Yesudas remark sparks questions

The singer says women at Sabarimala ‘tempt’ male devotees.’ Some say he is guarding customs, while critics feel he is swayed by patriarchy

Earlier this week, celebrated singer K J Yesudas said the presence of women at Sabarimala should be avoided as it distracts male devotees and “changes their intentions”.
An ardent Ayyappa devotee, Yesudas’s legendary rendition of ‘Harivarasanam’ is played every night before the temple’s door is closed. He said, “If a beautiful girl goes to Sabarimala with the kind of attire they wear today, Lord Ayyappa will not even open his eyes and see. But other Ayyappas (devotees) will see them and it is not good.”

Yesudas has many supporters who believe he is only defending religious custom.
All these developments have placed the centuries-old temple in the spotlight again. As Constitutional values clash with tradition, Metrolife asked some experts about the varying viewpoints.

Supreme Court view

Recently, the Supreme Court declined to pass any order to ensure the safe entry of women into the temple.

“The practice has been going on for thousands of years. Balance of convenience requires that such an order should not be passed in your favour today,” Chief Justice S A Bobde remarked, hearing petitions filed by two Kerala women seeking police protection to enter the temple.

Shilpa Nair, president of People for Dharma, one of the petitioners in the case, says it is important to accept customs followed in different temples.

“Hindu temples in India are not like prayer halls. Each temple has a deity and that deity’s rights and wishes are respected. In Sabarimala, what the deity desires have been written in a book called the ‘Sree Bhoothanaathopakhyaanam’, which we follow. In it, Lord Ayyappa wants to remain a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’ (eternal celibate), to pray for world peace,” she says.

Gender question

Only women below 10 and above 50 (non-menstruating age group) are allowed to enter the temple.

“Kerala has always been a matriarchal society, where women are always given importance. They are an educated, forward-thinking lot, who take forward the family name and the family tradition. Lakhs and lakhs of such women came out in protest against the Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of menstrual age into the shrine,” Shilpa says.

What if someone wants to enter the temple? Shilpa says there are thousands of Ayyappa temples across the country that allow women inside.

“Not everything should be seen through the western prism. Ours is a pluralistic faith where each belief, each system has its own space.”

‘Unfortunate statement’

Sobin George, assistant professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change, called the recent statement from Yesudas “unfortunate” because “people of his position can create ripples in society”.

Sobin says Jesudas is known to harbour patriarchal notions, and his statement can’t add value to any meaningful debate.

Citing says grey areas in the law are being used by people seeking a ban on women’s entry into the temple.

“Also, both the God and his devotee are supposed to be gender-less, identity-less forms. Why is there such discrimination then?” he says.

He links the recent Ayodhya verdict with the upcoming Sabarimala one, pointing out that the former upheld the legal entity of the diety (“not the Constitutional entity, but the legal one”).

“This can influence the outcome in the Sabarimala verdict too. It’s very complicated,” he says.

Historical context

Prof Sobin George sees the movement for women’s entry as a part of the social reform movements in Kerala, with women from the lower castes earlier fighting and winning the right to cover their upper torsos and wear gold chains and nose rings.

Sobin explains why women themselves were against the entry of other women. “When Sati was abolished, 50,000 women protested on the roads. They knew they would have to burn on the pyre of their husbands when they died but they were okay with it. If you believe something for a long time, you tend to normalise it,” he says.

What is Sree Bhoothanaathopakhyaanam?

The first-ever work to be printed about Ayyappa, this Malayalam Kilippattu popularised the story of Ayyappa for the first time in literature. It is from this work that the traditions about the Sabarimala pilgrimage came to be followed.

Kilippattu or parrot song is a genre of Malayalam poems in which the narrator is a parrot, a bee, a swan, and so on. It was popularized by the 16th-century poet Ezhuthachan, called the ‘Father Of Malayalam’.

Published in 1929, this book, written by Kallaraykkal Krishnan Kartha, has not been available in print after 1947.

History of the case

The Sabarimala complex is one of India’s biggest pilgrimage centres. There are many hill-top temples but the star attraction is the Sree Dharmasastha Temple, dedicated to Ayyappa.

Women between the ages of 10 and 50 are barred from entering this Ayyappa shrine. Critics have argued that this perpetuates prejudices against women and is linked to patriarchal notions of menstruating women being impure.

Supporters of the restrictions say the ban seeks to protect the celibate deity against distractions. They have also argued that devotees seeking to go to the hill-shrine have to observe a 41-day fast, something that menstruating women could not undergo for physiological regions.

This unwritten rule got the backing of the law when the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act 1965 was amended to include a clause that “women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.”

The notification was made legally binding by the Kerala High Court in 1991, in response to a petition filed by one S Mahendran, who complained that in recent years, young women had been offering prayers at the Sabarimala shrine.

The court ruled in favour of a ban on women at the temple, saying that such a practice had existed since time immemorial and was not in violation of the law.

The Indian Young Lawyers Association approached the Supreme Court in 2006, seeking a reversal of the ban. In September last year, the court lifted the ban on the entry of women. In the five-judge bench, the lone woman judge, Indu Malhotra, was the only dissenting voice.

Exclusion on the grounds of biological, physiological features like menstruation is unconstitutional and discriminatory, the court had said.

Several organisations, like the National Ayyappa Devotees Association and the influential Nair Service Society, filed for a review of the verdict, while Kerala turned into a war zone, with devotees blocking women activists from entering the temple.

Two women activists, Kanakadurga and Bindu visited the temple under police protection. They have since been given round-the-clock protection on court orders. Bindu Ammini was attacked outside the Kochi Police Commissioner’s office on November 26 this year.

The ruling CPIM-led LDF (under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan) suffered a near-wipeout in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. They won only one of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats.

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