Why women are barred from Sabarimala – M. A. Deviah

M. A. Deviah“The irony is that the people who have taken this issue [about women being barred from Sabarimala] to the Supreme Court probably do not believe in the backstory. If they did, they wouldn’t challenge it. Even if the court lifted restrictions, women who believe in the Deity will not be queuing up to go. This is, ultimately, all about faith. How a learned judge will pass judgment will be interesting.” – M. A. Deviah

Swami Ayyappan: The son of Shiva and Vishnu!The petition by the Young Lawyers’ Association asking the Supreme Court to lift restrictions on women from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala could open a can of worms. Sabarimala isn’t the only place of worship that has restrictions on women entering. Mosques, temples, and other places of worship fully or partially ban women, non-adherents, foreigners, the improperly dressed, the list goes on. The court can be expected to do its duty by the Constitution, but will this open a door to a flood of similar litigation?

I have been going to the temple at Sabarimala for over 25 years and one question that people ask me often is “Who placed the restrictions on women entering the temple?” And the short answer is, Ayyappa himself! According to legend, Ayyappa is celibate so that he can focus on answering the prayers of his devotees. And he will remain celibate till the day kanni swamis (first-time devotees) stop coming to Sabarimala.

Sabarimala is one of the few temples in India that welcomes men and women of every caste. Devotees dress uniformly in black. The colour signifies a renunciation of all worldly pleasures, but it also means that everyone is equal before Ayyappa, irrespective of caste. In fact, the hierarchy among devotees is based on how many times they have made the pilgrimage and not on caste. Pilgrims live an ascetic life for 40 days before undertaking the journey to Sabarimala. During that time, they pray in groups. A Dalit can lead the prayers and a Brahmin in the group must still touch his feet. You won’t see this anywhere else.

Ayyappan is a historical figure. He was the prince of Panthalam, a small kingdom located in the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. The palace that he grew up in still exists and you can visit it. One of Ayyappa’s most loyal subjects was Vavar (Malayalam for Babar), an Arab commander, whom he defeated in battle. Vavar is today installed, not as an idol but in spirit, at a mosque in Erumely. He protects pilgrims who make the difficult 40-km trek through the jungles to the main temple at the top of the hill. Muslims too make the journey to the mosque at Erumely and the Vavar shrine, which faces the temple on the hill-top.

Apart from the historical Ayyappa, there is a puranic legend associated with him, which says he is the son of Vishnu and Shiva. This is believed to be a union of forces, not the result of an actual physical Harihararelationship. It means he has traits of both gods and that’s what makes him a particularly potent deity in the eyes of his devotees. Any way you look at it, Sabarimala is the epitome of inclusiveness. It’s one of the few, if not only temple, that openly welcomes people of all faiths and castes. So, why restrict women?

For the answer, we need to go back to the legend. According to the puranas, Ayyappa was born to destroy a female demon who, thanks to a boon, could only be vanquished by a child born of both Shiva and Vishnu. When Ayyappa fulfils his destiny by killing her, a beautiful woman emerges from the body. She had been cursed to live as a demon, but her killing reversed the curse. Now free, she asks Ayyappa to marry her. He refuses, explaining to her that his mission is to go to Sabarimala where he would answer the prayers of his devotees. However, he assures her, he will marry her when kanni swamis stop coming to Sabarimala. She now sits and waits for him at a neighbouring shrine near the main temple and is worshipped as Malikapurathamma. With hundreds of thousands of new devotees pouring in every year, hers will be a long wait.

And that is why women do not go to Sabarimala. It is partly out of empathy for Malikapurathamma and her eternal wait and it’s also out of respect for Ayyappa’s commitment to answer the prayers of his devotees. Since he is celibate, he should not be distracted. For hundreds of years, devotees had bought into this story. It has nothing to do with menstruation or being unclean. Anyone who goes to Sabarimala knows that.

The irony is that the people who have taken this issue to the Supreme Court probably do not believe in the backstory. If they did, they wouldn’t challenge it. Even if the court lifted restrictions, women who believe in the Deity will not be queuing up to go. This is, ultimately, all about faith. How a learned judge will pass judgment will be interesting. And what impact it will have on other places of worship, of any religion, will be even more interesting. – Firstpost, 15 January 2016

» M. A. Deviah is a Bangalore-based consultant to a multi-lateral development bank and professional social media practitioner.

Pilgrims wait to climb the 18 steps at Sabarimala

9 Responses

  1. Irrespective of any logic behind the story for not allowing women, Hindu temples have every right to bar anybody from entering. It’s high time that we start freeing temples from the clutches of the govt. Supreme court has no right whatsoever to interfere into the faiths of any religious institution. It is the same supreme court which banned Jallikkattu and it’s a pity that all such things are happening only to Hindus. As a devout Hindu my blood is boiling with agony. Despite being a majority we are unable to do anything in this country to protect ourselves. Unless we wake up such idiocracies are going to continue. I’m surprised that the BJP is so silent on this issue.

  2. Hinduism-which encompasses various faiths within the geographical boundaries of approximately the present India-has been undergoing several and severe reforms within itself and by its own self; right from MahaVeera, Budhdha, AdiSankaracharya, Ramanuja, Madvacharya and so forth, several ” Mystic ” people have narrated their experiences into it; In fact, it is too rich and can not be enslaved into the small word “RELIGION”, as used in the present days ! The fundamentalism, the reforms, the neo fundamentalism, the neo reforms have been cycling now and then; whether this is because of the people-their genes-or because of its own…ism is unclear; Ever since the Western type of Governance and the Industrial Revolution and the present days “COMMUNICATION”, this …ism is put to severe test for survival! There are not enough and gifted Hindus to prove-either by arguments or by experimentation- the rightness of most of the beliefs and actions in this …ism; many of the Hindus are too willing to forego the valuables in this ..ism for the sake of money and other comforts; this ..ism has been stressing on sacrificing these and has been offering some thing far far superior to that “SOUL”, without this earthly body;but, people, particularly in the present days, are impatient and want every thing to be available from the factories, the establishments like shopping malls, Universities, research institutions, offices etc.with their moneys!! No Government, No Court, No group of Individuals, no Scientist is competent to apply the “PRESENT DAY LAWS” and pass any Judgement, unless and until they have fully experienced this …ism!! It is wiser to modify the “PRESENT DAY LAWS” and not enter this …ism!!

  3. Religions are created on faith and belief.Logic and constitution of any country has got a say in it. COI can not uphold the rights of any woman in a Hindu worshiping place ONLY.The judgement should cover the rights of women in all worshiping places of all religions.

  4. Thanks for this post. I would like to add a few points for the eminent author and other readers to ponder upon.

    As far as I have been able to understand, courts decide upon violation or interpretation of laws, enacted by the governments, to ensure that no one is discriminated against. And for this purpose, learned lawyers express and assert their point of view, and eminent judges through their great knowledge of law and expertise in impartial reckoning, not swayed by any exterior considerations, declare a certain view as just and in accordance with the provisions of law.

    Now, in respect of “Sabrimala Temple” issue, and various other issues relating to religious traditions and practices, as enshrined in various scriptures (Right or wrong is not material) are subject matter of discussion and adjudication of those eminent seers, saints and teachers who have studied the various scriptures in depth. They alone know the nuances contained in the Mantras and Shlokas. They can discuss the intricacies, because they have spent a whole life time deciphering them. How can a judge, sitting in a court, who has spent a life time studying laws enacted by the governments, or a lawyer who has tried to express his interpretation of these laws, understand the intrinsic wisdom and meaning of these matters. So, do the courts possess any extra sensory perceptions, that they can adjudicate upon the issues which they are never adept in! How can some one, who has no knowledge of the internal, deep meaning of scriptures adjudicate upon their wisdom. And under these circumstances, how can the decisions of the courts be construed as impartial, empirical and based on facts, rather than subjective, biased interpretations. As far I have been able to understand, these decisions are just subjective declamations of individual persons, who are simply like other citizens, with no special knowledge in this religious matter. And mind you, the moment a judge becomes just another common man, with no extra knowledge, wisdom or vision, the decision cannot be deemed to be conveying justice.

    My second point is, that anyone who is a Hindu, is a Hindu only as long as he ascribes to the wisdom, teachings and prescriptions of Hindu scriptures, because that is where the essence of Hinduism is. Any one who does not believe in the doctrines envisaged in the scriptures, specially Vedas, cannot be deemed to be a Hindu by practice, he may be so by birth, but by abjuring the tenets and age old traditions of the religion, he ceases to remain a Hindu, he becomes an atheist. Because, what is Hinduism after all. The essence of Hinduism is the ocean of knowledge contained in Scriptures, Vedas and age old traditions. If you do not believe in them, how can you call yourself a Hindu. It is like, if you do not believe and honor the constitution of India, how can you claim to be a citizen of India. Thus, his or her desire of worshiping have to be in accordance with the tenets and principles laid down in scriptures. If you are unwilling to follow them, you need not even worship there, because worshiping in accordance with your personal whims is not what religion says. Yes it allows you to undertake your Puja as per your liking in seclusion, but in Temples and shrines, the code of worship has to be unerringly and relentlessly followed. So, why at all do you want to worship there? Because you believe in the deity at that temple. And if you believe in the deity as God, you should also honor the traditions and instructions of the scriptures that are believed to contain the teachings and instructions of deity and God himself. And what makes that deity into a God, it is the religion, the Dharma. And that very dharma instructs you certain rules and regulations. However, if you feel that there is something wrong with the interpretation of these tenets, principles laid down in scriptures and long held sacred traditions, you have every right to resent and request for reconsideration, but who would adjudicate upon, who would decide about the meaning of scriptures or religious traditions, a judge who has never himself read them, or a seer, a saint, a teacher well read in scriptures, who can. Taboo, Dogma, Superstition should be addressed, but who can do it. It is the Society at large, who should come together and decide.

    Hindu religion is marked with Shastrarthas, since time immemorial. Let intellectuals, well versed in scriptures come together and decide, this is not a topic where courts should try to intervene.

    And one thing more I would like to say. Today, anybody, who has not read the Vedas, comes up with a single shloka or mantra and arrogates to himself the complete knowledge of Vedas. That is the essence of TV debates these days. Every body pretends to be a compendium of all religious wisdom, though in essence not knowing anything beyond a very few mantras. You spend a whole life studying various fields, then you come to acquire specialized knowledge in your fields, just think, how much time have you devoted to study of your Dharma – the Vedas, the Scriptures. How much have you meditated upon the deep knowledge contained in these great compendiums of wisdom. First study, meditate, and then come to lecture people on TV. Hindu Dharma is much beyond your breeches to comprehend. People have spent life times for deciphering the ingrained knowledge. Stop making ostentatious claims of being an all knowing intellectuals.

  5. Women not permitted at Sabarimala — Dr T. H. Chowdary, Secunderabad — Hindu Voice E-Bulletin — 10-16 January 2016

    A two-Judge bench of the Supreme Court observed that a prohibition against women entering the Sabarimala temple is unconstitutional . This maybe based on the fundamental rights which should not make a distinction between men and women. However for Muslims four wives at a time are admissible; they could be divorced by pronouncing talaaq three times in quick succession and for adultery to be proved four eye witnesses are required. When this discrimination for Muslims is admissible as part of their personal law and Supreme Court has not pronounced on this discrimination, it would be a discrimination against Hindus by the Supreme Court to rule about rights in Constitution only in respect of Hindus.

    A dress code for Hindu devotees in the temples in Tamil Nadu is under discussion. In the mosques firstly women are not allowed to pray along with men and also all sorts of dress cannot be worn by those who pray in a mosque. The mosques are free and so are the churches to prescribe a decent dress. It should be left to the trustees of the Hindu temples to require or not required a dress code for devotees to enter the temples. The TTD in Tirumala already has a dress code. Court inference in these matters is unwarranted.

    • Yes, will the clever young sophists at the Young Lawyers’ Association and the courts pay attention to the gross social inequalities and caste prejudices practiced in mosques and churches?

      Muslims and Christians are also Indian citizens and subject to the principles contained in the Indian Constitution.

      Why are only Hindu institutions, specifically temples, rituals and traditional practices, interfered with by the courts and the government? The state government even has a official department to conduct the unconstitutional interference in Hindu temples called the HR&CE Department!

  6. Understood but just see that some representation of women is made ( who give voluntary abstention as the argument)in the Supreme Court,if the case is heard there.Laudable that dalits are permitted to lead the prayers too.This must be mentioned in the arguments before the Honorable Judge/s.Make some more progressive rules so that no one feels left out so the missionaries/marxists/seculars/foreigners don’t feel the need to needle the Devasthanam and Indian Govt.

    A personal opinion-I still feel that one must forget the legend which is just a story and let every person irrespective of gender and caste to enter if he or she desires.This way we appear better poised to take on the other religions and shut their mouths.But then the Devasthanam and devotees should decide this,of course.This is only a suggestion so that the approach looks very progressive.Thanks for an excellent article.

  7. Of course, there are temples where men are not allowed to enter too. Should a second petition for “men’s rights” be submitted to the Court to counter the first petition?

    If the judges have any humility—and that is always a matter of doubt—they will admit that they are not competent to decide the matter and throw the petition out.

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