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Temple Entry: SECULARISATION Vs BIOGTRY?, By Dr S Saraswathi, 12 October 2018 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 12 October 2018

Temple Entry


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Right of entry to Sabarimalai Ayyappa Temple in Kerala to women of all age-groups allowed by the Supreme Court order in a litigation is now hitting headlines like crucial election results. It is a head on collision between rights groups and uncompromising traditionalists. The Court has also rejected urgent hearing of the review pleas and declined to issue stay order on the judgment.


The annual season for worship at the temple starting shortly, there is urgency to take stern measures to prevent disturbances to peace and order in the holy shrine if not to find a permanent  solution to the conflict between religious and secular forces -- the sacred and the profane  of Durkheim.   


A rare agreement is seen in the stand of the BJP and Congress asking the Government of Kerala to file a review petition. But, the Left Front government in the State and the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) in charge of the management of temples in the State do not want a review.


For those seeking review, it is a question of protecting traditions and beliefs associated with this temple, and for others, a question of gender equality and equal rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The verdict was given by 4:1 majority of a 5-member Constitution Bench. The minority view was interestingly that of a woman judge.


The Government of Kerala is not likely to hold talks with the BJP or the Congress, but sought a meeting with the Tantri (chief priest) and Pandalam royal family that is safeguarding the rituals, customs, and beliefs at the shrine to discuss and to clarify its stand on court verdict. This is clearly an administrative strategy to counter eruption of violent protests by orthodox sections of people who find support from some political parties.


Neither family may see any purpose in meeting government officials. Meanwhile, the Nair Service Society, the National Ayyappa Devotees Association, and the Chetna Conscience of Women have separately filed a petition for revision of the judgement. They have questioned the right of a third party which does not comprise devotees of Ayyappa to file the PIL in the first place and intervene in the worship of the deity.


The dispute is a typical clash between the process of secularisation of places of worship which is part of the democratic process and the stranglehold of customary restrictions and bigotry reigning supreme especially with the rituals connected with Sabarimalai. The constitutional right to equality conflicts with another constitutional right of religious institutions.


One can notice some extraordinary discipline associated with the  worship of Ayyappa at  Sabarimalai  believed to be a  “Naishtika  Brahmachari”, meaning  one who is always a celibate and remains with his “guru”. That deity requires to be away from any contact -- even visual -- with any woman in the menstruating age between 10 and 50 years.  The dissenting judge pointed out that exclusion of women in this age-group is not out of the concept of social exclusion, but because of the unique character of the deity. It is unlike the exclusion of some castes, which resulted from the practice of social exclusion and inadmissible.


The dissenting verdict has brought forward the right of the deity to be worshipped in the form He is manifested. Religion, temple, worship, and devotees have become parties in this dispute heard by a secular institution which is guardian of the Constitution. The issue sharply dividing people with no scope for a middle or neutral position, the role of politics and electoral calculations cannot be absent.


Thousands of devout Hindus, mostly women, upset over the court’s direction on temple worship are protesting on the streets. Several local NGOs are organising protests. The issue is not confined to Kerala as the temple is visited by devotees from all parts of India in groups. The Sabarimalai Protection Council (SPC) has launched a sit-in protest to block entry of women on the hill.


Such is the hold of tradition and patriarchal ideas and fear of consequences of violating age-old customs in the mode of worship that restricted admission has found supporters from cross sections of people who do not feel any sense of degradation in the practice of exclusion.   Secularism finds a big road block in this direct confrontation with bigotry that is reigning supreme.


Justice Chandrachud said that the ban on women’s entry into the temple was a smear on their dignity and the consequence of a hegemonic patriarchy. Superstitious beliefs which are extraneous and unnecessary accretions to religion cannot be considered essential parts of religion to be given constitutional protection, according to the judges. The minority judgment held that the court could not impose its morality or rationality on the form of worship of the deity. Such restrictions would nullify the freedom to practise one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs.


The CPM-led Government of Kerala seems to be unusually fast in taking steps to implement the court order and to make arrangements for female pilgrims to this temple situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats amidst 18 hills on top of a hill in a forest area. The location cannot be cited as the cause for bar on women’s entry, but relevant for making arrangements for sudden explosion in the number of devotees to the temple.


Caught between commitment to equal rights and commitment to protect traditional life, the neutral observers cannot but watch the ramifications of the crucial step of secularising worship at Sabarimalai. Several temples in various States have now to get ready for rights-based changes in the modes of worship. Already, the CPM has asked for opening mosques for women in all places where they are prohibited.


The AICC was initially in favour of court verdict, but the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee supports the existing ban. The DK, DMK, and the Left parties have welcomed the judgement.   The verdict may open a bigger movement against gender discriminations in the name of customs and traditions or lead to a conservative uprising to protect cultural discipline.

No doubt, changes in religious beliefs and practices are going on silently. Even devotees visiting Sabarimalai have relaxed many of the old time rules to suit their convenience. The job of priests in temples in Tamil Nadu is open to people of all castes. Entry into the sanctum sanctorum is prohibited for all except the priests to avoid exclusive entry of Brahmin devotees as a right.


The impact of secularisation on religion is tremendous. At the societal level, secularisation refers to a general decline in religious authority over other social institutions. Religion becomes one institution among many in the society.


Sociologists are of the view that women in general are more active than men in religion and their beliefs are stronger. Religious practices all over the world accord to women a status inferior to that of men, but still women’s commitment to religious practices is strong. Women are indeed so active in protecting religious beliefs that women devotees are on the streets protesting against the court verdict – a scene perplexing in the age of feminist movements for rights. The movement has to go a long way to awaken women.----INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)


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