Does celibacy mean not being in contact with women? Are menstruating women untouchables? Are all menstruating women an object of enticement for men? Does menstruation make women go on a crazy sex-spree? All of these questions seem to be hovering over the Sabarimala issue that has divided Kerala, the so-called most progressive state of India. Kerala is now facing a hurricane of violence, political diplomacy and war by BJP and Congress while the eye of the hurricane remains the sanctum sanctorum (Sabarimala Temple) which is protected by the Travancore priest family, policemen and even army men. There are multiple arguments that attack and support the recent Sabarimala SC ruling which is either being hailed as ‘historic’ and ‘progressive’ or as ‘interfering’ and ‘inconsiderate’. Many have pointed fingers at the Court of unduly interfering in religion, but the question is, was the interference truly undue?
The 1991 ruling of Kerala HC with Justices K Paripoornan and KB Marar barred women of age 10 until 50 years from entering the most famous and sacred temple of Lord Ayyappa. The former Devaswom (Travancore Devaswom Board) Commissioner Smt. S Chandrika had explicitly told the Supreme Court that the entry of women during poojas is consistent with the customs of the temple. There was clear dissonance between the former Devaswom Commissioner and the Tanthri who testified that women between the ages of 10 to 50 have never been allowed into the temple. But is the question about these inconsistencies? Is the question about whether women have been ‘allowed’ to enter the temple in the last 1,500 years or not? No, the question remains whether the arguments against the recent SC ruling are logical or not.
First and foremost, for the people who often proclaim, very authoritatively and self-righteously, that the Court has no role in the religious matters of the citizens need to re-evaluate their statement. There still exists a term called “social justice”, which in its very essence involves the society at large and justice (served by the judiciary). In a country like India where religion seeps into all aspects of an individual’s life, social justice cannot be served without the interaction of religion and jurisprudence. As Dr. Ambedkar himself said, “There is nothing which is not religion (in a country like India).”
Secondly, when did the prejudice against women based on a biological process become a good enough reason to exclude women from an activity? Oh wait, since forever. But, thanks to Ambedkar, according to Indian Constitution any exclusionary practice arising out of prejudice is unconstitutional and illegal. Menstruation is a process through which the human kind is thriving and thus, is not something to be used as a basis for gender-based discrimination. Justice DY Chandrachud defined the custom and the 1991 ruling as a type of ‘untouchability’ as it subjugated women, excluded them from the Ayyappa’s devotees’ community on the basis of a natural process over which they have no control. Even if it is argued that menstruating women entering Sabarimala Temple would be disrespectful to the vow of celibacy of Lord Ayyappa, I believe this argument is based on the premise that women can only be viewed as highly sexualised beings who can ‘entice’ the great Lord with just their presence. It’s a premise that I believe is patriarchal in its conception, disallowing women from being “real” devotees like men.
Aren’t we educated enough to see these irrational, decrepit biases? Justice Malhotra advised the court to not interfere in the ‘matters of deep religious faith and sentiments’, but drew the line at practices such as sati. But, how far is this practice away from sati? Sati forced women to burn themselves alive on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. It reiterated and gave strength to the prejudices that women’s lives revolve around men, that their identity is derived from men and hence will always be lesser than them. It disarms, subjugates, and humiliates women by making them a derivative of another being, not whole in themselves. This is exactly what barring women’s entry to the temple does. It stops women from living their spiritual life; visiting the god they love and revere so deeply. It kills their spiritual being on the basis of the redundant notions of purity and pollution.
Thirdly, let’s come to the vow of celibacy of Lords Ayyappa. Celibacy is a choice a person makes consciously and with commitment. Question is, if Lord Ayyappa is so great, can’t his devotees trust him to not break his vow on the mere sight of a menstruating woman? I’m sure that a saint like him knows the difference between devotion and lust and has the mental capacities to fall into the ‘trap’ of lust if he comes across it. He is a God, after all. What’s really disrespectful is then how our lack of faith in his intelligence as a supreme being. At the very core of this “Oh My God, Lord Ayyappa is celibate, so let’s not let women go near him” argument lies the by-product of patriarchy, which is, baby-ing men to the point of rendering them incapable of controlling their instincts, no matter if the man in question is a GOD. This also puts the onus of responsibility on the woman who then has to be censored because of the man’s choices.
Even after stating all my arguments, I won’t say that women should or should not go to the temple. It’s their choice as devotees and as spiritual beings to visit or not. But, it was imperative to scrap the 1991 judgment because it snatched away this choice and snatched the agency of women to decide what they want to do as thinking beings. It goes against their fundamental and human rights to not have a choice in their very own religious matters. The 1991 judgment was unconstitutional in this sense.