A recent feature written by Taslima Nasreen and published by a news portal was titled ‘Gods are male, they hate women: Why fighting for entry to temples is futile’. Taslima Nasreen is a celebrated author-activist who has been living in India or Hindustan since mid-2000s. Her Bangladeshi passport has been revoked because of her views and she has been living in exile for more than a decade now. She asked for and was granted asylum in India. It says a lot about the multicultural fabric of India when a person feels safer living here- a country where the majority religion is different than her own- than in the country where the majority religion is same as hers.
This is a very misleading statement. In fact, it is incorrect. Not only are women allowed in most temples including the Kamakhya temple (the writer of this article has herself been to Kamakhya temple multiple times), the temple itself worships the Goddess (not a male God) in her reproductive avatar. Legend says that Goddess Sati immolated herself by jumping into the sacrificial fire when her father, King Daksh, insulted her husband, Lord Shiva. Enraged by the untimely loss of his beloved, Shiva carried Sati’s dead body with him and initiated the ‘tandav’ – the dance of destruction. To prevent the destruction of the world, Lord Vishnu was compelled to use his chakra to cut Sati’s body into pieces – each of which fell onto a different part of the Earth. The sites where the body parts fell are worshipped as a ‘Shaktipeeths’.
The temple of Kamakhya Devi is one of these shaktipeeths. The reproductive organs (womb and genitals) of Goddess Sati fell on top of Nilachala hill in what is present day Guwahati. There is no presiding idol here in the ‘garba griha ’or the ‘sanctum sanctorum’. The sanctum sanctorum is a small, dark and damp cave that is reached by a few narrow steep stone steps. Inside the cave there is a stone formation that resembles the female genitals. It has a small depression or hollow that resembles the feminine vulva (yoni) and is constantly filled with water from an underground perennial spring. The symbolic ýoni’ is covered with a red cloth and flowers. It is also said that the temple at Kamakhya was built by Kamadeva, the God of Love. When Shiva went into deep mediation after Sati’s death, the Gods requested Kamadeva to make Shiva get attracted to Parvati (Sati reincarnated). Kamadeva disturbed Shiva’s mediation and an enraged Shiva burnt him to death. However, when Shiva realised that Kamadeva had acted at the behest of Gods, he restored Kamadeva to life but without his virility and good looks. He asked Kamadeva to build a temple at the spot where he and Sati had spent private moments together and where her reproductive organs had fallen. Once Kamadeva build the Kamakhya temple at the top of the Nilachala hill, he regained his good looks.
Devotees bow down in front of the symbolic ýoni’ at Kamakhya temple and pray for the Goddess’s blessings. The power of faith in the Kamakhya temple is illustrated by the sheer number of devotees who visit it. It is estimated that more than 50 lac devotees come every year to the temple – male and female. Every year, a 3-day mela called Ámbubachi mela’ is held in the month of Aashad (June) and more than 30 lac people visit the temple complex during these days. It is believed that the Goddess undergoes her annual menstruation cycle during these days. The devotees include householders, tantriks, sadhvis … everyone is welcome into the Goddess’s abode. The temple management has built waiting rooms and developed a process to manage the crowd in an orderly manner and credit must be given to them for the same. Thus, Kamakhya temple celebrates or rather worships the female biology, the body parts and processes which differentiate a male from a female. Many religions, including some sects of Hinduism, assume menstrual blood and menstruating women to be unclean. The menstrual cycle or periods is something that is never spoken about or discussed. It is referred to in oblique ways. In some households, the woman is not allowed in the kitchen or the temple during her monthly cycle. She may even be asked to refrain from all household activities and confine herself to a restricted area. While there may have been a logical rationale for some of these restrictions in an earlier day and age (largely related to ensuring that the womenfolk get an enforced rest from household chores and some much-needed privacy in a joint household), it does seem archaic to follow these customs in today’s age of nuclear families and labour-saving devices. However, at the core of Hinduism, is a sense of acceptance, tolerance and adaptation – there is no single, right way to approach any subject. There are multiple, and at times, contrary explanations of the same ritual and they co-exist in harmony. Nothing symbolizes this contrarian nature of the religion better than the Kamakhya temple. This temple reveres the reproductive power of a woman and her ability to give birth to life. It worships the same biological process which causes a woman to be shunned. It also celebrates love, the physical expression of love, reproduction and fertility. None of this is possible without the woman! So, why would a temple that worships the feminine reproductive ability bar entry to women? Like mentioned earlier, Hinduism is a rich diverse religion (or way of life) and there isn’t any one narrative that is held superior to another. Sabarimala celebrates the celibate Lord Ayyappan. Kamakhya celebrates the Goddess as the giver of life. Both exist at different ends of a continuum- male God and female Goddess, a God who shuns romantic love and a Goddess who is the worshipped for her ability to conceive, the son of Shiva and the wife of Shiva…. Two different temples, two different presiding deities, two different narratives, two different ways of worship. What is common and binds these narratives together is the faith of the devout because having faith in one, does not exclude having faith in the other. This ability to find a common narrative amidst seemingly very dissimilar views is what makes Hinduism a rich religion. It is unworthy of anyone to broad-brush the Hindu way of life and reduce it to simple binaries. Hinduism, like life itself, is rich, complex, full of contradictions within itself and open to multiple perspectives and interpretations. I, for one, do not have enough knowledge of any other religion to comment on whether their Gods like or dislike women. Hence, I will refrain from commenting on that. My only wish is that erudite, intelligent people give the same respect to my religion that I give to theirs! After all, there are far more worthy ways to score political brownie points or become a newsmaker than by pulling down a faith– any faith! Read More by the Author:
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Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta, currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.