Sabarimala conundrum: Rights and rigour of custom

Dateline

On January 11, the day when the Supreme Court questioned the logic behind prohibiting women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, two groups of woman volunteers attached to a government clean-up mission werecollecting plastic from the pilgrims at check-points near the shrine’s foothills.

The irony was hard to miss; women going about their work, sorting litter, unaware of what a special bench of the apex court was trying to pitch – a possible relook at a temple custom which keeps women of menstruating age away from a celibate God.

The fresh debate building around the court’s observation has, on expected lines, pitted gender discrimination against adherence to religious custom. It has led to aggressive posturing from both the camps and the discourse has also started to move away from the issue of Constitutional rights to bigger questions over a custom which views menstruating women as impure.

As the Kerala government prepares its response to the court, it is unlikely to feature updated, more inclusive interpretations of this custom. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and Devaswom Minister V S Sivakumar have, in a reassuring tone, maintained that the State would protect “believers’ interests”. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) which manages affairs of the temple, has also argued that the ban is based on a tradition which should be left untouched.

The Board has also invoked the devaprashnam – a ritual based in astrology conducted to interpret the will of Gods – to implement restrictions on women’s presence at the annual aarattu festival at Pampa.

TDB president Prayar Gopalakrishnan made a statement in this connection after the Supreme Court’s observation, probably indicating how the State government and the temple administrators propose to counter the charges of gender discrimination in the backdrop of religious tenets. It’s going to be predictably discreet and non-disruptive. 

D B Binu, lawyer, RTI activist and general secretary of Human Rights Defence Forum, believes that a non-intrusive state would help in preventing vested interests from hijacking the debate. He views the issue in its Constitutional and legal contexts and argues that state interventions in matters of religious faith could be in conflict with interpretations of secularism.

“When the idea is to be equally distant from all religions, the State or the courts selectively meddling with beliefs in any particular religion could lead to questions of discrimination. It’s like playing into the hands of groups with fundamentalist interests. However, the courts do have a crucial role to play in issues of temple management like administrative corruption,” says Binu. The activist feels that analysing faith in legal or administrative terms could be unwieldy.

Will of the deity

Umadevi, a Kochi-based housewife, wonders if she falls in the category of believers that the state intended to consider hearing. “I wanted to visit the temple. It may not be entirely spiritual, it’s not very important to me either but I still wonder if traditions of the temple which insist that women of a certain age could distract the celibate deity have denied me the experience of a visit. So, it’s a question of believers like me as well,” she says.

Binu points out that when the state government talks about considering the believers’ interests, it can’t obviously mean a referendum; what it really means is hearing the will of the deity, interpreted through rituals like the devaprashnam. 

The government is building its case by invoking the 1991 judgment of the Kerala High Court which restricted women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the shrine. Activists who call for ending the restriction, however, question the TDB’s contention that the custom had been followed for many decades; they claim that there is evidence to show women were barred from the shrine only during the mandalam-makaravilakku pilgrimage season and the festival season of Vishu. Their argument is also pegged to the idea of courts acting as agents of social reform.

Prameela Devi J, member of the Kerala Women’s Commission (KWC), however, calls the debate over rights as skewed when viewed against the idea of faith. “I don’t see it as an issue of rights. I look at religion itself as a bundle of imaginative ideas. It is governed by a set of rituals; we can’t question these rituals as long as we practise the religion they are part of. I firmly believe that most of the true woman devotees would respect the custom and keep away from the temple,” she says.

The panel member feels that an entry into the shrine does not necessarily empower women or redefine their gender identity. Referring to “the hundreds of cases” the KWC handles every month, she points out that there are greater concerns and challenges women should brace for. In a nation where many social customs have had updates in tune with the changing times, matters of faith – even when they are not backed with evidence – have remained largely insular to change.

Is it not also about women having a choice to be at the shrine, or not? Prameela goes back to the fundamental issue of defining the abstract with the concrete.

“The devaprashnam is considered, by the religion, an accepted ritual to know the will of the Gods. You can question its authenticity or lack of transparency; you can question the God himself. But when you acknowledge the presence of God, worship a deity, you want to trek up a hill and see, is it not better to acknowledge the will of the God too?” she asks.

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