Why the “right to pray” debate is stupid and lacks nuanced understanding of the issue

What is “right to pray”?

It is my inalienable, irrevocable right to go to a religious place (of any religion) and offer prayers as per my own choice, irrespective of my religion, caste, creed, sex, age or economic status. Also associated with this is my inalienable right to go to any place, natural or man-made, whether for my intellectual, educational or spiritual experience (as in right to pray) or just to study the architecture!

Fair, as per modern principles of equality which all governments and societies have a responsibility to uphold and promote.

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And when my liberty to go and pray comes in conflict with the customs of the place, who prevails? Sitting in the hallowed seminar halls of India International Centre, speaking before a crowd of distinguished liberals, the principles of liberty do, always. They are supposed to be modern, progressive concepts against the regressive, medieval ones of religious rituals.

No doubts on this, so far.

Shani Shingnapur temple: the center of the current storm
Shani Shingnapur temple: center of the current storm

Now, assume this:

I am sitting on a beach, attired only in my Bermuda, lying on a beach bench, sipping beer, watching the surf and also getting massaged at the same time.

And I spot a temple close to a beach and its architecture, the dome, the carvings visible from a distance, attract me. I decide to visit the temple, there and then. And in a few minutes, there I am at the door of the temple; attired in a Bermuda and reeking of alcohol.

Should I enter?

Wait. Let me add one twist in the scenario.

I have been living in Kolkata, been watching Durga Puja for many years and have seen many friends offering meat as prasad. Fortunately, meat is available near the beach.  I decide to buy the prasad for deity, which, for the sake of argument, is not Ma Durga.

There I am again, at the door of the temple again, attired in a Bermuda and reeking of alcohol, carrying a prasad of meat.

Should I enter the temple?

I am sure most of us would feel horrified at the thought. Why?

It is simple, actually.

If I only wanted to communicate to God, I could have done that, on the beach itself.

But, by choosing to use prayer as the mode of communication, I accept a ritual. By choosing to pray to a specific deity, in a specific way or method, I am following the custom as practiced by believers. By choosing to pray in that specific temple, I am following and accepting a set of  customs, this time linked to a place – a temple in this case – and I become bound by the customs followed there.

The customs are linked to the place, the deity, the ritual and not the action. When I enter a place that is not mine, the customs apply to me.

I can always debate with the people who impose those customs. I have a democratic right to question them and convince them to change their beliefs. But even to do that, I would need to get sober first, choose a place and platform suitable for this discussion, debate or as they say, indulge in vaad, vivaad and prativaad.

And suppose this debate happens at India International Centre, I can’t walk into it wearing only a Bermuda!

So, the issue is not “Right to Pray” but to violate the tradition or custom of the place where I chose to pray.

If I believe that my communication with God can happen only when praying in a temple, in a specific temple, then I am accepting the custom of praying at the temple and I am subjugating the inalienability of my rights to the custom of the place.

If I believe that in order to communicate with God, I don’t need a temple or a church, then my right to pray is not affected by any custom, imposed by any institution, trust and does not need protection by society or government.

If I do not believe in God but still want to visit a religious place then the religious place becomes the private property of the believers of the faith, and I have to follow the customs imposed by them.

Simple, isn’t it?

PS: After shifting to Mumbai, whenever visiting neighbours, they normally ask me to remove my shoes outside the door. I find this against my inalienable, irrevocable right to wear what I want, where I want. How and where to file a PIL against this?


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