As the word “rape” becomes de facto in our daily news and life, I would like to draw your attention to a real problem that lakhs of devotees face everyday when visiting temples – the rape and abuse of our Gods.
Bear with me for a few minutes as I explain what I mean. This is based totally on my personal experience, and that of a few close friends who shared their experiences once I related mine. My intention is not to hurt any religious sentiments, but as true devotees we need to be fearless in voicing our anger when the system is wrong.
For most Hindus, visiting a temple is a re-affirmation of our faith – in God and in our belief about Him. And most Hindus do accept that to visit a hallowed spot sometimes is not straight-forward. I understand and acknowledge the need to have certain rules, regulations and processes (including a tiered system of payments) to have a darshan of the Lord. I also realize the need to acknowledge the “middle-man” and pay the pujaris and the pandas.
But what I refuse to accept, acknowledge or recognize is the need for these pandas to abuse God to further their personal income. And this is not in any one temple – Puri, Pandripur, SriRangam, Kali temple in Kalighat, Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneshwar, Tirupati – the list is endless. In these temples, not only are we forced to do pujas and pay the money the pujaris demand, but we are chastised, berated and cursed if we do not pay up.
So why bother going to these temples, you may ask? As a Hindu devotee, it is my right to visit my God in whatever form He or She may wish to take, and it is my right to have a peaceful darshan where I come away with my soul cleansed and my mind de-stressed. It is also the right of each and every devotee (rich or poor) to want the same, without being harassed or threatened. (In one instance, the priest removed her dupatta when my friend refused to pay what the panda asked for.)
Sure, not all temples are like this. And not all devotees have bad experiences. In fact, we visited the ISKCON temple in Durgapur, just before going to the Kali temple. Most people associate ISKCON temples with proselytizing. In fact I have had experiences in other ISKCON temples where the moment you finish the darshan, a devotee is waiting to give you a long speech asking for your subscription for a membership. Or to buy books. Or japa beads. (This happens right next to the altar – not outside the temple!). But in Durgapur, when we stepped in, arati had just started and we saw Radha krishna, the main deity, in all their splendour.
As I was putting on my shoes, the pandit called me back. I went in dreading a speech or a request for money. Instead he asked me to wait for prasad, and then came over with the best-testing rabadi in my life. He gave me the prasad and went back to his bhajans. Amidst the awe-inspiring alankara of the Gods, the bhajans of the devotees and the clanging of the bells, I did have my “moment of commune” with the Divine.
It is for that moment of commune that we visit temples. In fact, I have no issues with the temple board listing fees for darshan. I will willingly pay. But what is being extracted from the devotees does not go back to help pay for the maintenance (don’t get me started on that!) and upkeep of the temple, food distribution to the poor or the wages for the hundreds of people who keep a temple going. Instead it lines the pockets of the priests and the underlings who “take” us for the darshan.
What can be done? I am actually disheartened and doubt there is a solution in the near future. Personally, I can take a stance and refuse to pander to these pandas. But what about the other million devotees who throng to these temples, with the firm belief that a quick darshan of the Lord will relieve them of poverty and exploitation, and infuse some dignity in their life? What about those devotees who have worked all their life and gathered up their savings to have a darshan of the Lord, no matter what it entails? What about those devotees who unquestioningly accept the right of the priests to demand and curse, since they happen to be priests?
But what upsets me further is the right of my Gods. Don’t my Gods have the right to be taken care of, to be protected from marauders, and served with love and devotion? Don’t they have the right to shower their love and blessings to all devotees, irrespective of caste, gender or bank balance? And most importantly, don’t they have the right not to be exploited, and their trust abused, by the priests?
If this is the situation of our Gods in our temples, what about that of our women in their homes? And on the streets?