India's Tolerance Levels Tested as American Enters Forbidden Sanctuary

July 7, 2008 - 8:18 PM

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - An American tourist caused an uproar when he wandered into a Hindu temple strictly closed to non-Hindus, in an incident that highlighted the challenges India faces in presenting itself as an enlightened democracy.

Detained for several hours by local police in India's Orissa state, Paul Roediger, a 59-year-old engineer from New York, was later released on condition he pay a token fine, after what authorities at the Jagannath temple called an "act of desecration."

Roediger's inadvertent wandering into the shrine of Hindu deity Vishnu triggered calls from some Hindus for severe punishment, but local policemen managed to convince temple administrators and angry adherents that he had trespassed in error.

Unaware of rules banning entry of non-Hindus, the American, who is interested in temple architecture, walked into the temple's inner "sanctum sanctorum."

Roediger expressed regret but also blamed temple authorities, noting that no guard had prevented him from entering the area.

Police Inspector Alekh Pahi said Roediger and two Indian companions had been released as "there is no provision in law to take any action against for entering the temple."

Temple authorities afterwards "purified" the "defiled" premises by washing with water and milk. Food worth nearly $5,000, meant for distribution among Hindu devotees as part of religious ritual, was deemed "polluted" and destroyed.

The decision upset a U.S.-based Hindu reform organization, which said it was appalled by the waste.

The Navya Shastra organization said it reflected "a medieval mindset at a time and place where there are thousands of poor and hungry people."

The incident has focused renewed attention onto controversial religious and cultural practices that survive in India despite its stated commitment to secular, democratic principles.

"Low-caste" citizens and "untouchables" (dalits) are still denied entry to various temples or forbidden to use water wells, in contravention of constitutional guarantees.

Dr. Rashmi Patni, director of the Gandhian Studies Centre at the University of Rajasthan, argues that such customs go against the tenets of Mahatma Gandhi who he said stood for human dignity and equality irrespective of caste, sex, creed or color and fought for temple entry for dalits.

"Like in every society, social discrimination in India is born out of centuries' old legacy," she said. "It is similar to the problem and differences among blacks and whites in the U.S. and cannot be eradicated merely by enactment of constitutional statutes."

Patni said, however, that the growing affluence of the middle class, increasing literacy levels and the spread of information technology was making issues of caste, gender and religion of little importance to younger Indians.

Sawai Singh, an activist espousing Gandhi's ideas, said successive Indian governments have failed to curb the menace of religious intolerance, because politicians prefer to pander to their respective constituencies.

"If punishments for social discrimination and depravation were to be severe, many of these evils would get eradicated automatically," Singh argued.

Ironically, the Jagannath temple is immensely popular among pilgrims, because unlike some centers, it does not discriminate between higher- and lower-caste Hindus.

Nonetheless, the temple does not allow entry to non-Hindus or foreigners - with the exception of Western Hare Krishna devotees, who throng to the temple each year in large numbers.

Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was once turned away from the main gates of the shrine, as she was deemed to be non-Hindu, having married outside of the religion.

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