THE Soul is genderless. But Shankaracharyas have to be men. Women are Devis. But Shan-karacharyas have to be men. Lessons in Hinduism that are being taught frantically by Haridwar's irate sadhu samaj these days. Hysterical holy-men who are outraged by a woman's recent attempt to find a parallel place at the head of a religious structure that has always been led by men alone.
Ironically, this fanatic fury against "foolish feminists" began the week that saw upmarket commercials sponsoring masala movies for International Women's Day.That same week Haridwar's local dailies announced a more serious tribute to Indian womanhood—Yog Shakti Divya Dham's decision to elevate a woman, for the first time ever, to the level of Parvatacharya, female equivalent of Shankaracharya. Sixty-year-old sanyasin Guru Ma Jyotishanand Saraswati, armed with the distinction of having established the 14-year-old Vedic Heritage in New York, a doctorate in Indology and a dedicated following, was to be conferred the title in a unique abhishekham ceremony in Haridwar on March 9.
Disbelief, displeasure and disgust ensued such 'defiance'. Ma Saraswati became a manifestation of the ills that had beset a pseudo-progressive society championing the cause of women who were anyway dubbed devis by Hinduism. Disgruntled holy-men met up to defend God's bastion and protested against disturbing Nature's order. The four Shankaracharyas—at Badrinarayan, Puri, Rameshwaram and Dwarka—had always been men. Thousands of agitated sadhus threatened a naked parade. Ma Saraswati had to withdraw. A press brief said her decision was prompted by a desire "not to antagonise and create schisms in society". The ceremony was "postponed to a more enlightened period".
But the men who worship "Ma Ganga" are still very angry. Haridwar's 13 akhadas (orders), which boast that they have often killed each other over the right to take the first dip in the Ganga on Maha Kumbh, stand firmly united against attack by a common enemy out to distort religious order.
"It's not this woman specifically that we are opposed to. We are against the concept of Parvatacharya," fulminates chairman of the Akhada Parishad, Mahant Shanker Bharati. "Shankaracharya is a piece of Lord Shankar's body—a woman just can't become a Shankaracharya. How dare!" A suggestion that a woman can perhaps be a Parvatacharya, because that would mean being a piece of Goddess Parvati's body, has him shrugging dismissively: "Why? When woman is worshipped as Mother, when she is Durga, why this mad ambition to become Shank-aracharya?" Vigorously nodding in agreement, secretary of Niranjani Akhada Jagdish Giri chants age-old wisdom to reinforce the argument: "Maan pratishtha, shukri vishta (honour and title is like pig's excreta). "
What if women don't want to be Mother alone? What if women want to be not just goddesses but head of the religious structure that worships the goddesses? "Stupid debate! We hear operations can change men to women and women to men. Similarly, one could make a parallel female religious structure headed by Parvatacharyas. But why such ridiculous practices? Civilisation and religion has ordained certain roles for men and women. Why mess up Nature?" asks an irritated Shri Hari Giri, secretary of Juna Akhada, which has been at the forefront of the protest.
The sadhu's counterpart from Ghaziabad, in Haridwar for the ongoing Maha Kumbh celebrations, is more specific: "Great purity is needed to become Shankaracharya. Women are impure every month (when they are menstruating). God's indication that they have been given another greater role to play in the creation of the world."
Significantly, the few women who are already part of the religious structure offer different arguments to echo similar sentiments. Thirty-six-year-old Santoshi Mata of the Niranjani Akhada—one of the only four women Mahamandleshwars in all the 13 akhadas put together—laughs off the controversy as a non-issue: "Ma Yog Shakti who had decided to honour Guru Ma Saraswati with the title should have done so quietly in her house. The hype and the hoopla, news items in the papers got everyone agitated. After all, the sadhu samaj could have hardly agreed to put its stamp on a ritual diverging so much from tradition."
More probing questions on the validity of such a christening has her confessing that she has never really thought much on the issue. But she does feel women should stop accusing men for their present condition in society: "Women have brought it upon themselves. Disregarding the Shakti inside them, they have taken to protesting on roads for rights that will make them like men. Why should women want to be men? What good has it done for women in the West? I feel sorry for these misguided women who have forgotten that they have been chosen by God to create Man."
The creator of this controversy, Ma Yog Shakti, who had invited Guru Ma Saraswati, meanwhile, refuses to comment on the uproar against the abhishekham. "This is a bad time for gurus. I'll speak when the time is right," she maintains. But persistent questioning pays off: "I have realised that one has to think of correct approaches to change society. It's not fair to throw a sudden stone on people and expect them not to retaliate negatively."
The ladies seem more than willing to forgive. As is the woman at the centre of all this controversy, Guru Ma Saraswati. She will not have anyone casting aspersions on Hinduism for having excluded women from the mainstream. Shakuntala lived in an ashram, Gargi was a spiritual and intellectual giant, without Sita, Lord Ram couldn't perform the yagna, the vedas are filled with respectful references to women. "Things went topsy-turvy because of invasions, because women needed to be protected. Times have changed now and women need to come into their own again. But obviously it'll need some time before mindsets change," she says with infinite patience.
A patience that many are fast losing. Significantly, in a year that saw 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament remain a distant dream despite vigorous campaigning, worshipping women alone might not be sufficient. The Goddesses also want to be Equals.