Women of all ages allowed entry to Sabarimala temple: Why I disagree with the Supreme Court verdict

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 7 November, 2016. It is being updated and republished in light of Friday's 4:1 majority judgment by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court that ruled that women of all ages should be allowed to enter Kerala's Sabarimala temple.

Women, regardless of their age, should be allowed to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday. That settles a long legal debate and Sabarimala will now follow the footsteps of a few other religious entities where courts have overruled religion. In Kerala,the Left's stand on the issue was consistent since 2007.

Back then, the CPM-led LDF government had said that all women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala. When the Congress-party led UDF came to power, it argued otherwise and logically, the view was reversed when the regime changed.

Now, let’s examine this issue a bit closer.

Sabarimala. Reuters

File image of Sabarimala temple devotees. Reuters

The fundamental question on the Sabarimala issue is this: Should the judiciary or the government be indulging in a matter that is predominantly a matter of faith and tradition?

In my view, they shouldn’t. Why? Sabarimala was never a case of caste or colour-based oppression or ostracising of any particular community. There was no social injustice against which to fight. It is also not an institution that has upheld any social evil like Sati or child marriage. Behind the reason why for centuries the temple has not encouraged women in the age group of 10-50, to enter its walls lies an age-old faith that has been the cornerstone of the very existence of this hill-temple.

Sabarimala is built on a story. A story that has linkages with faith that said that the main deity of the temple, Lord Ayyappa, is a brahmachari (a celibate god) and the presence of women of the menstruating age group is a hindrance to his meditation. Women outside this age group can enter the temple and that has been always so.

And there is more to this story. A female deity in the temple called 'Malikappuram Devi', is given place within the temple and as per the centuries-old belief, Lord Ayyappa will marry Malikappuram Devi the year in which there are no 'kanni' ayyappans (first-time visitors to the temple). But, such a scenario doesn't happen in reality since every year there are thousands of new devotees thronging Sabarimala.

Although the story of Lord Ayyappan and the associated faith may sound silly to the proponents of gender equality and social reform, the fact is that the very existence of the hill-temple and its relevance is based on this. Sabarimala wasn’t created by an Act of the Kerala state Assembly, Parliament or by an order of court, but on faith. Now, if that faith is not respected, there isn't Sabarimala as it exists today.

There is no end to the debate on whether law of the land should dictate institutions of religion. But, it’s better to leave matter of faith to the people who have faith. The Supreme Court can, of course, pass an order based on the state government’s recommendation and let the Sabarimala temple open to all women, but that would ridicule the very faith of people for whom the centre of worship matters.

Of course, the sky wouldn’t fall or the world will end if women enter Sabarimala. But, Sabarimala will then become another tourist-pilgrim centre like many other places, where faith may not have much importance.

In fact, Sabarimala has been one of the most liberal institutions of worship in the country. It doesn’t differentiate between people of various religions. Anyone can enter. There is also no differentiation between people belonging to upper and lower castes. Even the restriction on women has not been necessarily seen as an act of oppression but the willingness of female devotees to respect a faith.

Also the debate on whether law of the land should dictate institutions of religion persists. But, wouldn't it have been better if the Supreme Court had left the matter of faith to the people who have faith. The Supreme Court can, of course, pass an order based on the state government’s recommendation and open the Sabarimala temple to all women, which is what happened on Friday, but isn't that ridiculing the very faith of people for whom the centre of worship matters most?

Of course, now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of women's entry, the sky won't fall and the world won't end if women enter Sabarimala.

Sabarimala can then become another tourist-pilgrim centre/site like many other places and of course, the place can then transform to another case study for gender equality and civil rights. But where does that leaves the idea of faith?

Wasn't Sabarimala one of the most liberal religious institutions of worship in the country already? It never differentiated between people of different religions. There is also no differentiation between people belonging to upper and lower castes. Even the restriction on women has not been necessarily seen as an act of oppression but the willingness and respect of women devotees to the faith.

There is no resolution either to the question pertaining to what extent the government and judiciary should intervene in matters of faith, unless there is an angle involving social injustice, oppression or denial or natural justice.

A few years ago, a Bihar court had heard a case against Lord Rama on the alleged cruelty towards his wife Sita. The petitioner wondered how in the world a man, a king, known to be just and merciful could be unjust to his own wife that too based on hearsay (there wasn't any proof of Sita's alleged infidelity when she was sent on vanvaas). But, finally when the judge heard the case, the case was dismissed on account of the absence of eyewitnesses and the confusion surrounding who should be punished even if Rama was found guilty.

This is precisely what happens when the judiciary bids to weigh in on an issue of faith using tools of modern day justice. This incident is narrated here only as a context to the Sabarimala case.Now that the court has let women enter Sabarimala — and this will be, most likely, celebrated a victory by feminist groups and equal-right activists after Shani Shingnapur and Haji Ali, what's next? There is no end to things one can ask for in all religions if faith is ignored and law steers the act of devotion.

The pope can no longer insist then that women can’t be Roman catholic priests like he did a few months ago or the Muslim community cannot insist that women aren’t allowed in mosques.

A majority of Kerala temples don’t allow non-Hindus to enter — again a matter of faith. All these centuries old practices can be and will be challenged one by one. There isn’t any end to this.

Besides hurting those people who keep a certain faith and respect to their age-old practices, the judiciary's encroachment on matters of faith won't help raise the status of women in society. A ban on women in Sabarimala was no social evil, but a matter of faith. The Supreme Court should have left the faith to the believers.


Updated Date: Sep 29, 2018 15:05 PM

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