Women holding up signs in protest to the supreme court verdict that allows women entry to the temple. Some of which read: “Save Temples from Atheists”, “Ready to wait till 50” (referring to the original law that restricted females between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the temple).
SABARIMALA: DEVOTION BEYOND CONVENTIONS
Disobeying religion to pray to a God that does not wish to see them
It was on the faithful, or as many would now say, the faithless morning of September 28, 2018, that the Supreme Court of India announced their verdict to lift the ban on entry of women to the Sabarimala temple in the southern state of Indian South-Western state of Kerala. The verdict passed given a 4:1 majority rule on the five-judge constitution bench with the only vote against the verdict being the female judge Justice Indu Malhotra.
According to Justice Indu Malhotra, “Religious practices can’t solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality. It’s up to the worshippers, not the court to decide what’s religion’s essential practice.” supporting her stance that judicial interference goes against constitutional morality.
Justice Indu Malhotra supported her stance that judicial interference goes against constitutional morality, claiming that “Religious practices can’t solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality. It’s up to the worshippers, not the court to decide what’s religion’s essential practice.”
The issue of equal rights to access places of worship has always been a controversial topic of discussion in the secular and democratic nation. However, access to the Sabarimala temple, in particular, is one which concerns many ardent devotees, and rightfully so. As this is not a matter of feminism and equal rights, rather, it is one of belief and faith. Many women are blinded by the belief that they are restricted from access as they are “unsanitary”. However, mythologically, the reason is quite the opposite.
As the legend goes, while Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the Sabarimala temple was still a minor, a demon was creating havoc. The Lord successfully defeated her and, it was revealed that the demon was actually a beautiful young woman who had been cursed. In gratitude, the woman proposed to Lord Ayyappa, refused as he had been ordained to go to the forest and answer the prayers of his devotees. But since the young woman was persistent, he promised to marry her when new devotees stopped visiting him with their prayers at Sabarimala.
As a sign of respect towards this woman, females between the ages of 10-50 are not permitted to visit the temple as it would be an insult to her love and sacrifice. However, the women who are such ardent devotees of the lord are unable to believe the very reason behind restricting their entry.
Due to the spread of 21st-century ideologies involving political correctness in India, many have regarded the verdict to be an act of outright discrimination and have put the very basis of their faith away to be blinded by an apparent inequality. In essence, the women who wanted this verdict fought a painstaking battle against their religion by following the strict procedures of the Sabarimala pilgrimage which are physically and religiously not possible for females to follow and ended up turning the peaceful atmosphere of the area upside down – all to see a God that does not wish to see them.
The pilgrimage that was once a solace seeking journey, where one could see roads overcrowded with faithful devotees during the winter months, now has its reputation in a pitiful state. Many male devotees have even said that they would not return to the temple due to the verdict. As said to BBC Hindi‘s Imran Qureshi, Murugan, a devotee avowed; “We have been coming to [this] temple for the last 30 years. But we may not come back because women entering the temple will spoil our belief system”. Although secluding women from accessing places is typically unconstitutional, the Sabarimala case is unique in that we see a majority of women protesting against the Supreme Court verdict in a quest to revive the reputation of their beliefs.
The empowering #MeToo movement and other feminist movements in India work towards ensuring women’s security, equal opportunities and uplifting women’s dignity. These movements have made great strides in bringing justice to many victims of inequity and sexual violence, and have also drawn the media’s attention to demeaning cultural stereotypes. On the contrary, the verdict to allow women entry into the temple paved a pathway for unnecessary state intervention in religious issues where fundamental rights were not being challenged and also hurt the sentiments of several people.
State intervention in religious matters in the past have only been appropriate when women were discriminated against through religious practices. One such practice would be the Triple Talaq, in which the supreme court ruled that the practice of meriting a divorce through merely saying the Arabic phrase “talaq” (divorce) to a female partner thrice. It was made a criminal offence, as it was being used against women and caused them immense suffering and outcasting.
Niranjana Jayakrishnan, Kerala-native practising gynaecology is an ardent devotee and comes from a family of staunch believers in the tradition. Niranjana has passionately expressed her views when she wrote in her opinion piece for News 18; “When I can walk back to my house, at night, feeling safe, without any lecherous stares or catcalls from men, that is victory”, expressing her views on what equal rights truly mean.
Women who favour the Sabarimala verdict have invested immense amounts of time and energy into ensuring that the verdict has passed. But who has benefited from this? The women who have entered the temple have religiously not benefited from this as they have gone against the belief that lied behind restricting women’s entry. Kanaka Durga, one of the women who entered the temple was socially ostracized and disowned by her family, while others who have entered the temple have received death threats and other actions concerning their safety. In terms of women’s rights and discrimination, negative progress has been made due to the large scale misinterpretation of where to draw the line. Most importantly, the true essence and values behind the pilgrimage have been lost to sensationalization and disturbances caused due to riots against the verdict.
Finally, in the words of Justice Indu Malhotra herself; “Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion”.
– Srinandini Sukumar