Not a Hindu? Stop at the Door

BY SLOK GYAWALI
Dec 20, 2010

One writer argues that the rules governing tradition and religion should be based on what is practical, and less on what is theoretical.

The other day, while I was at one of the marvellous temples that stand around Kathmandu Valley, the most eye-opening thing happened. At this relatively slow temple I was accompanied by three of my friends, and a foreign tourist and her guide. As we climbed the small flight of steps to get a closer look at the idol of the temple, the foreign tourist (her accent suggested she was German) was abruptly stopped by the old priest and her attention was directed to a board that read “Entrance for Hindus only”.

The flabbergasted tourist looked at the equally dumbfounded guide for an explanation. And while the guide was blabbering something incomprehensible, we departed with our usual “that sucks” and “it’s not fair”. But this episode ignited in me the eternal debate between progress and maintaining the status quo, the debate between doing what is morally right and what is perceived to be sacrilegious.

The rule to allow only Hindus into the temple stems from the concept of caste in the Hindu social system. Non-Hindus are considered casteless people, and therefore their admittance to the temple is unacceptable to the old guard. But there are some loopholes in restricting people on the basis of religion in such a manner.

The problem with this criterion for differentiation is that there aren't any ways to become a Hindu. Hindu is not something you can become. You cannot be baptised into being a Hindu, Hindu is more a way of life than a religion.

Because of the vastness as to how a person expresses his faith under the general umbrella of Hinduism, there is no one distinctive characteristic of a Hindu. Because of these complexities in defining a Hindu, the only way to differentiate between a Hindu and a non-Hindu is based on race.

A white person can be a more devote follower of Shiva while a person born in a “Hindu” family can be an atheist, and the only reason the atheist gets to enter the temple is because of the colour of his skin or because he happened to be born into a particular family. This, regardless of how you sugar-coat it, is clearly discrimination. The distinction of a Hindu from a non-Hindu is clearly based on the age old notion of race and caste.

 

128 Some people also argue that it is ok to not allow non-Hindus into the temple because other religions institutions do the same. (Illustration by Debby Ng)

 

Further, the temples are not only symbols of our religion but also a relic, a reminder of our glorious past. This past is a heritage of not only the Hindus that reside in this nation but also the Sikhs, Muslims, the Buddhists, the non-believers and all the other people who are its citizens. Restricting a section of the society from gaining access to our past on the basis of religion is not only unjust, it is sickening.

The rule does nothing to preserve our culture. I am not willing to accept such a perverse definition of what my culture is. And even if some argue that the rule to allow only Hindus into the temple is a part of our culture, it still does not prove that the rule is right.

Just because it has been a part of our culture does not automatically make it right. Slavery, bonded-labour, the caste system and sati (an ancient Hindu practice in which a widowed woman would either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) all were part of our culture but we moved on from it.

Preserving the culture is not a license to continue with the senselessness of an age-old tradition. In fact, the rule runs contrary to our culture. The sanctity of our temples should not be measured by who is allowed in but through how we treat the poor children begging right next to it. The hallow structures of our faith will forever remain hollow if we do not change the imposed bigotry of a few men a century or two ago.

Some people also argue that it is ok to not allow non-Hindus into the temple because other religions institutions do the same. My take on that is, they are wrong too. What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular. Discrimination is discrimination whether one person is doing it or everyone in the world is doing it.

As far as I am concerned, Hinduism has always been a tolerant religion, flexible to time and place. If we continue to follow a senseless rule, the charm and essence of the Satanan Dharma (a Sanskrit word meaning 'eternal law') will be lost forever.

 

This post was first published in V.EN.T. in November 2010.