Hindu Temples Must Be Open to All

Christian churches in many European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, France and Belgium are struggling with the phenomenon of declining attendance. The same is true of England where less than one million attend weekly Church of England services. The trend in the United States is similar.

In India, on the other hand, the challenge is a different one. News reports remind us often that the doors of Hindu temples are not open to all Hindus. This is especially true if you are a Dalit (lit. broken), a member of India's so-called untouchable community, numbering over 170,000 million. Quite recently, violence erupted at the Basaveshwara Temple in Sigaranahalli, Karnataka, when upper caste Hindus sought to prevent the entry of Dalits, who wanted to participate in a Durga festival. Last year, Dalit women were asked to pay a fine for entering the same temple. The temple was subsequently closed, and reopened only after the performance of purification rituals. Contact with Dalits is traditionally regarded as religiously polluting. Last year, an elderly Dalit man was killed for trying to enter a temple near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. In some cases, as in the Kariyamma Temple in Karnataka, Dalits were allowed to enter only with the help of state authorities and against the wishes of upper caste Hindus.

The closing of temple doors to Dalits who wish to worship must be a matter of painful acknowledgement and concern for Hindus everywhere. Sadly, the voices of protest are still too few. We cannot blame those who interpret our silence as support for Dalit exclusion from our places of worship. Even more importantly, our silence and indifference give support to the mistaken impression that the Hindu tradition has no teaching for challenging the human inequality that is at the root of Dalit ostracization and oppression. There is a need for a sustaining will and resolve to repudiate and overcome this practice that violates the heart of Hindu teachings.

The beliefs about human inequality, purity and impurity, that explain this practice of exclusion need vigorous and unambiguous Hindu religious repudiation. The major traditions of Hinduism are unanimous in affirming the equal existence of God in every being. "God," the Bhagavadgita teaches, " exists in the heart of all beings." This core teaching must become the basis for the equal dignity and worth of every human being and the motivation for challenging and transforming oppressive structures of inequality and temple exclusion. The shutting of temple doors to persons asking for equality to worship challenges, in a special way, the meaning and legitimacy of Hinduism as a religious tradition. If every human encounter is also an encounter with God, turning Dalits away from Hindu temples is the same as turning God away. We must commit ourselves with tireless determination to the work of ensuring that every Hindu temple is a hospitable space where every worshipper is joyfully welcomed. Such work must be seen as fundamental to the meaning of belonging to the community of Hindus.

All Hindus who understand and are deeply troubled by the contradiction between teachings centered on God's presence in every human being and the exclusion of Dalit from places of Hindu worship must embrace this cause. We must lift our voices in protest against all practices in the name of our tradition that denigrate other human beings. We must ensure that Hindu leaders take a clear and forceful stand on this matter and repudiate injustice in the name of the Hindu tradition.

My concern here is not with claiming Dalits as Hindus. Dalits have a right to freedom of or from religion. My concern is with the fact that some Hindus still say "no" to Dalits wishing to worship in Hindu temples and believe that they have religious support for shutting the doors. This denial contradicts the most fundamental teachings of the Hindu tradition about God and value of human beings.

The Constitution of India specifies, "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth." Constitutional and legal measures, as necessary as these are, have not and will not eliminate all forms of discrimination based on inequality and on superstitious beliefs about purity and impurity. Hindus need to affirm unequivocally the teachings of the tradition that complement constitutional law. These are the teachings that repudiate caste and commit Hindus to practices that testify to the equal worth of all human beings.

Hindus organizations in India such as the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha must make equal access to Hindu temples a matter of priority and stand in solidarity with those who are denied entry. Visits should be made to every Hindu temple with a history of denying entry to Dalits. Unambiguous teachings that explain why such practices are unacceptable must be shared. Hindu leaders, not state agents, should be walking with Dalits into temples and standing and worshipping with them. It is a shame on our tradition when Dalits are excluded or permitted to worship outside of the temple.

Opening the doors of all Hindu temples to Dalits is an important step, an urgent religious matter and an opportunity for the Hindu tradition to define itself by saying clearly what it stands for in the 21st century. The meaning of being Hindu must not require the oppression and demeaning of another human being.