With all due respects to Brahmins, (and I am taking a little liberty here because somehow most of my closest friends are Brahmins and my own caste ancestors would closely follow Brahminical practices), as I am traveling across temples and reading about ancient rituals, I am realizing that the portrait of Hinduism we have has been predominantly that which has been that of practices propitiated by Brahmins (and followed by ‘upper caste’) and highly overlooking the practices of other communities.
First of all, Hinduism shouldn’t be considered a religion as such since it’s not a fixed menu on spirituality but rather more of a bouquet of lifestyle practices of people within Bharat – the landmass marked by boundaries of Himalayas in North and Seas in south. But if we insist on calling it religion, then we need to take a wholistic view of it rather than just the practices of a particular community.
For example in Kerala, on one hand Brahmin( Namboodiri) women were never allowed to remarry and were forced into keeping themselves under hiding from the eyes of other men (somewhat similar to Purdah system of North) and had no inheritance rights on properties. On the other hand, Nair women were allowed a marriage in which divorce could easily happen depending on the will of either partner and in terms of inheritance the properties would pass to daughters.
While extremely strict rules are followed in ‘Brahminical’ temples (using this word just because the priests here are normally of Brahmin community) wrt removing shirts inside temples and circumbating in a certain order and no way a person should be in contact with ‘impure’ things (meat, wines) , but in many Devi temples, sacrifice of cock is common and in Muthappa Temple(a popular folk god of North Kerala), they would offer Toddy(a form of country liquor)to the diety without any strict observations on circumbation.
While virginity of a girl prior to marriage amidst caste Hindus was considered sacrosanct, on other hand amidst the tribal Kurichyar community, a girl had to take oath on the diety and testify at the time of marriage if she had sex with anyone else. Even if she did, she could tell truth, pay some fine for the ‘sin’ and life will be okay as usual.
Taking examples of characters from Ramayana and Mayabharata, Amba is a classic example how our (within caste Hindus) patriarchal concepts ruined a women’s life. She loved Shalva another prince but was abducted by Bhishma to be married to his brother. But once she revealed that she was in love with Shalva, Bhishma sends her to Shalva. Shalva rejects her saying she has been abducted by another man. Now Bhishma won’t marry her to his brother as a woman who was in ‘love’ with another man is ‘impure’ now to be married to the crown prince and Bhishma himself won’t marry her as he was sworn to lifelong celibacy. Net net, while each of the men could continue their life as normal but for Amba there was no scope because she was in love with someone which didn’t fruitify. She committed suicide cursing those caused her ruin.
While on other hand, in the societies which were not within the hold of ‘Brahminical’ practices, there were no such issues. In Vanara society (I refuse to believe them as ‘monkey’ society and will take Jain Ramayana as my reference where they are portrayed as fully civilized lot using monkey as emblem), Tara the wife of Vali married Sugriva after Vali’s death. In Rakshasa society, Mandodari married Vibhishana after Ravana’s death. Life of women was not so difficult seemingly.
This patriarchal practice of insisting on women’s purity was indeed the most suicidal practices of Hindus and no doubt they paid heavy prices for that. To convert a himdu family into Islam, all one had to do was rape the women of the family. With rigid rules of sexual purity, this lady won’t be accepted back by her father or brother who would be dubious on her marital prospects now. And even likely by her husband in case she was already married. The few choices she would be left with would be to kill herself, get into life of prostitution or at best convert into Islam, marry her rapist and live as his concubine or Nth number of wife.
Speaking of spiritual tenets, no doubts some of the best philosophical work of Hinduism had been preserved in the pages of Puranik and Vedik literature -a pantheon of Puranas, Vedas and Upanishads. But then we had traditions of spiritual discipline beyond them as well.
In Karnataka, lower caste Madiga community considers Male Mahamadheshwar as their patron prophet. The tenets of their philosophy is primarily around Veerashaiva school and is well versed by the community members in Janapada style. In Andhra Pradesh, a set of lower caste community call themselves as Adi Jambava – the descendants of Jambavan (a character in Ramayana described as king of beers. Later he gives his daughter in marriage to Krishna. Use your imagination on making sense of a marriage between a man and a beer if we have to mean these references literally). They refer their tenets on basis of Jambava Purana an alternate Purana which claims Jambava to be creator of universe. (Do note that within multiple Puranas, you will keep coming across as themes of Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, Shakti and Ganesha being ultimate runner of universe. )
The problem with associating Hinduism as a practice of only one community (no doubt the most influential community in terms of religion in past) is that we tend to lose the liberal ethos which were indeed prevalent across spectrum amongst our ancestors. It was never so rigid as we get an image reading our textbooks. It was not so ‘patriarchal’ as well as we think it to be.
I am yet to figure out what propelled our ancestors to get to this concept of ‘purity’ where the ‘purity’ of a woman’s vagina was so important that her remarriage was put out of question. The ‘purity’ of touch became so important that even the sight of an ‘outcaste’ person was to be avoided. These practices in my view are probably the biggest blot on Hinduism due to which extreme high achievements in fields of metaphysics and synch between humans and nature got shadowed down.
And in today’s date, it’s the key reason for which metro born millennial generation of Hindus tend to look down on entire tenets of Hinduism in general overlooking the great philosophy which had been preserved within the tenets saved by Brahmins as well as other communities.
I hope one day I will be able to figure out why did our ancestors went wrong on this path.