Sabarimala: Propaganda being packaged as Gender Equality

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A woman devotee at the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Kerala. Photo: PTI

There are several temples in India that celebrate a woman’s menstruation. Barring women, in the age bracket of 10 to 50 years, to enter Sabarimala Shrine was never about menstrual taboo or gender discrimination. Forcing these women into the temple is playing cheap politics in Kerala by spreading falsehoods.

India is closely watching what is happening in Kerala’s world famous Sabarimala Shrine, which is in the news from September 28, 2018 when Supreme Court permitted young women to enter the shrine.

There are umpteen queries regarding the practice of this unique temple which is being showcased as a centre of gender discrimination but to unearth the real facts one needs to delve a bit deeper into the facts. The strange theories of discrimination and differentiation being propagated have no place in this discourse. Kerala is a land of thousands of temples that follow their unique practices.  Any attempt to see these temples through the biased prism of ‘gender only’ can bring in catastrophic results.

Let’s first get to the facts and history.

The Sabarimala Temple is distinct in several aspects, such that the deity, Lord Ayyappa who is the son of Lord Shiva and Mohini (Vishnu) is a perpetual celibate. Moreover, the deity opted the wilderness and permitted the devotees to visit him once in a year, after observing the religious penance of 41 days. The (Mandala Vrat), the religious penance, brings in a drastic change in the diet of the devotee and further revamps the daily course of the devotee.

The devotee accepts mudra from a Guru and abstains from carnal pleasures, adheres to the religious practices strictly, the religious penance changes the course of life for 41 days, which is considered as a re-inventing period of Self. The penance and the Darshan (sight) of Lord Ayyappa are inseparable and the penance culminates with the Darshan (sight) of Lord. The custom has been continuing from time immemorial, the “Darshan” in Sabarimala is strictly based on the “Mandala Vrat” (religious penance) of 41 days.

It’s absolutely wrong to propagate that women are totally prohibited from entering the Sabarimala Shrine. As per the customs, the girl child below 10 years and women who are past the age of 50 have Darshan (sight) of Lord Ayyappa. This is because the Lord Ayyappa who is a perpetual celibate (Naishtik Brahmacharya) sees women only in two forms one as a child and the other as a mother. This custom has nothing to do with a woman’s menstruation or any discrimination arising out of it.

In fact, there are several temples which celebrate the menstrual cycle of Goddess in Kerala, such as the Chengannur Temple.

Out of Devotion to Lord Ayyappa, the women as such, never tried to forcibly enter the temple, rather waited for their turn, to visit the temple again after their childhood visit. This “long wait” has never been considered as a “forcible ban” which the women folk tried to break all these years, rather it came from their inner hearts, it was a self imposed restriction born out of supreme devotion to the Lord Ayyappa. The practice is not part of any discrimination rather a unique practice of a unique temple. There are several other temples which give preference to women over men, like the Attukal Temple. The famous Mannarasala Nagaraja Temple, appoints only a woman as its Chief Priest and no man can ascend to the said position. These practices are unique temple practices based on the localized custom and traditions, the issue of discrimination doesn’t arise at all.

The Supreme Court’s five-judge Bench on 28 September 2018, ruled in favour of the entry of women irrespective of their age in the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple. The Supreme Court struck down the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 which violated the right of Hindu women to practice religion, being un-Constitutional.

The State of Kerala and the Travancore Devaswom Board which is administering the shrine backed out from preferring a Review Petition before the Supreme Court. The State of Kerala had ignored the religious faith of the millions of Ayyappa Devotees and had submitted affidavits which suits their political ideology and compromised their duty to properly inform the Court. The discharging of duty to the Apex Court is of utmost important and it very much included the duty to inform about various unique practices prevailing in the same geographical area and the uniqueness of the temple rituals in Southern India.

The temples like Attukal Bhagwati temple has its place in the Guinness book of Records for the largest gathering of women devotees in the world for Pongal festival. It’s pertinent to mention that men are not allowed in this gathering for offering Pongal. If this gathering is viewed through the prism of gender, then the men should also be allowed and this would shatter a unique festival of women. No one ever demanded it because it’s a unique practice respected and revered from immemorial past. The preference given to women over men shall not be seen as putting men on a lower pedestal rather as a unique ritual. But the way things are going now, they sow the seeds of apprehension such that gender is being dragged everywhere and false notions of patriarchal chain is being brought in out of sheer ignorance.

In order to understand a society and its practices, it needs to be closely observed, and it has to be practically felt. Any superficial assumptions without deep understanding about a society may bring in terrible results.

When a matter is being considered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court especially in a Review, the administration should have exercised utmost caution rather than stir up the boiling pot. The devotees and various organizations have preferred Review Petitions before the Supreme Court and the same shall be considered on 22 January, 2019. Since the apex court has decided to hear the Review Petition it would have been a great service to the society had the government exercised restraint till the matter is decided by the Supreme Court. It should not have used State machinery to push atheist women into the temple ignoring the fervent pleas of Ayyappa Devotees to not do so. It’s easy to ignite a fire, but it’s a mammoth task to douse the flames. A little restraint would have served the goals of justice and the spirit of democracy.

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