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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Ancient texts didn’t bar anyone from temple rites

Kalaiarasi Natarajan writes: According to the Agama Shashtra (a manual for worship at temples) neither women nor any particular caste is barred from performing rituals.


Updated: June 20, 2021 8:41:44 am
Religion, faith and spirituality are all convenient commodities these days.

Written by Kalaiarasi Natarajan

A politician need not to go to temples or worship God. He is blessed if his actions improve the lives of the poor and those facing discrimination. That is why I appreciate the decision of the DMK government to allow women priests in state temples.

However, there are a few points to be noted.

According to the Agama Shashtra (a manual for worship at temples) neither women nor any particular caste is barred from performing rituals. Any other interpretation would be a misreading of the manuals. Also, menstrual bleeding of women was never seen as an issue of impurity but only a biological process, just like discharging urine and human waste.

When we discuss interpretations of temple norms, there have been debates. Reading old texts such as Thiruvarutpa (songs of Ramalinga Swamigal) or Shaiva Siddhanta (the preamble of Shaivism) or Thirumurai (a 12-volume edition of songs praising Shiva) is a complex process as each verse has layered meanings. You might find them contrarian. That is what actually makes us read further, to get a complete picture.

Since the Agamas have many layers, we can say that only God knows their real meaning. Only those well-versed with the Agamas can decipher the precise meanings. Here the point is all about having that urge to get immersed in reading them as you know that any lapse in the process can lead to wrong conclusions.

However, what is certain that there is no discrimination based on caste or gender in the Agamas in the case of one becoming a temple priest. What is ensured is equality. The word caste isn’t even supposed to have been uttered.

Tamils historically believed that there was nothing dirtier than segregating and identifying people based on caste. Even as we debate the appointment of women priests in our prominent temples, there are plenty of women priests in Tamil Nadu, especially wherever we have sub-cultural deities. Up to 25 percent of our local temples have women priests.

Tamils believe that Shiva is the only God who neither had a birth nor will die. Many temples with sub-cultural deities such as Sudalai Madan, Madurai Veeran, Karuppannaswami, Lord Pavadairayan or Kaaliyamma, Maariamma, Pechiyayi, Karuppai, Chellathamma all allow women priests. So why have a debate at all about allowing women priests in temples? Those who understand Vedic texts propagated that men and women across caste divisions have the right to conduct rituals because, as the texts say, that alone enriches values in human transactions.

The significance of this argument stands for the fact that Tamizhagam (the ancient land of the Tamils) never had castes. Tolkappiyam, the oldest Tamil text on grammar and literature, had no caste. Or even Tirumurai, the Shaiva narrative Tevaram, or Thiruvasagam from 9th Century poet Manikkavasagar. Shaiva poets and saints Thirugnana Sambandar (7th Century CE) or Tirunavukkaracar (between 570 and 670 CE), Shaiva Bhakti poet Sundarar or Karaikkal Ammaiyar (5th century AD) did not use caste in their literature.

Ancient texts didn’t bar anyone from temple rituals, even the divisions that can be referred to as caste-based were about labour divisions, like in case of farmers and goldsmiths etc.

Like caste, menstrual bleeding was also seen as a biological process. Blood or human excreta, the concern was always about hygiene. Moreover, women used to be given shelter or better care to take rest during the five days in periods considering the overwhelming physical burden and weakness during the days of bleeding. Nothing more or less, it had nothing to do with impurity.

It wasn’t stigmatised either. I would even consider having a menstruating woman bathe in the same holy water that we use to wash the deity to destroy these practices. Transgenders too are victims of such practices even as their body is purer than male or female.

However, building a consensus in the public psyche to erase these discriminatory practices requires a lot of effort. Many believers are wrong in their understanding. What Periyar (E V Ramasamy) did was to erase caste and these discriminatory practices. Witnessing these cruel practices and untouchability, he was angry. He was not a man who studied the Vedas or ancient texts, but he saw them all in practice, which made him agitated. I do not often agree with what Periyar said but I understand his intention.

Religion, faith and spirituality are all convenient commodities these days. A massive statue built by godman Jaggi Vasudev near Coimbatore is called a Shiva statue. But I couldn’t see my Shiva there.

The BJP’s Vel Yatra last year was another example of efforts to patronise ideas that have been present since time immemorial. Remember that Tamils are selfless. There were thousands of Tamil poets who penned verses leaving no names behind. Tamil lives are supposed to be selfless, and women being allowed in our temples is part of restoring values we once followed.

Natarajan is a Chennai-based Shaivite priest.

As told to Arun Janardhanan

National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column

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