Sabarimala temple: Only women of a certain age aren't allowed inside, devotees should not question tradition
Religion goes beyond just a relationship with Gods and is also a binding factor in how that relationship structures a people and a civilization.
Religion is not just a spiritual pursuit but a critical part of the societal organisation. Religion and rituals bind communities, give them an identity that precedes them and will survive long after they are gone. Therefore, there are adequate reasons to justify that religion goes beyond just a relationship with Gods but is also a binding factor in how that relationship structures a people and a civilisation.
So, there are two bonds here. The first is with the Gods, and the second within the society, with fellow believers. The latter though is not just structured by a common faith but also by multiple other ascribed and attained identities, like gender, caste and economic status. These changing social relations may impinge on the bond with God which, in turn, alienates people. In such a scenario, the commonly held identity is eroded and the civilisational bond weakens. That’s why religion must also remain relevant to changing social structures and relationships. It needs reform from within.
Hinduism being a living religion has never shied away from reform. From addressing issues of caste-based discrimination, which is as yet an unfinished project, to speaking strongly against rituals that endanger human life and dignity, it has churned through centuries, assimilated, evolved remained relevant, and continues to change.
The civilisational bond nurtured by the Hindu faith therefore persists and gets strengthened. The call for reform from within through a churning is not new, nor is it undesirable. However, the reforms must be implemented within the ambit of the Constitution with a few conditions.
When it comes to reform of Hindu religion, it should be central to the grievances of Hindus and the Hindu community should be at the forefront of discussions. For instance, the entry of non-Hindus into temples is not a call for reform. But, entry of Hindus who are wheelchair bound, or who have been discriminated because of their caste, should certainly be a topic for discussion.
The second condition is that the relevance of religious practices cannot be adjudicated by the government or the judiciary unless it impinges on the fundamental rights of a citizen. This legitimacy is drawn from the Indian Constitution.
In this context, let us examine the Right to Pray controversy surrounding the Sabarimala temple. The argument is that denial of temple access to women in menstruating age infringes on the fundamental rights of Hindu women to ‘practise their religion’ freely. I have highlighted ‘practise their religion’ because quite clearly there is no fundamental right to pray.
However, it does seem like a genuine grievance. A Hindu woman wants to pray to her beloved deity and is being restricted from doing so. This is certainly an issue worth debating internally and could also be justified as an impediment to freedom of women to practise their faith. So, the case landing up in court could also be justified.
The second issue is the alleged taboo around menstruation. Some arguments suggest menstruating women should not enter the temple because they may “pollute” the confines. This is unacceptable because there is nothing “unclean” or “impure” about a menstruating woman. This is discriminatory against women and a case should be made against it.
That is one side of the engagement.
On the other hand, we need to understand what ‘practising a religion’ essentially means. This side of the argument holds that reigning deity Shri Ayappan in Sabarimala is a naisthika Bramhachari i.e., a “celibate male deity”. It is, therefore, the desire of the deity to be spared the presence of women of a certain age group. It also means that women below and above that age-group are free to enter the temple. This has nothing to do with menstrual taboos but with the nature of the deity. It should also be noted that there are four major Ayappan temples and each of these temples has the deity in one life stage, Balaka (childhood), Kumara (youth), Bharyasameta (with consort) and Tapasya (ascetic). Clearly, only in one Ayappan temple where the deity is represented as a celibate youth that women of a certain age are disallowed from entering.
Let us break this down. As a believer, one may choose to worship a deity whose celibate nature and certain restrictions to female devotees is common knowledge. In the pantheon of Hindu deities, there is one deity like this and he has his unique rituals and principles which those who follow him, live by. One may choose to believe him yet have no faith in the essence which drives the cult around him.
You are a devotee, but you want to alter the deity’s ‘core belief’. It begs the question: are you really a devotee if the deity and the story around him make no sense to you? If a devout has concerns with the fundamentals of the deity and the temple, this incarnation might not be the one to repose faith in. In such a situation, they could either visit the other Ayappan temples where the deity resides in other life stages. Or else there are hundreds of other Hindu gods and hundreds of other temples who could be followed without restrictions.
A temple is considered the house of a deity. It is his or her prerogative to decide who gets to enter, who gets to meet and under what condition. The story of the deity is at the core of the belief system and that is the only argument that could stand scrutiny here. The argument of not being able to practice their religion does not stand here because of the following reasons.
One, women of a certain age group are allowed into the Sabarimala temple. There is no blanket ban.
Two, the same deity is worshipped in other temples at different life stages and in these temples, women are allowed.
Three, there are hundreds of other gods and goddesses where such rules don’t apply. There is no restriction in praying to them.
‘Right to Pray’ comes with the precondition of faith and if there is no faith in the deity, then ‘right to pray’ is fallacious and insincere. The relationship of practising Hindus with their deities cannot be seen through a monotheistic lens. The many gods come with their many stories, many customs and many practices. Like monotheism, there cannot be one common template to worship.
Consider the Attukal Bhagavathy temple where men are disallowed. Or the Kanyakumari temple where the Devi is a celibate female and hence men have no right of entry. Or the Maa Panchubarahi temple in Odisha which is open to only married Dalit women. These temples have their own histories based on complex epithets attached to the deities. This is the diversity that perhaps cannot be understood if one sees it through the lens of one religion, one book, one place of worship, one template of piety.
The courts today sit in judgment of how the legend and the customs of the deity are to be interpreted so that some women who do not believe in the essence of Ayappan can worship him. Is this case going to be interpreted as one of ‘gender equality’ or one of ‘religious freedom’?
Is this a genuine case of ‘lack of inclusion’ and ‘blatant discrimination of women’ where reform is needed or is this a cookie-cutter approach of outraging against diverse customs and practises under the umbrella of Sanatan Dharma?
In the religion of subaltern deities, of living gods who are treated as family, of unique rites and rituals, can the diversity of tradition and customs be compromised for ‘inclusion’? Can one temple dedicated to the celibacy of the deity be a test case for inclusion of women and gender-based equality? And finally, based on all these questions comes the big question, how much ground should faith cede to accommodate social churning, and can such reform sustain a civilisation?
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