The following article is based on my own interpretation of the said events. Any material borrowed from published and unpublished sources has been appropriately referenced. I will bear the sole responsibility for anything that is found to have been copied or misappropriated or misrepresented in the following post.
Chetna Kohli, MBA 2015-17, Vinod Gupta School of Management, IIT Kharagpur
Discrimination on the basis of gender (specially in India) is not limited to female exclusion in economic hierarchy, corporate ecosphere or political/ legal affairs. Women are barred, by age-old customs and traditions, from entering places of worship like mosques and (some) temples. One such temple is the Sabarimala Shrine in Kerela. On 11 January 2016, the Young lawyer’s Association filed a petition asking the Supreme Court of India to lift the restriction on women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the temple. This petition, contending that the act of women touching the temple’s main idol is an act of desecration, has opened a can of worms. The question of women entering the shrine calls for a solution that fosters constitutional assurance of impartiality and freedom of religion.Sabarimala is one of the very few temples in India that treats men from all castes and creeds to be equal. Devotees dress in black to promote uniformity and represents renunciation of worldly pleasures. The devotees are categorized on the basis of frequency of pilgrimage and not on the basis of caste. A dalit can lead the rituals while a Brahmin would touch his feet. Such is the beauty of this shrine. However, the temple’s board limits access to the shrine to only male devotees.
Sabarimala is one of the very few temples in India that treats men from all castes and creeds to be equal. Devotees dress in black to promote uniformity and represent renunciation of worldly pleasures. The devotees are categorized on the basis of frequency of pilgrimage rather than caste. A Dalit can lead the rituals while a Brahmin would touch his feet. Such is the beauty of this shrine. However, the temple’s board limits access to the shrine only to male devotees.
During the hearing on 11 January, the Supreme Court suggested that unless the shrine’s governing body has the right to constitutionally prohibit entry of female devotees, it couldn’t prevent them from entering the temple. This has caused a stir in religious circles of Kerela. To understand why lifting the ban is such a big deal for the priests, one ought to know the reason behind it. According to legend, Lord Ayappa, to whom the temple is dedicated, decided to stay celibate so that he could focus on his devotees. Ayappa is a historical figure who is believed to be the son of both Vishnu and Shiva and was born to vanquish a demon. The demon turned into a beautiful woman after being killed by Ayappa and asked him for marriage. He refused, explaining to her that his sole mission is to answer the prayers of his devotees. However, he assured her that they will marry on the day devotees stop coming to Sabarimala. She now sits and waits for him in a neighboring shrine and is worshipped as Malikapurathamma. With millions of devotees pouring in each year, hers is an unending wait. The reason why women don’t visit the temple is partly out of empathy for Malikapurathamma and partly out of respect for Ayappa’s commitment towards his devotees. They believe that women act as a source of distraction for the celibate.
While on one hand, the prohibition of women is seen as customary by religious circles, the legal circles, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the tradition needs to be refined and reformed for gender inclusiveness and freedom of religious sentiment. The religious freedom clauses: Article 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution protect the rights of Hindus to practice and propagate any religion according to their choice and the decisions of the legislation are only enforceable against the state and not against individuals or corporate bodies. The dilemma now is that can the temple’s governing board – Travancore Devaswom Board be equated to the “state” and can it be legally bound to any rulings of the Supreme Court. If the board is not in the purview of the Constitution, the alternative is to simply strike down the offending rule on the grounds of discrimination against sex, which violates the fundamental right of equality enlisted in the Constitution. Another way is that the women worshippers may ask the court to take necessary steps to ensure that they are allowed to worship at the shrine. The situation is highly vexed, the relationship between freedom of religion and individual rights is extremely complex and the scope of the Constitution is not clear.
Sabarimala Shrine’s case is not a one-of-its-kind case. Not long back, Bombay High court received appeals from women asking for recognition and access at Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. Even this case is awaiting a decision. It will be interesting to see how faith will fight against logic, how rituals and traditions will accomodate equality and how inclusiveness, if achieved, will be the new norm at these religious sites. The next hearing for the Sabarimala case is on 18 January 2016.