Sabarimala Temple Issue – Should Women of All Ages Be Allowed To Enter?

Sabarimala Temple Kerala

Sabarimala Temple row is all about the conflict between tradition and women rights.

As per traditions and customs, women between 10 and 50 years of age were not allowed to enter into Sabarimala Temple.

But the situation changed when the Supreme Court on September 28, 2018, ruled that restricting entry of women of menstruating age (between 10 and 50 years old) was unconstitutional.

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However, the state government has been facing difficulties to execute the Supreme Courts order due to massive protests.

Sabarimala Temple – Background

Sabarimala Temple

Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple is one of the most famous Hindu temples in India, located in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The temple is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board.

Main stakeholders of Sabarimala Temple are Travancore Devasom Board, Tantri (head priest) family, Pandalam Royal Family, Ayyappa Seva Sangam etc.

The shrine at Sabarimala is an ancient temple of Ayyappan also known as Sasta and Dharmasasta.

Lord Ayyappan is worshipped as a ‘Naishtika Bramhachari’ or a celibate for life. Therefore, as per a notification by the Devaswom Board that manages the temple, women belonging to the menstruating age are not permitted to enter the temple.

The devotees are expected to follow a Vratham (41-day austerity period) prior to the pilgrimage. About 2 crore devotees visit the pilgrimage centre every year.

The Supreme Court Verdict on Sabarimala Women Entry Issue in 2018

The Supreme Court verdict on September 28, 2018, paved the way for the entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala.

The five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, said banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates the rights of Hindu women. It said religion is a way of life basically to link life with divinity.

The court observed that it can’t be oblivious to the fact of the case that a class of women is disallowed due to physiological reasons (menstruation).

The CJI said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion. While Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice A M Khanwilkar, Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.

Ironically, in the 4-1 verdict on Indian Young Lawyers Association & Others vs The State of Kerala & Others, the only dissenting vote was of the sole woman judge on the bench: Justice Indu Malhotra.

Justice Malhotra, in her dissenting judgement, said that issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain a secular atmosphere in the country.

However, the Supreme Court verdict – that the Sabarimala temple must be thrown open to women of all ages – should be seen as another victory for the cause of gender equality.

Sabarimala Temple – Views of Those Who Support Women Entry

Sabarimala Pilgrimage

  • Preventing women from entering the places of worship goes against Articles 14, 15, 19, and 25 of the Indian constitution, which deal with the right to equality, the right against discrimination based on gender, freedom of movement and freedom of religion.
  • The excluded women claim that barring them access to the inner sanctum of the shrine violated their fundamental right under Article 25(1) to freely practice their religion.
  • Right to manage its own religious affairs under Article 26(1) cannot “override the right to practice religion itself”, as Article 26 cannot be seen to overrule the right to practice one’s religion as guaranteed under the Constitution of India.
  • Restricting the entry of women into places of worship is one of the ways of imposing patriarchy. Often the restrictions are based on patriarchy and not religion.
  • Banning entry to the temple is discriminatory since it subverts the idea of everyone being equal to God.
  • From the abolition of Sati to temple entry proclamation to the abolition of untouchability, reforms have been judicial or legislative.
  • In April 2016, the Shani Shingnapur temple, which had barred women from entering its core area for over 400 years, allowed women to pray inside the temple following the court’s orders.

Sabarimala Temple – Views of Those Who Oppose Women Entry

Sabarimala Row

While some argue that women are barred from entering the Sabarimala temple to preserve 'purity', others bring the element of celibacy of the diety Ayyappa as the main argument against. Click To Tweet
  • Women are banned from entering the temples to preserve ‘purity’. The reason cited in Sabarimala case is that women during their menstruation period are not supposed to enter places of worship.
  • Referring to the presiding deity Lord Ayyappa as a Naishtika Bramhachari, many point out that it is the celibate nature of the deity that forms the basis of the practice and not misogyny.
  • Sabarimala was a separate religious cult with its own rules.
  • Article 15 of the Constitution does not apply to religious institutions. Article 15(2) provides citizens with the right to access to places such as hotels, shops and so on but nowhere does it mention public temples.
  • Some of those who oppose women entry argue that their actions are protected by Article 25(1).
  • Article 25(2) pertains to only secular aspects and it is only pertaining to social issues, not gender or religious-based issues.

Can the state/court determine the validity of religious claims?

  • These issues highlight the tension between religious tradition and the reformist impulse of the Constitution.
  • Over the years, courts have intervened in religious matters backed by Article 25(2) of the constitution.
  • The courts have put in place what is known as the “essential practices” test, used to decide a variety of cases. The court has used this test to decide which religious practices are eligible for constitutional protection. And to judge the extent of independence that can be enjoyed by religious denominations.
  • This test, developed by the Supreme Court in the 1950s and 60, has been criticized as allowing secular courts to determine the validity of religious claims.

Some Important Supreme Court Important Judgments on the Essense of Religion

  • In the Ananda Marga case (2004), the Supreme Court held that the public performance of the Tandava dance was not an essential part of the religion of the Ananda Marga sect, even though it had been specifically set down as such in their holy book.
  • In Shirur Mutt case, the Supreme Court observed that a “religious denomination or organization enjoys complete autonomy in the matter of deciding as to what rites and ceremonies are essential and no outside authority has any jurisdiction to interfere with their decision”. At the same time, the court also said that the state can legitimately regulate religious practices when they “run counter to public order, health and morality” and when they are “economic, commercial or political in their character though they are associated with religious practices”.

Protests after Sabarimala Verdict of the Supreme Court

Save Sabarimala and Ready to Wait Campaigns

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has been facing a tough time tackling the highly emotive religious issue which has also acquired political overtones.Click To Tweet

The dialectical materialism propounded by the Marxist-led Government of Kerala doesn’t seem to cut the ice with the die-hard spiritualism of the women devotees, or at least a sizable chunk of them. Many started campaigns like ‘Ready to wait‘.

The SC verdict led to protests on 17 October 2018 when the temple was opened for the first time since the Supreme Court verdict came.

Even though some women of menstruating age tried to enter the temple they were sent back by Police after the protests turned violent.

Many women journalists were assaulted by the protestors and Police had to resort to lathi-charge to disperse them.

Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a relatively obscure organisation called for a state-wide Harthal. BJP-led NDA Kerala Unit and Shiv Sena Kerala Unit supported the Harthal.

Pandalam Palace directed the temple high priest (Tantri) to close the sanctum if any young women enter temple premises. The Tanri concurs with this view.

Kerala government must quickly find the golden mean between law and belief.

Views of Leaders and Parties on the Issue

Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala. We will go by what the Supreme Court says – Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (CPM)

The LDF Government and Travancore Devasom Board (TDB) should seek a review petition against the Sabarimala verdict. It now seems that the verdict was based on wrong arguments and divergent views taken by the LDF Government and TDB before the Supreme Court. I concur to the views that rationality shouldn’t overtopple faith. – Ramesh Chennithala, Leader of Opposition (Congress)

Activists should not come to prove a point – Kerala Devaswom Board minister Kadakampally Surendran (CPM)

“We were helpless. The head priest said that he will close the temple and that would have been a ritualistic disaster. We could have removed the protesters but the state government had ordered us not to. We will continue to provide security to devotees” – Sreejith, Kerala Police IG

In summary:

The recent issues of restriction on entry of women in places of worship like Sabarimala, Shani Shingnapur, and Haji Ali have once again brought the focus on the debate ‘religious tradition versus gender equality’.

Excluding women from access to the shrine is a clear violation of their fundamental rights to equality (Article 14), non-discrimination (Article 15), and freedom of religion (Article 25).

The main issue is not an entry, but equality. The religious exclusion has a public character, and that it is not just an issue of a sacred tradition but one of the civil rights and material and symbolic equality.

It is unfortunate that the courts have become the arbiter of what constitutes true religion. This situation has arisen because the Indian state is the agent for the reform and management of Hinduism and its institutions.

Beliefs and customs of devotees cannot be changed through a judicial process. The reforms should come from within the society. So long as that does not happen, we are likely to see religious issues being repeatedly taken to court.

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