‘Right to worship should be given to all devotees, keep the doors of devotion open’

The claim that the deity of Sabarimala is represented as following a strict vow of celibacy has been used by the conservatives to prevent women from offering prayers.

india Updated: Sep 28, 2018 23:49 IST
sabarimala temple,sabarimala,ramayana
In this file photo dated Dec 24, 2014, a 'Karppoorazhi' procession is being taken out at Lord Ayyappa temple, in Sabarimala. Supreme Court on Friday, Sept 28, 2018, announced it verdict allowing entry of women of all ages at the Sabarimala temple. (PTI)

The name Sabarimala means ‘the hill of Sabari’. It was named after the pious tribal woman, Sabari, who welcomed Rama and Lakshmana as her guests in the Ramayana. It is said that Sabari first tasted the berries she had collected to feed Rama, to ensure that they were good enough. Despite Lakshmana’s objection, Rama ate those fruits, saying nothing could equal the taste and purity of those fruits offered to him with such undiluted devotion.

It is therefore ironic that women of a menstruating age were prevented from worshipping at the Lord Ayyappa temple atop a hill named after such a woman icon of devotion. With Friday’s landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has overturned that historical injustice.

The claim that the deity of Sabarimala is represented as following a strict vow of celibacy has been used by the conservatives to prevent women from offering prayers. However, there are many Ayyappa temples in Kerala where women devotees of all ages freely enter. It is ridiculous to say that the Ayyappa of these temples is not celibate.

Even if the Sabarimala Ayyappa is depicted as celibate, it should be an insult to the divinity of the deity to imagine that a god’s celibacy will be compromised or polluted by the mere presence of women who come full of devotion. Such a stand is an affront to the Hindu religion itself.

The rules in Kerala temples were drawn up by Brahmin priests based on their patriarchal practices that excluded women. During the time when Sabarimala was believed to have been controlled by celibate Buddhist monks, women might have faced restrictions.

There is no foolproof evidence either that women of a menstruating age weren’t allowed when Hindus took over the temple again although the tricky trek through the hilly terrain and forests could have deterred some women. It’s after complete Brahminisation and the relatively recent advent of a male-oriented ascetic brand of conservative Hindutva that women were banned fully.

Above all, the argument that religious customs that predate the Constitution should not be challenged because they are a matter of pure faith, is nothing but pernicious. If this view is accepted, the entry of lower castes into the temples of Kerala would have been impossible on the ground of their exclusion for centuries. The Supreme Court has rightly asserted that devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination. The right to worship should be given to all devotees. Women who want to wait till the end of menstruation, are free to do that. Nobody can force them to go. At the same time, women who want to enter the Sabarimala temple to express their devotion should be allowed to go there, free of fear.

Lekshmy Rajeev is a columnist and author based in Thiruvananthapuram

First Published: Sep 28, 2018 23:49 IST