Had God been stronger on anatomy than on astronomy, he might have created Adam from the rib of Eve, thus resolving this timeless argument over gender equivalence.
God encouraged all sentient beings to worship Him, Her or It in our own individual ways. Humans do, animals and plants may do too. Their manner differs, rituals may vary, but each prayer is like space probes aimed above at the firmament. No religion has yet advertised a segregated heaven with a separate eternity for men and a separate one for women. That distinction exists only on earth.
We know that orthodox Jews construct a mechitza in their synagogues to keep men and women separate. Islam, honouring its Semitic paternity, demarcates two areas (usually at the back) in mosques for the two sexes. Orthodox Hindus go one step backwards: their temples prohibit the entry of women altogether.
The recent commotion that has ensued at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, has disturbed friends of India as much as it has agitated the management of the temple. Testing the verdict given by India’s Supreme Court four months ago, two women of menstruating age entered the Sabarimala temple. It was an act of defiance against unconscionable prejudice, as singular in significance as the tired black Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat on the bus in Montgomery (Alabama) to a white man, and as brave as the juvenile Ruby Bridges’ police-escorted entry into an all-White elementary school in Louisiana.
Sixty years have passed since those momentous events left their mark on modern history. The stain of irrational prejudice still persists. There will be many who support the right of the the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the Sabarimala temple, to determine who should be permitted entry. After all, restaurants, cinemas and clubs overtly reserve the right of admission. Others might query the defensibility of an argument in favour of the discrimination, i.e. to protect Lord Ayyappa’s purity as a Naishtika Brahmachari or eternal celibate.
Celibacy is a tricky tenet in any religion. The Roman Catholic Church is still grappling with that unnatural stricture, 2019 years after its unmarried founder’s death. It is always easier to practice celibacy after one has been born. Legend has it that, in order to destroy the buffalo demoness Mahishi, a being had to be created from the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. To achieve this consummation, Vishnu manifested himself as Mohini. And thus was Lord Ayyappa born.
One of the strongest dogmas in Hinduism is veneration of the Great Goddess in her numerous manifestations — as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kausiki, Ambika, Durga, Kali, and (to some) the supreme Devi showcased in the Devi-Mahatmya.
In it, the description of her emergence is a faint echo of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib: ‘From the faces of Brahma and Shiva, and the bodies of all the other gods, Indra and the others, came forth a great fiery splendor, and it congealed into a single form… that matchless splendor, born from the bodies of all the gods.’
Modern Indians like Abanindranath Tagore saw her as ‘Mother India’. Most would concur with art historian Vidya Dehejia’s conclusion in her tome on Devi: The Great Goddess (1999): ‘As women increasingly adopt leadership roles, it may even become possible to challenge the long-established view of female gender as an ambiguous, limiting, and circumscribed category.’
India has seen a female president. The United States has yet to see one. Both have seen male and female astronauts (of Indian origin) propelled into outer space, together, without procreating in a confined space. Why should earthbound pilgrims be denied that level of equivalence?
— The writer is Pak-based historian