By Sreemoyee Mukherjee Oct. 28, 2018
Confronting my grandmother about my sister’s participation in a house puja while she was on her period turned into a four-hour screaming match. At the end of it all, grandma allowed her to wash some puja utensils, but I still lost. I could not convince her to change her belief.
“Notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion,” said Justice Indu Malhotra, the only woman and dissenting judge on the panel that declared everyone, including women of menstrual age, has a right to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple.
Justice Malhotra echoes the thoughts of a majority of followers of India’s institutionalised religion, which is as far from logic and scientific rationale as the Sabarimala priests are from abiding by the Supreme Court verdict. To bring home the case in point, Hindu scriptures, specifically the Puranas, detail menstruation with a story: God Indra once killed a Brahmin, which is a sin of the highest order. To absolve himself of it, he divided his sin into four parts (because Gods can do that), and distributed it among four different things. To make up for this, he even awarded them with a boon. Trees, water, and the earth took three parts, and women took the fourth. So, for five days every month, women pay penance for the sin they did not even commit and bleed. Hence they are considered impure. In return, they received the boon that allowed them to get more sexual pleasure than men.
How is it possible to fight this belief system with logic?
The furore over the Sabarimala Temple verdict isn’t about equality versus stigma, men versus women, it is about religion vs rationality. When you bring rational thinking into this equation, you are essentially questioning the word of God.
For them it’s not so much about the right to pray. What they fear is the wrath of God.
I recently tried doing just that with my grandmother, and it didn’t turn out well.
I come from a Bengali Brahmin family that has always taken pujas very seriously. From childhood, my grandmother taught me a host of dos and don’ts that I was expected to adhere to – the most important of them was, “No touching God when you are ‘sick.’” Obviously, being “sick” meant being on your period. This is a commonly held belief in almost all households which live in the fear of god.
I have lived by this rule for the past 20 years, sometimes getting a free pass from the backbreaking work required during any puja. As I grew up, I started finding the ritual regressive, but always knew it was something I had to follow to keep the peace in the house.
When I was 13, I forgot that I was on my period and went ahead and performed the evening puja in the house. Then I remembered what I had done was supposed to be a sin, and my mother found me bawling my eyes out. I was terrified that I had committed an unforgivable crime. That God would punish me. My mother patted my head and said, “Don’t worry, it’s all superstition that doesn’t count, as long as grandmother doesn’t see it.”
I grew up to be an atheist, and have not prayed in years. However, organising pujas in the house is a filial obligation, which I perform to the best of my ability.
This year during Laxmi Puja, my elder sister was on her period. No one would let her touch anything, which meant I had to work twice as hard, swallow random discrimination, and watch my sister tiptoe around the house like a pariah. But I couldn’t take it anymore.
After all I considered myself a hot-headed feminist, with a full 21 years of inexperience. If I could not fight against discrimination in the house, how could I take my battles outside?
So, I went up to my grandmother and I asked her why this rule existed. Puzzled, she asked, “What do you mean why does it exist? I don’t know why it exists.” I asked her why she followed something that she doesn’t have an explanation for. She said, she did it because her grandmother had asked her to. She, unlike her granddaughter, trusted in the wisdom of her elders.
Angrily piling rice in delicate mounds for the puja, I tried a different approach. “So, Laxmi is a woman right? Does she not get pujas during her periods?”
My grandmother smiled and said, “Oh Laxmi doesn’t get periods, only Durga does.”
I spluttered, my eyes wide, repeating slowly, “The Goddess of Fertility doesn’t get periods?”
Grandma shrugged, looking distraught, repeating, “I don’t know, I just know you are impure when you are sick.” By this point, I was on the verge of shrieking out loud. We fought for around four hours, at the end of which she declared that she was feeling nauseous. In the evening, however, she let my sister wash something that was going to be used for the puja. She said, “You both spent the entire afternoon lecturing me, so I suppose you know better.”
That day my sister helped with the puja, but I realised I had lost yet again. For my grandmother wasn’t convinced I was right, she accepted this as yet another rule we “English-speaking, irreverent youngsters” are breaking. It was all a fault of our upbringing, Western influence, and we were lost in the eyes of her God.
And this is probably what priests trying to protect Lord Ayyappa believe. For them it’s not so much about the right to pray. What they fear is the wrath of God.
The greatest trick the Devil pulled was to convince us that he doesn’t exist. The greatest trick religion pulled is to convince us that God exists, and he is watching us all, waiting for us to be lured away by logic and explanation.
We blasphemous dissenters of religion don’t have any such trick up our sleeves. Other than get into screaming matches with our grandmas and barging into temples. If that means angering god and his faithfuls, so be it.
Sreemoyee spends her time deconstructing irresponsible pop-culture and thinks that her love of fries and her Literature degree are both privileges that she is fortunate to have.