The enigma of Sabarimala

The Mahabharata is a storehouse of wisdom. It has a story for every crisis in life. It also has stories that teach us how to handle them. Perhaps the most riveting story is related to ‘Draupadi Vastraharana’, where a menstruating queen is dragged into the royal sabha by Duhshasana who tries to disrobe her. Hearing her cry for help, Krishna holds out a never-ending sari to cover her. This unambiguous episode in the Sabha Parva teaches us that Maha Vishnu himself did not consider a woman unclean during her monthly period when He held his garment over her body to protect her. 

Then, surely, a god who is the son of Mohini (an avatar of Vishnu) will not object to a menstruating woman entering His abode? The Ayyappan temple in Sabarimala is well-known for its tolerance. Devotees of all castes and religions may enter its hallowed doorway. Both men and women have to be “pure” before stepping into that sacred space. 

Of course, the connotation of purity is always subjective. It could very well mean purity of mind. Yet, generations of believers have associated the word with celibacy for male worshippers and menstruation for women worshippers.

Also read: Sabarimala: CPM fights faith vs Constitution battle

This may be nothing more than a myth associated with a celibate god — nevertheless, it is a myth that has been ingrained in the minds of devotees for centuries. Women of the menstruating age have never entered the temple. Nor have men who had not observed the 41-day celibacy period. It is a factual error to say that women have been singled out. This is not about feminism. It is about faith.

Article of faith

In September this year, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ruled that the temple discriminated against women besides violating Article 25 of the Constitution that guaranteed them freedom of “religious practices” which included visiting temples with no hindrance.

The apex court, however, ignored the very next Article 26 which guarantees “freedom to manage religious affairs.” If women devotees must enjoy the freedom to visit temples without any impediment, the guardians of a temple must also enjoy the same freedom to manage its affairs without hindrance?  

However, apart from legalities, the myth of Swami Ayyappan is an article of faith which no court in the land can really erase, since myth and religion are bound together in the devotee’s mind.

The Rama in the Ramayana may be a mythical figure. But the Rama residing in Ayodhya is a god who is worshipped by millions. Mythology is so closely linked with religious practices that it is difficult to make out where one ends and the other begins. 

Even the highest court in the land cannot fathom what drives people to succumb to strange beliefs and practices. Let us not be naïve enough to imagine that deeply entrenched beliefs will change with a swish of the legal pen, There are no quick fix solutions in these matters.

Ironically, the biggest opposition to the apex court’s ruling comes from women themselves. They will not only refrain from the Ayyappa darshan on “those days”, but they will continue to avoid any other place of worship while menstruating. A lone woman activist may dare to enter. That only makes news for television channels.

Build better myths

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that the Supreme Court has pronounced a ruling in accordance with the Constitution. And rightly so. Denying entry to women in any temple is cruel and shameful. But, will that one court ruling change things dramatically? Devotees went on a rampage in Sabarimala. That, too, was controlled by force.

But, can civic power and judicial orders change the mindset of devotees? They will continue to perform their rituals and their superstitious practices. They have not read the Constitution. They would rather believe what their ancestors taught them to believe. 

So it is with all religions. Whether it is the mortification of the flesh by whipping, the throwing of stones on pillars, or the rolling of bodies on temple floors — superstitions and rituals handed down over the centuries cannot be wiped out by legislation. A long term programme like education alone can enlighten the minds of people. 

I had the best answer for Sabarimala from a scientist who wrote: “If you strip mythology away from religion, there won’t be much left behind. Myths are a product of their times and, as such, are out of sync with any egalitarian notions of sexual equality we may have today. The answer is to build better myths for today. There are far better ways of fighting for women’s equality, like educating girls, which is also compatible with the lofty ideals of the Constitution. When women truly have a voice, and society recognises that voice, issues like Sabarimala will fade into inconsequence.”

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