Its inclusive character notwithstanding, Sabarimala has several characteristics consistent with a denominational temple and should have been spared the humiliation that is currently agitating Ayyappaswami devotees across the country. In hundreds of Ayyappa temples, devotees are welcomed without distinction of gender, jati or even creed. At Sabarimala, Ayyappa, born from the union of Shiva and Vishnu as Mohini, takes the form of Naishtika Brahmachari (perennial celibate) and performs eternal tapas (meditation); hence women devotees of reproductive age (10 to 50 years) desist from disturbing him.
Hindu dharma celebrates divinity in its complex diversity. The same deity has different traits and is worshipped differently according to naama (name), rupa (form) and svarupa (essence). During the Navratras, Devi is worshipped in nine forms. At four major temples in Kerala, Ayyappa takes the form of a ‘kumar’ (teenager) at Sabarimala; a ‘balak’ (child) at Kulathupuzha; a grihastha (family man) with wives at Achankovil; and a ‘tapasvi’ (ascetic) in Aryankavu; these denote the four stages of human life.
Sabarimala is essentially a denominational temple within the Ayyappa panth (stream); it has special rules and regulations appropriate to the deity in that rupa and svarupa. These rules have been practiced without demur from time immemorial and correspond to settled usage and custom. Violation, as in 2006 when an actress in the prohibited age group entered the temple, defiles the sanctity of the temple according to the Agamas, and requires purification.
The denominational nature of the temple is established by the rigorous 41-day vrat (penance) that Ayyappa Himself prescribed when he directed a king to build the temple at the spot where his arrow landed after vanquishing a demon. This includes total abstinence, celibacy, and other forms of asceticism. A person starting tapas takes blessings from his parents, elders and Guru and dons a tulsi or rudraksha maala. The aim is to purify mind and body and establish the Oneness of all beings. On the pilgrimage, each devotee is addressed as ‘Swami’ as he has become pure. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s view that, “To suggest that women cannot undertake the 41-day vratham is to stereotype them”, mocks at the sanctity of custom. That this has caused religious hurt can be seen from the thousands of women pouring out on the streets of Kerala cities to protest the verdict.
Only those who conclude the vrat and carry the Irumudi kettu on their heads can cross the Srichakra and ascend the final 18 steps to the sannidhanam (sanctum), to the presence of Ayyappa. Irumudi is a twin bundle with offerings for the deity on one side, and the pilgrim’s humble necessities on the other. Other devotees worship through a side entrance. The 18 steps represent the stages of knowledge and consciousness, to supreme bliss at the feet of Ayyappaswami. The vrat and Irumudi distinguish Sabarimala as a religious denomination or section thereof which, under Article 26, has the right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.
It is inexplicable why the Supreme Court refused to accept the balaka god as a minor and a juristic entity, a settled principle in Hindu Law. In the Ram Janmabhumi case, Ramlalla (infant Rama) is a minor and juristic entity entitled to the protection of the law and to be represented by a ‘best friend’. Hindu Gods own wealth and property because they are juristic entities. In 1988, recognising this principal, a London judge returned the Chola Nataraja of Pattur to India, ruling that so long as even one stone belonging to a temple built by a Chola chieftain remains in situ, the temple continues to exist in the eye of law and has the right to own property. Sabarimala is a living temple adhering to distinct agamas; it is incorrect to designate temples as ‘public spaces’ and deny the deity’s constitutional rights.
We may ask if it is wise to destroy the sanctity of Sabarimala to satisfy the iconoclastic urges (disguised as a quest for equality) of litigants whose locus standi is suspect? The principal activists behind the Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors Versus The State of Kerala & Ors. [Writ Petition (C) No. 373 of 2006] have admitted that they were inspired by the furore over actress Jayamala’s unlawful entry into the temple.
The erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, where Ayyappa grew up, and People for Dharma are seeking a review of the verdict, on grounds that it “has the effect of Abrahamising the core of the Hindu faith, namely diversity, and altering its identity”. The organisation laments that the court failed to enquire if the traditional practice “is essential to the identity of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple”. Instead, it asked if it is essential to Hindu religion, when the Sanatana Dharma has no Book or Canon with uniform beliefs and practices.
The Sabarimala restrictions have been distorted as derogatory towards women in their fertile years. Different temples run according to distinct agamas. The menstrual cycle of Assam’s Devi Kamakhya is celebrated in the Ambubachi festival; Rajo, symbolising the menstruation of Mother Earth, is a major event in Odisha. The Mahadeo temple in Chengannur celebrates women’s fertility, and transgenders have divine status in Kottankulangara.
Only Justice Indu Malhotra, the sole dissenting voice, sifted the evidence clinically and observed that the restriction on women of a certain age group was not based on misogyny or menstrual impurity, but on the celibate nature of Ayyappaswami; “what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide”. She questioned the locus standi of non-believers approaching the Court and claiming the right to enter the Temple, even as there was no aggrieved petitioner from Kerala. Justice Malhotra warned that in a plural and diverse country, judges must be careful before labelling a practice as discriminatory on the basis of personal morality: “issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.” In fact, Courts should not interfere unless a practice is “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil”.
The apex Court’s equation of Sabarimala customs with untouchability as defined in Article 17 of the Constitution, which refers to birth-based discrimination against some castes was unfortunate. The Kerala Government’s decision to pass The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions (Amendment) Act, 2018 to allow appointment of non-Hindus to the Travancore Devaswom Board was the last straw.
The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal
The Pioneer, 16 October 2018