I was born in India to Hindu parents. There is much I admire about the constitution of India and I am thankful for being born in a country that is built on the principles of equality and secularism. I also thank my luck for having been born to parents who, while being devout Hindus, exercised their judgement and the liberal interpretation that this ancient way of life offers to give me the choice of being irreligious and agnostic, bordering on being an atheist.
I know many people who are deeply religious and devoted to Ayyappan. For them, the belief in the deity comes with complete belief in the legends and myths attached to Ayyappan and the Sabarimala temple. Many of them are progressive and broad minded and believe in equality of all human beings and in no way practice discrimination based on gender or otherwise. But they do believe in the myth behind Ayyappan and the temple – that the deity was conceived by the coming together of Shiva and Vishnu (in the form of Mohini) and that he was a Brahmachari (celibate) and wishes to remain so, and hence would like to keep away from women who are of fertile age. I respect their right to believe this story and worship the deity, with all that comes along with the belief, even though I personally believe it is just a story (I love the story, just like I love the stories in Mahabharata, Ramayana, The Bible, Roman mythology, Greek mythology, etc.). I can fully understand and appreciate the anguish these devotees feel when the temple has suddenly been thrown open to women of fertile age. They believe that the temple will lose its sanctity and its deity will either leave his abode, leaving the temple an empty shell or would lash out in anger. Many activists who fought for the right of entry of women believe that the ban on women of fertile age is due to the abhorrent belief in menstrual impurity. This is not the case in Sabarimala. It is to do with the celibacy of the deity. If one is religious (which I consider an emotional decision rather than rational), then one should accept the other irrational aspects of religion, as long as it is not fundamentally discriminatory in nature. I, for one, don’t believe that this is a fundamentally discriminatory practice by intent. It is to do with the specific myth behind a specific deity of a specific temple.
So, is it then right to protest the entry of women into the temple now and forcibly keep them out? Not at all. There are many reasons why not.
All major religions in this world were created by men. By ‘men’, I don’t mean the generic usage that was in vogue to denote human beings, (though, I personally also believe that all gods, and hence religions were created by human beings.) By men, I meant male human beings. Men, exclusively, created the rules, the rituals and the structures that define each of these religions and even continue to be the only ones allowed to be the conduits to the various ‘Gods’. It was not gods who created the myths, but men – male humans. Every religion has in some way or the other been a perpetrator and upholder of patriarchy: ‘man’-made patriarchy. So why should women who are now finally beginning the see faint light at the end of the millennia spanning dark tunnel adhere to the norms set exclusively by men? Many women who believe in Ayyapa also believe ardently that women of fertile age shouldn’t enter the temple, just like many Muslim women subject to the enslavement of the Purdah ardently believe it is the right thing for women. But this is mere social conditioning; perpetrated by men. So why shouldn’t the more progressive women break out of these shackles? For many of them, Shabarimala entry is is not about this temple. It is a backlash against millennia of patriarchy and suppression.
Now that I have spoken for both sides, what is it that I personally believe? Honestly, I believe a mountain has been made out of a molehill. To those who are fighting for equality, my suggestion – there are much bigger battles to fight: battles for equality in areas where actual discrimination against women exists and where respect for women by society at large needs to be fought for and established. Do not pick this fight which is only symbolic and where even a victory will tear the fabric of the society apart with no real gains. Don’t run after this pyrrhic victory. All you are doing is strengthening the hands of politicians who are using this opportunity to manipulate the emotions of people and gain their own ends.
But to those who are fighting against the entry of women, against the order of the Supreme Court, I have a much stronger message. This country is what it is today because of its marvellous Constitution. We are all beneficiaries of its fine checks and balances. In this country, the Constitution is the highest authority and the Supreme Court, empowered by this Constitution, has made a ruling. You have to abide by it. If you do not agree with the ruling, there are legal mechanisms for redressal. On the other hand, every time someone flouts a Supreme Court ruling, we are moving one step closer to anarchy. Desist. Please.
To both sides, I beg you – focus on real issues. We in India (and the world) have enough real issues to deal with which are of far higher significance.