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June 23, 2000
Amberish K Diwanji
Return to an abhorrent past
The shankaracharya of Puri, Nischalanand Saraswati, has said that neo-converts to Hinduism should pray in separate temples. These swastik temples, as they will be called, are to be for the exclusive use of all those who have joined or rejoined the Hindu fold. Those 'lucky' enough to be born Hindus can, of course, continue to pray in the existing temples across India and the globe.
It is also another tragedy that the pseudo-defender of Hindus, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has kept silent on this crazy suggestion. It only proves what was always believed: that the VHP and shankaracharyas don't care for the neo-converts, they just don't want them flocking to the other religions. In that sense their attitude is like the dog in the manger.
If the VHP and shankaracharya really cared for those who seek to become Hindus, the way is not to push them into separate temples but to welcome them into the existing Hindu temples, to treat them equally as brothers and sisters of the Hindu faith. But it is this very concept of equality (which is notoriously absent in Hindu society) at which the shankaracharya is balking.
He is clearly creating a separate Hinduism for the different peoples involved. And in trying to do so, he is not only dividing Hindu society, but going against the very grain of equality and fraternity.
Who are the neo-converts that the shankaracharya speaks of? They are the tribal people, in the news lately because many of them who had converted to Christianity are now being reconverted to Hinduism. These conversions are carried on with pomp and purification ceremonies, called 'shuddhi'.
The very word shuddhi is abhorrent. And it only consists of sprinkling some water on the person seeking to become a Hindu. Why can't the neo-converts be vested with the janav (the sacred thread) like the so-called upper caste Hindus? It is because the very brahminical forces that don't want the tribals to 'leave' Hinduism are also reluctant to accept them as equals within the Hindu fold, thus proving that those seeking reconversions are upper caste first and Hindus later. Keeping the caste pure is more important than widening Hinduism.
Now the next stage is to deny them entry into the temples that exist. So the way out is to create separate 'swastik' temples for them. Decades ago, dalits, shudras and tribals (even those who categorically professed Hinduism) were denied entry into the temples. (Some horrible temples continue with this loathsome practice even today.) Swastik temples are a continuation of this idea, with the saving grace that they will be given 'another' temple. Since in this day and age it is not possible to openly say that the presence of tribals (and later, who knows, dalits, shudras and a range of other non-dwija [twice-born] Hindus) will "pollute" our temples, how convenient to say, build new temples for the neo-converts.
The shankaracharya is nothing more than a bigot, a reactionary Hindu who must be stopped at all costs from reintroducing casteism into the faith where over the last 100 years it has been slowly dying out. Because the very concept of separate temples for neo-convert Hindus (and he mainly means tribals) is nothing more than casteism by other means.
You can also be sure that Europeans and white Americans who become Hindus, such as the ISKCON converts, will never be pushed into the swastik temples. Simply because the white-skinned convert is often rich (usually in dollars) and very powerful, something that neo-convert tribals are not.
There are, of course, practical problems. Where will the money come from? If even 7,000 such temples are to be built (as proclaimed by the shankaracharya), and each temple will cost at least Rs 100,000, we are looking at a minimum of Rs 700,000,000. Surely this money can be better used to help the poor Hindus by providing them education, water, food and health care?
But then who cares for the needs of the tribal, Hindu or not. The only concern is to prevent them from becoming Christians, and once they return to Hinduism the effort is then to keep them out of the Hindu temples. Will such neo-converts (and even the Hindus from among the tribals and dalits) be allowed into the Jagannath temple at Puri, into the Meenakshi temple at Madurai?
The problem with casteism is that it is not the problem of the so-called lower castes, but of the so-called upper castes, who refuse to give up their prejudices against their fellow Hindus. And instead of opposing this attitude that believes in inequality and seeking its very annihilation, what separate temples will do is reinforce such prejudices.
There is another factor that should worry the votaries of Hindutva who ardently believe in the unity of the Hindu people. Create separate temples for neo-converts today and this could flower into a separate sect of Hindus.
Actually, that might not be a bad idea. What might happen is something akin to the Protestant reformation of the Catholic Church. Those Hindus who are denied equality (like the neo-converts, the tribals, dalits and others) can soon create their own separate Hindu sect, replete with their own temples, prayers, rituals and, above all, their own priesthood that will be based not on birth but on vocation.
The idea of a separate Hindu sect for the deprived castes has been put forward in the past, but the disunity among the deprived castes and the sincere attempts to reform Hinduism by many social activists made the idea stillborn. But if swastik temples can be built for neo-converts, temples can also be built for the other deprived castes. And these temples can have priests from the laity, not from only one specific caste. Then who needs a shankaracharya?
It would be an irony if the shankaracharya's idea of swastik temples triggers something much bigger: the reformation and renaissance of Hindu society. In which case, it won't be such a bad idea!
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