also caste as restricting certain communities while privileging others. The story of Nandanar tellingly reveals such restrictions: the untouchable who lived outside the town in the Chola country had a burning desire to see Siva’s dance in Tillai (Chidambaram). However, his acute sensitivity to the imposed social boundaries stop him from venturing into the hallowed temple space. Ultimately, Siva intervenes by asking the temple priests to invite him in after a purificatory ritual, where he walks through fire into the temple gates. Nandanar, we are told, simply disappeared thereafter. Do we read this as the inclusive character of bhakti, or as the reinforcing of dominant social values and hierarchies? Incidentally, this is a technique that is used in the case of other social transgressions as well—Andal attains her wish to be married to the presiding deity at the Srirangam temple. But this is also the moment when she ceases to be; like Nandanar she merges into the idol of Ranganatha and disappears forever. This does lead us to speculate whether Andal’s social transgression lay in her bold evocation of her sexuality and sexual desires. Other saints also meet a similar fate, indicating that this was a narrative strategy to gloss over uncomfortable endings. So, on the one hand, while possibilities of change in early Brahmanical religion are indicated, on the other, there appears to be not much of a transformation of the normative structures of society.

Camouflage for exploitation

Coming back to the issue of temple entry, could women enter the sacred precincts, or were they like the untouchables prohibited from entering? There are numerous sources that indicate that some categories of women certainly had access to the temple. Royal women are prominent as donors and some are even portrayed in sculpture and bronze casts. Temple women were a category of service personnel attached to the temple, and there are numerous indications of these women performing on ritual occasions, making donations, building temples, and so on. Brahmana women presumably had ease of access as well, as revealed in the legend of the Shaiva saint Nilanakkar Nayanar. Here, we are told that his wife, standing beside him while he was offering prayers, blew on the cobweb above the linga to prevent a spider from touching it. But clearly, untouchables, be they men or women, sudras or tribal people, were not meant to enter the sacred precincts, for they meet the same fate in the legends extolling their greatness. We see that notions of ritual purity and pollution were invoked to camouflage the social exploitation and economic deprivation of the lower castes and those outside the pale of caste society. Using these notions, certain sections were kept out of a publicly visible demarcated area to legitimise the dominance of the elites over them.

The extension of the idea of pollution to women, whose menstruating bodies were seen as impure, is known from a fairly early period. While it is not possible to maintain that such notions were rigidly maintained across time and region, we can certainly see it affecting the status of women in not only ritual but also in other social contexts. The restriction on women’s entry into temples, irrespective of the mythology and tradition that is brought in to justify the unjustifiable, has to be understood as a throwback to historical contexts when patriarchal controls over women were exerted through taboos and restrictions. We should also refrain from over-reading the evidence on women being allowed entry into temples as necessarily indicating the greater agency accorded to them in specific cultural milieus or that this represented a more egalitarian society.

What is apparent is that across time, religious traditions have sought to codify rules, control entry and regulate participation within the institutional and ritual domain, almost always with the complete backing of the state. Obviously, these are archaic practices, originating in very different contexts from the present, and hence need to be discarded in keeping with the ethos of a liberal democracy as envisaged in the Indian Constitution. In modern India, there have been movements seeking entry of untouchables into temples, the famous Travancore Temple Entry of 1936 being one such successful movement. Many political leaders and social reformers have raised the issue, from Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Ayyankali to Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar, challenging the establishment and demanding the restoration of social dignity to the oppressed classes subjected to such indignities. It is because of these recent challenges posed by different sections of society, backed by law, that temple entry for untouchables and lower castes became a reality. It is high time that a similar challenge that has been raised by some women’s groups is also taken on board, and in keeping with constitutional provisions for equality of women, their entry into religious places which currently keep them out becomes a reality. I would like to conclude on the cautionary note that temple entry for women cannot be understood as the foremost agenda for women’s empowerment, nor can gender discrimination be neatly separated from other forms of exclusion and deprivation. But it is a step forward in our collective efforts to fight various forms of inequality.

R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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