The Supreme Court on Friday questioned the Kerala government for taking a U-turn on the issue of barring women from entering the Sabrimala temple, saying it would examine the constitutional validity of the “age-old practice”.
“We will test it on the constitutional parameters. You will have to tell us. Give us a brief idea about the tradition,” a special bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra told senior advocate KK Venugopal and Bina Madhavan, appearing for the temple board.
The Oomen Chandy government recently withdrew Kerala’s 2007 affidavit filed before the SC supporting the petitioner’s demand to lift the ban on women aged 10-50 years from entering the temple. The latest submission chose to support the restriction.
Wondering what prompted the government to change its stand, the bench said it prima facie felt the Hindu religion – particularly ‘sanatana dharma’ and scriptures such as Bhagavad Gita – does not discriminate between man and woman.
Senior advocate VV Giri, counsel for the Kerala government, defended the turnaround, arguing he had every right to do so. “Can’t I take a different stand and objection? There was an erroneous view taken earlier, so we have withdrawn our earlier affidavit,” he said.
Venugopal said the ban has been there for several centuries. “Traditionally, it has been a practice in the temple located in a forest-notified area to restrict the entry of women as the deity Lord Ayyappa is a ‘Naisthik brahmachari’ celibate,” he said. The counsel supported the change in Kerala’s approach and said there were several SC verdicts permitting this.
Venugopal said male devotees take a vow of celibacy for 42 days, avoid smoking and liquor, and walk barefoot through jungles to perform pooja. But the court had a different take on the controversy. “Are women incapable of attaining spirituality in the spiritual sense?” Justice Misra asked, adding the freedom to religious practice should be in harmony with the right to equality.
“If you understand Vedas and Upanishads, I don’t think there is any discrimination. Discrimination between man and woman has only cropped up historically,” he said.
Giri said, “What has ingrained in the psyche is that the Lord is a celibate and that cannot be changed. The devotees are also entitled to practice and profess his/her own religious beliefs.”
Justice Misra said, “If it is an embedded practice which is permissible, then many issues have to be looked into.” He said the temple’s administrative decisions may not need scrutiny but prohibition on the basis of sex needed to be examined. But the bench declined the request to stay the Kerala HC verdict that upheld the restriction.