Why Mustn’t The Courts Meddle With Religious Beliefs: The Sabarimala Dysfunction

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PC- thehindu.com

Not just the Sabarimala Mandir in Kerala, is the only place where females are not allowed to go inside, there remain several places of worship, including all the major religions of the world where women are not allowed to offer prayers.

Recently, we have seen a backlash to the verdict of the Supreme Court allowing the menstruating women to gain unrestricted entry into the Sabarimala temple, where the society and the priests have stopped the women folk from entering the temple.

The temple is dedicated to the Sri Ayyapa or Hariharan, the son of Sri Shiva and his consort Mohini (the female incarnation of Sri Vishnu). He has been remarked as the manifestation of prosperity and growth that harbour the materialistic way of life for people.

There has been a practice in all the temples dedicated to him for over centuries where women have been denied any kind of entry into his temples not only during their menses but otherwise also.

This practice in the Sabarimala temple, situated in the Periyar Tiger reserve gained its force from Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which was struck down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional in its approach. The issue remains that why did the court go so far to declare the age-old practice as conventional, leading it to attack the beliefs of so many devotees on illusory grounds, while important matters pertaining to women’s safety and the #MeToo, honour killings and child marriage have received no attention from the Supreme Court.   

The result being that the people became more offended, and are now forcing women to go back half-way from attending their prayers at the temple, also the BJP, which has remained a subtle force in the state is now vying to tap into the protectionist sentiment for religious preservation in the state, in stark contrast to the CPI (M) and Congress, forming the Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front respectively. 

The Katha Behind The Bar of Entry:

The popular media debate is centered around just the fact that women weren’t allowed entry into the temple. It is a misinformation campaign pampered by blind, and anti-male feminists, as well as misinformed/ ill-informed English journalists, who do not delve into the matter deeply. The issue relates to entry of menstruating women, while any ordinary Hindu woman will not enter a temple during the above period, for reasons well known to her. Thus, in an attempt to find some logic into the verdict and the media campaign, let us find the rationale through the lore and the law.

The story begins when during the Vishwamanthan, (Shiv Purana), when Sri Durga was battling Mahishasura, (the reason we celebrate Vijaya Dashmi), when after his death the asuras sister ‘Mahishi’ enraged with the powers and leelas of Sri Vishnu and Sri Shiva, sat on sadhana from Sri Brahma, praying for immortality. He denied her immortality but gave her powers and a boon that she may only be killed by a son born out of a union between Sri Vishnu and Sri Shiva, which was not possible.

Mohini and Sri Shiva

Sri Narad Muni, when approached Sri Vishnu with the information, he was alarmed at the demon that Sri Brahma had unleashed in the form of Mahishi. Mahishi began on creating an army of demons, who desecrated the temples of Shiva and Vishnu, and killed all the people who believed anyone but her. Fearing the future troubles, Sri Vishnu had to create a female incarnation in the form of Mohini, who was to appease Sri Shiva into union with her, while he was busy dealing with demons and the Vishwamanthan. Vishwamanthan is a process that laid the foundations of the entire realm, wherein came out all the good and vices, also known in English as the Great Churning of the Ocean (found in Bhagwat Purana, and also in the Bible- John 6:18).

Thus after long years of tapasya, Sri Shiva asked Mohini, what was her purpose, to which she narrated the entire episode, and furthering which he consummated her and Sri Ayyappa or Hariharan (Hari-Vishnu, Hara-Shiva) became the reality. The son born was placed near the river Pampa, with a golden necklace, where the king of Pandalam, Srimat Rajashekhara, who had no child, adopted him and raised him.

When the king’s wife had her own child, she lost all the affections for her adopted son, who was in his 14th year tasked by the queen to get the milk of a tigress to cure her of her illness.

It is said that while on his spree to milk a tigress, he was confronted by asuri Mahishi. It is said that they ensued each other in a battle for 14 days, where all the followers of Mahishi, and herself were defeated. After the defeat, she came bare in her mortal form, and powerless, and appealed to Sri Ayyappa to take her as his consort, to which he did not deny, but needed a permission from his father and mother.

He went back with a tigress, and disclosed about Mahishi to his father and mother, who did not allow him to marry, rather his formidable power caught the attention of the masses and he became the ascendant to the throne of the Pandamlum (which still hold the remains of the fort and is now a district). Meanwhile, Mahishi became a monk, dedicated her life to pursue Sri Ayappa, and became to be revered by the local residents for her healing powers and guidance. Sri Ayappa communicated to her his will to marry her, when he was relieved of his monarchic obligations which never happened, and they became immortal, yearning for each other, thereby being worshiped by people in their respective temples located nearby.

As a token of respect for his consort in waiting, Lord Ayyapa is said to have taken a vow to never get married and thereby he has kept a distance from young, and old menstruating women. Which is why they are, as a custom, not allowed to enter the temple.

The Legal Glitch:

Women Protestors demanding roll back of bar of entry of menstruating women.

The Constitution of India vide its Article 26 allows people as a fundamental right the freedom to manage their religious affairs as long as they are within social morals, not offensive to public and do not meddle with the public order. Recognizing this, the Kerala government enacted the Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, barring menstruating  women from gaining entry into the temple.

The Supreme Court in its verdict in the famous Sri Adi Visheshwara of Kashi Vishwanath Mandir vs State of Uttar Pradesh (1997) 4 SCC 606, held that Articles 25 and 26 extend to rituals as well, and are not merely confined to doctrine, adding further that Courts have to be pragmatic while evaluating rituals which are a facet of the right to manage a temple. The Court also added that the Right to Manage a temple is not an integral part of religion thus it can be regulated by law. The Court’s observation in this matter and the Sabarimala judgment should have aimed at striking te balance, when the Court in a blind attempt at imposing modern beliefs tried to meddle with a ritual/custom that had acquired the force of law, thereby amounting to a direct intervention to the religious belief of so many people.

The judgment is not acceptable, because it is in its blind attempt aiming to meddle with the personal beliefs of the devotees, rather than empowering or fighting discrimination against women!

What could have been done?

Instead of being the torchbearer of Social reform in such a matter, the court must have urged the social reformers and religious preachers to conduct a contemplation of the practice and see if there is a possibility that the Priesthood and the civil society may be taken into confidence to allow the entry of all kinds of women.

It is a real fact that the women who are menstruating are not allowed to go near religious places, except a female deity’s temple, as there is a pure scientific reason that at the time of the menses, they need to stay away from negative energies that get attracted to them because of the physical and mental pain they undergo during their menses. This isn’t a superstition but the aura of positivity that symbolises the temples, is also surrounded by negative energies that, may be better explained by spiritual leaders.

Coming back to the realm of the Law, the Court’s decision is not reformist but a blunt attack on the custom which will throw the people in the mode of protectionism and the desired results may never be achieved, and the political honchos will feed on the sentiments of the innocent devotees.

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