Freedom of Religion - Save Sabarimala
Freedom of Religion - Save Sabarimala
Global community in support of Sabarimala traditions -Save Sabarimala – Save Freedom of Religion
It is with deep angst that the global community has been watching the troubling events unfold in Sabarimala, Kerala, India following the honorable Supreme Court verdict on September 28, 2018 that effectively removed the existing ritual restrictions against the entry of young women of a specific age group in the temple. This ruling affects not just Sabarimala, but has far reaching implications for the very existence of all religious institutions and the practice of the religious beliefs and traditions in India.
The Sabarimala Hindu temple is a unique temple located in Kerala, India. With reports of up to 50 million pilgrims visiting the shrine annually, it is one of the most visited of the holy places in the world. Men, women and children undertake a rigorous 41-day vratham (vow) and a grueling barefoot trek to the shrine located in the hillocks as part of the Sabarimala Ritual. Young women aged 10-50 years of age are however restricted from the temple primarily owing to the nature of the deity. At Sabarimala, the deity Lord Ayyappa manifests as a particularly rigorous naishtika brahmachari (avowed celibate) and consequently, restrictions have been placed for the entry of women in that age group alone. It is, however, pertinent to note that the young women also follow the same 41-day vow at their homes and send their fathers, brothers, spouses and sons on their behalf, as part of the tradition, along with their prayers and ritual offerings. The temple is also unique in that it welcomes people of all religions.
But, the Sabarimala verdict imposes a patently false narrative of gender discrimination, without taking into account the core principle of the shrine or the nature of the deity around which the temple exists. It argues that gender and ritual exclusions are not part of the essential practices of religion effectively jeopardizing the rituals and traditions associated with Sabarimala, and by extension, many such unique temples and other places of worship. There are numerous temples, including Ayyappa/Shasta temples, in India where all people, irrespective of gender, can offer prayers. However, Hindu traditions also take cognizance of the fact that separate spaces for the genders are just as important as common spaces. Rituals like Attukal Pongala (harvest festival at Attukal Temple) in Kerala, for instance, have exclusive female participation, while the men are barred. This is also part of the spirit of diversity, heterogeneity and pluralism involved in Hindu traditions. It is therefore important to respect the diversity and uniqueness of Hindu temple spaces that have been designed for spiritual emancipation and alleviation of karmic struggles inherent in earthly existence.
The judgment has also revealed the glaring incongruence in the application of logic to matters of faith. The crux of the matter is that we either believe or we don’t. For a practicing Hindu the deity is a living presence. Therefore, respecting the nature of the deity/temple and ritual regulations stipulated by Shastra (scripture) is a primary tenet of devotion in Hinduism. The Sabarimala verdict effectively disrupts temple traditions, religious rituals and goes against the rights of the seeker to practice and maintain his/her religion and its beliefs as recommended by the scriptures.
Ironically, following the honorable Supreme Court verdict in favor of women, massive women-led protests erupted in Kerala against the verdict. Many young women devotees of Ayyappa overwhelmingly declared that they are willing to respect the wishes of the deity and are ready to wait until the age of 50 yrs to visit their Lord personally at Sabarimala. Numerous review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court.
However, the verdict has led to the deployment of a huge police presence in the temple, mass arrests of devotees, the curtailment of devotees’ rights to offer ritual prayers and chant ‘Swami Saranam’ (I take refuge in the Lord) etc. The Sabarimala pilgrims, including children, have been subjected to much humiliation and distressing conditions such as inaccessibility to food and water, proper toilet facilities etc. There are also heartbreaking reports of physical violence against dissenters and negative portrayals of devotees through mass media and social media.
Several prominent spiritual leaders including Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma), Swami Chidananda Puri (Adwaithashramam), Kanchi Shankaracharya Vijayendra Saraswathi, Swami Mitrananda (Chinmaya Mission), Sadhguru (Isha foundation)etc. have come out in support of the existing Sabarimala traditions. Amma has indicated that there is no bar for women entry and that the restrictions in the temple are for a particular age group alone. Amma has said that, while God is infinite consciousness, the deity in a temple is not exactly the same and various scriptural stipulations are to be followed to maintain the living presence of the deity; just like a fish in the ocean does not need any special treatment or controlled conditions, whereas a fish in a fish tank at home requires special care, diet and constant monitoring of its surroundings.
The situation at Sabarimala is a conscious attack against Sanatana Dharma, the mother of all religions, and it's time honored practices. We appeal to all good individuals of all faiths all over the world to support us in honoring the age-old traditions at Sabarimala. We encourage you to sign this petition so that the ritual traditions at Sabarimala can be preserved, and the temple be recognized as a world heritage. Freedom of religion is a fundamental and inalienable right in major democracies and must be protected from individuals and organizations that seek to destroy it. We hope that the honorable Supreme Court of India would review the petitions in favor of the deity and the devotees of Sabarimala so that freedom of religion and the true spirit of secularism may prevail!