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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker

'Once you let government meddle, you set a precedent'

June 12, 2007

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Statements, however, have brief shelf lives; they never make for a movement. One organization that does seek forward movement, and is working towards it, is the Yogakshema Sabha.

Ironically, one of the early stalwarts of this body is none other than the late EM Sankaran Namboodiripad, Kerala's [Images] first Communist chief minister.

The body, now nearly into its eighth decade of existence, is intended to work for the unity of and among Brahmins, tantris, vaidikas (vedic scholars), and related ambalavasis (associate priests and other temple workers) in Kerala.
Since the Ravikrishna controversy hit the headlines, the Sabha has been active behind the scenes, spearheading a movement for reform from within.

"The tantri has been suggesting that the government should bring about change through law," says Rahul Easwar, the articulate young spokesman for the Sabha and himself the grandson of the chief priest of that other famous Kerala temple, Sabarimala.

"That is a dangerous stand to take. What if, tomorrow, the government does in fact bring about a law that says anyone who wants to can enter the temple? What if, once the law is passed, Guruvayur permits entry to all � believer or non-believer? And what if, four months later, the courts strike down the law?

"What will you do then? Will you conduct four months worth of punyahams to restore status quo?"

Ravindran, who argues the same point, adds a further rider: "Once you let the government meddle in religious affairs, you establish a precedent you cannot turn back. Today, it will be deciding who enters the temple; what if, tomorrow, the government decides to pass a law that allows it to appoint the chief priest? That is what I told our tantri, I pointed out that by taking such a hard stance, he was playing with fire and could in turn be burnt by it."

"Our religion, which we call 'Sanatana' Dharma, the timeless, eternal religion, may be many millennia old, but that is not to say it has never changed, nor never will," Eashwar who despite, or even perhaps because of, his priestly antecedents, is leading the movement for change, argues.

"Every age has posed questions of our religion. 2,500 years back, those questions took the form of a Buddha, a Mahavir. 1200 years back, those questions were answered, and others asked, by Sankara, Madhava and Ramanuja.

"One hundred years ago, again in response to changing times, questions were asked by a Raja Rammohan Roy, a Dayanand Saraswathy, a Gandhiji, a Vivekananda, Narayana Guru and a Chattambi Swamy, who helped reform our religion, bring it in line with changing times."

The wheel, argues Eashwar, has come full circle; contemporary times and mores are posing fresh questions, in the form of a devotee, a priest, an atheist, various stakeholders.

Eashwar points out the anomaly, even the irony, of the existing situation. "Today in Guruvayur, you can go inside if you have an Arya Samaj certificate. But the Arya Samaj is itself opposed to idol worship; what value does a certificate from that body have, to say you are an idol-worshipper, a believer? Clearly, there is much that is wrong with the current situation, so why are we resistant to change?"

Eashwar reels off facts and figures to question current orthodoxy. It was, he points out, existing dogma that proclaimed that a temple would become impure if untouchables entered it; yet the 1936 proclamation threw open the doors to untouchables, with no ill-effects.

"Did Guruvayur's importance decline because untouchables entered? Shortly before that happened, policemen came to the temple doors with a court order permitting them to seize the idol, because the temple couldn't pay dues of Rs 7,000. Today, the temple collects Rs 1.5 crore per month just from the hundis, even in off-season. Clearly, change did good, not harm, then."

Sometimes, he says, rigid adherence to dogma results in crime. In the Puri Jagannath temple, for instance, a million rupees worth of food was destroyed recently when a foreigner accidentally entered the premises.

"In a land where crores of humans, all of them God's children, go to bed hungry, can we justify the dogma that caused that food to be destroyed?"

Eashwar and others of the Sabha have been working behind the scenes, thus, to seek answers. "Our first step is to bring everyone together to the table � we are talking to everyone, the priest, the DYFI, the government, everyone.

"We need to define change, we need to spell it out, we need to convince devotees of the rationale behind such change, and we need to do it on our own, without some government holding a gun to our head."

Eashwar quotes Martin Luther King, apropos: 'Cowardice asks the question, Is it safe? Selfishness asks the question, Is it politic? And Vanity asks the question, Is it popular?

'But Conscience asks the question, Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position, a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because it is right, simply because it is right.' 

Perhaps the last word on the subject, for now, belongs to the Samoothiripad (Zamorin) of Calicut, PKS Raja.

The nonagenarian descendent of the erstwhile rulers of Calicut, who held title to the temple in their heyday, has travelled to Guruvayur today, at considerable hardship, to take part in the crucial meeting.

"It is very important for all of us to do our best to defuse this controversy," the Zamorin says, his voice laced with apparent weariness.

"Religion should be about faith, belief; it should be uplifting. It should not be about controversy, about confrontation � the sooner we all work to clear the air, the better, for the temple we believe in and for all of us."


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