Until recently, I was ambivalent on the issue regarding whether or not women between the age of 10 and 50 should be permitted to enter the famous Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. I felt that since the highest Court of the land is seized of the matter, a decision considering all relevant aspects will follow. Whereas the Bench appears to be inclined to accept the view of the petitioners, favouring entry of women of all ages, the opposition to such a move is led by none less than Sri. K. K. Venugopal, Senior Advocate representing the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the Sabarimala Temple.
However, two things that I recently noticed in the media made me jump off the fence. It made me ponder whether the entire agitation is only about denial of entry to women or is there something more than what meets the eye!
First was a photograph that I noticed on social media. Photograph of a burka clad women signing a billboard in support of the “happy to bleed” campaign. The “happy to bleed” campaign was started by some woman in North Bharat as a reaction to the statement by the president of the Travancore Devaswam Board that women of all ages will be allowed entry to Sabarimala only after invention of a “machine to check if it is the right time” for women. Though the president’s inappropriate joke was totally out of line with the stand of the Devaswam Board, women had a reason to protest, and protest they did.
Temple Entry Issue Morphs Into Hindu-bashing campaign
The protests were, however, immediately hijacked and turned into a free-for-all Hindu bashing campaign. While international media like BBC related the age restriction on women entering Sabarimala to “Hinduism regarding menstruating women as unclean”, our own champions of secularism and liberalism cursed and condemned Hindu Dharma for being anti-women. The statements of the temple priests (Thantri) that the restriction was only on account of the belief and faith that the deity is a celibate, was not exciting news for the media to report. Therefore, the woman in the photo, wearing a burka, which is symbolic of sexist patriarchal oppression of women, belonging to a religion where women, as a rule, irrespective of age, are not allowed entry into majority of the mosques, with only few a exceptions, is now eager to paint Hindu Dharma as anti-women.
The woman in the photo is presumably aware that even in the few mosques where women are permitted to enter, they are not permitted entry during their period. The woman in the photo is presumably also aware of the restrictions on menstruating women circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. The photograph is symbolic of how, menstrual taboo, which exists in all cultures and religions around the world and which undoubtedly needs to be broken, is being wrongly attributed as the reason for the Sabarimala restriction.
The second reason was the excitement with which the communists in Kerala were participating in this debate. I recently saw the statement of Sri. G. Sudhakaran, a CPM MLA, more importantly, the past Devaswom Minister in the LDF government, about the Sabarimala controversy. He was bragging about how in the year 2008 as the then Devaswom Minister, he had ensured that the affidavit of the state government before the Hon’ble Supreme Court reflected the “progressive” view of the communists, by supporting entry of women of all ages in Sabarimala. But unfortunately for the communists, the matter was not decided by the Supreme Court on the basis of that Affidavit. Subsequently, after the communists were voted out, the present UDF government has taken a stand supporting the Devaswom Board and the priests. The same Sri. Sudhakaran had infamously raved, while being the Devaswom Minister, that he doesn’t give a damn about what the priests have to say regarding conduct of temples and that the government will deal with temples as it pleases.
The Communist party leaders have all come out and opposed the stand of the present UDF government. Quiet like the case of the burka-clad women, a communist campaign for temple reform is a contradiction. Karl Marx had said that “Religion is the opium of the people” and that it keeps the oppressed, oppressed under illusory fantasies. Vladimir Lenin had asserted that “Atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism”. The communists in Kerala also subscribe to these views, or at least claim to do so. Malayalam movies mock “god fearing” communists who visit temples with a scarf around their heads, so as not to be recognised by the public. So can it really be a free-for-all on this topic?
Legal View Of Who Can Have A Say In Administering Hindu Temples
The High Court of Kerala has repeatedly held that the affairs of temples should be conducted only by persons who not just profess Hindu religion, but believe in temple and idol worship. A five Judge bench of the High Court of Kerala in the matter of Tharamel Krishnan Vs. Guruvayoor Devaswom (AIR 1978 Ker 68) (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/48525/) referred to “…persons, who are born Hindus and who may be said to profess Hinduism solely because they have not openly renounced the Hindu faith by any recognised process, may ardently believe in such political or social ideologies which do not view temple worship with favour.” and stated in the context of considering a challenge to certain provisions of the Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1971 that, “serious prejudice and peril that will be caused to the interests of the institution” if such persons are nominated to the management committee. Obviously, the learned Judges were referring to communists.
Going a step further, in the matter of K. Krishnankutty, M.L.A. and others Vs. State Of Kerala (AIR 1985 Ker 148) (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/191505/), a full bench of the High Court of Kerala, held that having faith in god and idol worship was necessary to even qualify as the electorate electing the persons who will administer temples. The full bench held that Hindus who believe in god and have faith in temple worship constituted a denomination within Hindu Dharma. The Court held that “…administration of a temple cannot be entrusted to non-believers in God who have no faith in temple worship. They may destroy the institution from within, and pose real and grave danger to the smooth administration of the religious institution.” Therefore, the law is settled that only those who believe in god and have faith in temple worship can have any say in the matter of administration of temples. Given that the female devotees of Ayyappa between the age of 10 and 50 constitute a distinct, determinate class of persons, very well capable of organising and approaching Courts for relief if aggrieved, even the question of the locus of the petitioners now before the Supreme Court will need to be considered.
Therefore, in the light of the law laid down by courts, should the communists who profess atheism have any say at all in the present debate regarding Sabarimala? It is important to consider the takeaways for the common man from the hair-splitting arguments that happen in court rooms and the lengthy judgments that follow. If tomorrow the Court is to pass a judgment permitting women of all ages to enter the temple, will a common devotee try to decrypt the legalese to try and understand what went into the judgement? The answer is NO. Same is the case with any decision of Court, on issues concerning a huge number of people.
The majority of the persons who are ultimately affected by the decisions will form their opinion not based on the Judgment itself, but based on what is presented to them as the simplified version of the reasoning of the Court, by the media and by politicians making political speeches. In the present case, in such an eventuality, the commons man will conclude that Hindu Dharma is anti-women and repressive, which will be far from the truth.
The conclusion from the above is that the present debate about Sabarimala is not merely about depriving women devotees between the age of 10 and 50 from visiting their beloved Lord. Every Hindu should realise the ulterior political motives behind the campaign. The answer to the real question as to whether women devotees between the age of 10 and 50 should be allowed entry, should ideally be arrived at by deliberation among concerned Hindus who are devotees of Ayyappa, including the women devotees. Hindus should not permit others to hijack the debate.
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