Liberals who are sincere about religious reform should be wary of firing off the shoulders of the Supreme Court and the state.
I write this as a liberal who has made the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. I unequivocally support the right of all women devotees to worship at the shrine. As a confirmed brahmachari, Ayyappa is surely resolute enough to not be perturbed by female devotees in their menstruating years seeking his darshan without needing the protection of his more conservative followers, let alone the Sangh Parivar!
But India’s liberals are at risk of scoring a massive own goal on Sabarimala. By cheering on the Supreme Court and the Kerala government’s ramming through of changes that cut across deeply- held beliefs of Ayyappa devotees — rather than engaging with them, left-liberals are actually compromising the prospects for religious reform. They are risking the credibility of the courts and undermining our secular democracy.
Of all the targets of liberal ire, Sabarimala is amongst the least culpable. No Hindu shrine that I have been to is less “brahmanical” and more syncretic and inclusive (of course, other than for women aged between 10 and 50). People of all castes and creeds have been observing the 41-day vratam and making the jungle trek to the temple for centuries. The singer K J Yesudas, who is Christian, is a long-standing devotee, as are many Muslims and a visit to the Vavar mosque in Erumeli is an integral part of the pilgrimage. There is little visible money or political influence on display (such as one witnesses, for instance, at Tirupati with its multiple levels of VIP and paid access). Everyone, rich or poor, powerful or plebeian, enters the temple up the same steep 18 steps bearing their irumudis on their heads. One has to experience trekking up the hilly path amidst throngs of unshod, black mundu clad, and ecstatically chanting devotees to grasp the unique camaraderie and classless spirit that characterises Ayyappa pilgrims.
Sadly, too few liberals who ridicule Sabarimala’s “patriarchal” practices are aware of its egalitarian and progressive ethos. This is not to gloss over the temple’s restrictions on women but rather to point to a missed opportunity for how Sabarimala’s doors might have been opened to all women by drawing on its richly liberal heritage rather than dissing it. After all, the ban on women aged 10-50 is out of kilter with the Ayyappa tradition’s tribal roots, inclusivity, and bhakti lineage.
Had the leftist lawyers who originally brought the case engaged as fellow devotees with the community of Ayyappa worshippers rather than resorted to the courts, they may well have persuaded them to throw open the shrine to all women regardless of age. Such empathetic and respectful engagement, accompanied by moral pressure and even peaceful protest – worshipper to worshipper – is harder than filing a court petition. Even if a sincere effort to win over Ayyappa followers had failed, it would have given left-liberals the legitimacy to seek legal redress. Instead, the current approach comes across as nothing but mischievous troublemaking by provocateurs who don’t respect, let alone share, the beliefs of Ayyappa devotees. In the end, it is doubtful that the Supreme Court judgment in the Sabarimala case will do much for gender equality.
It is absolutely the case that over the last two centuries the colonial government and its successors in independent India had to step in and ban pernicious practices such as sati, child marriage, untouchability (and the related prohibition of temple entry for Dalits), bigamy, and dowry even when these were portrayed as “essential practices” of Hinduism. But these are all physically and economically harmful practices which unfettered entry for women into Sabarimala can hardly be classified as.
When we cross into the terrain of illiberal — but not obviously harmful — beliefs and practices, the courts and the government need to exercise restraint. By wading into thorny matters of doctrine and tradition, on which it has little expertise, the Supreme Court will only damage its credibility. We can see this in the tortured reasoning in the Sabarimala verdict, for instance, on whether or not Sabarimala worshippers constitute a distinct religious community or whether they are part of the multi-layered, diverse, and overlapping strands that make up the Hindu tradition.
Equally, dragging the state into matters of faith opens the door to a religious state. The subtext of the Sangh Parivar’s campaign in Kerala against the enforcement of the Sabarimala judgment is that Hindus are under threat unless secular India becomes a Hindu Rashtra.
None of this is to suggest that liberals should not challenge the many discriminatory practices that continue to prevail — be it the absence of women priests in our temples, mosques, and churches, or the persistence of caste-considerations in marriages. But in a secular state such as ours these practices have to be fought socially and politically rather than, in the first instance, legally by throwing the Constitution at them.
Kerala has a proud tradition of exactly this sort of social campaign against caste-based exclusion. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian movement used its political strength and the popular appeal of its ideology to significantly roll back the social dominance of upper castes. Abroad, the Anglican Church has admitted women to the priesthood because, after years of debate, the congregation was persuaded, not because of British court judgments or pressure from the government.
The more that reformist efforts tap the resources within the religious tradition that they seek to change, the more likely they are to be effective. Dalit priests are increasingly found in temples in the south not least because modern-day reformers have cited the narratives of “untouchable” saints in the Vaishnava Alvar and Saiva Nayanar canons.
Overall, and especially in matters of faith, the fact that liberals believe that they are in the right does not mean that they do not have to convince those who do not share their views. This is the way a liberal democracy is supposed to work.
The sort of left-liberal zealotry that we are seeing in the Sabarimala case springs from the same soil that patronises adherents of faith and tradition as hidebound reactionaries incapable of sharing liberal values. It has only provided oxygen to the divisive machinations of the Hindu right. Ultimately, it may fuel the same sort of political backlash against liberal mores from religious-minded traditionalists that is being witnessed in previously-secular countries such as Turkey, and, jeopardise much-needed progress on social and religious reforms in our country.