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India’s Sabarimala Temple and the Issue of Women’s Entry

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India’s Sabarimala Temple and the Issue of Women’s Entry

Another Hindu temple will open its gates to women, reigniting the debate on Indian secularism.

India’s Sabarimala Temple and the Issue of Women’s Entry
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Sailesh

“Several women try sneaking in. Some come dressed as men but we can spot them just by looking at their face,” claimed a security guard at the Sabarimala temple, as reported in an old India Today story. The  Sabarimala temple, an immensely popular pilgrimage place, is located in the hills of Kerala in southern India and devoted to a Hindu god, Ayyappa (Ayyappan). Until recently, the temple was open only to men.

There is a police station on the way to the sacred complex where female police can stop women devotees from proceeding , and in case women manage to slip by, the shrine’s security guards will not allow them to enter. It is not only the face that would easily betray a woman, as the pilgrims are traditionally expected to enter the inner sanctum with their chests bare.

Ayyappa is usually considered a celibate god (though in some places, not Sabarimala, he is depicted with wives). For the traditionally minded temple authorities, visits of women of menstruating age could act as potential distractions on the deity’s path of purity. “Menstruating age” is considered in this context as 10 to 50 years old. These limitations, however, are already a thing of the past, as on September 28 the Supreme Court of India ruled that the shrine should open its doors to all female pilgrims, no matter their age. While implementation of this ruling could still take some time, and further legal proceedings are possible, the temple fund authorities may yield to the judgement as in cases of other Hindu temples. 

As Diverse and Complex as India

The threads of Sabarimala’s history are as tangled and diverse as Indian history and society itself. Ayyappa is believed to be the son of two other male deities, Shiva and Vishnu, and this unlikely communion was made possible when Vishnu took female form. Ayyappa is therefore also called Hariharaputra, “the son of Vishnu [Hari] and Shiva [Hara].” Despite this, however, Ayyappa, mostly worshipped in southern India, could also have been a pre-Aryan deity, a god worshipped before the culture of Aryans spread throughout the subcontinent. Later his cult – like so many others – would have been absorbed into the Aryan pantheon, and, if that assumption is true, the story of Shiva-Vishnu parentage would have to be a later addition.

If that is not diverse enough, the story of Ayyappa also has a Muslim thread within its tapestry. During his life on earth, Ayyappa had to defeat a vile enemy and the struggle was won due to the assistance of a crucial ally, a Muslim warrior leader called Vavar. This confluence of Hinduism and Islam in Ayyappa’s cult has been beautifully shown in Yoginder Sikand’s book, The Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India. A mosque devoted to Vavar stands not far from Ayyappa’s main shrine and Hindu pilgrims pay a visit to it before entering the temple. They take sacred water from the mosque’s pond and one of the Muslims officiating in the mosque puts sacred ash on their foreheads while reciting the fatiha (the opening verse of Quran). It is a rare but fascinating case of the mingling of Hindu and Islamic elements in contemporary India.

The pre-Aryan and Aryan elements, the cults of Shiva and Vishnu, and the religions of Islam and Hinduism may meet here, but at the same time orthodoxy excludes most women from worshipping at the shrine. Apart from the common explanation about Ayyappa’s celibacy, one myth claims that the god had a female deity waiting for him to marry, and she was made to wait as long there are no more first-time devotees to visit the shrine. This, however, may not go hand in hand in Ayyappa’s presentation as being in eternal celibacy. At any rate, the issue of restricting sexuality is strongly connected to Ayyappa’s cult. There are set times and rules to follow on visiting the Sabarimala temple. Among other restrictions, the pilgrims should first undergo a 41-day long period of pious life and abstention from meat and intercourse.

The recent ruling, therefore, is seen by many as breaking the walls of strict orthodoxy in this particular tradition. This is not the first such case. I covered the opening of another temple to women in India two years ago focusing on a successful activist effort to open the temple in question. With this particular case, however, I’d like to focus on the fact that with each specific debate on temple entry a wider discussion on Indian secularism is rekindled.

“In a Secular Polity”

The ruling of the Supreme Court has attracted much praise, but also criticism. Two ideas that lay at the foundation of the Indian Constitution – equality and secularism – have been brought to bear during this debate.

Interestingly, the only dissenting judge on the five-member bench was a woman, Justice Indu Malhotra (All of the male judges voted in favor of allowing the women to enter the temple). “In a secular polity,” Malhotra argued in her dissenting opinion to the final judgment, “issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.” She also declared that the “Court should not interfere unless if there is any aggrieved person from that section of religion” or if a tradition is a “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil.” The judge also pointed out that “what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide.” Such points should certainly be considered, as they lead to a conclusion that in a secular, democratic state, religious orthodoxy should be protected just like other freedoms, as long as such orthodoxy is not oppressive toward other fundamental values.

Secularism, however, is understood differently in India than it is in Europe or the United States. It does not focus on separation of Church and state. In Hinduism, there is no church to separate the state from (as Donald E. Smith rightly pointed out long ago in his book on secularism in India), and the same more or less applies to Indian Islam as well. While there is more than one interpretation of the idea of secularism in India, it is often understood that the state should treat all religious communities in the same way. It should, in other words, keep an equidistance (a point with which some votaries of secularism in India, such as Rajeev Bhargava, do not agree). But what is a more secular approach: A non-interference in the customs of religious communities or the interference in them? The paradox of non-interference is that the secular state cannot not reform the orthodox traditions that function within it. The paradox of interference is that the secular state, by involving itself in reforming religious traditions, becomes a kind of religious authority itself.

Beyond secularism, another important idea in the Republic of India’s Constitution is the equality of all of its citizens. Treating every community the same way may perhaps be understood as following both equality and secularism. But can equality of all citizens be achieved while maintaining the equality of all communities?

Let us take the case of women’s entry into temples. Equality of religious communities could be understood as letting them practice their customs, including barring women from entering religious places. But such equality of communities means the inequality of genders (and this applies not only to the issue of women entry). 

Equidistance of the state toward religious communities should mean that either the state interferes in all of their customs in the same way or lets them equally keep them. Whether one supports the court judgment or not, it should be pointed out that it is a piecemeal legislation. Decades ago, the Indian Republic forced conservative Hindu temples to open their doors to Dalits (untouchables) but the same was not done with regard to shrines that do not admit women (the ruling of the Bombay court in 1950s retained the access rules of Sabarimala).

Sabarimala will now join the list of temples open to women, but there are other Hindu temples that keep their gates shut to them. Moreover, there are possibly even more shrines of Muslim saints (tombs called dargahs) that traditionally disallow women from entering the inner sanctum. In 2016, the Supreme Court similarly forced the famous Haji Ali Dargah to open itself to women, but the same did not apply to other Islamic places of worship. The principle of equidistance has been continuously broken.

Justice Malhotra’s point was that the court should not interfere unless there is “any aggrieved person.” Her approach is legally sound but on the other hand this is exactly what leads to piecemeal legislation: Only those religious communities that face legal proceedings (because of people that demand changes) can be reformed with state interference. It is, in a way, a moderately conservative approach. There is no change unless somebody demands it. This approach may be legally correct, but it is against the spirit of treating every community and every citizen in the same way.

Secondly, while Malhotra has full right to a dissenting voice (and arguments in its defense are strong) the entire judgment was declared precisely because there were “aggrieved persons.” The ruling about Sabarimala was a response to a writ petition of women lawyers. Similarly, the opening of Haji Ali Dargah was a reaction to actions of a movement of Muslim women. Some votaries of tradition claim that the activists that strive for women entry act as provocateurs who attack customs from anti-religious positions and not because there are believers. Past incidents such as those in Sabarimala suggest, however, that there are indeed devout women that do want to gain access to their places of worship.

Article 26 of India’s constitution claims that “every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right (a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; (b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.” The previous article, however, declares that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” But “(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making […] (b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

The last sentence, therefore, is a yet another example of violating the idea of equal treatment of religions as it obliges the state to open only Hindu religious institutions. But it also makes it transparently clear, in my view, that all Hindus should be given access to all temples. If we should go by this article alone, the state should force all Hindu temples to be open to women, but only Hindu women. Once again, all unequal approaches create further dichotomies and space for further precedents.

In my personal view, in the end, it seems that in cases where equality and secularism come into conflict, a democratic state should put equality first. And if the rights of citizens would come into conflict with the rights of communities, the former should be given primacy. Using a “community” as a legal denomination will always remain problematic if the state wants to secure equal rights of all citizens, while the communities retain different customs. At same time, however, an absolute realization of such attempts certainly does mean large-scale interference of the state in the existence of conservative communities.