Save Sabarimala, Save Freedom of Religion in India

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Indian Citizens For Sabarimala

Dear friends and fellow-citizens,

    I speak on behalf of the many informed, educated Indian women and men I know, who are instinctively convinced that the Freedom to Worship one's personal Concept of the Divine is inalienable from the freedoms of thought and expression, which are deemed to be the first condition of liberty, enshrined in our democracy.

    The renowned Hindu temple of the deity Sri Ayyappan at Sabarimala has, for nearly a millennium, practised the unique custom of restricting women of reproductive age from entering the temple, in addition to prescribing several rituals and religious observances for all pilgrims there. Every year, the better part of nearly 50 million devotees, i.e. almost 4% of the Indian population, across religions, castes and social classes, observe the prescribed religious fasts for self-purification and together make the difficult pilgrimage to worship their celibate Deity Sri Ayyappan at Sabarimala during the limited seasons that the hill shrine is open to the public. This arduous pilgrimage is of immense spiritual significance to the Hindu religious community, and it is, arguably, almost comparable in significance, for devout South Indian Hindus, to the Hajj for devout Muslims.

    The Sabarimala verdict, passed on 28 September, 2018, by the Honourable Supreme Court, removed the religious restrictions on the entry of women of childbearing age into the temple. The verdict provoked widespread discontentment and apprehension among the section of Hindus who attach great personal significance to the unique concept of the deity Sri Ayyappan at Sabarimala as a God who embodies celibacy as an ascetic virtue. The Sabarimala shrine is the only temple of Sri Ayyappan at which women are restricted, because no other Ayyappan temple is so inseparably linked with the concept of this Deity as a Naishtthika Brahmachaari or Constant Celibate. Therefore the Sabarimala temple is, arguably, a keystone and a most important symbol of indigenous Hindu faith in South India.

 

The historic tradition of restricting the entry of women to Sabarimala has a known basis in the religious narrative of the temple, as described in its primary source, the Bhootanaatha Upaakhyaana, which is the Sthala Puraana of the Sabarimala temple.

    According to the Bhootanaatha Upaakhyaana, the deity Sri Ayyappan of the Sabarimala temple is worshipped as being united with the Chaitanya (Spiritual Energy or Essence) of an ascetic prince, Sri Manikantthan, who lived in the local kingdom of Pandalam in the 12th century AD. Sri Manikantthan renounced the world at an early age and embraced strict vows of celibacy, in which He determined not to look upon women of childbearing age. Upon His attainment of Samaadhi (or the Soul's disunification from the body to merge with the Divine), it is believed by devotees that His Spiritual Essence merged into the idol of the ancient temple of Dharma Shaasta at Sabarimala, and He was worshipped thenceforth at Sabarimala as being one with the principal deity Sri Ayyappan Himself.

    The religious customs of the Sabarimala temple have since then been adopted in accordance with Sri Manikantthan's express wishes and injunctions during His lifetime. Women of reproductive age were restricted from visiting the temple in deference to the express wishes of Sri Manikantthanso that this deity's particular vow of celibacy- namely, that He would not glance upon women of fertile years- would not be violated. In fact, the men and women devotees who visit the temple are required to have purified their minds and bodies by observing 41 days of a strict religious fast that includes celibacy.

 

Was the Sabarimala temple's religious custom of restricting the entry of women of reproductive age discriminatory towards the gender?

    The verdict presumes that the temple tradition of age restrictions for women is discriminatory, but those who understand the religious sentiment of Hindu women devotees know otherwise. Not only is the religious custom of age restrictions on women's entry unique to the Sabarimala temple and inalienable from the spiritual significance of this temple, but there are also other celebrated temples in the State which are primarily associated with the Feminine aspect of Divinity, and where certain important rituals are performed exclusively by women. Hinduism does not believe in a patriarchal Divinity, but, rather, Hindus worship the Male and Female Aspects of Divinity alike, and there is scarcely a temple where Male and Female Deities are not accompanied by their Consorts who are equally venerated.

    It is perhaps important to define the term, discrimination, with greater precision than we are used to. There are a number of institutions and services everywhere that practise some form of exclusion based on gender, but they do not, certainly, all amount to discrimination. The Article 14 of the Indian Constitution specifies that the State shall not deny to any Indian citizen equality before the eyes of the Law. This would seem to suggest that the law of equality can be invoked only when there is a legitimate allegation of denial, and this allegation has been established in fact. In other words, it seems useful to allow the viewpoint of the deemed sufferer to drive the decision of whether or not discrimination has been perpetrated in a particular instance, provided the individual is sufficiently informed about the notion of discrimination and its possible applicability in their own case.

    We would like to submit that the primary stakeholders in this verdict are the devout women for whom the Aspect of Sri Ayyappan consecrated at Sabarimala- that of a Naishtthika Brahmachaari or Constant Celibate- is their own intimately valued concept of the Divine. Such women worshippers are among the community of faithful devotees who are the true stakeholders of the Sabarimala temple, and it is they that the verdict seeks to empower. These women devotees would not, by any means, wish to defy the injunctions of their personal God to enter His temple. They would also resent the violation of the temple's sanctity through the millennia by the entry, breaching the temple's religious restrictions, of other women for whom this unique concept of Sabarimala Ayyappan is not their deeply held idea of God.

    The PIL at the Honourable Supreme Court was contested rigorously by the able Advocate representing the interests of the ReadyToWait campaign, which strived to embody the sentiments of the great majority of faithful women worshippers of Sabarimala Ayyappan. Thus it seems contrary to our ideas of justice and democracy that a group of non-stakeholders of a religious institution could create a legislation in our Apex Court, overruling the vehement and reasonable protestations of the primary stakeholders, imposing upon them a "reform" that they did not solicit, on the grounds that they were being discriminated against by the existing practice.

 

The Hindu temple means infinitely more to its devotees than just a facility to serve their need for religious and ritual worship; the temple is a veritable Abode of Divinity at which it is they who are welcomed as guests of the Deity.

    It is vital for followers of this debate to understand and appreciate the fact that each Hindu temple represents, for devout Hindus, not only a place to congregate and pray, but a physical manifestation of the unique Aspect of Divinity that is represented there, conceived as finding a tangible existence in the temple idol into which the Divine Essence is ritually consecrated. Furthermore, every religious Hindu believes that the customs and rituals associated with a temple are essential to the appeasement of the Deity who is worshipped there. Therefore, for the devout Hindu, the temple is not a socio-religious institution to facilitate worship, but a corporeal representation of an Aspect of the Divine. There is abundant evidence in the current religious usage of temples, and in history and in culture, to establish this statement. When a particular temple or its customs are violated, the very Essence of the unique form of Faith embodied by that institution is also destroyed for the devotees who worship there.

    We thereby reason that the present verdict, far from empowering the hundreds of millions of women devotees and believers in the Sabarimala Ayyappan, in fact threatens to deprive them of their Constitutional Right to worship their preferred Aspect of the Divine at the only religious institution that embodies this Aspect. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We fear that the Sabarimala verdict can unwittingly deal a heavy blow to our nation's cherished ideals of secularism and democracy, and set an unwelcome precedent that could, in time, erode both the rich heterogeneity and the communal harmony of our indigenous civilization.

 

The present Sabarimala verdict seems likely to be exclusively abused, and there seems, in fact, small likelihood that it can lead to a peaceful, inoffensive usage. 

    Who are the women that would seek to visit Sabarimala under the protection of the present law, in full knowledge that they are able to do so only because the law shields them from the indignation of the earnest devotees of the Sabarimala Ayyappan?

    Sabarimala has always been open to persons of all faiths, worshippers and spectators, provided they complied with the customs and restrictions of the shrine. As a result, we fear that it is the women who do not understand the religious significance of the shrine to its faithful worshippers- who are atheists or iconoclasts, and who do not value or respect our collective traditional heritage and religious beliefs, or who, professing themselves to be rationalist or progressive, cannot comprehend the significance of these customs to the sincere devotees- who will likely use the new sanction to visit the temple, either in order to make a statement about their own ideological persuasions, or to experience the grand spectacle of Sabarimala without consideration for the deep religious sentiments that make Sabarimala the powerful spiritual institution that it is.

 

Our Proposal for a Solution to the present deadlock

    I write this petition as angry clouds form threateningly over the Pampa. I fear, as many of us do, that the wrath of those who have been deeply injured by the verdict will eventually tear our peaceful, progressive society asunder and distance us from ourselves. We therefore propose the following urgent remedial measures to preempt that painful outcome:

  1. A State ordinance should be urgently promulgated to stay the implementation of the SC verdict until the question of reinstating the traditional religious restrictions on women's entry has been resolved to the satisfaction of the primary stakeholders.
  2. A consensual decision must be arrived at upon who the primary stakeholders of the Sabarimala temple, and of the Supreme Court verdict, are, and upon whether there indeed exist legitimate grounds in this case to allege gender discrimination when the views of the primary stakeholders have been duly prioritized.
  3. A religious committee should be constituted within a reasonably short time frame, headed by the Sabarimala Tantri, His Highness The Head of the Pandalam Royal Family, Representatives of the temple administration, as well as Devotees' representatives belonging to the different social classes and genders, in order to adjudicate on the relevance and advisability of the traditional restrictions on women's entry at Sabarimala, and perhaps, in future, upon such other questions of a religious significance to the temple, which, by Article 25 of the Constitution, do not fall within the purview of State.

    We have great faith in the ultimate wisdom of our Indian civilization, and in its capacity to discover and embrace the path of truth and righteousness. We indeed understand and value the importance of legislation as an instrument for legitimate social reform, but we, the deemed beneficiaries of this particular verdict, declare that this is a doubtful reform to be enacted through legislation, and may amount to a denial of our Right to Freedom of Religion.

    Therefore, we believe we have reason to hope that this petition will be received with favour and acted upon urgently in order to rectify this injustice perpetrated on one of the most tolerant and peaceful religions in history, and on us.


Swami Saranam

Gayathri Nair, On behalf of

The Indian Citizens who value Freedom of Religion

 

 



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