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Why The Ban On Women In Sabarimala Is ‘Neither Historical Nor Entirely Based On Religion’

By Elsa Oommen:

download“For the last 20 years woman [sic] irrespective of their age were allowed to visit the temple when it opens for monthly poojas. They were not permitted to enter the temple during Mandalam, Makaravilakku and Vishu seasons.” (S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore (1991)(8) [AIR 1993 Ker 42])

Supreme Court of India will soon be hearing the final arguments on the question of the restriction imposed on women in the reproductive age from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, in southern India. The court had earlier questioned the constitutional basis of the restriction, at the behest of a the public interest litigation (PIL) placed before the apex court of India by the Indian Young Lawyers Association (IYLA) where it called for allowing women of all ages to be allowed entry to the temple.

The petition has also come to the special attention of the court owing to numerous death threats to the lawyers who gave the petition. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the Sabarimala temple chief who had remarked that women will be allowed to enter the temple with the invention of machines to check the purity of women, triggered nationwide debates on the notion of menstruating women being impure and the viral campaign of #happytobleed which was followed by a letter written by a young college student Nikita Azad to Prayar Gopalakrishnan. The perpetuation of such discrimination on the basis of women’s natural biological process of menstruation goes against the fundamental rights, against freedom from discrimination which is guaranteed by the constitution. It can also be viewed as a restriction on access to public spaces such as the public roads from Pampa to Sannidhanam (Ayyappa temple) which is also against fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens of India irrespective of caste, creed and gender.

I will now be considering the case history of Sabarimala temple entry of women as it came up during the early 90s. The 1991 S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore (1991), [AIR 1993 Ker 42], Kerala High Court judgement is being cited by those upholding the ban on women entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. As I was glancing through the full judgement, it was evident that young women in the reproductive age were not banned from entering the temple except during mandalakalam, makaravilakku and vishu seasons. This has been also evident from the former Devaswom (Travancore Devaswom Board) Commissioner Smt. S. Chandrika’s statement that “the entry of young ladies in the temple during monthly poojas is not against the customs and practices followed in the temple.” Here she also admits that her granddaughter’s first rice feeding ceremony (choroonu) was held at Sabarimala temple. All these details contained within S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore (1991) states that young women were free to go to Sabarimala except during the three seasons mentioned above.

Justice Mishra, while going through the recent PIL submitted by IYLA had asked Travancore Devaswom Board what proof it had to say that women never entered the temple 1500 years ago. The recent statements given by the board in this petition seems to be countering the statements made by former Devaswom commissioner Smt. S Chandrika in 1991 about women having no restriction to enter the temple apart from the three seasons that has already been mentioned. As the case proceeded in 1991 with all the respondents, the High Court Bench of Justices K. Paripoornan and K.B. Marar examined the Sabarimala Tanthri since the Travancore State Manual stated that only the Tanthri could authoritatively give answers on such questions. Tanthri Sri Neelakandaru testified that women belonging to the restricted age group of 10 to 50 years were prohibited from entering the temple even before 1950, although the statement made by Smt. Chandrika had said that the entry of young ladies in the temple was not against the customs and practices of the temple. The High court gave the final order that the restriction on women in the age group of 10-50 is in accordance with the customs of the temple and does not violate of Art 15, 25 and 26 of the constitution.

One can see how the total ban on the women of reproductive age from entering the Sabarimala temple stemmed from some devotees’ fear that women of menstrual age may defile the temple by their presence” (MG Radhakrishnan, 1995). Kerala Devaswom Minister G Sudhakaran had also remarked in 2007 that there is evidence to prove that women had visited the temple and there is need to restore a right once enjoyed by women. Nivedita Menon (2004:3) talks about the “the impossibility of appealing to women as a category unmediated by other identities like religion and caste.” It is in such circumstances that one has to see the vision of the framers of the Indian constitution when they did not go for complete separation of the state and the religion. The words of B. R Ambedkar (Chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution) comes as a particular reminder in the understanding of the role of the constitution and legal machinery to be able to provide social justice. He had remarked that “the religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved, I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill.” Here one can see where Ambedkar hints on the conscience collective drawing from religion that they cover almost all aspects of life and death. Durkheim, the classical sociologist examined the situation of mechanical solidarity where “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society forms a determinate system which has its own life; one may call it the collective or common conscience (Durkheim, 1893).” While conscience collective holds the society together, it also necessitates changes to the nature of solidarity when the society becomes more diffuse and the constituent elements become more distinct and developed.

The intervention of the state law into the customary practices of the various communities is seen to have produced far-flung changes in the nature of these laws which existed prior to them. It is to be noted that this is not just a linear process whereby the non-state acquires the elements of the state law, but also a case where the state law or the dominant law also seems to assimilate the elements of the customary law. The courts in India have led social reform agendas in a country that is still largely enveloped by some form of conscience collective which can be oppressive to marginalised groups in the society such as scheduled castes, minorities and women. India has also witnessed murders of social reformers and activists such as Narendra Dabholkar who had also fought gender bias in temples and places of worship. Thus, the emancipatory role of the apex court is of utmost importance in fighting such deep rooted biases which exist in the society.

To conclude, the Supreme Court has rightly cited constitutional guarantees of equality to question the restriction imposed on women in the reproductive age group. “Why can you not let a woman enter? On what basis are you prohibiting women entry? What is your logic? Women may or may not want to go [to worship at Sabarimala], but that is their personal choice,” remarked Justice Dipak Misra, heading a three-member apex court bench on the case, “you cannot prevent them from worshipping at the shrine.” Radhakrishnan (1995) examines how the then president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, N. Bhaskaran Nair, had hinted at possible changes when similar demands for women’s entry came up in the early 90s by saying, “I respect all the temple conventions but, personally, I think a change is inevitable. Once the lower caste people were denied entry into the temples. The ban on women may also change.” One can see that the total ban on women in Sabarimala temple is neither historical nor entirely based on religion, but merely based on the decisions of an all-male establishment which is free to stipulate rules which discriminate against women on the basis of biological and physical conditions intrinsic to their gender.

This article was also published on Kafila.

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  1. Rahul R

    I think the ban on women's entry is because the deity at Sabarimala is Ayyapan is a 'Naishtika Brahmacari'. Allowing women to enter the temple (although it sounds sane and logical) will be like taking away the uniqueness of the deity and therefore temple and the pilgrimage. Religions and its practices is a very sensitive topic. The passing of a bill lifting the ban on Women's entry to Sabarimala will definitely infuriate a large majority of hindu men and women.
    Then a Hindu activist will file a case in the court for the entry of Muslim women to the Mosques. If the court doesn't lift the ban, the Hindu community will feel discriminated and If the court lifts the ban some terrorist organizations like ISIS will see this as an act of violation of their sacred laws. The same can be said about Hindu terrorists also.
    It will result in widespread riots and could lead to loss of life and property.

    I feel for you. It must feel like oppression but some things are better left the way they are.

    1. sAANVI

      http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/csi-appoints-woman-as-bishop/article5176691.ece

      THERE …. ALREADY APPOINTED IN 2013…

      whY U WANT TO TALK OF OTHER RELIGION,,, SO U MEAN TO SAY ,, IF ONE RELIGION KILLS WOMEN AND DEGRADES WOMEN ,,, YOU WANT OTHER RELIGION ALSO TO FOLLOW …

      LETS STICK WITH THE TOPIC …. BANNING WOMEN JUST BECAUSE THEY HAVE MENSTRUAL CYCLE IS WRONG …. IF HAVING PERIODS IS WRONG , WHY DID GOD MADE WOMEN AND CREATED HER TO HAVE MENSTRUAL CYCLE,,, DOES THAT MEAN ,, GOD IS WRONG IN CREATING WOMEN IN SUCH A WAY… NO RIGHT …

      THIS MENSTRUAL BLOOD IS USED FOR NOURISHING THE BABY WHEN ITS WOMB ,,,

    2. Rahul R

      Majority of Hindus including me believe that the ban of women is because of the deity in Sabarimala. As i mentioned earlier, he is a Naishtika Brahmacari. It has nothing to do with menstruation. I have a mother and a sister and they both have the same opinion and so does many other hindu women.
      Religion will get dragged into this because it is indeed a religious issue. You cannot simply turn a blind to that. It is indeed a fact that Hindu's will feel oppressed and discriminated. Please don't stick with menstruation as the only issue. Be open minded and see the other side of the story.

  2. Shrike

    Lets us first see women priests in Indian Catholic churches.

  3. Vishnu

    I dont understand why the issue of women entering a Hindu temple is being raised by Alas Ommens and Nausheed mullahs. Why do you people need to interfere in religious matters of other people when you yourself are converts!

  4. rini

    Why only Hindus? Do any one question Muslim wearing pardha or not entering mosque . Everyone have their beleif system.

    Secularism is India is only by damaging Hindus beliefs . even I am a woman I understand the purity followed in my religion.

  5. arumugam

    why should the muslim and christians poke their nose into these type of sensitive issue of religion and most of all it is belived from long back that going to sabarimala after being taken the bramachariya for 48 days is the factual one and ladies cannot do this so and it is an fact and real happening in sabarimala that the people who boast that they have the power to climb and they are stronger can be seen that they are unable to walk all the way and small childrens say may be within 5 years runs like a deer and such is that plz it is an request for all women do not try this and during the period of nov-jan it will be an devotees compulsorily taking up 48 days or more than 48 days of bramacharya oath, plz do not try to spoil their bramacharya. and it is an fact that do not dig your own graveyard to your family.. first of all u people have done biggest wrong thing by listening to the word of B***h trupti desai by entering the shanishingnapur temple. god idols touching is not allowed to be touched by the males and it is very danger to touch and poeple will one day spit on trupti desai for her political drama and every family which has done teh wrong thing will face a bigger tragedy in tehir family.

  6. arumugam

    WHY NOT THESE TRUPTI DESAI INSTIGATE THE MUSLIM LADIES TO FIGHT AGAINST THE INJUSTICE AS SHE IS SAYING ABOUT THE HINDU TEMPLES. AT LEAST IN OTHER PARTS OF INDIAN HINDU TEMPLES WOMEN ARE ALLOWED TO ENTER INTO THE TEMPLE TO WORSHIP, WHEREAS THE MUSLIM WOMEN ARE NOT ALLOWED INTO SMALLER MASJID ITSELF FIRST LET THE MUSLIM ALLOW THEIR WOMEN INTO MASJID AND TRY TO COMMENT ON OTHER RELIGION. THEY CAN HAVE THEIR OWN RULES FOR THEIR RELIGION AND WE HINDUS CANNOT HAVE OUR OWN RELIGION RULES. AND FIRST OF ALL THE JUDGE WHO HAS TAKEN UP THIS CASE HAS TO BE BLAMES AND HE WILL ALSO FACE THE TRAGEDY FOR HIS NONSENSE ACT

  7. arumugam

    WHY NOT THESE TRUPTI DESAI INSTIGATE THE MUSLIM LADIES TO FIGHT AGAINST THE INJUSTICE AS SHE IS SAYING ABOUT THE HINDU TEMPLES. AT LEAST IN OTHER PARTS OF INDIAN HINDU TEMPLES WOMEN ARE ALLOWED TO ENTER INTO THE TEMPLE TO WORSHIP, WHEREAS THE MUSLIM WOMEN ARE NOT ALLOWED INTO SMALLER MASJID in any part of Indian state ITSELF. FIRST LET THE MUSLIM ALLOW THEIR WOMEN INTO MASJID AND TRY TO COMMENT ON OTHER RELIGION. THEY CAN HAVE THEIR OWN RULES FOR THEIR RELIGION AND WE HINDUS CANNOT HAVE OUR OWN RELIGION RULES. AND FIRST OF ALL THE JUDGE WHO HAS TAKEN UP THIS CASE HAS TO BE BLAMES AND HE WILL ALSO FACE THE TRAGEDY FOR HIS NONSENSE ACT

  8. arumugam

    TRUPTI DESAI should INSTIGATE THE MUSLIM LADIES TO FIGHT AGAINST THE INJUSTICE AS SHE IS SAYING ABOUT THE HINDU TEMPLES. AT LEAST IN OTHER PARTS OF INDIAN HINDU TEMPLES WOMEN ARE ALLOWED TO ENTER INTO THE TEMPLE TO WORSHIP, WHEREAS THE MUSLIM WOMEN ARE NOT ALLOWED INTO SMALLER MASJID in any part of Indian state ITSELF. FIRST LET THE MUSLIM ALLOW THEIR WOMEN INTO MASJID AND TRY TO COMMENT ON OTHER RELIGION. THEY CAN HAVE THEIR OWN RULES FOR THEIR RELIGION AND WE HINDUS CANNOT HAVE OUR OWN RELIGION RULES. AND FIRST OF ALL THE JUDGE WHO HAS TAKEN UP THIS CASE HAS TO BE BLAMES AND HE WILL ALSO FACE THE TRAGEDY FOR HIS NONSENSE ACT

  9. dinesh

    Greetings ladies and gentle men… there is a case filed by a muslim lawyer on sabarimala…. funny thing he hasnt noticed a case was filed on his religion by his own women demanding entry of women into mosque…
    tradition in sabarimala temple is followed over years………….. but what about mosques… as and when fatwas issue there is a change in the law (sharia)… unfortunately he has forgot his rights of his women… a religion which is highly biased and entertains discrimination related to triple talaqs….. he will not raise his voice may be his sister or mother got used to it… and he enjoys it…. so first, look at your self… my advice is U HAVE STARTED…. U WILL FACE THE HEAT…………..

    wishing you get enlightened very soon

  10. dilip varma

    Dharma Shastha was the son of Siva and Vishnu, after Vishnu had taken the Mohini form. Shastha had two wives, Purna and Pushkala. Shastha was not a Brahmachari. The Sabarimala Dharma Shastha temple was built many years before Ayyappa was born. The Sabarimala temple was destroyed by a powerful dacoit before Ayyappa was born. Ayyappa killed the dacoit and rebuilt the temple. On the day of consecrating the temple Ayyappa merged with the Deity after the evening Aarathi. That day Ayyappa’s childhood friends, the Adivasis in Ponnambalamedu (situated opposite Sabarimala) also lit a Fire and did Aarathi at the same time. This is the famous Makara Jyothi. These Adivasis have been conducting this Aarathi on all Makara Sankranthi every year.

    Ayyappa merged with the Deity after the Aarathi was conducted, and hence Ayyappa was called as an Avathar of Dharma Shastha. Since Ayyappa had merged into the Deity, this temple became an Ayyappa temple. Since Ayyappa was a Naishtika Brahmachari, the temple rules were made to suit that, and women’s entry was restricted. Though nowadays all Shastha temples are called Ayyappa temples, actually only the Sabarimala temple is really an Ayyappa temple.

    Without knowing all this background it is foolish to say that this is gender bias. The SC has erred and erred badly. The SC should have at least heard the arguments of the Thanthri before coming out with a stupid judgement. By making such judgements just to be on the same lines as the Western World, the SC is not adding any any glory to itself.

    1. Sankaran Nerukavil Variath

      On the spot. These people who wite such articles do not have the basic knowledge about the diverse characters and identities of Hindu deities, temples and the rules and rituals associated with them.

  11. Atul Mehra

    Cannot agree more with your points especially the elements around role of state around religious matters.

  12. Sankaran Nerukavil Variath

    Do not spread lies and mislead people. First of all there is no ban on women entering Sabarimala temple. Girls below 10 years and women above 50 years have always been visiting Sabarimala and having Darshan of Ayyappaswami.

    The restriction is only because the Deity is a naishtika brahmachari(avowed celebarpte) who desires to keep himself away from young women. As tha prince of Pandalam palace, he did not ask all young women to leave his palce or its premises. Instead, he left the palace on his own, went to the forest to continue to practice his Brahmacharya(celebacy). True devotees will respect his desire and will not disturb him. Please note this rule is applicable only in Sabaraimala and not in any other temple in the world. The rules and rituals of every temple are defined based on the character, nature and identity of the deity and unlike in other religions, the deity of every Hindu temple is assigned specific characters and rituals and rules are decided based on their characters.

    There are temples where there is restrictions on men too. There one Hindu temple in Kerala where Naree Pooja(worshipping of women) is conducted and the pooja is conducted by male priests.

    So, please learn about the concepts of and beliefs related to Hindu temples, Deities, rules and rituals before looking at them through the prism of monotheistic Abrahamic religions.

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