Some Puzzling Aspects of the Sabarimala Controversy

What is it about menstruating women that obliges those who oversee the daily ablutions of the deity to keep them out of sight?

The  enlightened state of Kerala is now struggling with the future. Certain aspects of tradition and  injunctions of the Constitution vie for its allegiance. But, given that civil society in Kerala is uniquely the progeny of some outstanding social reform movements whose fallout has had a lasting impact on Keralite polity across the board, it seems befitting that the controversy around the Sabarimala temple be approached with an honesty and rigour that Keralites are routinely used to in analysing historical questions.

The belief is that the deity who graces the shrine at Sabarimala is distinguished from other deities by his vow of celibacy; and that, therefore, it is inadvisable for women of menstruating age to visit the temple.

Watch | Sabarimala Verdict: What the Judges Said

This begs two questions. One, if we understand by celibacy the refusal of sexual contact with the opposite sex, why should women of any age whatsoever be allowed near the deity. After all, sexual temptation need not come only from menstruating women. Upon what basis can we say that a woman who is 50 years of age may be wholly free from such urges? Even more importantly, what does it say of the faith of a devotee of Ayyappa to all those who believe the deity may be susceptible to sexual temptation? Indeed, such a consideration would in the first place comprise a rather weak view of the deity’s powers. Further, recall that when Mahatma Gandhi took his vow of celibacy he did not shun any women from his sight, but rather held them close in unique experiments to examine the strength of his vow. And, despite being mere mortal, succeeded. How much more faith then should the devotees of Ayyappa, a deity, have in his mechanisms of self-control, and does it behove such devotees to entertain doubts in this regard?

So, what is it about menstruating women that obliges those who oversee the daily ablutions of the deity to keep them out of sight? Is it the notion that such women are “unclean”? If so, what an enormity and affront such a view entails. A land that extols motherhood above all else – in scriptural and secular texts and practices, and routine teachings – how may one have motherhood without menstruation? And if menstruation is thought to be unclean so must motherhood also be – a thought not to be entertained ever. What makes this aspect of the controversy piquant indeed is the legend that the deity Ayappa was procreated from an encounter of the Ardhanareshwar and Lord Vishnu in his female Mohini incarnation – something that makes the deity two thirds female.

It would seem therefore that what the Supreme Court of India has opined on the subject would meet the deity’s approval: that those women who wish to hold on to the orthodox view of the tradition may indeed wait their turn till they turn 50, but those others who equally sternly believe that the deity is far too strong to be at any risk form menstruating women may indeed visit and realise their object of  homage. Such a course clearly satisfies the requirements both of faith and of constitutional morality.

Also read: The Politics of Sabarimala in the Aftermath of the SC Verdict

A review petition before the Supreme Court, as per report, has argued that the order of the court in effect Abrahmises the Hindu faith, curtailing its “diversity.” Now it is unarguable that diversity has been one laudable feature of the Hindu way of life and worship. But think that diversity has also included such things as sati, tantric human sacrifice, child marriage and so on; can it be anyone’s argument in this day and age that those practices may also be allowed on the basis of the  argument from diversity? One thinks not. It should be obvious that religious practices have, through history, constantly undergone transformation – to a point where in many instances, for example, priests are no longer always ready-at-hand to perform pujas, and have been replaced by  recorded recitatons of mantras on diverse occasions. At a time when  many shibboleths are coming down in the face of the evolved demands for equality, does it not seem rather retrograde that women who bear children  from which devotees are made should be held back from their right to equality in worship?

One looks to Kerala to show the way to a rational and equitable future for all India. It would be a pity if history recorded how in this matter Kerala failed the Indian democratic future.

Badri Raina taught English literature at Delhi University.