28 Oct 2018 16:37 IST

Sabarimala: between idea and action

There exists a whole big universe of inequality, injustice, oppression and just plain ignorance

Sometimes you find yourself staring at something and you don’t see it. I experienced something like this on Saturday evening as I listened to Harikatha exponent Vishakha Hari’s telling of Sita Kalyanam, the part of the Ramayana that is about the marriage of Sita and Rama.

Harikatha is an ancient and traditional form that combines storytelling, music, poetry, drama, philosophy and dance. As the name implies, the stories are from the Hindu scriptures, and the tellers were always male until the pioneering Saraswati Bai broke their stranglehold. Her fine example resulted in my being both mesmerised and meditative.

That’s the way the universe works: someone does something, somehow, sometime, somewhere, and you and I reap the benefits. That in itself is miraculous. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb (or was it Humphrey Davy or Warren de la Rue or Joseph Swan) and today all it takes is a click, a clap of the hand, a walk-through, or even a command addressed to Alexa.

Prayers to Her

The marriage of Sita and Rama occurs fairly early in the Ramayana, seeing as they were only about 15 or 16 then; the major dramatic events occur subsequently. But even in this relatively tranquil period, there are several moments that lend themselves to reflection. That evening’s telling focussed quite substantially on the excellence of Sita. As Vishakha Hari said, “Without Sita there is no Rama.” And she went on to dwell briefly but significantly on the fact that among all the denominations of faith, it was Sanatana Dharma that unequivocally offered male-female duality as the basis of the higher principle. She drew attention to the fact that Shiva has Parvati, Vishnu has Lakshmi, Brahma has Saraswati, and so on. In other words, the goddess is on an equal footing with the god.

That’s why, I suppose, our Durga and Kali and Santoshi Ma and Devi are all viewed as powerful and their worship is a cult. People walk on burning coals to appease Her; they sacrifice animals to satisfy Her; they make long and arduous treks to pay obeisance to Her; they get into a frenzy and dance wildly in the expression of their devotion to Her.

All this, but women residing on the same earth as men, breathing the same air under the same sky and eating the same food and doing everything the men do, be it performing religious rituals or funeral rites, flying planes or sailing around the world, climbing mountains or engaging in military combat, teaching kindergarten or orbiting the earth, conducting research in scientific labs or writing books, creating music or making films, building solar panels or profit-making companies… All this, but women may not enter certain temples. Why?

Abuse of power

The opposition to women praying to Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala has reached dangerous levels and has descended to pure thuggery. To the extent that you have the president of the BJP threatening the Chief Minister of Kerala, where the temple is located, with dire consequences if he continues to attempt to abide by the Supreme Court ruling — the ruling of the highest legal body in the country — permitting the entry of women into the temple at Sabarimala. This is goonda politics. Such goondaism is unacceptable and must be condemned. Besides, it goes against the basic right of every Indian citizen to be free to practice her or his religion. This means men and women, boys and girls. No matter how ham-handed may be the efforts to enable the implementation of the Supreme Court decision, any attempt to thwart and threaten these efforts must not be tolerated.

Ironically, those opposing this right are the very same people who profess their undying loyalty to a denomination whose philosophy and religious orientation is based on the equal partnership of goddess and god. Clearly, this is a case of misdirection and misuse, an abuse of fundamental rights and fundamental principles.

It appears that women had always worshipped at Sabarimala until a 1991 Kerala High Court ruling banned the entry of females between 10 and 50 years of age claiming that this was how it had always been since time immemorial and so it was time to slide back to that status quo. Women belonging to this category were not welcome at Lord Ayyappa’s abode in Sabarimala — we don’t know if Lord Ayyappa had any opinion on this or if they consulted him — and the police were allowed to keep them away by force, if necessary.

So much for justice and just practices. However, as we know, the 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court overturned this ban saying this was a form of “religious patriarchy”. After this ruling, when women tried to enter the temple, all hell broke loose in a space that’s supposed to engender inner peace and prepare our eventual passage to Vaikunta, in a manner of speaking.

Sense of fairness

Sabarimala has a sister, again, in a manner of speaking. In April 2016, following a Bombay High Court judgement, women were finally allowed entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple near Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. The popular belief is that the ruling deity of Shani (the god associated with the planet Saturn), which was found by some shepherds and thereafter installed in the shrine, is inhabited by its “spirit”. According to Wikipedia, an interesting aside is that houses in the village of Shingnapur have no doors! This seems significant: maybe it presages a time when the walls of intolerance will crumble and the breezes of harmony and understanding will fill our homes.

Of course, it’s a common practice for temples to discourage women from visiting when they are menstruating. Well, this happens even in homes and among families: women having their period are not allowed to participate in any overtly or covertly religious activity or function. In many homes, they are quarantined in a separate room for at least three days, not just in rural areas but in urban areas as well. I remember, as a college student, sitting this time out with my friend as she went through “those days” in her grandparents’ home in Chennai. So, when temple managements attempt to keep out women and argue that this has been the practice for centuries, it indicates we have a battle on our hands. Getting the court on the women’s side is only the first step.

That’s why we have to draw on our innate sense of justice and fair play. We have to remember that everyone comes fitted with this innate sense. We don’t need a religion or a god or a philosophy or a holy person to tell us what’s fair and what’s not. We already know it, and we must simply act upon it. The rest is politics and we must know this too and resist it.

Does this mean justice is not necessarily blind?