By P. MANIVANNAN
“Aunty, what is this about Sabarimala temple? I never knew that women are not allowed there. Why so, Aunty?”
“Raju, the reigning God in Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappa, is a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari‘, which means someone who has vowed to be a celibate all his life. Men who are celibate normally stay away from women. So, women were not allowed into the temple. Secondly, one has to do a hard vrata (penance) for 41 days before entering the temple through its 18 steps. They feel that women can’t do that vrata for 41 days, and hence they can’t go.”
“Why can’t they keep the vrata for 41 days, Aunty?”
“Raju, you know about menstruation. Some of our people feel that women are unclean during those days and hence can’t observe vrata for 41 days at a stretch. As they can’t do the 41 days’ vrata, their going to the temple doesn’t arise at all.”
“Oh, I didn’t know this. But do people think it is unclean? It makes no sense for me. As long as they take care of their personal hygiene for those 4-5 days, which I am sure they do nowadays, what is anybody else problem?”
“Raju, you are right! This is purely a matter for personal hygiene. It is sad people think of a natural physiological phenomenon as unclean. Indeed, there is evidence that women used to visit the Temple earlier. It has been stopped since 1991.”
“Ok, Aunty, I get the background. Now, why are people upset with the Supreme Court? Is it because they feel that Supreme Court has no power to interfere in temple affairs, or do they believe that SC has the power, but has given a wrong verdict?”
“Let’s look at it one-by-one, Raju. The first objection is that, Courts can’t interfere in religious issues. But, our Constitution is very clear on this. It didn’t keep religion outside the ambit of the State. Indeed, as Dr B R Ambedkar put it wonderfully, ‘the religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved, I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill’.” So, from the 1954 case of Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiyar of Shirur Mutt, till the famous Triple Talaq case, the courts have adjudicated on religious issue. So, the first objection makes no sense!”
“Aunty, they say that not allowing women between ages of 10-50 is a tradition. The court erred by stopping a tradition. Because, some of the traditions are so old and, at times, we are too small to understand it implications. For example, the tradition of cremating the dead. Now, we can’t stop it saying that cremation causes pollution.”
“I like your logic. Ok, let’s see what the court says on this. The court agrees that there is no need for the court to interfere in traditions, but only as long as the tradition doesn’t clash with the Constitution. If it clashes, then court has no other option, but to interfere.”
“Hmm. That makes sense, Aunty. Else, any group can do anything in the name of tradition. Simple example is human sacrifice. I know that it is a tradition in some Hindu cults. But can it be allowed? It can’t be. So, I see a logic in saying that all traditions can’t be continued.”
“Yes, Raju. You are right. The Court says the same thing! It says that, unless a tradition fulfills the below-mentioned conditions, it can’t be continued.
1. Is the tradition continuing for long time without any interruption?
2. Is it an essential part of the religion that if it’s stopped, it will alter the nature of the religion?
In case of Sabarimala, we see that there are instances when it was broken. Secondly, court came to the conclusion, that it’s not an ‘essential tradition’ of Hinduism to discriminate women. Thus, it fails both the conditions. So, the court declared such a tradition of discriminating women is unconstitutional.”
“Fair enough, Aunty. Now I understand. But a few of them are saying that Ayyappa devotees are a ‘denomination’ of Hinduism, and hence, as per the Constitution, they are allowed this tradition?”
“You are right. But, the court held that Ayyappa devotees, unlike Vaishnavites or Anand Margis have nothing common, except the 41 days’ vrata. Indeed, even Christian and Muslims do vrata and go to the Temple. These Ayyappa devotees can’t be called a denomination inside Hinduism.
“But, Aunty, can the court go into what is the essential tradition in the religion every time? More so, for Hinduism, which has so many sects and practices? What is essential to one may not be essential to another.”
“A good question! This is the moot point! The Court has to every time decide if a tradition is essential to the religion or not. I don’t see any other alternative as of now. The other alternative is to keep away from religion, which is worse than going into the essential question”
“I get your point. But, tell me one thing, Aunty. Didn’t the Court know that people will be upset with the orders? What was the harm if the tradition was allowed? Was it affecting anyone? Will not it be left to the social reformers to convince the people and slowly bring a reform?”
“Very good question, Raju! Our history says that humans are social animals. We used to live as tribes. We continued to live in our local society, and social norms mattered more than individuals. The individual rights were subservient to the society. But, slowly, particularly during the Renaissance period, the rights of individuals become more important. So, individual rights are critical in a forward-looking society. We need to ensure that nobody is discriminated based on gender, religion, language etc. That’s what Article 14 of our Constitution says. Keeping women out of temple, is nothing but discriminating. What sin has a woman committed by being born as a woman? Is that a curse?
“If social reformers come and make change in the mind of the people, that is the best thing to happen. But, then, we can’t leave such important decisions to chance. These issues have long term impact. If Courts keep quiet, then people will lose trust in the State. They will think it’s better to obey the religion, instead of obeying the Constitution. That can lead to dangerous consequences, including balkanisation of the country on the basis of religion etc. That’s why the court interfered in the Triple Talaq case and declared it as non-essential tradition, thus declaring it as unconstitutional. So, the interference of the Court in the Sabarimala case is timely and appropriate in the long-term interest of the country, thus, all of us. Get my point Raju?”
“Of-course aunty! And I fully agree with it! Also, I feel happy that court has declared that discrimination of women is NOT an essential part of Hinduism! Actually, Hindus must celebrate this verdict!
“Of course, Raju! Most of us are happy about the verdict. It upheld the respect for women that Hinduism stands for. I am sure our 3000-year-old Hinduism will continue to reform itself and be relevant for all the time to come!”
postscript: I must mention that, I wrote this post not just because I respect the Supreme Court and its verdict on this issue, but also because I respect many aspects of Hinduism. Being a student of Indian history, i have exposure to Vedas, Upanishads and some of the shastras. I see Hinduism as a highly philosophical religion, that equates individual to God. ‘Ahaṁ Brahmāsmīti‘ (Devanagari: अहं ब्रह्मास्मीति). It gives so much respect to individuals, which NO other religion that i know can even come close. And how can such a religion keep women away from God?! And Hinduism is open to reforms and ideas. That has been the reason why Hinduism is relevant even after 3000 years. It will remain relevant, for another 30,000 years, unless a few regressive, self-appointed people around us try to straight-jacket Hinduism. I grew up in Srirangam, and seen how forward looking people Hindus can be! Salutes to them!
(P. Manivannan, IAS, is currently doing a masters in public administration at Harvard University)