Trupti Desai's bid to enter Sabarimala a grave provocation: Activist poses challenge to basic tenets of faith

Activist Trupti Desai has added more spark to the Sabarimala powder keg. The Bhumata Brigade chief’s decision to visit the shrine of Lord Ayyappa is a needless provocation that may make an already precarious situation more volatile. In choosing to exercise her "right to pray", Desai is not just interloping into the arena of deeply held religious beliefs and practices, she is subjecting faith to the test of social activism. This cannot have a happy ending.

She is also setting a dangerous precedent in a country of great religious diversity where vast differences in customs exist even within the broader canvas of different religions. This is especially true of a polytheistic religion such as Hinduism which has many gods, numerous sects and even greater number of sub-sects. Each has its own rituals and practices. Each Hindu household has its own ‘kuladevata’ (family deity) and own set of rituals for worship. This, in a nutshell, is true pluralism that does not rely on a sacred set of codes or written word. This pluralism is upheld by an internal consensus that is not theoretical but part of a lived experience.

Desai’s activism, based on the abstract notions of ‘right to pray’ and gender equality in religion, endangers this delicate fabric by militating against the core belief of a particular set of devotees who swear by the name of Lord Ayyappa and is desperate to save their religious identity.

Activist Trupti Desai at the Cochin International Airport. Image sources by TK Devasia

Activist Trupti Desai at the Cochin International Airport. Image sources by TK Devasia

For this, the Supreme Court must share a major part of the blame. It is precisely this possibility that Justice Indu Malhotra had foreseen in her prescient dissenting opinion where she wrote: "Permitting PILs in religious matters would open the floodgates to interlopers to question religious beliefs and practises, even if the petitioner is not a believer of a particular religion, or a worshipper of a particular shrine. The perils are even graver for religious minorities if such petitions are entertained."

It may seem quaint to Desai to rain on the age-old beliefs and traditions of Ayyappa devotees who hold the rituals associated with the ‘naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate) incarnation of Lord Ayyappa sacred in their hearts. Female devotees of Lord Ayyappa are ‘ready to wait’ not because they have been held at the gunpoint of oppressive patriarchy. They are ‘ready to wait’ not because they have “internalised” male-dominated traditions. They choose to do so because they do not want to alter the deity’s “core belief”. In his state of ‘eternal celibacy’, Lord Ayyappa wishes to be spared the presence of women of a menstruating age. True devotees respect this “core belief” and are ready to comply with the deity’s wishes.

Those who are not ready to do so can visit numerous other temples in Kerala, many of Lord Ayyappa himself where he is not in a state of eternal celibacy and therefore there is no age-related restriction on women to visit the shrine. Among the countless Hindu deities, there is only one deity in one temple with rituals unique to his incarnation as an “eternal celibate”, and gender equality warriors have made violation of that unique tradition the high point of their activism.

As argued in a Firstpost article, "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."

Desai’s activism is one step ahead of judicial activism. The Supreme Court’s 4:1 judgement allowing women of all ages to visit the shrine is aimed at making it possible for female devotees to pray at the shrine even if they do not recognise and respect Lord Ayyappa's wish. This was already a case of judiciary installing itself as an intermediary between a deity and its followers. What Desai has done is taken it to the next logical step.

Ayyappa devotees who pray at the shrine (including females over 50 years of age) undertake a harsh 41-day vow of abstinence from sex, non-vegetarian food, alcohol and refrain from cutting body hair. As this report from The Indian Express points out, for a "pilgrim to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, he/she has to carry the ‘irumudi’ (sacred offerings) from home… Only those who carry the ‘irumudikettu’ are allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps. Other pilgrims and officials reach the main temple through a different entry."

It is unclear whether Desai, who claims to be a devotee and has said she won’t return to Pune without the darshan of Ayyappa, has kept the ‘vratham’ (vow), undergone the rigorous regimen and is carrying the ‘holy bundle’? Does she think the Supreme Court verdict allows her to break all traditions, even those that are associated with worship?

Desai, who landed at the Cochin International Airport on Friday, has been holed up in the airport due to ‘nama japa’ protests. No cab drivers (including app cabs) are ready to ply her from the airport to the hotel. Police have said that they will provide security but only if Desai arranges for her own car. Protesters lay on the road asking the police to take her over their bodies as tension gripped the area.

Desai’s case is not the genuine grievance of a female devotee who wants to pray at the shrine but is prevented from doing so. Her activism is a direct challenge to the basic tenets of a faith, and actions such as hers are altering the pluralistic nature of Hinduism that is built on tolerance and consensus and pushing it towards getting Abrahamic characteristics. Desai possibly doesn’t even grasp the repercussions of her immature conduct. She is playing with fire.

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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2018 16:56:43 IST

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