If cattle and lions could paint, they would depict gods in their own images. And worship them too, of course. Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher, said that long, long ago. We create our gods in our own images. Xenophanes was disturbed by the behaviour of many of the gods in his religion. These gods had too many conspicuous weaknesses and vices. They were lascivious, jealous, scheming and cruel. They behaved just like the men who created them. Just like the mediocre Greek men and women.
Xenophanes, being a wide traveller, was aware of other
cultures and their gods. In contrast with those gods, Xenophanes thought that
his own gods were silly and childish. And very Greek to boot. Soon he observed
that all the gods he knew were very similar to their creators. The gods of the
Ethiopians were black and flat-nosed. The Thracian gods had blue eyes and red
Xenophanes longed to replace the entire Greek pantheon
with one God. He imagined a God without human shape and gender. Why would a God
have a metabolic system and excretory organs? Why the penis or the vagina?
Xenophanes thought of God as a mind that perceives. A consciousness. A
dignified one at that. Not a lecher like Zeus, for example. Not a vindictive flame
like Hera. But a noble consciousness that had no desires or wants.
Xenophanes marked the beginning of a tradition of
questioning popular beliefs. That was 26 centuries ago. Xenophanes lived approximately
from 570 to 475 BCE. Mankind came a long way from those days. We moved by leaps
and bounds from the perverted darkness of religions to the glaring brilliance
of science and technology. From the blatant narcissism of theology to the disarming
modesty of Enlightenment. And in the recent past we liberated mankind from its
self-obsessions and put it in a sacred pursuit of eco-systems and the environment
and heavenly bodies.
Yet some of us – too many of us, perhaps – still cling
to the ancient idols for various reasons. Dominant among the motives is
politics, apparently – nothing to do with religion really. Let us consider just
one example. Sabarimala.
Sabarimala is a Hindu temple in Kerala whose presiding
deity is Ayyappan who is a celibate. Being a celibate (and very human-like),
Ayyappan presumably does not like young women who may be potential threats to
his chastity. A group of five women lawyers filed a petition in 2006 in the
Kerala High Court challenging the same Court’s earlier defence of the
tradition. Ten years later the case moved to the Supreme Court of India and in
2018 the apex court judged against gender discrimination and allowed entry of
women in Sabarimala temple. This was followed by massive protests in Kerala
against the verdict. The BJP with the Congress in tandem opposed the Court’s verdict
and sought to perpetuate gender discrimination in the name of tradition. The
Supreme Court accepted a review petition and a larger bench is studying the
There is nothing to study. The case is obviously
political rather than religious. Women of all age groups were actually entering
the temple before this controversy started. In the first five days of every
month, young mothers used to enter the temple for a religious ritual called ‘rice-feeding’
of the child. The Kerala High Court accepted this as a fact and evidence. The high
priest (tantri) of the temple admitted that film shootings used to take
place in the temple premises and female actresses not only entered the
restricted areas but also danced there for the films.
Kerala is a state that walked ahead of most other
people when it comes to breaking traditions. Many evils practised in the name
of traditions like caste system and child marriage were all eradicated from the
state long ago because of a radical iconoclasm that runs naturally in Malayali veins.
Yet what is happening now with Ayyappan? Why is Kerala walking backward towards
the darkness which Xenophanes questioned 26 centuries ago?
Since the answer is obvious, I don’t intend to mention
it here. I wish we had more Xenophaneses and less politicians in the country.
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