Oct 30, 2018

Thoughts on a Hill Shrine

2018 has been surprising so far in the things that it throws up. Living in Kerala is like being caught in a particularly vicious vortex that has one so turned around and confused that there is no telling which way to go in order to survive. First there was that deluge of the kind that occurs once in a century or so which brought in floods and landslides on a scale no one has ever seen. The people and the government are still limping along in the process of getting things back to normal. For many it meant loss of life, for others - loss of their home and all belongings. The loss in terms of public infrastructure and the danger to existing structures is incalculable. 

Kerala also saw a wonderful resurgence of community feeling. Malayalis all over the world lent a hand to help those in need. My current hometown's fishermen who had borne the brunt of Ockhi in January remembered the help they had received in their time of need and rushed to the help of those stranded in the flood all over central Kerala. It was a time of pain and it was a time of heart-squeezing pride and happiness too. 

But in another twist of fate, all that fellow-feeling seems to have evaporated as though it had never appeared at all in the first place. Barely a month after the receding of the floods, on the 28th of September the Supreme Court made a judgement on a long-drawn court case and ruled that women of child-bearing age can worship at Sabarimala now whereas it had been banned in 1991. And all hell broke loose....

And now, friends have become foes. Everybody has an opinion on Sabarimala and will concede to no one else's views. Hindus are now divided in two groups - those who are against the ruling and those who are for the ruling. My whatsapp is flooded with videos that mix mystic lore with pseudo science to prove why women of child-bearing age should not worship at Sabarimala. (I delete them without watching). Both factions refuse to back down. Ironically in this divine matter the worst behaviors of the human race have been brought out. 

Why is this happening? Why are women themselves out on the roads proclaiming that they are ready to wait till menopause to worship Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala? Why is there so much bad feeling? I had to take a break from (sometimes acrimonious) debates I was having with friends and family and delve into the Scriptures and approach great thinkers to find out the answer.  My answers mostly come from Swami Vivekananda's works.

This is the conclusion that I have come to: People have different consciousness levels. In devotees of every religion, there are only a few who question the beliefs of their ancestors and try to learn for themselves what lies beyond the rituals and rites of day-to-day religion. These people lead the renaissance movements that purify the religion of extraneous matter that builds up in every religion over time. Our own Sree Narayana Guru was one such great soul. Swami Vivekananda says that souls transmigrate slowly by stages into advanced life forms and finally reach the human form and make spiritual progress from there. It stands to reason that at any point of time, there are a large number of people then who are neophytes in spiritual growth and therefore consider themselves religious solely because they follow the religious rites and rituals that have been handed down to them.

Swami Vivekananda also quotes the Scriptures which say that "External worship, material worship is the lowest stage; struggling to rise high, mental prayer is the next stage, but the highest stage is when the Lord is realized." He further goes on to say "Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps of his spiritual childhood: but on and on must he progress." Another relevant quotation from the same source is "...every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength till it reaches the Glorious Sun."

Thus I have come to understand that it is the spiritually young souls that are protesting the change in a temple rite. This protest comes from a place of fear. They do not know what lies beyond the rituals and rites, their souls are not ready to progress to a level where devotion can go beyond the idol to finding the divinity in themselves. They need the rigid rules of custom and tradition in order to keep themselves on the path of righteousness. They fear that once religious rites and rituals are changed, they will find a frightening void that will lead to anarchy. They protest just like a cornered animal attacks out of fear for its life.

But if the devotees had been left to their own means, things would not have got to this level of foulness and acrimony. It is the agenda of political parties who want to turn that fear and rage into votes that fans the flames of this particular conflagration. They are behaving exactly like the power-mongers of the past who cash in on people's fear in order to achieve their own ends. It is their organized strength that has defiled the sanctity of the hill shrine's environs with violence and foul language. It is their goons who destroy the homes of those women who attempt to climb the sacred hill.

What do I think about the ruling? I have always preferred japa, meditation and study of the Scriptures over worship in temples. I do not like visiting crowded pilgrimage centers no matter how famous they are because I find it hard to concentrate in the noisy milieu. Predatory hands and protruding appendages of male devotees have a tendency to take advantage of the crowds too. I don't need to fly my feminist colors by visiting Sabarimala against the protestors' wishes, neither do I want to court notoriety or endanger my family. In fact, my husband and sons have postponed their annual pilgrimage indefinitely. It is a fact that when opposing forces collide, the innocent bystanders often get hurt. It is only wise to keep away.

I bow to the rights of the activists who filed the case for the inclusion of menstruating women, but I also feel it was unfortunate that the Supreme Court didn't take the vox populi into consideration for this verdict. If it is not retracted, Kerala will once again become in Swami Vivekananda's words "a mental asylum" of fear-crazed devotees who are egged on by politicians and getting mowed down by government machinery. 

I am therefore doing the only thing I can do at this juncture. I humbly pray to Lord Ayyappa, the Destroyer of Shani to remove the darkness of ignorance blinding everybody and show us the path to true enlightenment. Swamiye, Saranam Ayyappa...🙏

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