After long struggle, Ahmednagar’s Shani Shingnapur temple opens its doors to women, ending a centuries-old ban that had been challenged in courts by various activists and inspired a high-voltage campaign. Earlier on Friday, over 100 men had forced their way into the inner sanctum of the temple dedicated to Shani (Saturn) to mark the “Gudi Padwa” – the beginning of New Year according to the Hindu calendar. Last week, the temple said neither men nor women would be allowed into the area that has an idol placed on an outdoor platform. The new restrictions were introduced to circumvent a court ruling that women and men must have equal access to Hindu places of worship. To keep women out, the temple barred entry for male devotees as well, and said only male priests would be allowed into the inner sanctum.
In November last year, this Lord Shani temple performed a ‘purification puja’ after young woman offered worship to the idol placed on a platform from where women are traditionally barred. At a time when women are fighting for priesthood all over the world, Shani Shingnapur temple’s this act came as a shocker. However, the incident is not entirely unexpected as a number of such incidents are becoming common over the years.
Temple officials – and thousands of locals who live near the Shani Shingnapur temple – have fought to maintain the tradition that discriminates against women. Women are being discriminated on one pretext or the other. The feminist organizations along with progressive male organizations must take up the issue seriously. Raja Ram Mohan Roy would be in tears to see his India in such a state after two centuries when he kick started social reforms. This is not just a religious issue; it’s a social conditioning too. Two days back, one of the Sunni Muslim priest claimed that women were only meant to rear children. People need a sacred text to look up to amend their archaic beliefs. Only our constitution can provide such a sacred template.
In 2000, Narendra Dabholkar led a campaign demanding entry for women into the Shani Shingnapur temple. The trail-blazing activism by rationalist firebrand Dabholkar, who was killed by right-wing elements, and his Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS) to combat the ban on women entering temples was a vital phase in the organisation’s untiring efforts to strive for gender equality in Maharashtra. While the struggle commenced with the usual raucous noises from the right-wing patriarchy, it culminated on a happy note with these very sections joining in the cause to uphold the dignity of women across the State. In 2000, several progressive sections, including activists, socially-committed theatre and film artists and grassroots leaders led by Dabholkar, actor Shriram Lagoo and farmer leader N.D. Patil led a march from Pandharpur to Shani Shingnapur in Ahmednagar to protest against the ban which saw the participation of a large number of women activists.
However, the right-wing political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, along with several fringe ‘Hindutva’ groups, prevented the campaigners from entering the iconic temple. After heated arguments with district official’s intent on averting trouble, the campaigners were thrown into jail for the next two days. In 2011, in an obvious effort at garnering goodwill by appearing to fight for women’s equality, the BJP and Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena worked for ensuring the entry of women into the legendary Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur district. In a single stroke, a 2,000-year-old tradition, emblematic of overweening patriarchal codes, bit the dust.
The Shani Shingnapur temple attracts thousands of devotees daily. Worshippers of the famous Sai Baba temple in Shirdi make it a point to visit the Shani Shingnapur temple also. The practice of barring women from the inner sanctum of religious places is prevalent in some of Maharashtra’s most revered shrines; among them are the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. Earlier, the Dargah’s trust has cited menstruation as one of the reasons for not allowing women into the ‘mazaar’. In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by activists Noorjehan Niaz and Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, the trust said many religions impose restrictions on women owing to menstruation, perceived as “unclean or embarrassing”.
In the Hindu community a girl, after she reaches puberty, is barred from entering the prayer room or performing any religious prayers during her menstruation. The only reason mentioned in our scriptures is that she is (ashudha) unclean during that period. Let us go back to see when, where and why this custom started. During those days, ladies would have take their bath either in the river, pond or near the well. During the time, when the girl would be in menstruation, it would be an awkward to bathe together with the rest of the ladies, as it would probably ‘pollute’ the water. Since, the ladies did not bath and there were no bathroom facilities for the rest of the day during the menstruating period, they would naturally be termed ‘unclean’ during that time. Hence, they were being barred from the clean’ places in the house, namely the prayer room or the kitchen. This is, as far as the physical aspect of being (ashudha) unclean, goes. However, when the scriptures spoke of ‘ashudha’, they may have not only meant the physical aspect but the mental aspect as well. Science talks of the menstrual syndrome, i.e. a woman is more irritable during those days because of a hormonal imbalance. Psychics claim that there is a different aura around a menstruating woman, maybe again a chemical reaction. Segregating to pray requires a positive attitude and people tend to respond to the negative vibrations of a person standing with you; maybe that was the reason why a woman was barred from public places of prayer during those days.
Whatever might be the reason, the ladies who work hard whole month should get a complete rest during that period. However, today things have changed and women are much more capable of performing tasks during that period. Here, I’m happy to see that the rules made by man in older days are changing with time. I think, this is New Year gift by the lord for women. I hope, slowly all the conservative decision will shed one by one.
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