As a devotee who went on the pilgrimage several times, the first time in my teens, I have a certain emotional attachment to Lord Ayyappa and the Sabarimala temple. Having made that disclaimer up front, I would like to look at Sabarimala from two seldom considered perspectives: the historical context, and the rights of indigenous peoples.
As I have followed the startling Supreme Court ruling, and the ensuing attempts by some activists and the Kerala government to enforce that ruling in the face of protests by the devout, I found that the closest historical analog goes back to Roman times. There were acts in both Rome and in Hellenistic Egypt where indigenous peoples’ beliefs and rights were trampled upon by imported ideologies, and the parallels with today’s India are striking.
The reason is well explained by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Skin in the Game. As one of the foremost public intellectuals of today, and well-versed in Mediterranean history, the Lebanese-American Taleb explains what he calls the ‘tyranny of the stubborn minority’. He suggests that if you have a tolerant majority population, a minority population may impose its will on the former, however peculiar its demands may be. An example is in dietary codes: even though Jews are only 1 per cent of the US population, almost all beverages are kosher; similarly, even though Muslims are few in the UK population, most meat sold there is halal.
This is reflected in Sabarimala in the fact that militant leftists and atheists—a negligible fraction of India’s population—are able to impose their world view on the majority of tolerant Hindus, the indigenous, autochthonous people. The very origins of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court lie in an obstinate reading of feminism, with an unwillingness to understand that its demands hurt the sentiments of pious Hindu women, the ‘victims’ they were allegedly out to ‘emancipate’.
The closest analog I can see to the planned entry of young women—which in effect means desecration and desacralization of the temple—is the destruction of the ancient temple of Serapis in Alexandria, Egypt. A startling work of history, The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey, shows how a ‘stubborn minority’ of intolerant Christians destroyed the classical Greek and Roman civilisation of circa 400 CE, eventually plunging Europe into their Dark Ages. Contrary to what we have been told by (Christian) historians, it appears that the Romans didn’t actually persecute the Christians a great deal: if anything, it was by far the opposite.
‘From almost the very first years that a Christian emperor had ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded. And then, in AD 529, a final blow had fallen. It was decreed that all those who labored “under the insanity of paganism”... would no longer be allowed to teach. There was worse. It was announced that anyone who had not yet been baptized was to come forward and make themselves known at the “holy churches” immediately, or face exile. And if anyone allowed themselves to be baptized, then slipped back into their old pagan ways, they would be executed.’
The assault on Sabarimala reminds me of the desecration, desacralization and destruction of the Serapis temple of Alexandria. Nixey describes how the temple, to a Greek-Egyptian God, was considered one of the most magnificent structures in the entire Mediterranean world, a beautiful temple on a mountain-top. It was richly adorned, one of the wonders of its time.
After the ascent of a particularly pious Christian religious leader, his followers decided that the temple was blasphemous, and tore it to bits, both as an assertion of the superiority of their One True God over other gods, and incidentally because there was a lot of gold and other precious materials in the temple. Nixey quotes from a Christian holy book called Deuteronomy:
‘And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.’
Sounds a lot like the way Turkish invaders looked at Hindu temples like Somnath, doesn’t it? Or how certain people are casting covetous eyes at the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum?
If you think of the leftist brigade as fundamentally similar to the zealous Christians in Nixey’s account you can see that the same kind of intolerance is being directed towards everything that Hindus hold dear: the spate of cases in the Supreme Court via the (it must be said) remarkably obtuse PIL mechanism, are all aimed squarely at desacralizing Hindu practices: Jallikattu, Diwali fireworks, Dahi Handi, and so on. The possibility that this will lead to a total ban on Hindus (similar to what was described as the ban on ‘pagans’) is non-trivial.
It is not at all a stretch to consider Communism a direct, lineal descendant of Christian zealotry in the 500 CE time frame. The parallels are many, with two major points of convergence: exclusivist monotheism, and millennial notions of world conquest. I use the term ‘Semiticism’ to capture these ideas, especially as it was the axiom that the ‘sons of Shem shall rule over the sons of Ham’ that led to, for instance, slavery, racism, and apartheid. The implication of in-group (= good) and out-group (= bad) dichotomy persists, as seen in the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia not long ago.
There is also irony in the fact that it is allegedly ‘feminists’ who have been most eager exponents of the entry of women. But Kerala Hindu women, whom they were apparently rescuing from patriarchy, were not particularly interested, and rallied around the meme #ReadytoWait. There were no takers for ‘feminist’ ideology: even though the Communist government tried hard, there was not even one young Hindu woman (even one with only a Hindu name) who wanted to violate temple traditions, only leftists and agent provocateurs.
There was even one, an exhibitionist woman with a string of outré, often nude, films and photos to her credit, who was apparently escorted to the temple by the police. This person apparently carried used sanitary napkins in her irumudi, the two-compartment satchel that the devout carry on their heads, filled with puja materials and offerings. Her idea, reportedly, was to fling the napkins at the deity. But vigilant devotees foiled her plan.
There were other ‘feminists’ who posted extremely vulgar and provocative messages online. One woman said she was not impressed by a god “who looks between my legs”. In any normal country, this sort of behaviour and verbiage would not be considered progressive, but blasphemous. Hindus have no particular concept of blasphemy, but there are provisions in the Indian Criminal Code about hurting the religious sentiments of a group of people (Section 295a) and causing enmity between groups of people (Section 153a) that should have been invoked.
There is another remarkable historical episode that these ‘feminists’ should be aware of. After the takeover of Rome by Constantine in 312 CE, the Old Religion (I refuse to call it ‘pagan’ because that is a derogatory term introduced by the intolerant) was under constant threat, and its practitioners were routinely attacked by mobs of vigilantes.
The gravest such episode was when Hypatia was dragged from her chariot and murdered. And her grave crime? She still followed the Old Religion, and she was considered a bad influence on the administrator Orestes, her friend and Christian convert. Says Nixey:
‘…[they] surged around seized “the pagan woman”. They then dragged Alexandria’s greatest living mathematician through the streets to a church. Once inside, they ripped the clothes from her body and, using broken piece of pottery as blades, flayed her skin from her flesh. Some say that, while she still gasped for breath, they gouged out her eyes. Once she was dead, they tore her body into pieces and threw what left of the “luminous child of reason” onto a pyre and burnt her.’
No, Hypatia was not an ordinary woman. She was the greatest mathematician and astronomer of her time, and a philosopher. She had remained a virgin all her life, wedded to her work, eschewing the pleasures of marriage. When a particularly ardent suitor pursued her vigorously, she turned him off by presenting him with her used sanitary towels, telling him that’s what he was really after. Hypatia’s sanitary towel episode should appeal to the woman who carried her own used napkins to desecrate Sabarimala.
Hoary antiquity and the rights of indigenous peoples
The further historical irony is that the roots of Sabarimala’s sanctity go way back, really way back. However, if you were to listen to the propaganda and myths circulated by the leftists, it is a recent temple, which was forcibly taken by the Pandalam royal family and the Nambudiris, from the rightful owners, the Mala Arayan tribe. Perhaps there was a historical Ayyappa circa 1200 CE (dating as per the lefists), who was deified, and whose friends were indeed the Mala Arayans.
The true paradox here is that, as in the case of the Ganesha of the Chalukya Badamis (Vatapi Ganapatim bhaje…), those who supposedly took the deity away treated the deity with respect and installed him in their pantheon. Hinduism does that: look at the tribal deities in the Puri Jagannath temple, who have been incorporated with great respect into the Hindu pantheon. I don’t need to remind you of how other faiths treat tribal deities or the deities of those they conquer: visiting Bamiyan or a stroll around Rome would give you a good idea.
But what is truly telling (and that which decimates the leftist mythology) is that Sabarimala’s sanctity is not recent: it has been a point of singular merit for millennia. There are several places on earth that apparently have a spiritual force field: Macchu Picchu in Peru, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, Stonehenge in Britain, and so on. Sabarimala is one of those, and as evidence, here’s the work of Xuanzang, also known as Hsuen Tsang, the circa 700 CE Chinese traveller.
Says historian Lokesh Chandra, in The Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara:
‘Hsuen Tsang refers to Avalokitesvara on the Potala in the following words, summarized by Waters (1905): “In the south of the country near the sea was the Mo-lo-ya (Malaya) mountain, with its lofty cliffs and ridges and deep valleys and gullies, on which were sandal, camphor and other trees. To the east of this was Pu-ta-lo-ka (Potalaka) mountain with steep narrow paths over its cliffs and gorges in irregular confusion.’
That description of Sabarimala is true to this day. Potalaka/Potala is a name whose meaning is ‘brilliance’ as per Buddhabadra (420 CE), referring to the old Tamil pottu (to light as a fire), a nod to the brilliance of makara-jyoti. Further, says Lokesh Chandra:
‘Hsuen Tsang clearly says that Avalokitesvara at Potala sometimes takes the form of Isvara (Siva) and sometimes that of a Pasupata yogin. In fact it was Siva who was metamorphosed into Avalokitesvara… The Potalaka Lokesvara and the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara have echoes of Siva and Vishnu, of Hari and Hara…
… Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala… could have been the Potala Lokesvara of Buddhist literature. The makara jyoti of Sabarimala recalls Potala’s “brilliance”. The long, arduous and hazardous trek through areas known to be inhabited by elephants and other wildlife to Sabarimala is spoken of in the pilgrimage to Potala Lokesvara.
Xuanzang has given us insight into what Sabarimala was then. Thirteen hundred years ago, it was already an ancient pilgrim site, where both Buddhists and Hindus used to worship the same deity: Hindus as Lord Siva, and Buddhists as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Padmapani, the future Buddha of compassion. Much like the ancient shrines of Southeast Asia, where Hindu and Buddhist imagery converge and coexist without conflict.
If you accept Xuanzang’s account as true—and there is no reason to believe he is wrong here, as his work is generally treated as a reliable record by most experts—then the leftist mythology falls apart. Sabarimala is a shrine with a hoary past, an inclusive shrine with a history of spiritual goodwill. It is an indigenous shrine where the locals have faithfully worshipped for two millennia. They have kept the tradition of the makara jyoti alive, too: it is not that, as leftists allege, the Electricity Board secretly lights a fire in the remote Ponnambalamedu at the right time.
Don’t indigenous people have the right to their religious belief? Aren’t they the subalterns whom the leftists swear they protect? The pilgrims who come to Sabarimala are mostly lower-middle-class people, the salt of the earth, people who have not shared in the prosperity we all take for granted. They come because they believe. Why on earth would you want to destroy something that is so ancient, so spiritual, and so inspiring? You must then have some axe to grind, some hidden agenda.
Who benefits from the desecration, desacralization of the Ayyappa shrine? Surely, not the pious womenfolk who have been sending off their hirsute men to the temple for as long as anyone can remember. There is a total fabrication floating around that it was only in 1972 that the prohibition on women of child-bearing age came into being. No, I can tell you with authority that it was the custom before that data. I was over ten in 1972 and I remember that in my entire lifetime, there had never been any question of young women going to Sabarimala.
There is a logical set of reasons for the prohibition if you accept that we are talking about faith. Faith is not rational, and therefore you cannot produce scientific proof for it (in passing, much science is also not rational, and there’s much blind faith in axioms that turn out to be grave blunders down the road).
This is true of all faith, and you have to accept their beliefs and move on: to take a random example, the idea in Communism of the ‘shrinking away of the state’ and the ‘revolution of the proletariat’ hasn’t happened anywhere. Look at China, and massive state surveillance that amounts to a panopticon: does it look like a shrinking state, or a revolution of the people? Similar examples can be produced in relation to other belief systems too: they often believe in absurd things. In fact, an early Christian great, Tertullian, said: “Credo quia absurdum”, that is, “I believe, because it is absurd”.
By attempting to impose modern fads on the beliefs of a particular indigenous group of people, who for all practical purposes are a religious denomination with specific customs, the courts and the Kerala government have erred. From a historical perspective, their acts are ominous in terms of the oppressive power of the State over indigenous populations. We know from experience that this cannot lead to any good. For instance, a report has just surfaced that indigenous Native Americans were being forcibly sterilised as late as 2017 in Canada. If the State is after the erasure of an indigenous people, it is genocide, either cultural or physical. We may be in for our own Dark Ages.