Why Sabarimala controversy is religious issue, not women’s rights issue

Why Sabarimala controversy is religious issue, not women’s rights issue

Nithin Sridhar

The holy temple of Lord Ayyappa Swami in Sabarimala yet again finds itself in a controversy over its prohibition on the entry of adult women (between the age 10 and 50).

Hearing a petition filed by Young Lawyers' Association seeking entry for all women, the Supreme Court questioned the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the temple to explain the rationale behind the prohibition. Justice Dipak Misra has been quoted as asking: "Why can you not let a woman enter? On what basis are you prohibiting women entry…What is your logic?"

Though, the issue of entry into a temple is clearly a religious issue, lately there has been sustained attempts to give it a color of gender discrimination and make it an issue of women's rights.

The present petition, which was filed around ten years ago, was filed on the grounds that the prohibition on the entry of women in the temple amounts to gender discrimination. Last November, when some women launched #HappyToBleed campaign on social media to express outrage over comments of a representative of the Sabarimala temple about allowing women in the temple, it chose to make it an issue of sexism and menstruation taboo.

Commenting on these deliberate attempts by some activists to hijack the religious discourse around temple entry, Nagaraja Gundappa, a friend posted on his Facebook timeline thus: "The Shabarimala temple issue is now being discussed as a feminist issue. This is a religious issue and not a feminist one. It is because of a specific nature of the deity and the conditions that must be fulfilled to gain entry into that temple that Shabarimala temple bars entry to women. This being a matter of religious issue, how can Supreme Court be competent to decide religious matters? Age old traditions should not simply be tampered with."

Gundappa raises a few very valid questions like how can a secular institute like Supreme Court be competent enough to decide on religious matter? More importantly, a corollary to this question will be: How can a decision on religious issue be arrived at without taking religion itself into account? How valid will be such decisions? Can a decision on a religious issue be truly called justice, if it were to rely on modern narratives like feminism and exclude religious beliefs and underlying religious principles from consideration? How can any secular analysis of religious and Dharmic issues, which completely sidelines Dharmic doctrines, be accurate?

To better understand why the Sabarimala temple entry issue is a religious issue and not an issue of women's rights, let us explore why the entry of temple is barred for women of reproductive age.

Photo: www.swamyayyappa.in

There are hundreds of temples dedicated to Lord Ayyappa in Kerala. In some he is present in the form of a child and in some as old person. In many temples, he is present as a married person accompanied by his wives- Purna and Pushkala. But, in the temple of Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappa is in the form of 'naishtika brahmchari'- a form of eternal celibate.

This particular fact that the deity is a 'naishtika brahmachari' has been repeatedly cited as the central reason behind the prohibition of adult women from entering the temple. Thus, it becomes very vital to understand what exactly this implies.

To begin with, it is important to understand what a 'Murti' or idol means. A Murti, by definition, refers to a body or an object that can hold the energy and the essence of the particular manifestation of Brahman. Thus, an idol acts as a body of a particular Devata (deity) and it is the focal point of the manifestation of that particular aspect of energy at that location. This manifestation of energy in-turn assists the devotees to imbibe the essence of the Devata and slowly become one with the Devata.

Now, consider the temple of Sabarimala. It is inhabited by the essence and the energy of Lord Ayyappa. What is the essential feature of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala, which sets him apart from other temples? It is that he inhabits the temple in the aspect of 'eternal celibate'. That is, the temple is inhabited by the energy of Brahmacharya (sense-control and celibacy) and Vairagyam (dispassion).

To use the language of Vedanta, the energy of the temple is conductive to the path of Nivritti Marga (the path of renunciation) and is not conductive to the path of Pravritti Marga or Grihasta (the path of the family). This is further corroborated by the stipulation of very hard austere practices that those who wish to visit Sabarimala must undergo for 41 days. These practices aim to induce Brahmacharya and Vairagyam.

Photo: www.padhaaro.com

Women are in many senses unique and different than men. Women alone have the capacity and privilege to conceive and become mothers. Men can at best become fathers, but never mothers. They are not entitled for becoming mothers. In Hinduism, motherhood is considered the highest expression of love, of goodness, and an ideal in society. Salutation to mother always comes first, even before salutations to fathers and teachers. Thus, the ability to conceive, to give birth to a child is considered as the privilege, a swadharma– a personal duty of women, which only she is entitled to perform. This is not to suggest that women are to be treated as 'child bearing machines' as some orthodox people have come to do. Such a perception is horrible and demeaning to women. The point being made here is, biologically, women alone are equipped to become mothers. The entire biological process of menstruation occurs in women to make her capable of being a mother. Recognizing this, Hinduism has stipulated motherhood as both a privilege and a personal duty (Swadharma) of women. And this privilege, this Swadharma puts women at the center of family, center of 'Pravritti marga'.

The prohibition on the entry of women of reproductive age into the Sabarimala temple must be perceived in this context. The prohibition is placed not because women are considered inferior, but because the energy in the temple may interfere with the Swadharma of women.

According to Ayurveda, during menstruation the body removes excess energy and Doshas (Bio-energies- Vata, Pitta, Kapha) from the body. This removal of blood, which is the storehouse of the excess energy, is accomplished by Apana vayu-the elemental air or life force that governs downward movement. Ayurveda further says that all activities that interfere with this downward movement of Apana vayu must be avoided. The energies and Doshas that gets expelled from the body are both biological and subtle. This downward movement of Apana combined with removal of Doshas is at the root of calling the whole process 'Ashaucha'– unclean and unfit to practice spiritual practices as spiritual practices involve harnessing of energy, which interferes with Apana flow. This is also the reason for traditional practices like avoidance of going to temple, puja, etc. during menses.

Thus, if menstruating women were indeed allowed into Sabarimala temple, then there are high chances that the energy of the temple may interfere with the movement of their Apana Vayu and cause imbalance to the menstrual cycles in such women. This in-turn may cause obstruction to her ability to conceive, which is her privilege and Swadharma. Similarly, the energy, which is expelled by the woman's body during menses may also interfere with the energy and vibrations of the temple. This will in turn cause imbalance in the spiritual atmosphere of the temple.

To avoid this, the temple has prevented the entry of menstruating women from many centuries. Since, nobody can actually examine whether a particular woman is having her periods at any given time or not, the prohibition has been placed on all women between age of 10 and 50. Thus, as far as tradition is concerned, the prohibition serves two purposes: One, it prevents any imbalance from happening to the menstrual cycles of women, which may hamper their ability to become mothers. Second, it prevents any imbalance in the spiritual energy and atmosphere of the temple.

Hence, it is quite clear that there is no gender discrimination behind the prohibition rule of the Sabarimala temple. Instead, the temple tradition is clearly sensitive towards women's Swadharma and the prohibition shows how they do not want to hamper with their Swadharma. This again clearly fits with the larger Hindu vision expressed in Gita, wherein Lord Krishna asks every person to practice their Swadharma. Swadharma being both a privilege and a duty.

Photo: english.manoramaonline.com

Thus, the Sabarimala issue is clearly a religious issue. Any judgment or opinion, which is not based on the religious principles spoken above, will be doing great injustice to the sacred practices of India. Yet, one rarely finds any of these religious nuances spoken about in the media discourse on the issue. Instead, one report quotes one of the petitioners as saying: "It is a pity to say that the Lord can't keep his 'brahmcharya' if women entered the temple,"

The fact that the entire religious principles behind the practice is rejected by the petitioners by making a shallow statement depicts not only their ignorance of the religious principles, but also their unwillingness to be open minded enough to explore underlying religious principles. The Hindu conception of God is clearly that of God being infinite and without limitations. So, obviously, neither will the Lord of Sabarimala lose his celibacy, nor will he become offended if women enter the temple. The only thing that will happen is that the energy of that particular aspect of God, which is present in the temple, will be disturbed and diluted, and in the long run, the temple will become unfit for the dwelling of the Lord there! And the loss is entirely of the people and not the deity!

Of course, the entire religious principles can be easily brushed off as superstition and left-liberal-activist brigade often tends to do it. But then the very concept of God, Devata, Murti, etc. can be rejected as superstition. If, the whole religion is superstition for the activist brigade, what moral right do they even have in raising fingers at religious practices? Temples are first and foremost places of worship and they have been constructed to assist devotees worship God. And devotees, by definition, adhere to the principles of religion. So, the question is, if devotees have no problem with religious practices, then why should atheists and agnostics have an issue?

Thus, it is clear that the activist brigade is deliberately trying to make it an issue of women's rights and dilute or sideline the religious principles associated with the religious practice. It is now to be seen, whether the court will entertain these feminism arguments, or will it base its eventual judgment on the principles of religious traditions associated with Sabarimala temple.

Though, the court has shown its insensitivity towards Indian traditions in cases like its interim ban on Jallikattu, or its ban on Jain Sallekhana, all hope is not lost yet. The Supreme Court, had in the past, upheld Hindu traditions in many cases. Hopefully, the SC will base its judgment on the religious and tradition principles even in this issue.

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