There was recent publicity in Utah press about the new Mormon temple that will be built in Bengaluru, India (known as Bangalore until 2014), the first temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the country. There was a groundbreaking ceremony in December 2020, yet a survey of leading English-language newspapers in India reveals that this event was not widely reported. It was certainly not as widely reported as the groundbreaking of another temple in August 2020: the Ram Mandir, or the Ram Temple, which has been a violently contentious issue in India for the last three decades or so. Demolition of an ancient mosque in 1992 to build a temple, fiery deaths of dozens of Hindu pilgrims and kar sevaks in Godhra, and the subsequent anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002—thousands of casualties in these violent conflicts—raise traumatic private and public memories associated with building of temples in India.1In this essay I reflect on the similarities between the two religious movements that are building these two temples, and how—despite their very different statuses in India—their ideas about gender overlap in important ways. I will draw from personal and well as research experiences with these two belief systems to demonstrate similarities in gender hierarchy and related marginalization in and across two continents.As a bisexual femme growing up in an urban middle-class family in India, I learned at a very young age to fight back against Hindu patriarchal norms that expect uncritical acceptance by people of all genders, demanding that people's integrity, safety, and happiness be sacrificed in the name of “tradition.” When I asked my parents about why the oppressive caste system was still so prevalent and why or how non-Hindus were “different,” as I had been taught in the process of my socialization, my progressive-seeming yet rather traditional family pushed back. Steeped in Bengali, South Asian, and “Western” feminist ideologies, I rejected most so-called traditional gender norms because they had done me no good and had actually put me in harm's way. This was not rebellion; it was survival. I realized that if I gave in to the generalized normalized expectation of being a good upper-caste woman, someone who is pliant, pleasant, and constantly seeking permission from patriarchs to make decisions about her own life, I would not have a life. I mean “life” here literally as well as figuratively.Decades later, as a professor at Utah's largest university by enrollment, I see a similar emphasis on pliancy and positivity all around me. I see my younger self in my students who are made outcasts in their own family and community simply for asking questions. When some women push back against the cult of domesticity, trying to prioritize their education, they face disparagement. Gay and trans folks are not supported, are asked to leave home, and sometimes asked to make impossible choices in the name of family and faith. The Mormon community I know and live amid largely emphasizes maintenance of the status quo, asks impolite questions about why I do not have children or a religion, and questions whether I, an “outsider,” should do research on Mormon culture and society.The word “largely” is significant because, as stated earlier, I also know Mormon folks who question and resist the status quo, question and resist oppression of self and others, and are dedicated to women's rights, LGBTQIA rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and various other overlapping forms of social justice. Some of my students amaze me every single day with their courage, rage, and brilliance. In all the spaces I have inhabited across two continents, I created and joined communities of kindred spirits, activists, and straight talking, honest people. While in India, my LGBT community was very much underground, as being gay was criminal under sodomy laws carried over from the British colonial state. This has changed recently, but we cannot take it for granted, especially when the community is criminalized, then decriminalized, then recriminalized, and then decriminalized again.2 I wrote an article about LGBT experiences in Pune for a local news magazine in the early 2000s. It was not a particularly radical piece, but I received a couple of threats of corrective rape. This retraumatized me as a multiple sexual assault survivor. For the last few years, I have lived in Utah with my husband and the question of my sexuality has not come up too often, as people that do not know me assume I am a cisgender straight woman. Yet the generalized environment of local homophobia here traumatizes me on a regular basis. Despite gains made in rights and visibility, there is also considerable backlash against gay rights and voices in Utah.Coming back to the question of the Bengaluru temple, I remember visiting the city for the first time in 2003 or 2004; it was still called Bangalore then. I remember being dazzled by the clean and regular public transportation, the coffee shops and restaurants, the new mixed-use housing developments and shiny new neighborhoods; the whole city was caught up in the giddying prosperity and excitement of being India's “Silicon Valley.” It had a vibrant nightlife and a visible LGBTQ community. This last aspect impressed me the most despite having lived in Pune and having traveled to nearby Mumbai dozens of times for work—two cities that were wonderfully urban and progressive as I knew them. All of this was before the Hindu fundamentalist regime had gained a strong and durable foothold in India, but the writing on the wall was clear. Violence against gay and trans folks was normalized as a strong image of toxic Hindu masculinity emerged. When I received an indirect, almost benevolent, verbal death threat (these were pre-social-media times) for a journal article I wrote about Hindu fundamentalists harassing Indian academics, I realized that fundamentalism was moving from the fringes to the mainstream as the new millennium progressed.The present national political regime in India is represented by the BJP, a Hindu nationalist political party formed in 1980 that draws heavily from other Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This party began its spectacular growth after the 1989 parliamentary elections and was strengthened by the RSS, whose political/cultural fantasy was revival and unification of the Hindu community regardless of sect, caste, or class, informed by restrictive upper caste doctrine.3 This ideology is titled Hindutva. Such unification efforts are common within the history of the LDS Church: in its leadership structure and discourse, its uniform rites and rituals, its wards, meetinghouses, and temples, domestic and global proselytizing missions, in its upholding of Whiteness and heteropatriarchy, its disavowal of polygamy, the FLDS Church, and gay rights.4 The historical parallels between Hindu fundamentalism in India and rise of Mormon sociopolitical power in the US are therefore somewhat discernible.The BJP is hostile to people who are not Hindu—or, to be specific, non-Hindus as well as Hindus not on board with an expressly Hindu nationalist agenda.5 This agenda consists of, among other things, constitutional banning of religious conversions to Christianity and Islam, banning cow-slaughters, and amending the existing citizenship act to discriminate against Muslims based on revisionist history that India has “always” been a Hindu nation.6 In this contentious national atmosphere burdened with the complications of a global pandemic, the reception toward a temple built by the LDS Church—an organized religion largely unfamiliar in India—would be presumably tepid. Perhaps that explains the lack of press coverage about the temple.7Besides the Ram Mandir, Hindu temples built all over the nation aligned with varied sects of Hinduism and housing varied deities are often reported in local news. Building Hindu temples in India is associated with the increasing political and cultural clout of Hinduism; building the first Latter-day Saint temple is associated with aspirations of expanding church membership, a move that might not sit well with the political regime. The BJP has been harboring the fantasy of building the Ram Mandir and construction work for the temple has begun. Such a move would also signify reorganization of a disorganized religion for which Hinduism serves as an umbrella term. The BJP also has fantasies of taking back the gains made by women's and LGBTQ rights activist groups in India.In some ways, Hindutva's attitude toward the “threat” of expansion of women's rights and gay rights is similar to Latter-day Saint doctrine and response on these issues. Hindu and Latter-day Saint religious leaders believe in modest conduct and modest clothing for women, and the boundaries of modesty are always defined by men in power and operationalized by a complex network of social surveillance and accountability enforced enthusiastically by women and men. The Hindu nationalist regime believes in so-called traditional and stereotypical roles for women. It also believes in the erasure of gay people and gay rights. Hindu hardliners deem rights for marginalized groups as “Western culture” that must be eschewed. Hindutva wants to create a de facto national religion—one that is unified, centralized, and political—out of an old polytheistic, pluralistic religious tradition that has a host of deities, doctrines, mythologies, philosophies, texts, and rituals. In pluralistic Hinduism, Christ and Buddha too are deities deserving their own temples. Hinduism's defining characteristics change over time and through space, and, as Wendy Doniger explains, “any single version of this polythetic polytheism (which is also a monotheism, a monism, and a pantheism), including this one, is no better than a strobe photograph of a chameleon, a series of frozen images giving a falsely continuous impression of something that is in fact constantly changing.”8For the BJP, creating religious fixity, fundamentalism, and compliance in an incredibly diverse society has been tricky, but they have been trying for many decades. They also craftily co-opted various issues raised by the women's movements in India, mainly on legal justice focused on a Uniform Civil Code, objectification of women in the media (termed “obscene exposure”), sexual assault (yet representatives of the regime often ask the survivor to take responsibility for many things, including whether they were out late or dressed skimpily, that “caused” the assault), women's education, and other issues. The right-wing regime has promised women's welfare and rights, while drawing from and supporting a repertoire of patriarchal cultural practices in India.As mentioned earlier, Mormon gender norms are broadly aligned with the gender norms found in India and dominant Hindu cultures. However, India is a vast, heterogeneous geopolitical space, and Hinduism is “a network of phenomena as rich, complex, and varied as the land and life of India itself.”9 Therefore, any discussion of “Indian” or “Hindu” gender norms should not be taken as definitive and widely generalizable across the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, in terms of cultural expectations, Hindu and Mormon religious traditions are rather hierarchical with regard to gender—united in their desire for women to hold their family of procreation as their first and foremost priority, to restrict women from religious leadership and priesthood, to create spheres of gender segregated activities, and to provide a code of conduct based on chastity, modesty, and control of sexuality.On the one hand, Hindu nationalists and their sympathizers express a desire for “traditional” gender norms. On the other, in a bid to show how progressive and enlightened Hinduism is, they claim that restrictive gender norms are an Islamic intervention in Indian society dating back to the days of Islamic invasion and regimes in the subcontinent. In these revisionist views, the traditional vision of femininity is deeply tied to Brahminical ideas and cultures well known for their oppression of women as well as of castes that fall lower in the caste hierarchy, especially Dalits—communities located at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.10 Yet Manusmriti, one of the first Sanskrit texts to be translated into English, and its regressive patriarchal views, had sat really well with British colonizers following strict Victorian gender norms. The British divide and rule policy sought to separate Indian society into existing major religious communities that encouraged the imposition of traditional laws in “personal” and family matters. With the separation of the penal (a governmental prerogative) and personal, the family was officially affirmed as a sacred, private site, left to patriarchal discretion and customs. This sacred secrecy of the family without any state intervention or regulation conveniently left out the question of gender rights and redress, domestic violence, marital rape, and other common harms of private family life.The notion of family in traditional Indian thinking is quite similar to Mormon notions, including “the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife,” the father as the provider, and the mother as primary nurturers of children.11 Like most modern capitalist societies, large numbers of women in India, especially in urban areas, get educated and aspire to careers in addition to hoping for emotionally and economically stable family formation. This critical mass of women who are economically and politically active brush up every day against societal norms and structures that seem to have been derived straight from Manusmriti and that were reinforced and strengthened by the colonial and postcolonial nationalist regimes. The women's movements in India have been negotiating with the state and with the broader heteropatriarchal society to address issues of women's rights, gendered violence, and oppression at the intersection of gender, caste, socioeconomic class, religion, and so on, for decades. In fact, women's and feminist movements in India have been denigrated by religious nationalist groups as “too Western,” which ironically, is sometimes coded as “too Christian.”The way Hindutva has tried to co-opt and/or crush feminist ideologies is similar to the LDS Church's response to feminist thinking and expansion of women's rights within the church and in broader society. The modern church's anti-ERA and antifeminist stance is one of its distinguishing features. As scholar Lynn Matthews Anderson writes, “unsettling questions about the invisibility of women in Latter-day Saint scripture and the lack of women's participation in LDS Church leadership and decision-making raised by Mormon feminists have historically been met by LDS Church leaders and more conservative Mormons with reassertions of the certainly and unchangeability of current church policies.”12Hindutva might not particularly like any denomination of Christianity, any sect of Islam, or any manifestation of Hinduism that is not on board with a regressive authoritarian majoritarian agenda, but it has much in common with what the Latter-day Saint temple in Bengaluru represents: the manifest function of sacred rituals and a strong, visible presence in the community; latent functions of expansion, invitation as well as exclusion, economic power, and unquestioning devotion to a religious doctrine. It is a monument to norms, including gender and race norms, as well as Whiteness. Jessica Marie Nelson has explained how Whiteness and gender norms are reproduced in the physical form of Mormon statuary of slender White European-American women performing divine gender roles.13 Whiteness is reminiscent of yet another strong gender norm in India—a colorist norm that expects women to be as pale skinned as possible. Advertisements abound in the subcontinent about skin lightening creams that promise to provide women with the kind of social and cultural capital that their talents, skills, hard work, education, activism, and professional achievements apparently never can. Color has religious and social significance; so much that a Sanskrit word for color, varna, is also another name for social or caste hierarchy.Worldwide, people of faith and agnostics, people who are “spiritual but not religious,” people classified/placed into and/or belonging in religious groups do not often passively follow every religious tenet, doctrine, or expectation. They employ spiritual scripts that allow them a space for identity negotiation, individuality as well as community.14 Hindus in India and elsewhere as well as Mormons in the US and elsewhere will continue to do this: negotiating their faith, including their temple-worthiness (this is a familiar concept in Hinduism as well as Mormonism), and their positionality at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression and privilege, including belief systems. Religious traditions are dynamic and fluid, despite efforts toward enshrinement and social embeddedness—forever balancing issues of fixity/change, purity/pollution, and structure/agency. Current global trends toward secularization demonstrate that oppression and suppression as tactics cannot work too well or for too long for religious traditions that also have expansionist, interventionist, and revivalist fantasies.

Full Text

Published Version
Open DOI Link

Get access to 115M+ research papers

Discover from 40M+ Open access, 2M+ Pre-prints, 9.5M Topics and 32K+ Journals.

Sign Up Now! It's FREE

Talk to us

Join us for a 30 min session where you can share your feedback and ask us any queries you have

Schedule a call