//A Watershed In the Annals of Hinduism

A Watershed In the Annals of Hinduism

Indian Dalits win right to enter 300-year-old temple despite upper caste opposition
Prakash Chand Dubey , 15 Dec 2006, OhMyNews.COM

Caste Tower

Caste Tower

Indian Dalits, despite being part of the Hindu caste hierarchy, though preposterously relegated to the lowest rung, are incessantly denied access to the temples where high caste Hindus perform worship and rituals.

Such anachronistic scenario have even been prevalent in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, where Hindu society follows the cult of devotion to Lord Krishna, locally famous as Lord Jagannath. The cult was ushered in some 500 years ago by a pioneering Hindu reformist, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who ended all sorts of discrimination among Hindus on the basis of low and high castes and mandated that the devotees of Lord Jagannath are equal and one.

But ironically, the Dalits have remained deprived of their right to enter the three-century-old Lord Jagannath temple in Keredagada village of Kendrapada district in Orissa state; this has been simply the mockery of the primordial principles of the cult of devotion or Bhakti Marg.

However, of late the Dalits of the area have been gearing up to retrieve their right to worship in the temple as the pioneer of the cult had mandated them to do so. The upper caste Hindus had embargoed Dalits from entering the shrine and the latter were only allowed to have a glimpse of the deity through holes, and they also had to offer their prayers from outside the temple. All this was in a brazen violation of the basic principles of the cult of devotion enunciated by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

But Dalits insisted on their right to gain entry into the temple, saying that they were Hindus too and hence they must be allowed to offer prayers inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. They even made several unsuccessful attempts to gain entry to the temple. The Dalits' scramble to defy the upper caste Hindus' opposition to their right to worship in the temple threatened to culminate into violence and bloodshed.

The situation was on the verge of turning murky when last November a rights group, Ambedkar-Lohia Vichar Manch, announced that Dalits would forcibly enter the temple. But the upper caste Hindus had resolved to resist if they (Dalits) tried to forcibly enter the temple.

In a bid to avert violence Akhya Kumar Mallik, a Dalit advocate and human rights activist, filed a petition in the High Court. He asked them to intervene in the matter and ensure that the Dalit fraternity was not denied entry in the temple to perform worship and requisite Hindu rituals.

The High Court had initially passed an interim order directing that no one except the priests be allowed to enter the temple, and in this way it banned the entry of both upper caste Hindus and Dalits inside the temple until the final judgment was passed.

Subsequently, the High Court passed a landmark judgment on Dec. 5 declaring that Dalits were part and parcel of the greater Hindu society and so they had an inalienable right as Hindus to enter any Hindu temple and perform religious rituals there.

A division bench of the High Court comprising of Chief Justice S.B.Ray and Justice M.M.Das has explicitly ruled that under article 17 of the Indian constitution and Section 3 of the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 all Hindus had the right to enter any temple, irrespective of their caste.

However, despite such an explicit court verdict the upper caste Hindus and temple priests were not happy about the determination of the Dalits to enter the temple. They are frivolously contending that the entry of Dalits is against the three century custom of the temple where no Dalit had even stepped in to date. They are further saying that such court intervention was against the tradition and custom of the area and hence was in violation of the local customary laws, which had even great sanctity in the eyes of the international law.

Rameshwar Choudhary, a Dalit activist, has stated that such contentions of the upper caste Hindus "are a farce and against the ethics and norms of the Hindu cult of devotion which everyone in the region follows."

The local district administration is committed to honor the verdict of the court and extend all possible help in letting them perform the requisite adoration and rituals within the sanctum sanctorum of the temple in the village.

According to local district official, Kasinath Sahoo, the police have already lodged a case against three upper caste leaders of the village on charges of instigating people to oppose the entry of Dalits in the temple. This would come within the parameters of the contempt of the court. They could even be prosecuted for inflicting atrocities against the Dalits under Section 3 of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocity) Act.

Chanchal Das Baba, a Hindu upper caste monk, has hailed the court verdict calling it "a watershed in the annals of Hinduism which would eventually revolutionize our savagely caste ridden Hindu society. It would further bolster the primordial principles of our scriptures which do not discriminate on the basis of caste, color or creed and rather uphold human equality."

The Hindu monk has called for the excommunication of those Hindus who oppose the Dalits' entry in the temples from the Hindu fold, stressing that such persons "are enemies of the Hindu religion and the invisible collaborators of Christian missionaries engaged in the conversion of Dalits to Christianity. After all, the very myth of low and high caste Hindus spawns a congenial milieu for these missionaries to poach upon our Dalit brethren."