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Made Snana: Indignity in the Name of Tradition?

The practice of made snana in some temples in Karnataka during which devotees, mainly from the lower castes, roll over the banana leaves from which brahmins have eaten, has come in for censure and debate. The state government withdrew a ban on the practice recently, ostensibly because of a "scientifi c interpretation" that it "cures" skin disorders. Can the invocation to tradition justify a humiliating and undignifi ed practice?

COMMENTARY

Made Snana cures persons suffering from skin disorders. Most Hindus also believe that these
Indignity in the Name of Tradition? G K Karanth disorders are a result of harming or killing a snake in this or previous incarnations. Closely associated with such a religious fault (dosha) is the killing of a brahmin (brahma-hatya dosha).

The practice of made snana in some temples in Karnataka during which devotees, mainly from the lower castes, roll over the banana leaves from which brahmins have eaten, has come in for censure and debate. The state government withdrew a ban on the practice recently, ostensibly because of a “scientific interpretation” that it “cures” skin disorders. Can the invocation to tradition justify a humiliating and undignifi ed practice?

G K Karanth (gk.karanth@gmail.com) of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore is presently at the department of sociology, Lund University, Sweden.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 31, 2012

The initial expression of defiance is precisely despair over one’s weakness.

– Søren Kierkegaard (1989: 97)

A
t least once or twice a year, a number of states in India witness a social protest over the political incorrectness of certain rituals and practices in the name of faith, worship, custom or tradition. Some inhuman practices concerning women (e g, nude worship as in the case of Savadatti temple, the devadasi system, or the practice of ajalu – feeding dalits with human hair and nails) in Karnataka, Maharashtra and elsewhere have been banned.1 There have been protests in Karnataka over the practice by devotees – especially the dalits among them – of rolling over banana leaves off which brahmins have eaten the meals served in the temples at Subramanya and Udupi. The ritual is a variant of urulu seve2 and is supposed to be one associated with the Malekudiya tribe. This is known as made snana3 in Tulu or enjalu snana in Kannada. Before the leaves are gathered and disposed devotees roll from one end of the row to the other. The act is in fulfilment of a vow or in anticipation of a boon.

The involvement of members of the Malekudiya scheduled tribe (ST) – numbering about 2,800 persons in 2007 – according to one source, attracted the ire of dalit and other backward caste social activists and is focused on the temple in Kukke Subramanya – about 110 km from the coastal town of Mangalore. A visit to the temple forms a part of the itinerary of most pilgrims touring that part of the western ghats in Karnataka that includes other important places such as Dharmasthala, Udupi, and Kollur, if not Idagunji, Karkala and Moodbidri. The name of the presiding deity Subramanya commands awe because of its association with fertility, welfare of children and cure of skin disorders. The belief behind made snana is that the practice

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Besides its historic importance, the temple has also attracted several celebrities in recent years who have performed pujas there and which have received wide media coverage. The offi cial web page of the temple too highlights this by displaying a series of photographs of the bigwigs who have visited the temple: cricketers Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid and film stars Hema Malini, Shilpa Shetty, and a host of political leaders. Yet, it has not developed as a centre of religious tourism like other places in the region have in recent decades: e g, Dharmasthala, and Shringeri. Indeed for over a decade the journey to Subramanya has been an ordeal owing to the poor condition of the road leading to it. For a brief period during the 1980s the train connectivity (Subramanya Road station) had eased the hardship of travelling to the temple town and has been resumed recently.

Faith or Humiliation?

Dalit organisations from different parts of Karnataka have been protesting the practice of made snana for some years now. They find it humiliating that the Malekudiyas take part in this ritual, thereby perpetuating the denial of human rights to members of this community. Made snana was performed by the devotees on 29 and 30 November last year. Srinivas of the Hindulida Vargadavara Jagritha Vedike (a forum for the backward classes) led a protest against it and along with his supporters was attacked by persons said to be Malekudiyas. The latter were upset that their traditions and customs were being opposed by a few. Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of the Malekudiyas to rebuild and decorate the wooden chariot used during the annual procession of the presiding deity. They consider themselves to be hereditary followers (okkalu) of Subramanya.

A police complaint has been lodged against those who attacked the protestors.

COMMENTARY

In different parts of the state, and in the town of Kasargod of the adjoining state of Kerala, there have been public debates condemning the practice as well as the violent response to the attempts by the protestors. The made snana as well as the attack on the protestors were covered by television news channels and some of the Kannada channels conducted debates on the practice. The protestors were particularly angry at the haste with which the district administration went back on the earlier orders banning the practice. The withdrawal of the ban orders followed the meeting with the minister for religious affairs who is also an elected leader from the undivided Dakshina Kannada district, with the temple authorities. The justifi cation given for the withdrawal of orders had been that the government cannot interfere in matters of faith.

Discussions on television and in the regional and national print media have been quite heated, often going beyond the main issues involved. There are those who firmly believe and argue that devotees are not coerced into undertaking the ritual. It was also reported that the minister concerned had made a “scientific” interpretation of how the ritual is effective in curing skin disorders. One of the participants in a television debate argued that the practice dated back several centuries and should therefore be allowed to continue. Much of the debates also centred around whether or not made snana can be compared to the Chandragutti nude worship by women.

The spokespersons for the state government have been trying hard to convince people that the Chandragutti (nude worship is also practised in some other places) incidence of nude worship is not the same as made snana, and therefore the withdrawal of the ban orders is justifi ed. The justification for withdrawing the ban orders is also made on the grounds that the ritual is practised not merely by Malekudiayas and other bahujan devotees but also by brahmins. There have been exchanges and discussions by netizens as well, some owning up to how they too have voluntarily taken part in the ritual, while many others have condemned the practice not merely by invoking the violation of human rights, human dignity, or describing it as a barbaric act, etc, but also by making larger reference to “blind” beliefs and values.

While the dalits and other progressive groups identify support emerging from beyond the region,4 there have also been attempts by a few religious groups to target Hinduism as a religion, and the Bharatiya Janata Party which is the ruling party. Many have gone on to link the incident and the police (in-)action to Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption. A few others have challenged the religious leaders, the concerned minister and his colleagues and the other brahmins who take part in the rituals to perform the same ritual themselves but over the plantain leaves off which the dalits have eaten.

The intellectual lack of maturity and ignorance of cultural pluralism is in evidence when attention is drawn to members of other religious groups eating from a common plate (as among the Muslims), or to the Digambar Jains undertaking pilgrimages in the nude to their places of worship. Such arguments imply that social appropriateness is a relative phenomenon. Should a temple become a space within which acts that are not in keeping with contemporary thinking on what is “right” and “wrong” may be permitted to be carried out? The answer to this question has been skirted in most of the debates on the ritual.

Act of Submission

There are several issues that have cropped up in the debate over whether made snana should be banned. First, that it is a ritual not confined to the Malekudiyas, or dalits in general. Nor is it a practice that is observed only during the annual festival in the temple. In fact devotees rolling over the floor – urulu seve

– are observed in other major temples too, as in Tirupathi and Sabarimala. Second, there is nothing to suggest that the performance is enforced, or offi cially approved. For example, there is a long list of services and the fees (or monetary offerings) prescribed for each. The list in most temples resembles a menu-card in a restaurant, but does not include either a made snana or a urulu seve. In Kukke Subramanya and in other temples dedicated to the deity there is a ritual of the

march 31, 2012

first (solid) meal for an infant, or a fi rst hair cut for a (male) child: these fi nd a mention in the list of offi cial services and fee for each just as there are separate places where they are performed. Third, the temples dedicated to Subramanya are very strongly associated with skin disorders, and the fertility cult, and the two are in turn also associated with snake worship. It is not uncommon to find devotees said to be in “possession” of a snake-spirit, crawling from the main entrance to the temple and receiving a special sprinkle of the sanctifi ed water (theertha) and flowers in front of the image. Fourth, it is a common knowledge that when people have problems related to birth of children, lack of a male child or birth under certain star (zodiac) positions, etc, they often consult astrologers. There may have been several appeasing or purificatory services prescribed such as Ashlesha Bali, Sarpa Samskara, etc. It is not known whether the performance of made snana was prescribed by the priests or by the astrologers. A common way of submitting to a higher being – human or divine – is by offering to give away that which is a matter of pride or its equivalent. Thus, shaving off the hair on one’s head is one such act of submission, just as to approach a person of a higher rank by crouching or on one’s knees is another form of submission. Rolling on the ground too is to be seen as a similar submission, either in anticipation of a wish being granted or in gratitude.5

Lessons from the Past

Karnataka will be facing an assembly election shortly. A parliamentary byelection is due after the present Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda vacated his seat, in the same constituency in which the temple of Kukke Subramanya is located. There is, therefore, a likelihood of the matter becoming not only a threat to law and order, but also being distorted in the electoral battles. Neither the brahmins who are currently seen as protagonists of the ritual nor dalits will gain in the resulting conflict. It is unlikely that several other issues that have a bearing on made snana will now be left alone. The shifting religious identity of the Malekudiyas, moral assessment of several

vol xlviI no 13

COMMENTARY

other practices such as temples maintaining separate dining halls for members of different castes, the practice of the Digambar Jains who do not cover their bodies (there are several Jain pilgrim centres in the vicinity of Subramanya), comments and suggestions by members of other caste and religious groups – especially the heads of their caste or religious associations – all will need to be addressed. The region around Subramanya has seen a lot of social tension arising from disputes over places of worship (Seetharaman 2011), enrollment of youth and the poor in violent militant groups, and growing religious strife. The events in Subramanya need not add fuel to these. It is in this context that the cultural governance of a multi-ethnic society requires a much broader and accommodative outlook than abandoning the thorny issue as matters of faith and voluntary choices on the grounds of their historicity.

Nearly a decade ago there had been an attempt to list the various practices that were inhuman or considered humiliating to the scheduled castes (SCs) and STs and to ban them.6 Perhaps it is appropriate now to revisit this list, revise it if necessary with fresh evidence but facilitate a healthy environment to develop a progressive mindset towards different castes and ethnic groups. The caste “system” may have had its death and an obituary written to it (e g, Srinivas 2003; Shah 2007) but there is yet an urgent need to give it a proper burial such that its ghost does not haunt those who survive.

Marshall Berman observed in 1982 that “to be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction” (p 15). While adhering to the tradition of made snana many protagonists have demonstrated the paradox and contradictions in which they live. Several of the centuries-old rituals and practices have been given up – whether owing to a legislation (sati, child marriage, to name a couple) or public opinion against it – shaving the head of a young widow, for example. Giving up many of these has been considered as progressive steps too. The brahmins themselves have moved on from insistence on eating from a plantain leaf squatting on the fl oor to now dining on a table and from a reusable plate – not merely in their own

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 31, 2012

private homes but also in public places such as a restaurants, temples or wedding halls. The gradual disappearance of the practice of keeping women in seclusion for a few days during the monthly menstrual period too is another progressive step. When there can be such signs of modernity, nothing prevents them from coming out openly against the practice of people rolling over the leftover food.

Most of the defenders of the practice belong to the same caste and region, which, during the 1920s and after, has contributed to a major source of social change namely the Udupi restaurants.

Udupi hotels have contributed to the processes of secularisation and modernisation by exposing traditional dietary practices associated with temple and village rituals to the combined forces of the market, state law and politics. Thereby, Udupi hoteliering and catering has been instrumental in the transformation of commensal orthodoxies lying at the very root of Hindu religious identity and brahmanical tradition (Madsen and Gardella, forthcoming).

It is only a step further and in the positive direction, if the restrictions on commensality in temples too are removed, especially in the coastal and Malnad belts of Karnataka. This, in turn, will pave the way for greater inter-caste harmony and lessening of prejudices towards each other. Justifying rituals and practices such as the made snana, separate commensal arrangements based caste differences by brahmins as in this case can only further strengthen the othering (Bairy 2009) – targeting that community for all social evils including caste and caste-based discrimination.

Educating the masses against such inhuman practices is certainly a need, as the government has now announced, but it has to be preceded by a firm no to such practices.

Notes

1 See e g, Epp (1992), Shankar (2004).

2 An act performed by devotees, which involves their rolling over the floor around the sanctum sanctorum in temples. Some temples have

made special arrangements – such as building a foot-over bridge, or provided for separate timings for devotees offering urulu seve, as in Sabarimala. However, urulu seve is performed also as an act of protest, or as a strategy to pressurise the government.

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3 The phrase is pronounced maday snâna.

4 Some of the groups and organisations that have opposed the practice of made snana: “Made Snana Virodhi Horata Samiti; Sahamatha Vedike and the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Ambedkar vada) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) in Mangalore. Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike. Individuals like G K Govind Rao and state president of the Karnataka Rajya Hindulida Vargagala Jagruti Vedike K S Shivaramu. Seers of various maths sought a ban on “made snana”, such as Veerabhadra Channamalla swami of Nidumamidi Math, Chidananda Mahaswami of Hosamath, Shivananda Puri Mahaswami of Kaginele Mahasansthan Kanaka Gurupeetha, Natarajaswami of Gurujangama Math, Siddalingashivacharya swami and Jnanaprakash swami.

5 In rural Karnataka, it is a common expression by a person desperately seeking a favour thus: “In return, I shall assume to be living ‘in a corner where you fasten your dogs, ‘leave your foot wear’, or ‘keep the dust on your toe over my forehead’. I am aware also of the common practice of not taking the name of the revered god in ordinary or everyday conversations in this region, especially those of Dharmasthala, Subramanya and many others” (see Frazer 1922, esp Chs 3 and 19 to 21).

6 See Deccan Herald (Bangalore), 22 October 2001 (accessed on 9 September 2009 at http://www. deccanherald.com/deccanherald/oct23/s7.htm).

References

Bairy, Ramesh T S (2009): “Brahmins in the Modern World: Association as Enunciation”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 43(1): 89-120.

Berman, Marshall (1982): All That Is Solid Melts into Air (London: Verso), New Edition 2010.

Epp, Linda (1992): “Dalit Struggle, Nude Worship, and the ‘Chandragutti Incident’”, Sociological Bulletin, 41 (1 and 2): 145-68.

Frazer, Sir James (1922): The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: Macmillan).

Kierkegaard, Soren (1989): The Sickness unto Death (translated by Alastair Hannay) (London: Penguin Classics).

Madsen, Stig Toft and Geoffrey T Gardella (forthcoming): “Udupi Hotels: Entrepreneurhsip, Reform and Revival” in Tulsi Srinivas (ed.), Globalisation of Food.

Seetharaman, Sudha (2011): Beyond Contestation and Legitimation: Religion, Religious Identity and Religiosity at Bababudhan Dargah in South India (Research Report submitted to the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi) (Manuscript).

Shah, A M (2007): “Caste in the 21st Century: From System to Elements”, Economic & Political Weekly, 42(44): 109-16.

Shankar, Jogan (2004): Devadasi Cult: A Sociological Analysis (second revised edition) (New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House).

Srinivas, M N (2003): “An Obituary on Caste as a System”, Economic & Political Weekly, 38(5): 455-59.

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