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Sabarimala row: The war between justice and faith

By Eetika Kapoor

Temples in India have a deeply rooted history that gives life to the communities around them. Religion and faith are not just ways of life, but structures that provide stability in times of chaos. But the Sabarimala temple, located in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

The controversy erupted when a Facebook campaign “#happytobleed” directly addressed the ban on women of menstrual age from entering the temple. There was an uproar when the Sabarimala temple chief stepped in and declared that they would allow the entry of women “if there were any machines invented to check the purity of women”. The statement invited brutal criticism from feminists and academicians alike, who argued that this practice would be derogatory, undemocratic and at odds with the fundamental right to profess and practice religion freely.

The legal route

During the controversy, a PIL submitted by the Young Lawyers’ Association to the Supreme Court ten years ago was brought to light. After the verdict in S Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore (1991), the Kerala government dismissed the matter as an obstacle in the right to profess religion claiming no individual right was at stake. The state government then officially sanctioned the ban, a decision that was appealed and went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Dipak Mishra went on to claim that “Gender discrimination on matters of faith is unacceptable.” But this is at loggerheads with the temple’s age-old tradition of “protecting” the celibate state of its deity, Lord Ayyappa.

The Bombay High Court gave in to the plea of allowing the entry to women in the Haji Ali Dargah case which was contested for five years. Trupti Desai, a practicing feminist and founder of the Bhumati Brigade, a women’s organization that launched a marching protest near the temple premises in January 2017, has been the guiding force behind fighting for the entry of women in the inner sanctums of the Shani Shingnapur Temple, the Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple as well as the Haji Ali Dargah.

Tradition v. reason

The 1800-year-old tradition of pilgrims visiting the temple states that one must observe the life of an ascetic for a duration of 41 days. The ban on entry of women of menstrual age stems from the belief that the spiritual energy emanating from the temple might interfere with and disrupt the menstrual cycle. This is directly connected to the Ayurvedic belief that during menstruation, there is a downward flow of energy in a woman’s body which discharges the doshas (vatta, pitta and kapha) and leads to the release of excess energy. Any activity disrupting this natural process has unhealthy implications since this is specifically the reason for female longevity. In a remark directed to liberal minded “atheists” and “agnostics”, the temple priests argued that even if the law were to be passed, its implementation wouldn’t change the status quo since participation is voluntary.

The historicity around the legend of Lord Ayyappa is also questionable. There are temples where he is worshipped as a married man with two wives – Purna and Pushkala. This raises the questions about the authenticity of this “eternal celibate”. Historical traditions become decadent with time and faith and so, they should be done away with if it is no longer feasible to practice them in current times. The bedrock of our constitution is under threat as the Sabarimala case highlights the contradictions that exist in the constitution itself, preventing its smooth functioning. Faith and justice are at loggerheads and it seems the decision is heading towards a collision course.

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