Special Report

Review diktat on Sabarimala

Review diktat on Sabarimala

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court neither accepted nor rejected an appeal against its own order of September 28, declaring unlawful the ban on menstruating women in the age group of 10 to 50 years entering the revered Sabarimala temple in Kerala. However, a five-member bench, led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, agreed to hear the review petitions on January 22 next year. As the fate of the review petitions challenging the lifting of the ban on entry of women remains unclear, the Sabarimala temple is set to reopen for pilgrims from Saturday, November 17.

Since the controversial September verdict, the iconic Lord Ayyappa shrine has opened for seven days on two separate occasions, both times causing law and order problems with some women activists trying to force their way while being resisted by a far bigger number of devotees. The Marxist Government of Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan was caught unprepared by the high tension drama that was enacted under the glare of global television news cameras. It was virtually a test of wills between the majesty of the temporal laws and the peoples’ faith in their respective gods and the different ways of worshipping them. The Sabarimala temple has a long tradition of prohibiting the entry of menstruating women to protect the celibate deity who lies in majesty in the inner sanctum sanctorum of the temple complex which is normally accessible through strenuous trek through leafy and secluded paths. It is an innate part of the faith in Lord Ayyappa that devotees themselves turn celibate for a month, shun non-vegetarian food and trek bare-chested to the temple to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa.

In other words, strong traditions are associated with the practices and rituals at Sabarimalala temple. It is that which came under attack when a few activists challenged the ban in the apex court through a batch of PILs. The State Government of Kerala was hard put to take an unambiguous stand, especially when the management of the temple is under the direct control of government nominees. On September 28, a five-member bench, headed by the then Chief Justice Dipak Misra, held that the centuries-old custom was not an essential religious practice. “…the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender…” The argument that the ban on menstruating women was due to the innate character of the deity which was in a state of eternal celibacy did not cut ice with the majority. However, the dissenting order by Justice Indu Malhotra upheld the ban, saying “the religious practice of restricting the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 years is in pursuance of an essential religious practice…and notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts.”

Here is the nub of the matter which the dissenting judge seems to have captured rather well. At one level, all religions are a matter of faith, individual faith, if you like. So long as a particular place of worship poses no threat to public order and peace, the State should maintain a hands-off approach. Even the state control of temple trusts was supposed to scrupulously avoid altering the way of worship, its rituals, practices, etc. Many religions, indeed many sects and sub-sects of various religious faiths, have their own peculiar ways of worship. The state in the name of gender or other civic rights cannot interfere, or at least avoid interfering as far as possible by enforcing change through the use of force. Let that change be voluntary, initiated by the devotees in view of the evolving scientific and technological changes in the society at large. Several religious places have sought to integrate technology to facilitate worship; others have opened doors to hitherto banned castes and communities. But the important thing is that in a majority of such cases change has come from within. The apex court should revisit its order and leave it to the good sense and maturity of the presiding priests of the Sabarimala temple to consider lifting the ban on menstruating women. But a forced entry of women in the age group of 10 and 50 years merely to make a point about the triumph of secularist faith over the so-called communal/religious elements will keep the agitation simmering and end up dividing the people between devotees and non-devotees of Lord Ayyappa, not a happy augury for law and order in Kerala and beyond.



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