Ayyappa’s devotees do not question the Sabarimala Temple traditions – Pratyasha Rath

Ayyappan

Pratyasha RathA temple is considered the house of a deity. It is his or her prerogative to decide who gets to enter, who gets to meet [him or her], 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. The argument of not being able to practice their religion does not stand. – Pratyasha Rath

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 devotee 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 [him or her], 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? – FirstPost, 24 July 2018

» Pratyasha Rath is a social and political researcher and management consultant in Chennai.

Men and women pilgrims at Sabarimala


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8 Responses

  1. Issues like these are raised for only one reason: to distort hinduism and prove it evil and retrograde. None of the petitioners were from Kerala and this was also mentioned during the court proceedings. The only women in the jury voted against the motion.
    There are a lot of temples where there are different rules. There are temples like Chakkulathukavu Temple where the male priests wash the feet of women devotees and the ritual is called “naari puja” or women worship. Just imagine the uproar feminists would have created if the genders were interchanged. The Bhagati Maa temple in Kanya Kumari, Kerala entertains only women. Men are prohibited there. Are men impure? Kamrup Kamakhya Temple in Assam permits only women to enter its premises during their menstrual cycle. Only female priests or sanyasis serve the temple where the menstrual cloth of Maa Sati is considered highly auspicious and is distributed to the devotees. There is a Lord Brahma temple at Pushkar in Rajasthan where married men are not allowed i.e. only unmarried men are allowed.
    If you are a practicing Hindu and believe in God than have some faith if not then why to visit a temple at all in the first place? It is not that it is a mandate to follow Hinduism. It is completely your choice and your decision. Above all Hinduism is the one and the only religion that preaches you to be a seeker rather than a believer. If the feminists and intellectuals would have followed Hinduism, they would have found the truth. Or is it that only when Hinduism talks about celibacy it is superstition and orthodox, otherwise it is fine and may even be considered cool. Although there are other temples of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala where women of all age groups are entertained, but the feminists want to visit only this one temple.

  2. 1.Statement 1: ‘consider the Attukal Bhagawathy temple where men are disallowed’ – Wrong. Men of all ages are allowed inside the temple. There is a tradition of offering nivedyam to the Devi as ‘pongala’. Usually women do this ceremony. But if any man wants to do it, they are allowed.
    2.Statement 2:’the deity himself has requested to not allow women of reproductive age to enter the temple’- Wrong. The formal ban on entry of women to Sabarimala came to practice by ’80s. There is evidence that young women used to visit the temple. The controversial entry of actress Jayamala for one instance. Also it was common that ‘choroonu’, a ceremony when a child will be given solid food for the first time be conducted in Sabarimala, inevitably in the presence of the mother. Hence the argument that this ban prevailed for centuries is quite wrong.
    3.Only decades ago a custom existed in Kerala where people belonging to the lower castes were not given entry to temple. The temple entry proclamation of 1936 changed that. Another custom was that women should not wear any clothes to cover their upper body. When the rulers of the respective era tried to bring about these reformations, they were also met with huge resistance. When we look back at these customs now, these sound totally ridiculous! Decades after, when our predec essors look back at us, we should not be yet another another lunatic asylum. In short, change is inevitable.

    • The Bhagawathy Temple aside, there are temples and temple festivals exclusively for women only, in Kerala, Karnataka, MP, UP, and Odisha.

      The Jayamala story has been shown to be greatly distorted or even untrue. She was only seeking notoriety.

      The tradition of women not visiting the temple has existed for ages, for the simple reason that women cannot maintain the 41 day penance before going to the temple.

      Yes, there have been occasions where women have been included in family rituals at the temple. But the exception does not prove the rule.

      Yes, temple traditions can be changed. But they must be changed by independant temple managements in consultation with devotees and religious authorities. Courts and government departments are not competent to make changes in Hindu religious practices. A very dangerous precedent has been set with this case.

      The petition to allow women to visit the temple was brought by a Muslim lawyer. This is not acceptable especially when he and his legal cohorts are not willing to challenge the men-only traditions of mosque entry. The petition should have be thrown out. Or better still, a Hindu lawyer should challenge the practice of banning Muslim women from mosques during prayers. Let us see how revolutionary and progressive our courts are here.

      Lastly, it must be pointed out again that women are not barred from Sabarimala. They are only being instructed to attend the Deity at an appropriate age and time, as per his own request. Is that too much to ask of a devotee?

      And how is it that only non-devotees are celebrating the court’s unholy order?

  3. THE PLACES OF WORSHIP (SPECIAL PROVISIONS) ACT, 1991

    4. Declaration as to the religious character of certain places of worship and bar of jurisdiction of courts, etc.—(1) It is hereby declared that the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.

    There was a time people had faith devotion and fear, now everything changed 90% of the general public just go to the temple for salvation of their worries and not salvation for re-birth. when the court did not bothered about uniform civil code, scrapping of religion based minorities, releasing the temples from govt control etc., why the hell they poke their nose to change the traditional practices against the above said law. We had the practice not to allow ladies during their period time into kitchen or near pooja room as admin pointed out. Even the Tulasi plant in the houses had close contact with the ladies during the period time that plant slowly decay.
    Cleanliness is Godliness

  4. THIS IS A BRILLIANTLY ARGUED ARTICLE. EVERYBODY READ IT CAREFULLY.

  5. The issue of menstruating women visiting temples is misunderstood because it is always wrongly referenced.

    A menstruating women is not in herself impure.

    However the blood and other material being expelled from her body is impure—otherwise why is it being expelled?—and for this reason she is isolated in traditional houses, not permitted to work or cook food, or visit a temple.

    The same rule applies to a man with a bleeding or suppurating wound. He is isolated, not permitted to work or cook food, or visit a temple.

    All bodily excretions are considered impure in a Hindu kitchen or temple. A person, man or woman, is not permitted to eat, smoke, spit, vomit, ejaculate, urinate, defecate, bleed, or die in a kitchen or temple premises—and especially within the deity’s sanctum where the strictest discipline of ritual purity is observed.

    This does not mean that a person, man or women, is in themselves impure. In fact they are “more pure” after the impurities have been expelled from the body!

    It is the impurities that are the problem, not the person who is producing the impurities. But while the process of expelling the impurities is taking place, how do you separate the two?

    • If we concede that menstrual blood is the problem (by the way, I’ve not seen wounded people turned away from temples), blanket rule of barring all women does not make sense. Traditionally, women stay away from temples during their periods. Why can’t they pray at Sabarimala when they are “clean”? I believe that God is not discriminatory. Unfortunately, most rules have been made by men in our patriarchal society. Some were definitely misogynistic. Moreover, Hinduism is a beautiful religion adapting to times. Do we want to resist change like some religions which stick to barbaric rules practised in the seventh century?

      • Because you have not seen a tradition applied, does not mean that it does not exist or that it is not observed by devotees.

        The bottom line is that the Deity has requested that women between ten and 50 years old not visit him. If you are really a devotee, how can you dismiss or ignore the Deity’s request.

        The persons behind the petition are not devotees of Ayyappan. What is their authority to change the traditions of the temple?

        How can a secular constitution be the standard against which a Deity’s request or temple tradition is measured?

        The court is not correct when it observes that all temples are public spaces. Many temples are owned and managed by private trusts. It is for the trustees to decided who can and cannot enter.

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