‘MEN, THEIR RIGHTS, and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less’—the Supreme Court judgment in the Sabarimala case opens with this quote by the American women’s rights activist Susan B Anthony. It summarises the crux of the issue: how the exclusionary practice at the Sabarimala temple goes against basic constitutional rights like equality and the freedom of female devotees to practise their religion. Constitutional morality, the Court held, is above social or religious morality.
In Kerala, ripples of the judgment have not yet settled. A large number of female professionals, students and homemakers have welcomed it, while there is resentment among men in general. Hindu rights activist, Rahul Easwar, a self-professed champion of Brahmin politics, has declared that ‘feminists can enter Sabarimala only by stepping over my chest’. On social media, there are even calls for the molestation of women who dared to enter the temple. Among politicians, the response is mixed. The Left parties are mostly for it while the Congress-led UDF, the rightist BJP and various Hindu fringe groups appear divided. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee working president K Sudhakaran has signalled disapproval; others like former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy have made evasive comments. Bindu Krishna, a Congress leader, has been clear that women should be allowed into Sabarimala. “I don’t agree with any practice that discriminates against people based on their gender or caste. I believe in keeping personal hygiene while visiting any place of worship. I am a believer and often visit temples in the morning when I see one wherever I go. But I don’t do it in the evenings when I am [not well turned out] after public meetings. Apart from this, I don’t think that menstruation has anything to do with hygiene,” she says. A devotee of Ayyappa, she believes the power of the deity made the judges issue such a judgment.
Those for and against the entry of women derive their rationale from the same origin myths of the temple and its presiding deity, with different versions providing material to both sides. The most prominent one is that Lord Ayyappa is a celibate deity and His powers are derived from the practice of brahmacharya, a reason why pilgrims also follow abstinence before and during the pilgrimage. Pre-pubescent girls and post-menopausal women were allowed in Sabarimala while fertile adult women were not—so that the deity’s celibacy is not challenged. Menstruation is thus correlated to sex, fertility, reproduction, etcetera. Rahul Easwer, who argues against women’s entry to the premises, says the ban has nothing to do with menstruation but keeping women with sexual potential away from the deity. Pilgrims, who are called ‘swamis’, also practise abstinence. Menstruating women are also supposed to keep away from the family’s male members who need to be on a 41-day abstinence period before visiting the shrine. The Supreme Court dismisses this argument, saying that ‘the mere sight of women cannot take one’s celibacy if he has taken oath of it’.
“Feminists can enter Sabarimala only by stepping over my chest” - Rahul Easwar
The reasons usually cited by those against the entry of women tend to be inconsistent. The objection of the Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, to women at Sabarimala was the physical difficulty of climbing such steep hills through a forest to get there. The judges rely on this point to brush away the celibacy argument. ‘Maintaining celibacy is only a ritual for some who want to practise it and for which even the temple administration has not given any justification. On the contrary, according to the temple administration, since women during their menstrual period cannot trek very difficult mountainous terrain in the dense forest and that too for several weeks, this practice of not permitting them has started.’ The Court adds that the burden of a man’s celibacy cannot be imposed upon women.
Hindu scholars too have different takes on the arguments used to keep women away. Swami Sandeepananda Giri, a controversial ascetic known to be critical of the RSS, says that the practice of celibacy has nothing to do with the presence of women. According to him, brahmacharya is the practice of following Brahma (quest for truth) and the presence of a woman is irrelevant. He has examples from Hindu mythology like Hanuman being the embodiment of celibacy in the Ramayana, but being given lessons on Brahma by Sita, as instructed by Ram. “He never questioned Ram about being asked to learn from a woman despite being celibate,” says Giri. He also says that there is no restriction on the entry of women to Hanuman temples and raises the interesting argument that Ayyappa is not even celibate in the traditional sense of the word. “Lord Ayyappa is a synonym of ‘sasthavu’ (teacher), according to the Hindu encyclopaedia. He is married and had three wives Poorna, Pushkala and Prabha, and a son, Sathyakan,” he says. According to him, the practice of excluding women has no roots in mythology; it is a modern phenomenon.
There are many of the view that the Sabarimala pilgrimage became an all-male business only recently and that women used to visit the temple till the 1980s. “My first rice-feeding ceremony was done at Sannidanam [the sanctum sanctorum, where the deity is located]. My mom put me on her lap and I was fed in the presence of other members in the family. Women used to visit the shrine in the 1940s,” says TKA Nair, former principal secretary to the Prime Minister. Nair is also chairman of the temple’s advisory board and holds the view that women should be allowed into Sabarimala.
It was another rice-feeding ceremony that sparked off the 28- year legal battle on the issue that has finally been settled by the top court. In August 1990, an executive member of the Travancore Devaswom Board then, S Chandrika held the first rice-feeding ceremony of her grandson at the Sannidhanam along with her 22-year-old daughter, the mother of the baby. A freelance news photographer captured the ceremony and that picture made it to several newspapers the following day. S Mahendran from Changanassery got angry on seeing the women there, and filed a petition at the Kerala High Court, which ruled in his favour. It was the appeal on this case that culminated in the Supreme Court lifting the ban. When Mahendran filed the case, he was only 24 years old and without sufficient means to bear the legal costs. He was supported by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and Ayyappa Seva Sangham. Mahendran is currently president of the NSS unit in his locality.
“No ritual is time immemorial or divine. It is man-made” - Swami Sandeepananda Giri
When devotees reach the temple in Sabarimala, the first sight is a big display board with ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ written on it, a a Sanskrit phrase from the Chandogya Upanishad that means ‘That thou art’. Sandeepananda Giri has a story on how Sabarimala got this signboard. In 1950, after a wildfire damaged the temple, it had to be reconstructed. A naval officer from Mumbai and a devotee of Ayyappa called Kalidas visited the temple and gifted it this board. Many other temples where Ayyappa is worshipped then started putting up similar signboards. “Recently, a devotee wanted to give a display board with ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ to a Srikrishna temple at Kottayam. The temple authorities rejected his request on the ground that [these words] can be displayed only in the temples of Ayyappa. You see how rituals are born and practised. No ritual is time immemorial or divine. It is man-made,” says Giri.
There are other rituals too in Sabarimala that have been modified for convenience. Till 1986, devotees used to break coconuts on its 18 holy steps. As per the ritual, ‘Kanni swamis’, or those visiting the shrine for the first time, had to break the coconut on the first step. Those on their second visit broke it on the second step, and so on. This ritual suddenly came to an end in 1986 after the steps were coated with gold. Devotees who want to break a coconut must do so before ascending the stairs.
In their paper, Ayyappan Saranam: Masculinity and the Sabarimala Pilgrimage in Kerala, London-based anthropologists Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella observe that the exclusively male pilgrimage to Sabarimala is an expression of hyper-masculinity. Ayyappa, son of two male gods (Vishnu and Shiva), plays a role in constructing male identities at both external (social) and internal (psychological) levels. They argue that the pilgrimage has masculine and heroic overtones, characterised by ascetic self-denial and pain and by the identification of pilgrims with the deity and his perilous mountain-forest journey. The pilgrimage bestows power upon devotees in the form of blessings from Ayyappa in specifically masculine forms—spiritual, moral and bodily strength—while acting as a symbol of masculine superiority and of male responsibilities towards family welfare.
Even those who welcome the judgment don’t hope for any far-reaching impact. Will it undo the menstrual taboos against women in general? “I am less sure of that,” says Dr G Arunima, professor at Jawaharal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences. “It is undoubtedly clear that the judgment restores a certain democracy to spaces of prayer. The bigger issue is that menstruation, and the religious and cultural stigma that sees menstruating women as ‘polluting’, cuts across different religions. In all, there is an expectation that women, whilst menstruating, will not enter places of worship. Mosques in Kerala and most of India (and even other parts of the world) do not allow women in during times of worship. All temples treat menstruating women as polluting, and this has led to a culture of policing and self-policing.”
There are many women in Kerala planning to go to Sabarimala this season for reasons other than religious, as a celebration of gender equality. However, they might not have to take the strain of climbing the steep hills to prove a point because the government has already announced that a number of women police officers would be deployed in Sabarimala—which in effect would ensure the presence of women.