Made Snana: Another case of dismantling Hindu practices?

The controversial practice of “Made-Snana”, which involves devotees rolling over the food leftover by Brahmins, in certain temples of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, once every year is again under attack.

The controversial practice of “Made-Snana”, which involves devotees rolling over the food leftover by Brahmins, in certain temples of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, once every year is again in the news. This time, it is due to the BJP government at the center, which has urged the Supreme Court to ban the practice, which it terms as being “against the constitutional value of justice, equality and human dignity.

For long, the secular and Dalit activists in Karnataka have described the practice as being castiest, anti-Dalit, and inhumane. It appears, the BJP government at the center, which, though came to power at the back of Hindu votes, have interiorized these arguments presented by the activists, without examining their validity and truth value.

Before going further, let us first examine the practice of “Made-Snana”.

What is Made Snana

“Made” in Tulu language refers to leftover food and “Snana” means bath. As mentioned above, the practice involves devotees rolling over the food leftover by Brahmins and then having bath in the river, which marks the completion of the ritual. This ritual practice is at least 500 years old and is a prominent part of the annual 3-day festival at KukkeSubrahmanya in Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka. The practice is also observed in few other Subrahmanya temples in Karnataka, in Vaishnava temples like those in Udupi, Karnataka and during the annual Aradhana festival at the NerurSadasivaBharmendrai Temple in Karur district, Tamil Nadu.

The practice traces itself a legend about Samba, the son of Lord Krishna. According to this legend, when Samba was cursed by some sages, he visited the Kukke Subrahmanya temple to get relief from the curse. He is supposed to have taken a bath in the Kumaradhara River that flows near the temple and performed “Made Snana” i.e. rolled over the food leftover by the Sages and Rishis, who had visited the temple. The legend says that due to the performance of such Made Snana, Samba was able to get rid of those curses.

Whether this account is literal or metaphorical is better left to each individual. Nevertheless, this account is very significant for one particular reason: it provides a clear picture about the essence of the practice of “Made Snana” and how it is to be understood. Samba performed this ritual as an austerity, as an act of repentance and self-purification. There was neither coercion nor any force on him to perform this. Instead, his state of mind was one of complete devotion and surrendering to the God. He performed the activity with complete dedication and detachment, and without a care for how it is perceived by the society. Under normal circumstances, rolling over leftover food is perceived, at large by the society, as an unhygienic, impure, and undignified activity.

Hence, by overcoming these inhibitions and performing the Made-Snana by dedicating his action to the divine, Samba was able to set aside his pride and ego, and transcend the mental conditioning like purity/impurity, praise/shame, good/bad, etc. In other words, Made-Snana must be understood as a Tapas- a legitimate spiritual austerity, which helps one to overcome internal conditioning by facilitating internal purification. Made-Snana is, thus, a fine example of how Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga can be combined into an Adhyatmic practice, without one having to spend years in learning complicated scriptures or performing intricate rituals. In many ways, practices like Made-Snana, can be compared to the path of extreme love travelled by the likes of Gopis, who were asked by Lord Krishna, to come out of the lake naked, so as to help them transcend the conditioning of shame and attain perfection in their Bhakti; as well the path taken by many Nagas and Kapalikas, who indulge in extreme actions shunned and tabooed by the society, so as to transcend the duality of good/bad, pure/impure, etc.

Why the government argument is incorrect

The Union government in its affidavit to the Supreme Court has contended: “These rituals may be voluntary, but since human dignity and health of concerned persons is affected and are against constitutional value of justice, equality and human dignity, they ought not to be defended under Article 25 of the Constitution of India which relates to right to freedom of religion.”

But, the question the government must ask itself is, whose “human dignity” is actually being violated? Whether it is the dignity of the government and the activists (who are mostly atheists and agnostics, and in any case, are not practitioners of the Made-Snana), or is it the dignity of the devotees, who perform Made-Snana? If the government is trying to uphold the “dignity” of the devotees, why haven’t not even a single devotee has come forward raising objections against the practice till date?

On the contrary, it is the very people whose dignity are supposed to have been violated, for example, the members of Malekudiya-a Scheduled Tribe community, who are fighting against the repeated attempts to ban the ritual. They have been fighting a legal battle to protect the ritual under the banner of “Rajya Adivasi Budakattu Hitarakshana Vedike” (Platform for protection of interests of the State’s Scheduled Tribes).

The Vedike’s president, Bhaskar Bendodi, in his interview with Udayavani in 2015 had said:

“People from Brahmin communities and people hailing from all other communities perform this ritual out of their own wish. It is a sort of cathartic communication with the supreme divine for many. The ritual should never be gauged in terms of logic because it is a subjective matter governed by sentiments and belief system of the people performing it.”

Bendodi’s statement not only exposes the hollowness of the argument that Made-Snana violates ‘human dignity’ (since, the practitioners of the ritual themselves perceive it as a “cathartic” spiritual activity, and not as inhumane practice), it also exposes the hollowness of the allegation that the practice perpetrates caste discrimination. Though, it is true that the majority of the devotees of the practice hail from poor, backward, and tribal communities, this in itself cannot be taken as caste discrimination.

Instead, the fact that many Brahmins, especially from Shivalli Brahmin community practice Made-Snana (as shown in the Udayavani report), and these practices are not sponsored by the temples themselves, clearly shows how neither caste nor discrimination has any role to play in the ritual. Add to this the fact that in at least one temple, Beteraya Swamy temple at Turuvekere, it is the Brahmin devotees, who perform the Made-Snana by rolling over the food leftover by Dalits.

This being the case, the fact that a large number of devotees belong to poor and backward classes, only goes to show that the ritual has organically evolved to cater to the Adhyatmic needs of the poor and backward communities, who otherwise don’t have time, money, education, or inner temperament to indulge in years of scriptural study or expensive elaborate ritualism for fulfilling their Adhyatmic needs. Thus, the BJP government at the center is making a grave mistake by falling into the false propaganda of the secular and left-liberal activists.

What is at stake here

The movement to ban Made-Snana is not to be mistaken as an isolated movement against a practice which has been wrongly perceived as caste discrimination. Instead, it must be understood in the larger context of concerted attempts of secularization and semitization of the Indian society, as part of which various Hindu traditions and practices are being dismantled using Equality and Rights discourse. Similar discourses have been propagated around practices like Jallikattu, Sallekhana, the entry of women in Sabarimala and ShaniSingapura temples, celebration of festivals like Dahi-Handi, Diwali, etc. to name a few.

These mainstream discourses are not only deliberately misleading, they follow a definite pattern. These secularizing and semetizing forces, first separate the mundane aspect of a Hindu practice from its sacred aspect. They, then, isolate, sideline, and discard the sacred aspect under the garb of superstition and blind-belief. And finally, the mundane aspect is portrayed as a violation of one or the other Rights (human rights, women rights, animal rights, etc.) and/or as perpetrating inequality and discrimination (against women, dalits, etc.) and a ban on those practices are demanded.

This very same pattern is being used in the case of Made-Snana as well. The entire discourse has been created around how the practice is inhuman, discriminatory and violation of human dignity. Unfortunately, the BJP government, which is supposed to be taking care of Hindu interests, has clearly lapped up this propaganda and hence has made the said appeal to the court. The BJP government is either unaware or is deliberately turning a blind eye towards the likely consequences of its support for a ban on Made-Snana. The ban, if it materializes, would deprive the poor and the backward of a genuine Adhyatmic practice and place them at a spiritual disadvantage, the very same people, whose welfare the government claims to uphold by such a ban. The ban would result in the dismantling of a 500-year old, organically evolved spiritual practice, which was tailor made for those, who did not have the competency or were otherwise unable to access complicated spiritual practices for attaining inner purity and spiritual advancement. More importantly, it would alienate these people from their culture and tradition and prepare the ground for harvesting of souls by the evangelists. In other words, it would facilitate the semetization agenda of evangelical projects like Thessalonica and pave way for the destruction of diversity and dismantling of the entire Hindu Dharmic eco-system.

Parallel with movement against BettaleSeve

Made-Snana is not the first Hindu practice in Karnataka against which huge negative discourse has been built by the secular activists. In the mid-1980s, there was a huge controversy around the practice of “BettaleSeve”, a form of naked worship dedicated to Goddess Renukamba at Chandragutti, when the activists of Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, few women’s groups, and NGO’s forcefully tried to stop the devotees from performing BettaleSeve by asking them to wear clothes. The devotees, who became enraged by the obstruction caused by these activists, got violent and beat some of the social workers. This incident placed the BettaleSeve in the limelight, which ultimately resulted in the banning of the practice in 1992.

This form of service or “Seve” is performed once a year during the annual Jathre (fair/festival) at the Chandragutti temple. It is important to note that BettaleSeve constitutes only one among the large number of services that devotees undertake like Shirasashtanganamaskaraseve (where devotees worship by lying fully prostrate on the ground), uruluseve (where the devotees worship by rolling around the sanctum sanctorum), oddhe-yudigeseve (worship performed wearing wet clothes), arashinadhudigeseve (worship by applying turmeric paste all over the body), bevinudigeseve (worship performed by wearing neem leaves as garment), etc., none of which involved devotees getting naked.

During BettaleSeve, devotees used to take a bath in the Varada River, which is near the Renukamba temple and then ran naked up to the temple. After having the Darshana of the Goddess Renukamba, the devotees used to visit the nearby Matangi temple, where they would receive new clothes to wear. Devotees perceived the ritual as a form of austerity and purification and often practiced them as a prayashchita (repentance and expiatory action) for any unrighteous actions, to fulfill their vows, for having their desires fulfilled, or simply as a spiritual practice.

The practice traces its roots to two legends involving Renukamba, the mother of Parashurama. In the first legend, after Jamadagni asks Parushurama to cut off Renukamba’s head, since, she had become enamored by a Gandharva, Renukamba runs to save her life. While she is running, her garments falls away and she becomes completely naked. She takes shelter in a Shiva temple by embracing Shiva Linga and becomes one with it. In the second legend, when Parashurama goes away to fight degenerate Kshatriyas, he asks Matangi’s son Beerappa to protect his mother, Renukamba. When, instead of protecting Renukamba, Beerappa tries to molest her, Mathangi comes to her rescue and gives her new garments in protection.

Both these legends clearly associate Bettele-Seve with austerity, purification, and expiation. That Renukamba shed her clothes and took refuge in Lord Shiva as Linga, is a reference to austerity and surrendering to divinity, similar to those performed by Goddess Parvati, who is called “Aparna”, as she shed all her clothing. The giving of clothes by Matangi to Renukamba and its imitation by the devotees, refers to how the ritual is purifying in nature. Thus, Bettale-Seve, like Made-Snana is an organically evolved spiritual practice, which combines both Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga.

Yet, a negative discourse was created around this practice by portraying it as a violation of the dignity of women and caste discrimination. It is to be noted that, like Made-Snana, even in the case of Bettale Seve, the majority of the devotees belonged to poor, backward and the downtrodden classes and they were predominantly women. Yet, even here many devotees not only belonged to non-dalit and the so-called forward classes, there were many male devotees as well. In fact, Bettale Seve performed at few other temples like the Yellamma temple at Saundatti, Belgaum district, included naked worship by Jogappas and Jogammas- men and women who remain celibate and dedicated to divine. These clearly establish how the discourse created by social activists around BetteleSeve was motivated, had no basis in ground reality, and deliberately did not take into account the perception and experience of the devotees themselves.

Writing about this negative discourse surrounding Bettale Seve created in the name of reforms and modernity, P. Radhika, in her article “Nude Worship in Karnataka”, published in Economic and Political Weekly, writes:

“The reformist discourse that characterized positions against bettaleseve was carried out within the tradition-versus-modernity frame. The state, the media, and social activists came together on this reformist agenda of eradicating a practice that was seen as ‘a shame and a black spot on civilization’. Parliament called upon all organizations “to eradicate this inhuman practice.’ The reformist discourse problematically uses a single measure of the modern and civilized to calibrate all practices and works within a linear, evolutionary model that sees all history as moving towards a hegemonic modern ideal. In this discourse, bettaleseve was an inhuman and backward practice from which the women needed to be uplifted.”

Radhika, further compares this discourse around Bettale Seve with the colonial discourse, which was created around the practice of Sati during the British rule and writes:

“The anti-bettaleseve discourse shares similarities with the anti-sati discourse of the colonial period. In both cases, the practices were decried as superstitious and backward using words like ‘pre-modern’, ‘blind’, and ‘shameful’. If in the sati debate, abolition of sati by the colonial state and the indigenous reformers represented a desire to modernize, here, bettale-seve was seen as an aberration in a civilized and modern world. Analyses of both phenomena follow similar paths, especially in the textualization of the practice, in proposing explanatory theories, and in foregrounding the question of agency… The media, psychologists, and sociologists put forward explanatory theories of bettaleseve around “hidden meanings” and “mental states” of the devotees, much like in the colonial and anthropological writings around sati. The practice was seen as resulting from a psychological disorder that affected individuals with a weak mind or body… Both the sati and bettaleseve subject were seen as inebriated, literally through liquor and metaphorically in superstition… what is troubling is that within the framing of the bettaleseve performer-as-victim, there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that bettaleseve can be practiced without coercion.”

Thus, in the 1980s, a false propaganda campaign about the violation of dignity and discrimination against Dalits and women was created against the practice of Bettale Seve, the way a similar campaign was created more than a hundred years before about Sati. Today, yet another similar campaign is being run against Made-Snana. The goal remains the same: dismantling Hinduism. The means employed remains the same: creating misleading discourse using equality and rights narrative. Only the time, context, and technicalities have changed.

It is high time for the BJP to realize its folly in aiding these dismantling forces and take corrective actions, so as to prevent complete semetisation of this country.

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His latest book “Musings On Hinduism” provides an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. Tweets at @nkgrock