Written by Pramod Kumar
The Supreme Court’s 4-1 majority verdict on entry of women in Sabarimala temple has come as a disappointment to millions of devotees of Ayyappa.
The verdict essentially highlights the chasm that exists between millions of practicing Hindus who live the faith everyday with understanding and reverence on one hand, and the educated elite on the other, who look down upon these masses with a patronising, condescending view rooted in colonial prejudices that seeks to characterise the customs and practices of Hindu faith as regressive and discriminatory.
Ironically, the sole voice of dissent in this majority verdict was Justice Indu Malhotra, the only woman in the five-judge bench, who observed that there exists a difference between diversity and discrimination. Justice Malhotra’s observations have therefore struck a sympathetic chord with many Hindus like me who feel that her judgment reflects a more nuanced understanding of this conflict between law and faith.
She acknowledges the fact that the Sabarimala shrine and the deity are protected by Article 25 of the Constitution and that the people worshipping there have attributes of a religious denomination. Hence, the court should not interfere unless there is an aggrieved person from that religion or section.
Advocates K Parasaran and Sai Deepak also submitted to the Court why not all exclusion is to be decried as discrimination. There are many other temples of Ayyappa in Kerala and in other States where women are allowed to worship him on a daily basis without any restriction. The restriction imposed on entry of women in Sabarimala is because of the nature of the deity worshipped there as a ‘naishtika brahmachari’ (celibate) and not because of any discriminatory attitude towards women based on biological factors such as menstruation.
Indic Today columnist Angirasa Shreshta correctly highlights the crux of the debate on whether exclusion amounts to discrimination thus: “A full participation in the religion entails not only performing duties, whether obligatory or out of your own volition, but also not doing what is prohibited. Negative acts such as abstaining from meat and alcohol on vrata/upavasa days or removing footwear before entering a temple are also instances of religious participation… Similarly, when a woman identified as having reproductive capabilities (for practical purposes, identified as belong to the 10-50 age group), accepts the restriction pertaining to Sabarimala with devotion, she is fully participating in the religion and in the worship of the deity. This “negative” participation by no means less profound and meaningful than the direct, “positive” participation of the men and women of the allowed age groups.”
The Sabarimala verdict has placed personal morality and the individual right to equality above the rights of the devotees and the rights of religious institutions which leads to problematic repercussions. For example, if a person argues tomorrow that temples should not insist on removal of footwear or on other forms of ritual purity while entering the temple premises and that this amounts to discrimination against those who cannot maintain such purity, where does this argument lead to?
Despite the judgment, millions of women in Kerala who started the #ReadytoWait movement will continue to wait till 50 to have a darsan of their deity.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at the Amrita Darshanam International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita University, Coimbatore).