Sabarimala temple row highlights need for women's movement to introspect and course-correct on other, larger issues

Sucheta Dasgupta

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 17 January, 2019. It is being republished in light of the Supreme Court verdict on a batch of petitions seeking the re-examination of its decision to allow the entry of women of menstruating age into Kerala's Sabarimala Temple that is due on Thursday. 

The politically incorrect family joke that my husband and I share these days involves my very sporadic kitchen duty (now a tad more frequent since I began freelancing this December). It goes something like this: Whenever I cook a meal and leave, my husband feels obliged to wipe the gas stove, the countertops and floor all over again €" despite my having neat-ified said surfaces €" driven by a difference in our cleaning abilities and his smouldering, obsessive desire for the clean life. He will say, "Hereby I perform the purification ceremony after The Woman has entered and left my Sabarimala".

Had he been around, my dad would have typically dismissed this debate as detracting from serious, more pressing public issues. Even I have been reluctant to write about it, and possibly to its detriment. But the Swaminarayan Ayyappa temple contretemps has snowballed into such a socially pervasive and politically divisive hot potato that it has now begun to tickle my funnybone while saddening me vis-à-vis human behaviour as manifest through its limited scope. It has resulted in some calculated gains nonetheless €" the former Chief Justice Dipak Misra has officially outlawed menstruation as a "disqualifier" for women entering religious venues, and for the first time, a government has taken women's rights seriously by sticking to its mandate of implementing and upholding a court order.

The BJP governments have been sociologically status-quo'ist (even while they have hardly displayed a sense of heritage given that they are pulling down houses older than the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttar Pradesh only to build a road to the Ganga). Policy-wise, the Congress is 'traditionally' (by longstanding custom) a debunker of indigenous knowledge and quite the inveterate fence-sitter. Everyone, including the judiciary, has made this into an equality versus religious freedom question €" a dubious one, no doubt, but one in which the moral and legal priorities were clear from the get-go, as were the respective veracities of both the causes. It was left to the Left Front government and only the Left Front government to act on what is right. And the Left is right, though not wholly, on Sabarimala.

The Left has undone the resurgence of regressive Hindutva (as opposed to enlightened Hinduism) post the 1991 Kerala High Court order banning women's entry to the shrine; until then there had been a trickle of women worshippers, particularly young mothers to the hilltop, since the pagan deity Ayyanar's open durbar closed eight to nine centuries ago. Stopping the hard work done by the 19th century Hindu reformers for their faith from being thus squandered is not a mean feat.

What has the Left left undone/unsaid/unaddressed? The unbridled desire to meet the deity, any deity, for darshan reeks of a certain 'selling of the soul', a raw hankering for undeserved benefits or deliverances obtained through the means of prayer, submission. By definition, agnosticism eschews this hankering. Atheism excludes it.

Though not commonly discussed, atheism is intrinsic to Hinduism and a part of its polymorphous history and philosophy (refer the Kapila, Charuvakya, Ajita Kesakambali, Makkhali Gosala, Purva Mimamsa school of thought). While a majority of those born into the religion but of similar moral persuasion choose not to identify as Hindu, others from among this philosophical minority live in the Hindu pantheistic cosmos, participating in its multifarious social and cultural traditions, equal owners and interpreters of these as well as the mythologies. God-believers, too, not to mention the hypothetical divine, as a matter of principle, welcome them into shrines and worshipping ceremonies €" and not just to 'turn them', convert their faith. The only condition is that they must be respectful of the space and its many meanings.

Being a priori rational, devoid of some biases and on the whole more objective, this has not been a problem for most atheists. By this token, the fear of the Ayyappa followers that women's entry to Sabarimala was an atheist conspiracy is patently untrue. Whether Hindu or Communist or identifying as both, as a handful of them actually do (as my father did), an atheist would €" under ordinary circumstances €" respect the story and traditions of Ayyappa. Yet, before the Supreme Court judgment came and the Left government in the state became constrained to implement it, not many atheists of all three categories had done their bit to dispel this fear, highlighting an important gap in the discussions, even as only their position allowed them to see through the artificialness of the religion versus egalitarianism dilemma best and most easily, and come up with the exquisite cultural right argument. But perhaps restrained by the Left parties' no-touch line in matters of religion, they, too, failed on that front.

With due respect to Kanakadurga and Bindu, however, as a Hindu atheist, Communist-sympathising, unapologetic #ReadyToWait-er (a demographical oxymoron, yes!), I hold it in bad taste for a (still fertile, variously suspected of/bullied for being a radical/classical) feminist to visit Sabarimala. Though I run a slight risk of not looking decrepit enough to be regarded as an 'aunty' by angry Ayyappa fans or the Board men, with their blinkered sociological vision, I believe in the worthiness of the elderly woman equal to that of the elderly man. They, and the other #ReadyToWait-ers, really don't.

Why? I don't hold that barring women from entering Sabarimala affects their livelihood or growth in ways such as a (hypothetical) bar on women's hiking, mountaineering, walking unaccompanied or unequal pay (as a female priest) would. In fact, these are bastions already assailed and accessible. The one important fundamental right that sets Sabarimala apart from Haji Ali or Shani Shingnapur, or Agastyarkoodam, is the exquisite cultural (not religious because it defies the essential practices doctrine, but cultural) right of a minority as enshrined in the Indian Constitution's Article 29 €" which applies to the ayyappans who undergo the 41-day pilgrimage for the duration of this male-exclusive pilgrimage with its homosexual, mythopoetic masculist undertones (for instance, his ectogenic birth, his friendship with Vavar) €" not the deity's right to privacy in and of itself because that argument has been demolished as untenable for both man and god. It is to do with the distinct nature of the pilgrimage, as separate and unique from Kumbh, for instance. It is a heritage concept. Most notably, it was not referred to in the State of Kerala's arguments against the Indian Young Lawyers Association's petition or in the Supreme Court's 28 September judgment. As an Indian, I share the Sabarimala heritage, though my visit there €" should and when it transpires €" would be for educational tourism and non-devotional.

Now there are plenty of real anti-female bias instances built into our religious-cultural heritage. Let us contemplate: should the Gaudiya Mission now look into revising the status of ghanisttha bhakt (close associate) it has denied social reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's follower Madhavi Devi? Along with Svarupa Damodara Goswami, Ramananda Raya and Sikhi Mahiti, Sikhi's sister Madhavi is one of the three-and-a-half confidantes of Sri Chaitanya. As a child, it was demoralising to reckon with the idea that a woman, despite being worthy, was still in theory not a full participant. Maturity, however, has bestowed the realisation that her half-a-bhakt stature implies that not only did she make the cut but was perhaps the best loved bhakt of them all. Cultural exclusivism exists even on the other side of the male-female binary. Eight temples in India (Attukal Bhagavathy and Chakkulathukav in Kerala, Brahma Temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, Kanyakumari, Kamrup Kamakhya, Durga Temple in Muzaffarpur, Trimbakeshwar in Nasik, and Santoshi Mata temples) all bar entry of men periodically or wholly, based both on custom and tradition. Excepting the last two, each has its own mythology-based rationale for the bar. And men respect that rationale.

In a different male-exclusive universe, say a men's group performing pagan male bonding rituals, or a gay lounge entertaining male homosexuals, wouldn't members resent a numerical predominance of women, even attempts by some of them to 'turn' them? Don't these spaces too €" if only in terms of historicity and purpose €" have attached to them some strange beauty and meaning? Only a handful of 'queer straight' (according to queer theory) or radical feminist women do earn the stripes for being a "f*g h*g" and occasionally inhabit that gay lounge. They still leave the fireside drummers alone to their 'secret' exertions.

The diversity argument makes huge sense for Sabarimala. Legends and history overlap with heritage because they show the journey of a nation, of a community, and its social trajectory. Aryan supremacist or not, they should be remembered and learnt from, if only not to be repeated; not overwritten.

Besides, his cultural appropriation story notwithstanding, wasn't Ayyappa still within his rights to decline marriage to the vanquished Mahishi? Had she defeated him, in her turn, and overpowered him, she could not have had her way with him, for nature would have prevented that. One-on-rape is impossible without coercion or involuntary seduction. But the so-called (and unfortunately, so-affiliated) Left-Lib third wave equity/difference feminist cabal, clamouring for both women's entry to Sabarimala and menstruation leaves at workplaces, but not risking the trek themselves even under cop protection, will dub this approach 'victim-blaming', run from it, get the media to switch off your microphone and then shout you down.

For them, it is just about populism and being politically correct, not about true equality. The fact that Kanakadurga and Bindu hadn't been able to go home or attend work due to protests until 14 January €" 12 days after they ascended the shrine €" shows the size of the behemoth called entrenched misogyny that they have taken on, but to them and for us, that is really another story. It establishes the necessity of the move, after all. It will be far-fetched to convince oneself that as a deity, Ayyappa changed his mind about Mahishi, without any trigger or causal circumstance, and made his will known through the Supreme Court. That would be self-serving wish fulfillment. But commission of blasphemy and sacrilege is sometimes required for the mind or the human civilisation to evolve past irrational, artificial constructs and barriers come about in the course of history and time.

Only, after all this is over, when the political Right declines after an electoral judgment-delivering, with the courts and the government having stayed firm on this course, let this sense be achieved by the people of Kerala, and of India, so that even as more and more younger women go up to the sannidhanam, and rewrite the rules of engagement and hurt unwarranted sensitivities, their population eventually narrows to one comprising scholars, artists, administrators (let the temple administration include women) and students, not worshippers and tourists. Let the living gods of masculist pride continue their dance at the hill shrine of Sabarimala. Let the Ayyappa seeking cult carry on its travels.

Let the women's movement look within and course-correct on other larger matters by the mythical light of Sabarimala.

Also See: Kerala's women are marching so we can run: The corporeal revolution that's propelling gender equality in India

Ferocity of Sabarimala protests proves Hinduism is taking on Abrahamic characteristics to tackle external threats

Sabarimala verdict: SC refers matter to 7-judge bench in 3:2 split verdict, says ruling may impact other communities, religious practices

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