File photo of Sabarimala temple | PTI
File image of Sabarimala temple | PTI
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Religion and God are often used as pawns for negotiating behaviour, for justifying actions, thoughts and beliefs.

Should women be allowed to enter the Sabarimala shrine? A persistent question that leads to thorough investigations on customs, traditions and the responsibility on women to ensure that Lord Ayyappa can successfully maintain his Brahmacharya, his celibacy.

Hinduism believes that Lord Ayyappa chose to be a Naistika Brahmacharya, which implies that he wishes to be celibate and withdrawn from civilisation.

While that may stand true, people are quick to place the responsibility of the maintenance of this celibacy on women.

One opinion on social media says that a celibate ‘must completely abstain himself from all luxuries and means of satisfying the five senses. He must not even hear stories of women and rich people, leave alone the matter of coming in contact with them. Menstruating women are considered sexually attractive and hence must be abstained from,or to make things easier for them, they can consider menstruating women as Goddess Uma (embodiment of Mata Shakti). Lord Ayyappa being a strict brahmachari is not even supposed to think of women and any other luxuries.

The writer dehumanises women by branding them a luxury one must abstain from. This is yet another trope that aligns with the discriminatory treatment women are subjected to, every month, for menstruating.

However, with the added comparison to a goddess, there’s an element of honour and glory, and justification provided to package oppression as tradition.

Also read: Forgive me liberal friends, but I can’t completely overlook faith of Sabarimala devotees

As a nation, we consider temples to be holy places of worship but are swift in categorising women as seductive apsaras whose existence itself is exempt from boundaries that will hinder a god’s capacity to maintain his vowed celibacy.

In the name of tradition and customs, people are quick to objectify and idolise women in the same sentence. Like most styles of classic gaslighting, it’s a nuanced form of manipulation that leads to a confusing yet justifiable dissonance for women that goes unquestioned.

As a society that is so heavily influenced by religion, we seldom take responsibility for it. Religion and God are often used as pawns for negotiating behaviour, for justifying actions, thoughts and beliefs.

It’s easier to conform than unlearn. For instance, ‘Durga’ is seen as the epitome of strength, so she receives gratitude for times when one displays courage in action. ‘Saraswati’ is worshipped before an exam because it is believed that she resides in the text as knowledge.

No argument holds when our ancestors and their beliefs are brought to moderate our discussions.

The Sabarimala Devasom chief Prayar Gopalakrishnan himself implied that education and progressive values aside, women will have to follow the norms laid down by tradition.

No questions asked.

Gopalakrishnan also asked: When the streets remain unsafe for women, why must they embark on a difficult pilgrimage to the temple?

Also read: Next door to Sabarimala temple district, a menstruating goddess is worshipped

More opinions on social media discuss women being prevented from visiting Sabarimala is to ensure their safety since there are higher chances of them getting raped or killed.

While no accountability or responsibility is assigned to temple authorities or the state government, the onus of safety is placed again on women by isolating them and barring their presence in select spaces.

It is packaged as concern and protection. Language is a skilful tool for gaslighting, and therefore this subtle and dangerous form of abuse goes unnoticed till it has done immense damage.

Gaslighting as self-preservation

Gaslighting adds fodder to the legitimate fear of spaces that women are vulnerable to. It teaches them to only internalise fear, but also to accept that spaces will always be dangerous and the only means to self-preservation is to avoid these spaces, to remain silent, to accept that women alone are accountable for their own safety.

The irony, however, is that the temple authorities and right-wing activists enjoy being the flagbearers of equality while discussing how prepubescent girls and post-menopausal women are welcome to enter the shrine.

So the journey and regions are safe for young girls and older women, but not for menstruating women?

That is profiling and blatant discrimination.

I visited Sabarimala in 1999. I was seven years old and that was my first and only visit. My father has been visiting the temple for the last 20 years. I fasted with him, I prayed with him and I climbed the hill in the dead of the night during peak season.

Also read: Sabarimala cleaned after women enter: Faith in tradition or resistance to change?

Since then, I have paid numerous visits to Ayyappa temples in different parts of the country and as far as I know, the Lord’s celibacy remains unaffected.

Tradition, customs and beliefs are intricately designed blankets for hiding the bigotry and biases that influence Brahmanical patriarchy.

The normalisation of gaslighting and manipulation weaponises religion to instil feelings of guilt, fear and shame in vulnerable masses. It merely reinforces creative forms of oppression.

It wasn’t okay then, it isn’t okay now.

The author is a columnist and a mental health clinician in Chicago.

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8 Comments Share Your Views


  1. The deity is supposed to be a Naishtika Brahmachari ( Celibacy as a Creed) , rather than Nastika Brahmachari ( Atheistic Celibate) as spelt out in the article. Of course, both are nonsensical notions.

  2. There is a profound difference between Naishtika and Nastika. Goes without saying, the other conclusions you draw are garbage, since the starting premise itself is false.

  3. Trying to claim a moral high ground while making a lot of incorrect claims is the problem these days. Ayappa temples across the globe do not have any restrictions on menstruating women, so if one really wants to seek his blessings she can visit any of these temples. If you really think that gaining entry in to Ayappa’s temple would bring equality to women then you should also request the government of Kerala to provide protection for women who want to visit Vavar Samadhi enroute to Aiyappa temple. As you might know Vavar is considered to be a dear friend of Aiyappa and it is a known custom for people that visit Sabarimala to visit Vavar Samadhi first.

  4. A mental health clinician in Chicago is the author. She has not mentioned whether she was okay with her father following the tradition.
    First, I do not think the term “gaslighting” applies here. Second, once you are a believer in a religion or a tradition, you either take it or leave it. In Hinduism (unlike in Abrahamic religions), there is no apostasy nor is there blasphemy. There is no compulsion to worship a God nor is there any compulsion on worshipping any one particular God or temple, no compulsion to be exclusive in your faith or follow anyone particular tradition.
    But, once you do want to follow a tradition, there is nothing wrong in following its rules when the rules do not actually harm anyone.
    I might say that as an Indian citizen, I have a right to go into the PMO at any time that I wish. Will I be allowed to do that? It is the PMO and they decide the rules on how to receive people. The same goes for the author if she wishes to meet the President of USA in the White House.
    So, what is wrong in asking the women to stay out at this one particular temple when the temple belongs to a particular tradition with particular rules. It is not a public office, is it?
    This is unnecessary rabble-rousing and please do not compare it to Sati or female education or widow remarriage or triple talaq. They are entirely different issues where livelihood and life are effected. Not attending Sabarimala temple to see the Lord neither deprives you of your life nor of your livelihood nor your mental or physical well being.
    This article is surprisingly bullshit coming from a mental health clinician. I would really like to know her qualifications. Seem to be unaware of the concepts of faith and its relation to mental well being.
    By the way, I am an atheist but when I do go to temples (either with family or as a professional responsibility), I do follow the rules of the temple or not go at all. I do not go there to demand that they implement my rules.

  5. I think it’s a well written article. I would have appreciated it more had the author elaborated more about gaslighting in this context. Also, while the issue may not be as grave as sati practice or triple talaaq , it still attacks the fundamental right of women to take decision on their own. Also , while traditions are fine, anything that affects the freedom of other people just ain’t worth it and any moral lecturing in the name of traditions, culture, or trolling in the name of women being feminist or people being leftist just won’t help. The fact remains that this tradition is discriminatory, it blames women for affecting the celibacy vows of God (as if we don’t trust our gods enough to not have roving eyes) and is overall a manifestation of patriarchal society.

  6. I think the entire practice is deeply entrenched in patriarchal concepts. And any defence be it in the name of casts, customs, traditions etc won’t change the fact that it’s not only orthodox but downright wrong. It is indeed gaslighting where the people can’t trust even a gods to maintain their celibacy in the presence of women. This is not about gods and it’s not an insult to God but it’s about the mentality of people who are trying to justify it in the name of God. The entire practice is nonsensical and farcical


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