Krasti Singh Chauhan
Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple issue is about the conflict between women rights and tradition. According to age-old traditions and customs, women from ten to fifty years of age were not permitted into Sabarimala Temple. However, the situation has changed when the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court on September 28, 2018 declared that restricting entry of women of menstruating age was unconstitutional. Thus the SC allowed women, irrespective of their age, to enter Sabarimala Temple.
History of Sabarimala:
Sabarimala is an ancient temple. It was mostly unreachable for about three centuries after its installation. In the 12th century, a prince of Pandalam Dynasty, Manikandan, rediscovered the original path to reach Sabarimala. This prince is considered an Avatar of Ayyappa. It is believed that he mediated at Sabarimala temple and became one with the divine as Ayyappan.
The pilgrims of Sabarimala have to reach the temple through difficult treks in the forest as the vehicles cannot reach there. The pilgrims have to observe celibacy for 41 days before going to Sabarimala. They are also required to strictly follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, refrain from alcohol, not use any profanity and allow the hair and nails to grow without cutting. They are expected to bath twice in a day and visit the local temples regularly. They wear black or blue clothes, do not shave until the completion of the pilgrimage, and smear vibhuti or sandal paste on their forehead.
Reason behind women’s ban in the temple-
Every god in the vast Hindu pantheon has his or her own personality, complete with a unique legend, and Lord Ayappa is no different. According to the temple’s mythology, Lord Ayyappa is an avowed bachelor who has taken an oath of celibacy. There are several stories about why this is the case.
According to one legend, Ayappa was born out of a union between two male gods which gave him the ability to defeat a she-demon who had been unstoppable until then. Upon defeating her, it was revealed that she was really a young woman who had been cursed to live the life of a demon. She fell in love with him and asked him to marry her, but he refused, saying he was destined to go into the forest and answer the prayers of his devotees. She persisted, so he said he would marry her the day new devotees stopped coming to seek his blessings.
That never happened.
The legend says that she waits for him at a second temple, which lies on the way to the main Sabarimala shrine.
Women do not visit either temple-the belief is that to do so would insult both the deity and the sacrifice of the woman who loved him.
According to another legend, Lord Ayappa was a prince who saved his kingdom from an Arab invader named Vavar. Following the battle, Vavar became a devout follower of the prince- there is also a shrine dedicated to him near Sabarimala. He is said to protect the pilgrims who come to Sabarimala to seek blessings. In this version of the story, Lord Ayappa eventually took a vow to answer the prayers of every devotee who came to him, and shunned all worldly desires including contact with women, which is why women are not permitted inside his temple.
What is the Issue?
A group of five women lawyers has challenged Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorizes restriction on women “of menstruating age”. They moved the apex court after the Kerala HC upheld the centuries-old restriction, and ruled that only the “tantri (priest)” was empowered to decide on traditions.
Background of this Issue
- The Sabarimala temple restricts menstruating women (between the age of 10 and 50 years) from taking the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The restrictions find its source in the legend that the temple deity, Swami Ayyappa, is a ‘NaishtikaBrahmachari’ (celibate).
- Also, the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, prohibits women from entering the Sabarimala temple premises.
- Kerala High Court in 1991 ordered in favor of the restriction by mentioning that the restriction was in place throughout history and not discriminatory to the constitution.
- In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association challenged the ban in Supreme Court.
- However, the Kerala government appealed to the Supreme Court that the beliefs and customs of devotees cannot be altered by means of a judicial process and the priests’ opinion is final.
- Hence the Supreme Court referred the issue to a larger constitutional bench.
Arguments against women’s entry into the temple
- Allowing menstruating women to enter the temple would affect the deity’s celibacy and austerity which is the unique nature of Swami Ayyappa.
- Temple, managed by trusts, are public places. The Sabarimala trust’s representatives claim that it has its own traditions and customs that have to be respected, just like other public places which have their own rules.
- Article 25(2) of the constitution which provides access to public Hindu religious institutions for all classes and sections of the society can be applied only to societal reforms, not religious matters which are covered under Article 26 (b) of the Constitution. Article 26(b) provides right to every religious group to manage their own religious affairs.
- The Guwahati High Court in Ritu Prasad Sharma Vs State of Assam (2015), ruled that religious customs which are protected under Article 25 and 26 are immune from challenge under other provisions of Part III of the constitution.
- Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 prohibits women from entering the Sabarimala temple premises.
Arguments in favor of women’s entry into the temple
- When all the people are equal in God’s eyes as well as the Constitution, there is no reason why women are only barred from entering certain temples.
- The Indian Constitution under Article 25 provides an individual the freedom to choose his/her religion. Hence praying in a temple or mosque or church or at home must be the individual’s choice.
- The Constitution guarantees the right to liberty (Article 21) and religious freedom to the individual.
- There are countless Ayyappa temples in India where such rules don’t apply and there are no restrictions in praying. The deity is also being worshipped by women of these ages in their houses. Then why only Sabarimala temple?
- The argument that menstruation would pollute the temple premises is unacceptable since there is nothing “unclean” or “impure” about a menstruating woman.
- Discrimination based on the biological factor exclusive to the female gender is unconstitutional as it violates fundamental rights under Article 14 (equality), Article 15 (discrimination abolition)/ and Article 17 (Untouchability Abolition).
- Barring women from entering the temple mainly due to their womanhood and the biological features is derogatory to women which the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) under Article 51A € seeks to renounce.
- The temple’s trust gets its funds from the Consolidated Fund = It is a public place of worship and not a private temple.
- Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Hence its practice cannot be dictated only and narrowly by religious pundits and tantric priests.
- Religious traditions must remain relevant to changing societal structures and relationships. Hence it needs reforms from within.
Supreme Court Verdict
In a 4:1 majority, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 and allowed women, irrespective of their age, to enter Sabarimala temple and worship the deity.
CONCLUSION: My Opinion on the Verdict
Of course, The Sabarimala Verdict was in favor of Women, but my question is – WILL THAT BE ENOUGH?
This rule of not allowing women into the shrine was a symbol of unjustified prevalence of patriarchy in the society. Unfortunately, to forbid women the rights that are guaranteed to them, in the name of religion, tradition, and culture has been a practice that has gone on, but The Honorable Supreme Court by its judgement has attacked directly on the male ego. Women are now legally allowed entry into the temple, but that still begs two questions. Will measures to ensure their safety be employed? Can women visit the temple without being subjected to jibes, discrimination, and violence at the hands of the many other people who visit it and may not welcome the move to allow women entry? Apart from this, the possibility of ill-treatment from those who disagree with the verdict is a very real threat to all women visiting the temple.
Above Questions portray the need of the hour and must be answered with utmost carefulness.
To conclude, Change is the law of nature. A tremendous change is necessary for altering the morality of people. Do religious or cultural sentiments, most of which are borne out of long-existing patriarchal ideas regarding women and their place in public-life, hold more bearing that the rights of women? They do not, and maybe this verdict will prove to be a constant reminder that the violation of women’s right in the name of culture is only an attempt to weaponize culture and use it to push women as far away as possible from public life, be it stating biological reasons or even legend.