Grammar of engagement with believers must be re-imagined in cases like Sabarimala

Parappanangadi Unnikrishnan Panikkar

The Lord of Sabarimala is believed to be a “Naishtika Brahmachari”, a usage some revisionists and social media discussants claim to be a modern coinage. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The turn of events in Sabarimala issue in the recent months have the potential to substantially influence the thought process, perspective, and future of Keralites, especially the Hindu population here. It is impossible to accurately predict the effects these events could have on Hindu believers, or the impact of the resulting deliberations and debates on Hindu community in the state. But it is sure to make an influence on believers.

No other event or debate has polarised Keralites and affected believers in Kerala in recent years like Sabarimala. The views aired from both sides are extreme, or at least extreme views are the loudest we hear. Those who resist change in age-old tradition are being branded primitive and supportive of inhuman values. Those seeking change in Sabarimala are being accused of a concealed conspiracy to sabotage Hinduism and its beliefs.

I believe this polarisation and war of words are a result of the clash of two prominent ideologies than anything else. It is not a battle between the need to sustain tradition and the urge to bring in change, nor is it a spat between religion and politics. The underlying ideologies are much more complicated.

On the one side of this debate is a group that thinks religious beliefs and customs have nonmaterialistic and divine origins. They do not view the existence of the concept of God and religious customs through history’s lenses.

“Anādinidhanaṃ viśhṇuṃ sarvalokamaheśvaraṃ”, says the Viśhṇu  Sahasranāma. Conceptually, God has  no beginning or end. Almost all religions, and not exclusively Hinduism, believe in the eternal existence of their Gods. The beliefs and customs prescribed by the Gods thus become inviolable. Any interference of the State in these affairs hurts the believer. He interprets it as an intrusion on his beliefs.

And who is on the other side? These are people who think religions and belief systems originated exclusively from humans and social sources. They argue that all religious beliefs, concept of God, and even spirituality can be historically interpreted and explained. These were gradually molded over the centuries by the society and social forces, they argue. For them, the primacy a believer gives his customs and traditions is illogical and even undemocratic.

I believe Sabarimala issue stems from this confrontation between those who accord perpetuity to customs because of its non-materialistic, divine origin, and those who place historicity above belief because the latter is a social construct. Someone who views the issue from any one of these sides is bound to find the arguments from the other illogical and dangerously erroneous. The Sabarimala issue and the rift it has created among the people can be addressed only if both points of view are understood and a common ground found. Otherwise, it could remain a smarting pain in many minds for long.

This paper aims to make arguments for such a common ground. The first section of this paper deals with the historical evolution of temple customs and Tantra. That is followed by some views in the wake of calls for revision in Sabarimala customs. I believe the structure of the ongoing debate is faulty, and believers cannot be taken into confidence with the arguments revisionists raise currently. A debate is possible only by taking the beliefs of devotees into proper consideration. This article aims to make arguments towards that end.

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History: Temple rituals and idol worship

Idol worship is quite ancient in India. Historians say artifacts collected from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro indicate its people worshiped idols. Some argue that idol worship predates Historical Vedic Religion, or at least they came to exist at the same time. Vedic system includes polytheism; mention of ‘Čala Vigraha’ – portable idols – in certain Vedic texts indicate idol worship was accepted in principle by the Vedic Religions, they say. Some argue that such a deduction is superficial. Considering all arguments, it seems rituals like Yajñá or Havan was favoured over idol worship by Vedic Religion. Not many Vedic texts mention methods for idol worship or temple rituals. However, other evidences suggest idol worship in India was several millennia old. Ancient Greek historians had documented the erection of a big idol in India during emperor Alexander’s  conquest. This, as per current historians, was of Skanda.i Páṇini and Patañjali’s texts too mention idol worship. Description of Vásudeva devotees in Páṇini’s Ashtádhyáyí points to idol worship in those days, says eminent historian K. A. Nilakanta Sastriii. Patañjali’s Mahábháshyam talks of Rama and Kesava’s ‘prásádam’. The word prásádam’ can be considered evidence of temple rituals. “Prásádo devabhūbhujám”, says Amarakośa – meaning ‘prásádam’ is where Gods and kings reside. Cāṇakya’s Arthaśāstra talks about the need to have temples of Apratihata, Śiva, and Vaiśravaṇa in the capital city of a country. These clues point to the existence of temple rituals and idol worship in India, at least a couple of centuries before Christ, says historians including Sastri.

This, however, does not necessarily mean the rituals in current form were prevalent in those days. In fact, several old texts from that period are critical of idol worship. Sātātapasaṃhitā says: “Apsu devā manuśhyāṇām/dividevā maneeśhiṇām / kaśhṭalośhṭeśhu moorḳhānām / yuktasyātmani devatā.”

The layman’s god reside in water, intelligent man’s in heaven, fool’s in clay and tree (idols made from these), and Yogi’s in his Ātma. The current practices of idol worship might have evolved over centuries, notwithstanding such criticism. Temple rituals might have developed slowly as a spin-off from Vedic rituals.

Eminent Indian philosopher Surendranath Dasgupta has researched the origins of Indian spirituality and philosophy in depth and even penned an epic on the subject, in which he describes how the concept of Brahmā evolved. Vedic practices were not only complicated but also required immense resources. Only rulers – or the wealthy – could afford to perform such rituals. Rulers usually performed such Vedic rituals for the wellbeing of the country or its people. Commoners could not perform these rituals privately. Such individuals gradually started creating internal representations of these rituals as viable substitution to perform the rituals in the external world.

Dasgupta writes: “[Āraṇyakas] were probably composed for old men who had retired into the forest and were thus unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring a multitude of accessories and articles which could not be procured in forests. In these, meditations on certain symbols were supposed to be of great merit, and they gradually began to supplant the sacrifices as being of a superior order. It is here that we find that amongst a certain section of intelligent people the ritualistic ideas began to give way, and philosophic speculations about the nature of truth became gradually substituted in their place. To take an illustration from the beginning of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka we find that instead of the actual performance of the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha) there are directions for meditating upon the dawn (Uṣas) as the head of the horse, the sun as the eye of the horse, the air as its life, and so on. This is indeed a distinct advancement of the claims of speculation or meditation over the actual performance of the complicated ceremonials of sacrifice. The growth of the subjective speculation, as being capable of bringing the highest good, gradually resulted in the supersession of Vedic ritualism and the establishment of the claims of philosophic meditation and self-knowledge as the highest goal of life.”

Meditation and internal representation took the place of external worship. When this subjective internal inquiry started developing, elaborate Vedic rituals started losing their value, argues Dasgupta. A similar transition from Devayajñá to Devapūjā might have happened, taking Yajñá rituals to temples. An internal representation of an elaborate ritual through meditation requires immense concentration and mental training. A commoner might not have the time or intellectual skills for such a task. In Devapūjā, permanent presence and free access to the God is guaranteed – something that Vedic or meditational representation of rituals could not offer. A transition might have been convenient and beneficial to the worshipper.

This was a slow and gradual transition, the Smritis suggest while discussing a layman’s daily  ritualistic routines. By 6th century CE, temples and temple worship became common and accepted. Varāhamihira, who lived in this period, details 20 types of temples  including ‘Meru’, ‘Mandiram’, ‘Kailasam’, and ‘Nandanam’, in his work Brihadsamhita.

Thus, it can be argued that personal ritualistic needs that sprouted a couple centuries before Christ had created temples and its customs, which later became popular. This however does not prove how temple rituals came into being. It is a fact that temples and temple worship were prevalent among several other civilizations outside the Indian subcontinent. There are arguments for and against cultures in India following  in these civilisations’ rituals. Migrated Brahmins might also have absorbed the customs of local people or Dravidians to shape rituals for temples, it is opined. They might have developed organically too. Temple worship is a serious affair than idol worship. “Pratiśhṭāpanam savidhikolsarjanamityarthah”, says the scripture. Consecration of an idol into a deity, in prescriptional method, is essential to a temple. A deity thus consecrated is dedicated for the general public’s need to worship.

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History: Temple worship and idol worship in South India

Most belief systems in South India date back to the beginning of the Common Era. Kerala by then had a system of worship in place, it is argued. But temples and methods of worship back then may have differed much from current structures. Muziris, a trade hub for Kerala with Rome, had temples dedicated to Roman emperors, says Shastri. However, Vedic and other indigenous ways of worship came into existence only after 2nd century CE. Karikālacholan had built a temple for “Mazhuvāl Nediyon”. Some historians are of the view that Mazhuvāl Nediyon is Proto-Śiva. One of the oldest ingenious deities of South India was warrior Goddess Kottravai. Popular Hindu God Murugan was considered the son of Kottravai by the Sangam-era literature. Sangam literature, in several instances, point to the existence of Vedic customs and an archaic version of temple worship seen today.

Aryan culture and its traditions might have reached Kerala before Common Era, says historian A. Sreedhara Menonv. Though present in 3rd century BCE, these traditions and methods became common and prominent only later. Before 8th – 9th century CE, temple worship and religious systems were different.  ‘Kāvu’ and familial deity structures were dominant systems of worship then. This method has had a continuity to it, with many old, famous, ‘Kāvu’ still popular in the state. They mostly housed Serpent Gods, Vettekkaran and Kāli. Vishṇu or Śiva cannot be seen residing in Kāvu. (Incidentally, even today, Ayyappa is a deity commonly seen in Kerala’s many Kāvu. These places of worship are called Ayyappan Kāvu. This could be an indication on how old the concept of Ayyappa is. It could be argued that Ayyappa was present even before Śaiva and Vaishṇava systems established themselves in Kerala.)

There is a general agreement among historians that the ritualistic culture among Hindus in Kerala as seen today established itself in 8th or 9th century CE. Chera Kings like Kulasekhara Alwar helped Brahmins gain financial and social status, write historians MGS Narayanan and Kesavan Veluthat. The famous 32 Brahmin villages were established in 9th century CE, and with the support of Chera kings, Kerala Brahmins – or Namboodiris as they are referred to – consolidated wealth and social status. The State witnessed a change in its ways of worship, shifting from Kāvu and local systems to rise of temples as places of worship. It is to be noted here that Śankaranārāyaṇan was also revered in Kerala along with Śiva and Vishṇu. It is then to be assumed that the state did not witness Śaiva-Vaishṇava clash, unlike in other parts of India.

Kerala’s topography, with sea on the one side and mountains on the other, sealed off the state from the rest of the country’s political unrest, writes Menon. The power Brahmin villages wielded with the help of rulers started to wilt only after 12th century CE. Their financial and societal status however remained unaffected. Brahmin families that held the priesthood of certain large temples continued to flourish. Some of them went on to become local rulers. The families that had priesthood/Tantra of Ambalappuzha and Trikkakkara temples ruled those villages too. Brahmin families remained powerful for centuries until Tipu  Sultan’s conquest in South India, declining substantially with British Raj and Sree Narayana Guru-led social reform that followed. The land reforms of the 1960s quashed the financial upper-hand of Namboodiris almost completely.

Namboodiris wielded financial and social status for about a millennium from 8th to 18th century CE. Large temples that followed Vedic and Tantric rituals became popular during this period. “Mūṣikavaṃśa”, a Sanskrit  kāvya written in 11th century CE, talks about temples at Taliparamba and Trichambaram.

Malayalam works of fiction from 14th century CE suggest temples and temple rituals had become popular and widely accepted by then. Support of rulers and the societal status of Brahmins might have generated relevance and acceptance for their system of worship among the masses.

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Temple customs of Kerala

Temples that follow the current structure of worship came up in 8th - 9th century CE. Considered the centre of every Brahmin village, temples went on to become centres of power, say historians. As mentioned earlier, temples required deities consecrated with prescriptional methods for public’s need for worship. However, it is not clear what these methods are. No such methods are mentioned in Grihyasūtrās or Dharmasūtrās, some of the oldest scriptural manuals detailing the rites and rituals that a religious person should perform. We do not know what methods, manuals, or traditions were followed to build temples or consecrate the deities. Texts available today cannot be dated back accurately. Mayamatam and Prayogamanjari, revered even today as authoritative, are at least a millennium old. Ulloor Parameshwara Iyer, citing evidence from Prayogamanjari, says it was written in 10th or 11th century CE.ix The oldest Tantric texts available today that detail temple rituals of South India are Viśhṇusamhita, Ratnāvali and Īśānaśivagurudevapaddati, all written around 10-11th century CE, say experts. It was Viśhṇusamhita that first brought in a unique method for temple consecration and temple customs in Kerala. Later, Sanskrit texts like Tantrasamuccayam, Sheshasamuccayam and Kriyāsamgraham, and Malayalam texts like Pudayūr Bhāsha, Kuzhikkāttupacca and Kainikkarappacca created a distinct Kerala method in Temple rituals.

Temple worship and Tantra

‘Tantra’ is a word commonly used in relation to Kerala temples. What does the word mean? One of the oldest meanings of the word Tantra is text or theory/Siddhānta. “Tantram pradhāne siddhānte…” says Amarakośa. As we know, the contents of Vishnu Śarma’s ‘Panchatantra’ have no  relation to ‘Tantra Vidya’, the esoteric traditions. The Arthaśāstra details 32 ‘Tantra-Yukti’s – or management techniques – including Adhikaranam, Yogam, and Vidhānam. The word Tantra means ‘theory’ or ‘methods’ in these instances. Later the word might have used to differentiate the new ritualistic methods of worship from the existing Vedic methods of worship.

These new ritualistic methods started to evolve in India at a time when idol worship became popular. The texts mentioning methods to worship Śiva and Śakti became known as ‘Āgama’ texts and those mentioning methods to worship Vaishṇava deities became known as ‘Samhita’ texts. The manuals later written referring the Āgama and Samhita texts came to be known as ‘Tantra’ texts. The Tantra texts did not maintain the Āgama-Samhita differentiation.

Much later, all manuals on temple worship - Āgama, Samhita, and Tantra - came to be known in general as Tantra texts. Kāmikāgāmam defines Tantra thus: Tanoti vipulānarthām tatvamantrasamanvitām trāṇam ca kurute yasmāt tantramityabhidhīyate. Tantra is that which uses Tattva and Mantra to create a broader meaning, and protects the world. (Another interpretation is, Tantra is that which uses Tattva and Mantra to create a Divine Presence – or Devata – and sustains it.) Several Śivāgama texts too define Tantra so. Perhaps this was the first definition given to Tantra. Later, texts like Śabdārthacintāmaṇi developed on this idea of Tantra.

Tantra might have initially come into being as a method different from the methods prescribed in the Vedas. Later, it went on to garner the same importance as the Vedic methods. Kullūkabhatta says Srutīs are of two types – Vedic and Tantric: Śrutisca dwividhā vaidikī tāntrikīca. Tantric practices diversified as it grew. Kashmir and its peripheries developed their own Tantra Schools. They belong mostly to Vāmācāra or the Left-Path. These schools reject Vedic traditions and the Varṇāśrama system. A Tantric on this path should absolve from worldly morals. Kaulopanishad, a text on the Vāmācāra tradition, says “Dharmaviruddhāh Karyāh” and “Dharmavihitā na karyāh”. Another major text in the Vāmācāra tradition, Mahānirvāṇatantra, says that Vedas become principally obsolete in Kaliyuga. The Vāmācāra method stayed rebellious in a sense to Vedic rituals, denying its nobility. Some of these systems follow Panca-Makāra practices – rituals using Madya (Alcohol), Māṃsa (Meat), Matsya (Fish), Mudra (Gesture), and Maithuna (Sex). Some Vāmācāra methods prescribe even leftovers as offering.

The Vāmācāra method is different from the Dakshiṇācāra method. The latter gives utmost importance to Vedic rituals, calling Tantra essentially Vedic in nature. Viśhṇusamhita says: “Dīkśhitasyāpi kindveśha kāmam vipraistu kārayet sarverthā yena tanyante trāyante ca bhayājjanāh. Iti tantrasya tantratvam tantrajñā paricakśhate Vedamūlataya tantramāptamūlatayadhavā. Purāṇavat pramāṇam syat tadhā manvādivākyavat Driśhtānumopamāśabdairartāpatyā ca pancadhā”

One has to get his wishes [pertaining to building a temple] fulfilled by scholars. Since it fructifies all wishes (Tanyante) and protects people from fear (Trāyante), they attribute it Tāntric quality. Based in the Vedas and created by the seers, Tantra is as significant as the Purāṇās or words of great sages. Tantra works in five ways – through Driśhti, Anumāna, Upamāna, Śabda and Arthāpathi. (Here, it is important to note the Viśhṇusamhita statement that Tantra stems from Veda.)

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Literature on temple consecration and rituals – featured in Āgama, Samhita and Tantra manuals – came after the period of Vedic literature. This chronology makes the claim – of Tantra stemming from Vedas – untenable. A method not approved by the Vedas could not get acceptance from rulers. It thus became crucial to claim Vedic approval for Āgama and Tantra literature. It was difficult to claim Vedic origin to a system that was totally absent from Vedic literature. “Dharmasyaśabdamūlatvādaśabdamanapekśham syāt”, says Pūrva Mīmamsa Sūtra. Dharma is rooted in the Vedas. The sage demands to reject anything that is outside of the Vedas. In his commentary on Śabarabhāshya, Kumārilabhaṭṭa even goes on to say, no non-Vedic texts can be authoritative.

In 10th Centrury CE, when Tantra started finding roots in the south, Vedic and Vaiśhṇavite priest Yamunācarya penned ‘Āgamaprāmānyam’, claiming Vedic authority to Vaiśhṇava Tantra and Pāncharātra methods. Many scholars subsequently argued to solidify his view. Dakshināchāra Tantra method thus grew as a different branch from Vamachara Tantra that rejected Vedic influence. Āgamas are Vedic in character, say texts like Suprabhedāgama and Mukudāgama. These claims show how important Vedic approval was.

Tantra in Kerala context refers to Dakshināchāra Tantra. Tāntric texts here mean Āgama texts and those inspired from them. Tantri generally means the Chief Priest. (Texts on temple rituals do not mention the word ‘Tantri’.

Tantrasamuccayam and other manuals use the word Acharya or Guru to denote Chief Priest. Tantri, the term, might have been a later addition.) Tantri’s authority is not limited to the rituals, but begins from the construction of the temple. He has the right to decide the customs to be followed. A Tantri has special authority on the idol and the deity.

We saw that Vedic rituals required huge resources, forcing many to create much cheaper, individual methods of worship and spiritual inquiry. A similar progression and continuance can be seen from Vedic methods to Tantric methods, especially in Dakshiṇācāra Tantra system.

Belief: Temple worship and idol worship

We saw the historical evolution of temple worship. Now the pertinent question is how history affects the believer (Ayyappa devotee in our current context). The chemistry of personal belief remains largely unaffected by historical influence and evolution of beliefs and customs. A person does not follow a particular religion or belief system because of its history. This is true to all religions. A believer applies himself to current beliefs and customs. For example, the image of Jesus a religious Christian holds in his mind has a reality that goes beyond historical facts. This image could have been shaped by social influences over centuries. This image  of Jesus is what shapes a Christian’s belief today, and not necessarily the historical facts of those times. Historical Jesus might be different from the image that a modern believer holds dear.

Coming back to our topic, the Hindu’s concept of history is vital here. Indians have historically analysed the concept of time differently from others.

“Kālaswabhāvo niyatiryatrichchha” – Time has no influence – says Śvetāśvataropaniṣad. Proponents of Advaita say time is an unreal. Śrīharṣa, in his work Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya, strongly argues against the idea that time is real. If one is to argue that time is real, it would follow that the present experience is a product of time. As time cannot be perceived sensorily, it would also follow that time is a product of present experience. This would bring in circularity or Itaretarāśraya, which is a logical fallacy. Advaitins deny reality of time for other reasons too. Acceptance of time as real goes against the basic Advaitic idea that only Brahmā  is real. In Tatvapradīpika, from 11th century CE, philosopher Citsukhan makes several arguments against existence of time.

Such unique reasoning about time is not exclusive to Philosophical treatises. Several Puraṇas too detail them. For example, Viśhṇu says thus in Brahmavaivarta Puraṇa: Ekārṇavanca praḷayam satvaśūnyam bhāyanakam srśhtim katividhām śacra kalpam katividham dhruvam. Brahmāṇḍamca katividham Brahmaviśhṇumaheśwarān brahmāṇḍeśu katividhānidrān ko gantumīswara. Yati sankhyāsti reṇūnam dharāyanca surādhipa. tathāpi sankhya śakrāṇām nāstyeveti vidurbudha.

I have seen this universe going nonexistent (again and again) in the dreadful deluge that creates a great void. Who can count the worlds in this emptiness? Who can count the worlds and gods that emerge from it? Who can count the Indrās who come into existence in all such worlds simultaneously? It is impossible even if counting all the grains of sand on earth is.

The coming into being of many worlds simultaneously and the presence of Indrās in all of them goes against the concept of time as we understand it. The Puraṇas detail a concept of time so nonlinear that the past, present and future exist together as one. Indian philosophical systems are rife with such ideas of timelessness. Some experts say History as an academic discipline was made irrelevant in Ancient India by this concept of time. (Ancient India studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, art and literature in depth. History however is an exception. History texts are nonexistent too. The reasons may be several, one being the importance ancient philosophy and Puraṇas – where the past, present and future exist simultaneously – had on the everyday, material lives.)

How can a philosophical concept of time influence laymen? It is a valid question. Such concepts are interwoven into the creation of idea of a deity and rituals. A believer need not be aware of the Puraṇic notion of Time. His understanding of Vedanta or Time is not essential to his belief, nor does he have to read Brahmavaivarta Puraṇa. Even if he is aware or not, these Puraṇas and philosophies will affect the rituals and customs he follows. These concepts impact the formation and workings of such belief systems in the society immensely. The image of Ayyappa a devotee holds in his heart has been thus influenced directly or indirectly over centuries. We discussed how the current image of a God formed through social influences over centuries, and not the historical image, creates an internal reality of belief in someone. This holds a unique implication in Hinduism because the concept of time is integral to the Hindu belief system.

The point is, historical practices and their evolution over the centuries cannot be used against a believer or devotee. Historical changes to beliefs have no influence on a devotee’s personal belief. History might shape belief. It, however, is an organic change happening over generations. This process does not normally weigh on a devotee’s choice of worship. Hence it is difficult to change a person’s or a group’s beliefs using this historical evolution as a weapon.

History enthusiasts among believers may be interested in this evolution. That does not mean such a believer, now aware of such evolution, will want to change his belief. Today’s Ayyappa’s image may be different from the one in the past. But it’s the present image that shapes his internal reality of devotion. The historical concept of God and the present concept of God may differ. The devotee is devoted to the concept of God prevalent in the times he lives in. An Ayyappa devotee, or any believer for that matter, may not necessarily agree with calls for revision of his beliefs based on arguments rooted in evolution of his beliefs in history, or history itself.

Confronting a believer with scientific logic is futile too. Even a believer who has learnt sciences and makes a living out of an occupation in sciences follows his religious beliefs not based on scientific proof or logic. A believer has to find logic only in the subjective experiential reality and spiritual ecstasy his beliefs create. A believer will not find any illogicality in his beliefs as long as it is internally harmonious for him. Scientific logic works differently. A believer can be called illogical only if his internal reality is in conflict with his belief. Science or scientific logic does not and cannot have privileged access to a believer’s experiential reality to see if he is logically consistent with his beliefs. It is impossible to measure subjective, spiritual, formless, experiences obtained through personal dedication, meditation, rituals, and austerity (vratam) using scientific logic. It is illogical to ask a believer to alter his beliefs using scientific logic.

Another argument says some rituals need to change since they are undemocratic. Ask two women if restriction on young women in Sabarimala is undemocratic. Their answers will differ if one is a devotee and the other is not. Let’s keep that question aside for the time being. All religions practice customs that could be termed ‘undemocratic’. The  vital question is who should change them if they are so. Who owns these beliefs and customs? How can change be brought if they are undemocratic? The answer to the first question is relatively simple: A believer should own his beliefs. That answer makes the second question relevant. How to go about making changes to an undemocratic custom? Before we answer it, let’s discuss why a temple-goer follows a temple custom.

Temple-goers are not usually Vedantins, Yogis, or philosophers. Devotion guides them. A believer visits temple to fulfil his Dharmarthakama requirements. “Pumarthasarvasvavidhāyi yajvanām” (God grants their devotees Dharma, Artha, Kāma, and Mokśha), says Tantrasamuccayam. Proper customs will grand him his needs, a devotee believes. Dharma, Artha and Kāma are essential to worldly living. Mokśha, for him, is the union with God after life. A need for worldly gain is behind such devotion. Formful Gods were created exactly to cater to this need of devotees.

“Dharmārthī prāpnuyāddharmamarthārthī chārthamāpnuyāt Kāmānavāpnuyāt kāmī prajārthī prāpnuyātprajām”, says Viśhṇusahasranāmam. The devotee believes his God will provide Dharma for those seeking Dharma, Artha for those seeking Artha, and Kāma for those seeking Kāma. He follows the rituals and customs as a means to attain what he wants to, be it Dharma, Artha or Kāma. He believes devotion to his God will fulfil his seeking for riches, pleasures, progeny, and Mokśha. Material gains thus become one of the driving forces in such devotion.

Temple worship does not follow the Vedantic concept of God as a formless being. The deity in a temple has a form. Though omnipotent, the God is presented with worldly and materialistic characteristics. Deities in temples take up some common everyday emotions – fury, serenity, joy – and forms – as mother or as child. A devotee thinks his chance of getting wishes fulfilled depends on whether he keeps his God appeased. This means, he will abstain from doing anything that he believes his god will be unhappy with. Any revision to the existing customs thus, according to him, has to be done without hurting his beliefs, without upsetting his God, and benefitting the deity in some way. A devotee will analyse a call for revision of his customs with his system of belief and not a yardstick of democracy. Values of belief will outweigh his values of democracy in Sabarimala issue. The question of revision of customs can be addressed only in the language of beliefs. Those seeking revision should speak to a believer in the latter’s language.

Unfortunately, that is not the debate happening in Kerala today. Many revisionists often deride religious beliefs, symbols and customs, present them as unrealistic, meaningless concepts that hold back human advancement – or base their arguments on this notion. This view is at the heart of the ongoing neo-atheist movement in Kerala. This presumption, used as a weapon to hurt others’ thinking and believes, shuts all doors for a possible dialogue. To quote a western thinker, this view is hollow and stupid like  “believing in godlessness and worshipping godlessness”.

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A believer would want to be the custodian of his religious beliefs, and not want the State to interfere in his affairs, as long as his beliefs do not hurt a fellow being or affect society harmfully. The philosophies that guide arguments for and against religious beliefs are not only contradictory, but also aired in totally different tongues. A nonbeliever cannot appreciate the importance a believer attributes to the flowers offered to his God, the attire of a priest, the verses used to invoke the deity and the timetable for daily rituals. Not only is a non- believer not affected by the pious ways of the believer, he may not even understand the need for it. His concept of religious believes are different from that of a believer’s.

Those arguing for revision of customs, branding them subject to natural change,  not only do not understand the believer or the belief’s core essence, but do so rejecting them altogether. The changes in rituals suggested by someone with the understanding of its essence is different from the changes suggested by those who reject religious practices altogether or remains indifferent to it. Therein lies the inaccuracy of equating the current call for reform with renaissance. Social reformists like Sree Narayana Guru kept the essence of belief at the centre of his call for change. (One of the reasons why he was (and is) more popular than Sahodaran Ayyappan, an atheist from the same period.)

The Naishṭika-Brahmachāri of Sabarimala

The Lord of Sabarimala is believed to be a ‘Naishṭika Brahmachāri’, a usage some revisionists and social media discussants claim to be a modern coinage. They argue that the deity’s Brahmacharya is no excuse to not see young women. ‘Naishṭika Brahmachāri’ is not a new concept  or usage. It goes back at least to the 3rd century CE, when Yājñavalkyasmriti defines that choice of life.xi In Vijñāneswara’s interpretation of the text, he terms ‘Naishṭika Brahmachāri’ as someone who has taken a vow of celibacy until death (‘utkrantikālam’). So the concept is quite old. The argument against a Brahmachari not seeing young women too is flawed. “Ahiṁsāsatyāsteyabrahmacaryāpa rigrahāh yamāḥ”, says Patanjali’s Yogasutra. Yamās are of five kinds – Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacarya, and Aparigraha. Vācaspati  Miśra, in a commentary on the Sutra, cites Daksha Smriti to say such a Brahmachari should not see women, talk, or bring images of them to his mind. Hence the concept of a Naishṭika Brahmachāri  not seeing a young woman and maintaining Brahmacharya throughout his life has scriptural credibility.

This raises other questions: Why then does Hanuman, another Naishtika Brahmachari, not have such restrictions, or why does the same rule not apply in other Ayyappa temples? There are no simple answers to these questions.

Temples, in general, follow long held rituals and customs. In Kerala, even in temples where the deities are the same, rituals and traditions differ greatly. This is also a matter of diversity, consistent with the polytheistic nature of Hindu system. In temples like Attukal Bhagavathy Kshetram, the annual Pongala festival grants exclusive access to women, excluding men from the rituals. In Sabarimala’s case long held customs have been vital in creating the image of ‘Sabarimala Ayyappan’ in devotees’ hearts. Such an answer may not satisfy a non-believer. But these beliefs were not formed to satisfy a non- believer. They are for temple worshipers, who find them entirely logical.

Religious laws are considered to be of divine origin by most civilizations and cultures. Almost all major religions that exist today and all ancient spiritual traditions that are not practiced today consider their laws and traditions to be of divine origin (or in some way has the divine consent). Religious Hindus too consider their rituals and traditions to be of divine origin. Most Āgama texts are structured in a way where Lord Śiva advises theory to his consort Pārvatī. A believer considers traditions and rituals a part of his religious values and remains committed to them. These contributes to his religious identity. His question, how can mortal men change religious laws that are of divine origin, is a valid one. That question makes it tough to change tradition and rituals.

It is true that saints like Sree Narayana Guru brought in changes to the religious traditions and rituals. But great men like him accepted spirituality and understood the chemistry behind faith and beliefs. Their efforts bore fruits because they were sympathetic to the faith and the believer. Sadly, those who try  to bring in change today and those who talk about ‘renaissance’ are hesitant to understand the issues from the viewpoint of the belief system or spirituality. The argument that religious laws, traditions, and rituals are social constructs and hence should be changed according to the times would be too simplistic and illogical for the believer. The internal world of the believer, his inspiration and optimism, and the light in his life, is made by his God, his beliefs, his rituals, and the traditions he follows. It would be an affront to the dignity of the believer to say that these traditions can be changed overnight. Such an attempt would negate his belief, and the reality of his internal life. He would understand it as an attempt to insult his faith. It would be grossly unfair to him.

Those who want to bring in a change should do that by talking to a believer in his language. Attempts to change traditions and rituals will not be examined by a believer in the light of history, science, or democratic values. He would examine any such attempt in the light of his faith and faith alone. Such an examination would also be an internal one. Society and the State should respect such an examination, and should not insult it. Currently we only hear about the  duties and obligations of the believers. It’s not just the believers, anyone who expresses his views and opinions have a responsibility to respect the seriousness of the issue and the emotions that the issue raises.

It would be very easy for someone to make a stand by ridiculing traditions and terming those who stick to them primitive. Many claim progressiveness by taking such a stand. (This is an easy way to be a progressive today. Even someone with dangerous and immature views on politics and society can pretend to be a progressive by ridiculing religion and religious beliefs. He would instantly be branded as someone who  holds “progressive values.”) But it is not easy to talk to a believer in his language, and examine the possibilities of a change in rituals and traditions. Talking to a believer in the believer’s own language need not mean that one should be accepting of his belief system. It just means that the discussion should be in a language that respects the faith of the believer. The language and the discussion should recognize how a believer understands his rituals, beliefs, and traditions. A constructive dialogue would only be possible when such a language evolves, which respects the experiential component of a belief and the internal reality of the believer.

Finding a path to such a dialogue would not be an easy task; but that path would be a mature one.

This is the full version of an article that appeared in the January 27, 2020 print edition of The Indian Express under the title 'The language of belief'. The writer is an astrologer and scholar from Kerala