Not in the Name of My Ayyappa, Please! His is a Temple of Equality
Having visited Sabarimala 47 times, I can tell you that it is from there that equality for women should start.
In the year 1962 I started visiting Sabarimala. I have visited the temple almost every year until the year 2014. I had always put the burden on Ayyappa – if He wants me at Sabarimala, He will ensure I visit the temple. Sometimes I go through the long route and sometimes the shorter route. I have visited the temple 47 times. Today, had my health permitted, I would have been at Sabarimala.
I have found Sabarimala as one of the most peaceful places. It is so because one can see equality. It is a place where God is one with the followers. All followers are Ayyappa. Everyone is similarly dressed. Everyone calls each other Swami. They call the God also Swami. All apparent hierarchies – caste, class, religion and age – are dissolved.
Judgment Has Created A Fear of the Unknown
On your way to Sabarimala, you can also see the egalitarianism on display by the good Samaritans. This discipline and piety creates an environment where a challenge to any aspect appears as if one is challenging the entire edifice. I think today, a number of us have this fear – that not sticking to any of the rules would lead to the collapse of the piety and devotion associated with Sabarimala.
No wonder then that the Supreme Court judgment allowing women aged 10 to 50 years to visit the temple has evoked a considerable disappointment, or rather, a fear among people. It is a fear of the unknown. There seems to be a belief that absence of young women in Sabarimala is central to Ayyappa Bhakti!
It is not true. One’s relationship with Ayyappa is very personal. This personal relationship is the core to my visit to Sabarimala. A darshan every year of Ayyappa was a symbolic annual renewal of my relationship. I have not visited the temple for the last few years, but the relationship is intact. It is not that Ayyappa has disowned me because I did not visit the temple the last few years. Neither did I stop believing in Ayyappa. That is why the pilgrimage is more symbolic than real, but certainly not insignificant or unimportant.
Sabarimala as a temple complex is just a means to ensure that everyone like me symbolically renew that relationship. And a temple is a social institution, a collective institution, so it will evolve its own rules, norms and customs. It is true for every temple. Norms change for better if the society is changing for better.
Imagine, there were temples which did not allow entry for lower caste persons! Did that not change?
When William Bentinck and Rajaram Mohan Roy demanded the abolition of sati or child marriage or when there was a demand for allowing widow remarriage or when dowry was prohibited, there was similar opposition. In fact, it is also true that many women were opposing these progressive changes – for they were conditioned to the unequal system.
Egalitarianism is a social and political process. If the rationale for change is unacceptable, stop the change with all the means. If the rationale is acceptable, fight for it with all your power.
Men Are Progressive But Ayyappa is Not?
What is the rationale for allowing women to enter Sabarimala? Simply, the forest pathway to the temple is not as scary as it was earlier. The fear of wild animals is not there at all. Secondly, women now have greater access to knowledge and therefore there is a greater assertion among them. Their access to knowledge has expanded. Their public mobility has expanded.
Further, is it not true that there is increasing knowledge today that menstruation is natural and it’s not about purity or pollution?
The world is moving towards incorporating rationalism in even our relationship with God. If the rationale is acceptable, let us not try to resist change which is inevitable and in this case, progressive.
What is happening today is that a set of believers, knowingly or unknowingly, have been trying to paint a sorry picture of Lord Ayyappa. The bar to women’s entry no longer seems to be related to protection from wild animals in the forest or even the 41-day fasting.
Isn’t it true that there are arguments now that it is Ayyappa who did not want 10-50-year-old women to enter the temple? Is this to say, that we, men, have become progressive, but it is Ayyappa, who is not? As if these rules are God-made! Why will God make any restrictions on anyone entering a temple? Bhakti is all about freedom.
Worse, some even argue that these rules are to help Ayyappa live like a brahmachari. Is it that the believers have started seeing the mirror image of themselves in the God – with similar vulnerabilities? God is omnipresent and omnipotent, and surely will not require man-facilitated rules.
Our religion oscillates between Advaita and Dvaita. The latter requires mythical stories. Some of them are innocent myths. There is no harm in accepting them and practicing them. But when myths ‘prevent’ a category of persons to enter the temple, it is important to seek the rationale behind them.
We need to be wary about the fact that myth-making is a perpetual thing. And myths are also a way to control power.
How else did it happen that all 120 cardinals who elect the Pope are male? How else do you explain why while there are Goddesses, none of the Gods have a female child? Let us accept the fact that our religion to a large extent have rules that were set by men without keeping the interest of women in mind. Therefore, it is important that even if it is a religious belief, there is a need to ask question why. It is important that every child – girl or boy – is encouraged to ask the question, why, from school itself.
Let us not defy progressive thoughts. Let us make this world peaceful and egalitarian; and for that, let us start from the temples. And as a model of egalitarianism, the Sabarimala should be the starting point.
(R Narayanan is a retired Group A, Indian Postal Service officer, having worked with a number of government organisations like All India Radio, Research and Analysis Wing and Telecommunication Consultancies India Limited. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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