Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Sandhya Jain from 2002 on Dalits and the Kanchi Acharya

November 17

(From the Pioneer 19th November 2002)

Dalits: Kanchi leads the way

By Sandhya Jain

The Shankaracharya of Kanchi, Swami Jayendra
Saraswati, broke a critical stalemate in the current
controversy over the merits of the Tamil Nadu ban on
conversions by force, fraud or inducement, by offering
worship at a Dalit-run temple in Madurai (The Hindu,
12 Nov. 2002). The Veerakali Amman temple, which
serves the religious needs of eighteen villages and
has a Dalit priest, lies in the Melur region where 250
Hindus were converted en masse by a Canadian priest of
the Seventh Day Adventists on 25 August 2002.
Previously, about fifteen hundred Hindus were
converted in the neighbouring areas in January 2001.
By giving the villagers an unexpected darshan, the
Shankaracharya gracefully shattered several myths and
assumptions about inequality and divisiveness in Hindu

Speaking with his legendary forthrightness, the seer
told the gathering what many of us have always known,
namely, that Hindu dharma does not promote or envision
discrimination and regards people of all sections of
society as equals. He rightly stressed that Hindus
have an age-long tradition of living amicably as a
"family", as brothers and sisters. Candidly accepting
that there are always differences in society, he
advised the people not to foster discrimination on
this count, as unity has ever been the hallmark of the

The Shankaracharya has truly led by example, with a
view to blunting the criticism of evangelizing faiths
that social discrimination compels Dalits to embrace
other faiths. Hitherto, Hindus have been rebutting
the argument by pointing out that the condition of
former Dalits does not improve upon leaving the mother
faith, and that persisting discrimination in the new
faiths has led Christian and Muslim groups to demand
the extension of reservation benefits to ex-Dalits in
their fold.

Swami Jayendra Saraswati, however, has risen above
this cacophony to remind us that we cannot seek refuge
in such specious arguments, and that it is our duty to
uphold the principle of the brotherhood of man in our
own lives. It is now enjoined upon each one of us to
be worthy followers of a worthy leader. Tamil society
in particular must rise to the occasion and accord the
Dalits the personal dignity they crave for; a
beginning must be made by doing away with the
degrading two-glass system at village dhabas. In this
regard, it may be worth noting that the Swamiji's
choice of temple was singularly apt. The Veerakali
Amman temple attracts devotees from all castes and is
also a locally renowned symbol of communal harmony as
Muslims regularly join the celebrations of its annual
festival in January.

What is most exciting about this new call from the
bastions of the mainstream tradition is that it cannot
be set aside lightly as a maverick or fringe movement.
Swami Jayendra Saraswati followed up the Madurai
initiative at Tirunelveli by categorically asserting
that Dalits have the right to enter any temple across
the State, individually, and offer prayers. This may
not make sense to many urban citizens. But what it
means is that at many important temples, Dalits from
outside the region do enter anonymously along with
other pilgrims, but local Dalits who might be
recognized would be barred or beaten for entering the

Now an orthodox Hindu leader with unparalleled
knowledge of the shastras has ruled that "appropriate
action" would be taken against those trying to prevent
a Harijan from entering a temple. And as the cosmic
vision of the Hindus does not envisage the shallow
separation of religion and the public sphere, as
Mahatma Gandhi had intuitively understood, the
Shankaracharya has rightly asserted that religious
leaders must increasingly participate in public life
to foster a social renaissance.

Given the encouraging signs emanating from different
parts of the country, it would appear that a major
paradigm shift is in the making. Later this month,
Hindu religious leaders are slated to meet at
Kottakkal in Malappuram district, Kerala, to discuss
whether temples should open their doors to all
visitors, irrespective of religion (The Hindustan
Times, 12 Nov. 2002). Historically, there are
legitimate reasons for both the imposition of the ban,
and socially, there are valid reasons for its
revocation. A mature look at both sides of the coin
would go a long way to ensure community amity and
national harmony.

Those who contend that conversions are not an assault
upon the country's native faith and living
civilization would do well to recollect that Hindu
dharma has suffered grievously for several centuries,
and its temples have been the special foci of
sustained assault and injury. Simply put, this is the
reason for the self-protective ban on the entry of
non-believers into temple precincts. Left historian
Sanjay Subramaniam has recorded the fortuitous escape
of the famed Tirupathi shrine from annihilation at the
hands of the Portuguese. Can one imagine south India
without Tirupathi? North India was home to several
such Tirupathis; today it has only the Ganga. Yet, the
priests of Tirupathi have welcomed all devotees
provided only that they declare faith in Sri
Venkatesvara; that is why it rankles to this day that
Signora Sonia Gandhi should so arrogantly refuse this
courtesy at such a holy shrine.

Nonetheless, much water has flown under the bridge,
and communities have grown to the point that many
individuals wish to stake claim to a larger Indic
heritage. Hindu tradition is by definition inclusivist
rather than exclusionary, hence deference to the
sentiments of non-Hindu devotees would be highly
appropriate. The present move is the result of the
hurt felt by many at a perceived injustice to
celebrated singer K.J. Yesudas, a great bhakta of
Guruvayurappan, who has been denied temple entry on
account of being born in a Christian family. The poet
Yusufali Kecherry, who has written some of the best
songs in honour of Lord Krishna, has also been
excluded from Guruvayur because of his Muslim origins.

This seemingly innocuous issue came to the forefront a
couple of years ago when the Guruvayur Temple
performed a purificatory rite after the wedding of the
son of Congress leader Vyalar Ravi. The explanation
offered was that Mr. Ravi's wife was not a Hindu. But
the incident proved unacceptable to the Hindu
conscience and sparked off the present reformation
drive. Much can be expected from the conclave as the
chief of the Namboodiri sect has taken the lead in the
matter and major temples and social organizations are
expected to attend the meet. It seems reasonable to
extend freedom of entry to all devotees (or for that
matter even heritage tourists from other faiths)
provided that they show proper respect to temple
traditions and do not defile their sanctity. And it
goes without saying that this generosity must extend
to less privileged groups within the Hindu fold.

Change is already in the air. In strife-torn Bihar,
birthplace of Lord Mahavira, the apostle of
non-violence, authorities of Patna's famous Mahavira
temple have decided to increase the number of Dalit
priests after a successful experiment launched nine
years ago. A former untouchable, Suryavanshi Das, was
recruited as a priest and has been successfully
performing the traditional rituals along with the
Brahmin priests. His public acceptance is absolute.
The temple administration actively promotes equality
among human beings and maintains links with the
Ramanandi community which practiced non-discrimination
seven centuries ago.

End of matter