Lakshmi against Untouchability: Puranic Texts and Caste in Odisha

The Lakshmi Purana as a literary text primarily raises issues relating to the religious rights of Dalit women in Odisha. 

Lakshmibrata kathas are stories that are recited while worshipping Lakshmi, the Goddess. Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, is now being worshipped all over India. But, the literary sources coming out in various Indian languages prove that the Lakshmibrata kathas originated mostly in the rice-producing states such as, West Bengal (WB), Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh (AP), Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Bidyut Mohanty took nearly 20 years to prove this research hypothesis. His book, Lakshmi, the Rebel: Culture, Economy and Women’s Agency published by Har-Ananad, Delhi, 2019, is an attempt to study caste, culture, and gender, through myths. Taking the Lakshmibrata kathas as tools to investigate the various locations of gendered culture in India, the book connects between the past and the present and makes a bold statement about the degree of women empowerment in India.

Mohanty, after critically analysing the Lakshmibrata kathas of various states Mohanty wrote,

“We have seen in many countries that political representation and economic opportunities which are indeed absolutely necessary for women’s empowerment have still proved to be inadequate in accomplishing women’s liberation in modern times. In this work, it has been argued that culture has to be an integral component in the composite perspective along with political and economic measures to bring about women’s liberation. In fact, all political and economic strategies of transformation which do not have a cultural component are necessarily inadequate in their capacity to achieve freedom and equality in society. That is the message from Lakshmi, the rebel.” (pp 162-163)

There are several angles to look at gender oppression in India. Of course, the sociocultural treatment of women in India varies from region to region, and from community to community. The way in which women will be treated can be determined by many invisible factors, like religious traditions or convention. The concept of the female in Hinduism, for example, is based upon an inherent duality: on the one hand, women deities are perceived as fertile, benevolent, and nurturing, while on the other hand, they are seen as malevolent and destructive. Many of the folk tales, Puranic stories and other forms of literature support this duality where the woman is painted in black and white.  Although the specific situation of a particular woman is determined by her exact location in history, her economic situation, her marital status, etc, the fact that women have to suffer unequal treatment is, by and large, true of all classes and castes of our society. The caste system operates alongside gender oppression. Consequently, Dalit and Adivasi women are doubly vulnerable. Since this book primarily deals with Lakshmi, the Goddess, because of her association with Sriya Chandaluni, a Dalit woman, I will discuss how caste plays a major role assigning gender stereotypes. Taking Odisha as a case study, I will try to argue that while women in general continue to suffer due to patriarchal social order, Dalit women in the state suffer marginalisation thrice over.

Balaram Dasa’s Lakshmi Purana

Balarama Dasa wrote Lakshmi Purana at a time when several radical Bhakti saint-poets of Odisha challenged the varna system and the stratification of human society on the basis of caste. Balaram Dasa is a part of the Panchasakha tradition (five-fellow saint-poets the other being Jagannatha Dasa, Achyutanda Dasa, Jasobanta Dasa and Ananta Dasa), which virtually brought a revolution in a caste-ridden society like Odisha. The Panchasakha dominated Odia literature for a century (1450–1550). The five fellow-poets together rejected the dominance of Sanskrit language in literature and espoused the cause of vernacular as the medium of expression. Thus, they made major contributions towards the use of Odia as a language. In fact, they followed the path of Sarala Dasa in Odia literature as pioneers, and rendered the sacred texts into the people’s language in order to make them more accessible. [1][i]

Written during the 16th century, Dasa’s Lakshmi Purana deals with the rules and regulations that govern Puri’s Jagannath temple, a famous site of pilgrimage in Odisha. The Lakshmi Purana as a literary text primarily raises issues relating to the religious rights of Dalit women in Odisha. The story revolves around Sriya Chandaluni, a Dalit woman, who goes on a fast and worships Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, and the reining deity of the Jagannath temple on a dasami, during the month of Margashirsha. Seeing her true devotion, Lakshmi pays a visit to her hut and blesses her. But, when Lakshmi returns to the temple, she is prevented by Jagannath and Balabhadra, her husband and elder brother-in-law, respectively. They accuse her of being “polluted,” because she visited the house of an “untouchable.” Having evicted Lakshmi from her home in the course of the story, both the brothers suffer untold miseries till they realise that nobody should be treated as an “untouchable.”

Balaram Dasa, by bringing a Dalit woman into the centre of the debate, not only raises the question of caste in the narrative, he also underlines the significance of reading the issue of gender along with caste. This is, perhaps, the reason why some critics like Satya P Mohanty consider Lakshmi Purana as a feminist text. Mohanty, for example, writes,

“Balaram Das(a)’s Lakshmi Purana is a feminist text primarily because it shows a female goddess using her personal power to challenge the way society defines identities and rewards virtue, and the way tradition—even when sanctioned by the Lord himself—understands our ascribed jati-identity and its implications for how we are to be treated.” (Mohanty 2008, 9)

Even though the caste liberals believe that the Jagannath temple does not discriminate against anyone irrespective of caste, creed and gender, it must be mentioned here that the lower castes, especially Dalits, are not allowed to enter into the temple even today. James M Freeman’s fascinating book on an Odia Dalit’s life titled Untouchable: an Indian Life History tells it otherwise. Muli, the narrator, happens to be a member of the Bauri community who have been exploited by the upper-castes, who cited various myths and legends to explain the ritual inferiority of the Bauri community. Muli and his community members were denied entry into temples, including the Jagannath temple in Puri. Instead of protesting against these discriminatory practices, Muli and his community continued to remain content with their ritual status. Muli, in the following passages brings out this issue clearly:

“I remember Granny as a smiling, peaceful, gentle person, and very religious; every evening, she set out her clay oil lamp for deities, and offered them rice. She often fasted for the deities and visited many temples to worship deities, even though she was not allowed in. From outside the temple she watched, and gave her greetings. For four or five years during the Shivaratri festival [birthday of the deity Shiva] she went to the Dhabaleswar temple, which stands in the middle of the Mahanadi River, and burned a clay lamp full of oil. She also went to Puri every two years or so to visit Lord Jagannath, but she never went inside the temple.  I myself went into the outer compound of the Jagannath temple for the first time only in 1970. I did not go into the inner room; I have never seen anybody of my caste enter the temple compound before this time. (Freeman 1979, 124)

Contrary to the belief that Jagannath, the Lord of the universe is for all, including the poor and the under-privileged, that the cult of Jagannath has been used by the Odia ruling class to mould Dalit consciousness in a manner that contributes to their continued subordination.  Like the story of Sriya Chandaluni, the legends of Dasia Bauri and many others testify to this. It may be mentioned here that Dasia Bauri was a staunch follower of Jagannath. But being Dalit, he could not enter the temple. Finally, Jagannath came out from the temple to meet his untouchable disciple in the middle of the night, so that the puja pandas, the Brahmins would not see him and question his credentials as the god of the upper castes.

Dasia Bauri’s case is exactly like that of Shabari of the Ramayana, who for the devotion of Rama, her beloved god, keeps collecting all sweet berries by tasting them one after another. It is quite interesting that Rama, the Hindu god, pleased by her devotion, lovingly ate the already eaten fruits, the jhootan. This is the way the Hindu myths operate. Stories, such as Sriya Chandaluni, Dasia Bauri and Shabari attempt to establish that that Hinduism as a religion is quite liberal in its principles.  But, religion is a bundle of contradictions. What it preaches, it does not practice. One can argue over here that even though there are umpteen numbers of stories where the Gods themselves do not believe in differentiating amongst their devotees based on caste, creed and gender, people tend to ignore these stories in everyday life.  

With their work, Balaram Dasa and his fellow Odia poets also protested against the rigidities of life in temples and monasteries, and sought to rise above the dualistic debates that reduced religion to ignorant prejudice. In the process, the poets faced opposition, criticism, and the ire of orthodox pundits. In spite of various repressive measures taken by the establishment, the movement could not be curbed fully, even though these traditions did eventually come within the dominant Brahminical fold.




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