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Sabarimala, abode of Lord Ayyappa: Of ‘equality’, the misinformation and what we stand to lose

The entry of women aged 10 to 50 was prohibited in the Sabarimala Temple. In 2006, a Public Interest Litigation was filed in Supreme Court against this religious ritual on the ground of gender discrimination by Indian Young Lawyer’s Association (President), Bhakti Pasrija Sethi (General Secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association), Laxmi Shastri, Prerna Kumari, Alka Sharma, and Sudha Pal.

At the time of long legal battle, three of the five petitioners — Prerna Kumari, Alka Sharma, and Sudha Pal—withdrew their objection. Prema explained that she was unaware of the cultural context of the ritual. In sum, the supporters of the Sabarimala Temple tradition could convince a majority of the individual petitioners.

On 30 September 2018, the Supreme Court ordered to open the Sabarimala Temple on the ground of equal rights of women for women of all ages. The sole woman judge in that five-judge bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, dissented to this decision. She said that the court has no jurisdiction on religious matters. Moreover, none of the petitioners hailed from the state of Kerala and is no way familiar with the cultural background.

Scores of Thousands of women in Kerala has come out open in the streets to protest against this judgement of the court in each and every urban agglomeration of Kerala. They demand the preservation of Hindu tradition. Do they all hail from the Upper Caste background. Never. The majority hails from so-called backward communities such as the scheduled tribes.

In the light of this protest, it is natural to ask if the prohibitions on the entry of women of reproductive age between 10 & 50 were discriminatory and an infringement of women’s rights, why have women across Kerala taken to streets to protest the removal of the prohibitions.

Sabarimala and Equality

The discourse of equality and egalitarianism was developed in the west as a response to inequalities promoted by the Abrahamic religious culture prevalent there. Being a western solution to a western problem, the equality discourse is fully rooted in Abrahamism, and thus, deriving key assumptions and principles from Abrahamic religious worldview. When implemented on the ground, equality discourse seeks to destroy diversity and promote sameness, and hence, will prove disastrous when applied to non-Abrahamic religious traditions like Hinduism, whose worldview is rooted in harmony, diversity, and spirituality.

In the case of Sabarimala, this translates into a unique temple having unique characteristics, with unique criteria for admittance of devotees. In Kerala itself, there are temples and festivals, where women alone participate and men are prohibited. Moreover, the deity Ayyappa or Dharmashasta has other temples at Kulathupuzha, Aryankavu, and Achankovil, where he exists as a child, as a married person with a wife and as an ascetic, respectively, and none of these temples have any kind of prohibitions for the entry of women. Further, even in Sabarimala, there is no prohibition on entry of women before menarche or after menopause.

In short, there is no gender-based discrimination in Sabarimala, and the application of equality discourse into the issue is quite frankly misleading.

Sabarimala and Menstruation

One of the confusion that is prevalent in the current discourse about Sabarimala is that the prohibition is placed upon the women due to menstruation. The confusion has arisen because, the prohibition is placed upon women between menarche and menopause, i.e. on women of reproductive age. While in all Hindu temples, it is generally expected of women do not enter the temples during their monthly period owing to considerations of they being in a heightened Rajasic condition during the time, the blanket prohibition on all women in reproductive age is not because of menstruation as such.

A temple is not merely a place of congregation for prayers as in the case of a church or a mosque. A temple built according to Agamic stipulations is an energy centre, where a deity has been invoked and established. In other words, a temple is an abode of the deity, wherein the deity lives, with the whole place being enlivened with the specific kind of energy associated with that deity.

In the case of Sabarimala, the deity Ayyapan is present in the form of Naishtika Brahmachari, the one who eternally practices Brahmacharya (or celibacy). According to the rules of Naishtika Brahmacharya, the one who practices it must not only maintain celibacy, but, must maintain absolute restraint over all his senses, and hence, it is prescribed for him to maintain non-contact with women, especially of reproductive age. Since, in Sabarimala, it is the deity, who is practising Naishtika Brahmachari, women of reproductive age are prohibited from entering the temple so as to not violate the vow of Brahmacharya taken by the deity.

Further, since, the energy of the temple is the energy that promotes Brahmacharya, and the repeated and prolonged visits by women of reproductive age can cause an imbalance in their reproductive biology, the restrictions on their entry has been placed.

In short, the prohibition of entry of women of reproductive age in Sabarimala has nothing to do with menstruation. It is a practice which has been stipulated owing to the unique nature of the deity and the energy present in the temple, and to ensure that the vow of Brahmacharya of the deity is not violated.

What is at stake

Hinduism is an ecosystem built upon diversity of spiritual practices, each catering to different groups of people having different temperaments and competencies. Sabarimala is one such unique spiritual tradition, which is now under threat by the forces that want to destroy diversity and promote homogeneity. If the wishes of the deity is not respected, if the traditions of the temples are violated, then we would forever lose this tradition and the access to the deity of Ayyapan in the form of Naishtika Brahmacharya. It will be a great loss to Hindu civilization, and more importantly to the male and female devotees of Ayyapa Swami.

Despite these protest by lakhs and lakhs of women devotees, the Communist Party opened the gate of the temple for women aged 10 to 50 and used force to gain entry.

The propaganda by the Mainstream media was that women devotees aspire to enter in Sabarimala and they are obstructed by the agitators. Exactly which women would like to enter Sabarimala. Take Reshma Nishanth (whose husband is a Marxist political worker) who suddenly became an Ayyappan devotee from being an atheist, after the SC ruling. Similar is the story about the others. Some want to open a condom shop in Sabarimala, some want to visit the temple while menstruating. They are coming from America, from Mumbai, only for entering the temple.

The devotees observe a 41-day observation on self-restraint before entering the temple such as not having onion, garlic or sex, walking on barefoot, sleeping on floor etc. Supreme Court ruled for entry of women aged 10 to 50, not relaxed the conditions of this self-restraint. This came only two weeks before the opening of the temple. Then, how did these so-called activist-cum-devotees observe this 41-day ritual?

The Role of Government

The role of government is to maintain law and order in society not to push people to agitation. The CPI(M) government of Kerala could have easily made the submission to the court to review the petition on account of considerable uneasiness in society. One octogenarian ascetic Guruswamy from Koilandy committed suicide to protest against this intrusion of Court in religious domain, On the other hand, Kerala Police beat up the protestors without provocation, left bleeding women on road after beating up, destroyed two-wheelers of devotees. The devotees are struggling to ensure the continuity of their own tradition.

The fight ended with Kerala Government accepting defeat to the Ayyappan devotees. The Kerala Police sent back the activists who were trying to force the entry with the police force. It is a victory, albeit a temporary one, by the Ayyappan devotees. The two activists who were sent back, include one Muslim (Rehana Fathima) and one Christian (Kavitha Jakkal). No comments are required on this.

We do not know how long will then devotees be able to continue their fight. When can we say empathetically that human beings are made to cater to constitutional morality, but the constitutional morality must take a cue from human understanding?

(The article was originally published on bangodesh.com)

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