On Sabarimala, the Supreme Court cannot force Hindus to abandon traditions that cause no harm.
Most Hindu responses to the Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala temple on allowing entry to women of all ages have relied on a combination of three arguments.
One is consistency – why should the Supreme Court’s action not be equally applied to all places of worship of all religions in India? Another question is one of standing. How does a petition by non-devotees of Sabarimala get ruled on by the Supreme Court? A third related aspect is why an officially secular government should be managing all aspects of the functioning of Hindu temples and only Hindu temples in India?
Many individuals and organisations, including the Hindu American Foundation, have for long advocated for freedom from government control for Hindu temples.
However, a reliance on the above arguments, or a simple appeal to tradition, has resulted in the Sabarimala temple being accused of misogyny and superstition for considering menstruating women to be “impure”. Comparisons have even been made with the social evil of sati.
All this, notwithstanding the incontrovertible truth that among the world’s major religions today, Hinduism stands out in its worship of the divine in the feminine form.
It is important to see the Sabarimala issue in the context of certain facts.
Kerala has many temples dedicated to Lord Ayappa. However, Sabarimala is the only temple that has the practice of restricting temple entry to women of a particular age. The restriction isn’t representative of the Ayyappa worship tradition, leave alone all of Hinduism.
There are some temples where only women are allowed during certain festivals in various parts of India, without any implication they are discriminatory towards men.
Such exceptional situations exist in other religions as well. Mount Athos in Greece is a 335 sq km peninsula that houses an Orthodox monastery. The entire peninsula has been out of bounds for women for centuries, a status that has been largely unchallenged. Similarly, Okinoshima, a Japanese sacred island requires men to strip naked before entering and bans the entry of women, and is recognised as a world heritage site by the UNESCO.
Most Hindu women probably have never perceived the practice at Sabarimala as an undue burden because the practice is confined to one specific temple. These facts, along with the questions of consistency and legal standing mentioned earlier, place the judgment on shaky ground. Still, it behoves Hindus to explain why women between 10-50 years of age are denied entry at all into this particular temple, without a generic appeal to “tradition”. “This is how it has always been done” does not and should not suffice.
The Sabarimala tradition requires men to practice austerities over a 41-day period, and then undertake a strenuous journey to the top of a hill in the midst of a thick jungle. Many conduct this journey entirely by foot, although a majority completes only the last segment (2-3 days) inside the jungle by foot. The austerities include long hours of prayer daily; abstention from sex, meat, alcohol, and tobacco; and controlling one’s temper, probably the hardest of all requirements. Those who undertake the pilgrimage wear special clothing and a rosary that marks them out, and society, in turn, is especially respectful of them in daily interactions. This tradition originated centuries ago, although its popularity outside the geographic vicinity of the temple has only exploded in recent decades.
The age-based restriction on women in this temple derives from a facet of religious practice that is unique to Hinduism. One finds the worship of God as father, mother, child, master, God who is fearsome and powerful (in both masculine and feminine forms), God who is calm and meditative, God as friend, even as lover, God as a formless spirit, God as a gender-fluid form, and God in various animal forms (which provide a powerful rationale to see the divine in all of nature). In this context, Ayyappa in Sabarimala takes the form of God as the ‘eternal celibate’.
Temple rituals, mantras, and worship methods vary widely across different temples in India based on varying beliefs about the relationship between man and God and the nature of afterlife. But the more important reason for the variation among temples is the difference in the form of God that is worshipped there. The Agamas, which are Hindu texts that detail procedures for the construction of temples and the conduct of rituals, provide various methods that are adapted to various forms of spiritual practice. A key ritual called prana pratishtha (meaning to infuse life force) is the process of welcoming the divine spirit into the image that is being worshipped while also detailing the form of worship that would be practiced. In this case, the Sabarimala temple serves as a place for men to gather, reflect upon celibacy, seek divine blessing, and hopefully retain some of that control over senses in daily life for the rest of the year.
Details of the Agamas, prana pratishtha, and specific temple rituals mentioned above can all be quite esoteric for even the lay urban Hindu in India today, not to mention non-Hindus. However, the objective here is not to claim that the benefits of such practices have been demonstrated using objective, scientific standards. Rather, it is simply to point out that these temples, and the associated rituals, are exceptions based on certain unique, long-standing and spiritually grounded Hindu traditions.
Most liberals, including, most recently, musician T.M. Krishna have wondered why the divine needs to protect himself from mere mortals. This displays a laughable ignorance of Hindu ideas. Hinduism is famous for recognising divinity within each person and formulating religious practices to help manifest it. The rules and practices of any tradition are thus simply for the benefit of its practitioners, not the ‘protection of the divine’. Many legends of Hinduism, such as the specific lore of Sabarimala’s Ayyappa, are designed to support and reinforce spiritual sadhana.
It is possible that Hindus as a community may decide to give up practicing some of these traditions. But it is not the job of India’s Supreme Court to force the abandonment of such traditions when they are not a source of harm, nor to intervene in the practices of only certain religious communities.
The Hindu American Foundation agrees with the general principle that there can be judicial intervention in religious practices when issues of human rights are involved and that such interventions should be uniformly applied to all. But it is absurd to compare Sabarimala with sati or caste-based discrimination. That would be the very antithesis of a nuanced analysis, which modernity and liberal values lay great store by.
The author is a member of the National Leadership Council of the Hindu American Foundation, and is a financial analyst based in New York.
This article has been updated to reflect changes.