American historian Katherine Mayo gave a detailed account of the turbulent times British India witnessed while fighting against child marriage in her polemical book Mother India (1927). It is all the more relevant now when even women are marching to protest against a Supreme Court verdict which allows them to enter the Sabarimala temple irrespective of their age and bears quoting from the book at some length.
She wrote: "Indian and English authorities unite in the conviction that no law raising the marriage age of girls would be today effectively accepted by the Hindu peoples. The utmost to be hoped, in the present state of public mentality, is, so these experienced men hold, a raising of the age of consent within the marriage bonds. A step in this direction was accomplished in 1891, when Government, backed by certain members of the advanced section of the Indians, after a hot battle in which it was fiercely accused by eminent orthodox Hindus of assailing the most sacred foundations of the Hindu world, succeeded in raising that age from ten years to twelve. In latter-day Legislative Assemblies the struggle has been renewed, non-official Indian Assemblymen bringing forward bills aiming at further advance only to see them, in one stage or another, defeated by the strong orthodox majority."
She explained why the Indian parliamentarians, in successive debates, opposed to raising the age of marriage even while agreeing that marriage should be postponed until a girl is physically and emotionally mature to prevent high child and maternal mortality rates and other disadvantages and risks involved with child marriage. She pointed at three reasons offered by those who opposed it: "First, because immutable custom forbids, premarital pubescence being generally considered, among Hindus, a social if not a religious sin. Second, because the father dare not keep his daughter at home lest she be damaged before she is off his hands. And this especially in joint-family households, where several men and boys brothers, cousins, uncles live under the same roof. Third, because the parents dare not expose the girl, after her dawning puberty, to the pressure of her own desire unsatisfied."
The objections to the Sabarimala verdict are no different. No less than member of the Travancore royal family Ashwathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, said: "...Centuries-old faith and way of worship that is integral to Hinduism are now being dismantled and destroyed. My grandmother, the Maharani of Travancore royal family, has visited Sabarimala temple only after her uterus has been removed. To the best of my knowledge till now, no woman of the menstruating age has entered the Sabarimala temple..." It is believed that the Sabarimala deity is different from others by his vow of celibacy and therefore, it is not advisable to allow menstruating women into the temple.
What should be surprising, or may be not be so after all, is that a large number of women who should be hailing the Supreme Court verdict as something that empowers them and frees them from the taboos of a bygone era are instead taking out protest marches along with men.
It is just not adequate to put the blame on a patriarchal mindset that pervades across gender, indoctrination or social and political compulsions, though all these are significant contributing factors. The protests have a lot to do with organised religions which have gained more and more currency in India in the past few decades. When Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted of raping two of his disciples by a court last year, thousands of his disciples went on a rampage in Chandigarh, Delhi and Rajasthan leading to 29 deaths, mostly in police firing and injuries to hundreds of others. Baba Rampal, who was recently convicted in two murder cases by a Haryana court, was arrested after a two-long stand-off between his followers and police at his ashram in 2015 which left six dead and several others injured.
In recent years, psychologists have been trying to explain such conflicts in different ways. Steve Taylor, author and psychology teacher of Leeds Metropolitan University of UK, for example, says "Don't blame religion for our problems — blame it on the human need for belonging and certainty". He seeks to draw a clear distinction between 'dogmatic' and 'spiritual' religion. Dogmatic religion, he says, "...isn't about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It's about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their 'truth' over other people's, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true...".
He adds that such impulse "stems from the psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning". On the other hand, he writes, "'Spiritual' religion is very different. It promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. 'Spiritually religious' people don't feel any animosity to other religious groups - in fact, they're happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups' temples and services".
Steven Reiss, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Ohio State University and author, takes it further to say that his research identified 16 basic desires that attract people to religion - acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honour, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquillity and vengeance. A 'secular society' offers alternatives to fulfil all these desires. Therefore, religion competes with secular society and can gain or lose in popularity based on how well people believe it does compare to secular society.
What separates the religious from the non-religious? Reiss explains that it is one of the same basic desires - independence. In his studies, he found that religious people expressed a strong desire for interdependence with others while those who were not showed a stronger need to be self-reliant and independent.
Updated Date: Oct 16, 2018 15:57:33 IST