Who Is Allowed in Our Temples?
One devotee’s call to end racism and allow those who genuinely adopt and follow Hinduism to freely enter our hallowed places of worship
On a recent july day in south india, i was witness to an incident which evoked many questions: Who is Hindu? Who is Saivite? Who decides these things? Here I attempt to express my feelings and thoughts surrounding what occurred, hoping to find solace for my aching heart and, ideally, contribute to finding a resolution to what seems to me to be a critical issue in the Hindu community.
In my hometown of Chennai, I was visiting an ancient Siva temple with two monks who had traveled thousands of miles to worship at this renowned pilgrimage destination. One, brown-skinned with Tamil features, was clad in the orange robes of a sannyasin. The other, wearing the yellow robes of a yogi, was white-skinned, light-eyed, obviously not Tamil or even Indian. A small group of us waited eagerly to have darshan of the Gods in this famous temple in the presence of these two monks from the Kauai Aadheenam in Hawaii. A special ticket can give access to the inner shrine, nearer to the Lord. But on this day no access would be permitted for the yogi. The priest denied him entrance. If he could not go in, how could any of us? So, we had our darshan from the outer mandapam. The priest took our offerings to the Lord, performed arati and brought out the flame for us.
Was there any change in the countenance of the two Sivathondars from Kauai? Not one bit. No onlooker would have known what was going on. Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, had trained them well. “Wishing for a situation to be otherwise would be reluctantly dancing with Siva,” he taught. Do not cause a commotion, he would counsel. Accept the immediate situation calmly and then work thoughtfully to make improvements. Had this happened to another group, there would be a high possibility of arguments, starting as mumblings, building in intensity as onlookers contribute their two-paisa worth, perhaps resulting in negative media coverage. But there the two monastics stood, in humble acceptance of the moment. Difficult as the situation outwardly was, my heart could only smile at this lesson I was receiving from Gurudeva.
Following the activities of this small order of monks on one of the Internet’s first blogs, “Today at Kauai Aadheenam” (aka TAKA) has always left me with a sense of awe. How can so much get done by so small a group? Living their ideals in their secluded monastery, giving so much more than they receive or even need, they understand the highs and lows of family life and are able to direct and guide those of us who seek support. Their hearts, arms and doors are open to all who approach, allowing the approacher to set the boundary of association—no questions asked, no pressure exerted, no expectations forced, no interference attempted, no prophecy made. Always direct, living by Gurudeva’s guideline of thinking, speaking and doing only what is “true, kind, helpful and necessary,” they perform their role with a perfection and grace I am blessed to witness.
Sheela Venkatakrishnan lives in Chennai with her mother, visiting temples often and helping HINDUISM TODAY magazine with translations and article research.
We speak of model villages and model towns. Well, here is a model which can serve any aspect of life—yes, any. Look here to see how a family lives, supporting each other through performing each assigned task to the best of one’s ability “and a little bit more,” as Gurudeva would smilingly say! Growing vegetables, making cheese, building worktables, landscaping gardens, invoking the Gods every three hours around the clock, performing sadhana individually and as a group, creating digital and print publications—there are few areas that their prana does not touch and serve as an ideal to follow.
Sit in on a group meeting and watch as each member is given the same importance, irrespective of length of beard or shade of grey. “Consensualocracy” is the key for any decision, not democracy or autocracy or any other win-lose form of resolution.
I leave it to you, dear reader, to feel the pull at my heart when someone from such a sampradaya is denied entry to Siva’s shrine in my presence! He who has devoted his life to Siva. He who is striving each day to realize Siva—and once realized, to merge completely with Him. Yet I, by virtue of an Indian birth, am permitted to come and go in this temple as I please!
The sign outside the shrine reads, “Non-Hindus are not allowed inside.” Who decides who is Hindu and who is not? Perhaps the management would be more honest if the sign read “Hindus-by-birth only may enter.” Is the existing sign a subtle way of saying you can be a Hindu only by birth? But then, what of the white-skinned children of white-skinned Hindus—now into the third and fourth generations? And what of those Tamils and other Indians who have converted to some other religion? To represent this temple’s policy with complete accuracy, perhaps the sign must omit any reference to Hinduism and simply read, “You may enter only if your skin, eyes and hair are of the approved color.”
If I cannot see the ideals of Anbey Sivam (God is love) or Sarvam Sivamayam (All that exists is God Siva) practiced at Siva’s Feet at His temple, then where can I? Are these mere babble? Do they mean nothing to temple priests and managers?
Two years back, when a devotee from Australia visited, we were not even let into the queue. I went around to the officials at the many counters for tickets, archanas, prasadam, then to seva groups and priests, asking what we could do to get this blue-eyed devotee in. Nobody could help, and we could not go in that day. She was staying at a hotel near the temple and would take her offering each morning and stand there, pouring out her heart to the One who hears it all. And hear her He did, for on the penultimate day of her stay, a gentleman who claimed to have seen her every morning, said something to somebody in charge and took her in. No prize for guessing who he was.
Farther back, I accompanied the mother of one of the monks to this same temple. The guard stopped us from entering. Some others around us started mumbling too. I found myself looking directly at the guard and saying, “This is her name. She has offered her only son to the service of the Lord as a monk. She does an atmartha Siva puja every morning. What more can she do to deserve to enter the shrine? If she cannot go, I don’t think anybody standing here can either. Stop me also.” And I moved away from the line. Hearing my comments, the people around me said in unison, “Let them in. Let them in!” The guard, almost shame-facedly, submitted and left us in peace!
Still farther back, I was in Madurai for my M. Philosophy degree. Each weekend we would go the Meenakshi Temple. I was sometimes accompanied by a Christian friend, an Anglo-Indian. She would wear a salwar-kameez with dupatta and have a bindi on her forehead. Armed with a ticket for special darshan, we were allowed to go in as close as anyone else holding such a ticket. Yes, a brown Christian can enter freely.
At the Chidambaram Temple, the doors are opened as wide as space itself, true to the very form of Siva that this temple personifies. But in some temples the intensity of discrimination between Hindus-by-birth and Hindus-by-choice has increased over the years. Each time I have been left wondering—what have I done in this life to be permitted to enter the inner shrine? My birth? It did not seem fair. I consoled myself by saying this birth is a response to my karma, not limited to this life alone. But how could the priest, who served Siva each day, not see the purity of this yogi, glowing with the power of his sadhana, sparked by the love of his guru, fueled by his devotion to the hallowed Kailasa Parampara of the Nandinatha Sampradaya?
Who goes there?: Two guardians protect the gates of Kapaleeshwarar Sivan Temple in Chennai, South India.
As I write this, I feel the sting of a slap on my cheek. Wake up! Enough of staying in the stupor. There is a fine line between contentment and complacency. Which side of the line are you on? How much are you taking for granted?
I—and all Hindus—have a choice to make. Do we turn the other cheek, attempting to ignore the situation, and keep turning it until Siva-knows-when? Or do we attempt to protect others from feeling the same sting? I choose the latter. I pray these words will serve to support those who have undertaken the great responsibility of becoming a Hindu by choice so they may be given full access to their religion, to their temples, to their God.
A dear friend from Kauai shared, “To me and others, it doesn’t feel like a choice, any more than being female, male, gay or whatever. When you finally discover what you are, there is no choice involved. What is someone to do who finds himself born into a religion whose beliefs are unacceptable to him (or into no religion at all) and who, after years of searching, finally discovers the religion of his soul in Hinduism? Should he be forced to go through life outside of religion? Or should he be allowed to prove himself and then be brought formally into Hinduism by a Hindu priest through the namakarana samskara (as was the case with this yogi)—and thenceforth be accepted everywhere as a true Hindu?
Our Gurudeva explained that many Hindus have been reincarnating in the West, often to white parents, karmically impelled by their fascination with Western ways. Indeed, it was perhaps the Hindus first reincarnating into white bodies who managed to change America’s mass consciousness—working from within, so to speak—so that finally the immigration laws were changed to accept people from India. Western youth’s mass rejection of the Christian worldview indicates that some of these are Hindu souls searching for their religion.”
I appeal to all Hindus, to God and Gods, to the priests that serve Him, to heads of maths and aadheenams, to leaders like Shri Narendra Modiji, to HRCE, to the management committees of local temples, to thondars and bhaktars who have tasted the grace that flows from the garbhagriham. Yaam petra inbum peruga ivvayagam – “May the world partake of the bliss that I have obtained.” I truly want this for everyone. Help me make that happen! Stop for a moment and contribute to a resolution of this issue. Not just in your professional capacity, but at a personal level of being a true Hindu. Ask yourself, each of you, whether you are prepared to experience life as a Hindu-by-choice in your next birth. All Hindus are equal; some cannot be more equal than others.