Women in India need to be treated equally, be it Sabarimala or any other issue.
In the case of Sabarimala, the restriction on women of certain age are not because they are considered inferior on any religious, spiritual or philosophical grounds but it’s because of the peculiar nature of the presiding deity. It is the same tradition which makes a woman as the chief priest of a temple at Mannarasala, which celebrates the festival at Koovaka temple through transgender devotees, which demands a man to impersonate and dress as a woman in order to carry the auspicious lamp at the Kottamkulangara temple. Lacking a holistic vision, one might mistake ‘diversity’ as ‘discrimination’
Many tempestuous debates are happening about the recent Supreme Court verdict on lifting the age restrictions for women entry to the famous Sabarimala temple. Most of these discussions whirl vehemently around the egalitarian axis of gender specific characteristics of the temple rituals and customs.
However, on the flip side which could be the more important side, we are bound to address another major facet of the same issue: Don’t a group of people have the freedom to worship a particular God who vowed to remain in “Naishtika Brahmacharya” (absolute celibate) form?
Don’t they have the rights to value and preserve their God’s shrine as per their belief systems or should they modify their concept of God as per the popular concepts of “One and only True God”?
Going by the customary beliefs prevailing for last several hundred years, Sabarimala temple is dedicated to a deity who has taken a strict vow of Naishtika Brahmacharya, an intense kind of celibacy requiring the abstinence from eight types of contact with the opposite gender. Such strict austerities are practiced by several Sanyasi traditions of India from time immemorial till this day.
Devotees believe that the young prince of the Pandalam kingdom, Manikandan, took this stern oath of remaining a Naishtika Brahmacharya, and left his kingdom to find a tranquil place in the deep forest to continue his eternal penance. He allowed his devotees to visit him only on certain days, demanding them to follow 30 to 41 days of rigid ascetic practices “Vritacharya”.
For all these believers, Sabarimala is not just a place of worship, but the eternal abode of their living deity Ayyappa.
Sabarimala temple stands at the top of a hill, in the deep dense jungles of the Western Ghats. Differing acutely from the other temple traditions of the country, Sabarimala temple has regular daily pujas and worship only on the first five days of every Malayalam calendar month, during the 41 days of “Mandalakaala” Mandala pilgrimage time and some other specific auspicious occasions.
Otherwise, throughout the year on every single day, the Lord remains completely absorbed in the tranquil silence of the wilderness. On the worship days, he wakes up from the trance and blesses his devotees who seek him. It is no easy task for these devotees even to visit this celibate God.
They have to be initiated into a 41-day period of strict austerities of Ayyappa worship, by any experienced devotee “Guruswami” who has visited the Lord’s shrine at least 18 times. The practices to be followed include abstinence from sensual pleasures of all kinds, maintaining celibacy, identifying oneself with the lord and recognising everybody else as reflections of Lord Ayyappa. On completion of the 41-day period, the devotee visits the abode of the Lord at Sabarimala under the guidance and companionship of his initiator “Guruswami”. Every year, lakhs of devotees who practice such strict austerities flock to this hill top sanctum. Respecting the celibate nature of the deity and the celibacy maintained by the devotees, young women do not normally visit the holy shrine.
Though it is hard to determine the exact time period with regard to the origin of traditions and customs associated with this temple, there are a few early British records that shed light on this.
Two British Lieutenants named Ward and Conner have done a research survey in the Travancore and Kochi provinces from 1810 to 1820. The survey report has references about Sabarimala temple and explicitly claims that they could find more than thousands of devotees both men and women visiting the temple, but there were no young women present among any devotee groups.
The report also documents the belief among the devotees that the deity of the temple is a celibate and hence young women didn’t visit this temple.
According to “Agamas”, a sacred literature of Hindus, a temple is not just a place for worship, but it is, in fact, the holy abode of the presiding deity. In Hinduism, the God transcends all worldly qualities but unlike the God or Paramatman, a deity has its own characteristics, likes, and dislikes. Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi distinguishes between God and Deity with a beautiful example.
Even though ultimately everything is the manifestation of one Supreme Consciousness, God and deity are different like a fish in the ocean and a fish in an aquarium,
She says, “We don’t have to offer special care for a fish in the ocean, but one has to provide suitable environment for a fish in the aquarium as per the temperaments of each fish. Similarly in a temple where the deity lives, the priests as well the devotees have to follow specific dos and don’ts.”
The daily rituals and worship methodology of any temple primarily depends on the form and nature of the deity who presides there. Sparkling fireworks and elephant processions are integral to most of the temple festivals in Kerala.
However elephants and fireworks are not allowed at Alamthuruthy temple located in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala since the Goddess is worshiped as an infant there. While the Hindu scriptures extol Goddess as the powerful feminine counterpart who create, nurture and destroy the universe with just a wink of her eye, at the same time we can witness her being adored and worshipped as a small infant who is scared of elephants, in this particular temple.
The same ubiquitous, formless, attributeless God manifests through different unique forms as temple deities to uplift the common man. Such “devatas” (deities) are attributed with human qualities of likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows.
While elephants are disallowed at the infant Goddess temple of Alamthuruthy, Goddess of Kumaranalloor temple forbid the entry of only male tusker elephants and prefers herself (the idol) to be taken on procession over female elephants.
Another popular temple of Kerala at Chottanikkara has the Goddess who prefers to travel over giant tusker elephants exhibiting her splendour. It is the same Goddess, but as being worshipped with different attributes — the customs, preferences and practices also differ. This is the degree of diversity demonstrated by our temples.
One has to keep aside all his formal symbols of power and wrap his upper shawls around his waist in order to seek the vision of the deity of “Thalipparambu” temple. The temple homes Sri Rajarajeswaran, the king of kings, and the gesture the devotee displays denotes his immense respect and love for the God in that mighty kingly form.
Subhramanya Swami Temple of Payyannoor restricts the entry of sanyasis. Shiva, as the lord of Vaikkom temple, is famous as the giver of food and boons while same Shiva as the lord of Ettumanoor takes a fierce form.
Lord Ganapathy of Pazhavangadi temple is so delighted by coconut offerings, while Mutthappan of Parassinikadavu temple would rather prefer fermented palm toddy and sun dried fishes as his offering. So diverse are the God concepts and as diverse are the worship practices of this magnificent land!
The sensible subtle understanding that every human beings are entirely different in multi aspects of physical-mental-societal-levels, have paved the way to this extraordinary concept of worshipping different God forms depending on one’s inherent disposition. Yes, one can repudiate all these, stamping them as a mere doltish faith system, but nobody can dismiss the right of the believers to continue their belief systems.
Is it appropriate for a country like India with her illustrious history of pluralism and coexistence to enforce a group of people to change their religious beliefs?
Greek mythology speaks of “Procrustes”, a rogue bandit who hides in the dark forests of the countryside. He would bring any innocent travellers who walk by the forest to his house by any means and would rob them of all their belongings. Next he would tie down the unfortunate victim to his infamous bed and will mercilessly begin his cruel sport. If the guest proved tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length of body and fit him to the bed or if the visitor is short in height, the man would work with his smith’s hammer and beat stretch him to fit the bed.
Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured and killed by the brave prince Theseus.
The numerous invasions that we faced resemble the scary “Procrustes’s episodes”. They rob the invaded lands of all its wealth and tie down the indigenous culture of the land to the Procrustean bed and stretch, amputate it to fit them into their iron beds. The colonial invasion and hundreds of years of foreign rule has gifted our nation with a thousand Procrustean beds!
It is no anomaly that a country which stayed under any foreign rule would inherit the ethic concepts of the “regnant” and foster a certain affinity towards that non-native culture. The centurial years of such living has definitely re-moulded the social mind of this nation. We unknowingly installed the alien scale of ethical and moral values as our gauge of measure. In arts, literature, law, relations, philosophy and in many other spheres of existence, we tried to replicate the European models using an Indian mould. Even after seven decades of hard-earned freedom, we are still chained down to the ethics system of protestant reformation period.
When in the middle age, as Europe was drowning in the murky high tides of religious sovereignty that portrayed woman as a creation for the mere benefit of man, it was the very necessity of that hour to re-evaluate every religious traditions based on a gender justice denomination. Well, that shouldn’t be the same measuring meter to judge the widely diverse, remarkably intricate local traditions of India.
In the case of Sabarimala, the restriction of women of certain age are not because they are considered inferior on any religious, spiritual or philosophical grounds but it’s because of the peculiar nature of the presiding deity.
It is the same tradition which makes a woman as the chief priest of a temple at Mannarsala, which celebrates the festival at Koovaka temple through transgender devotees, which demands a man to impersonate and dress as women in order to carry the auspicious lamp at the Kottamkulangara temple. Lacking a holistic vision, one might mistake “diversity” as “discrimination”. These multifaceted pluralistic values, not the repressive commands of any religion, base the foundation of our nation.
The Communist ideologies might fail awfully to accommodate for the diverse, pluralistic thought ideologies of the land. It is the same gene that impelled the colonial and other invaders to obliterate the indigenous culture of its natives elsewhere that camouflages underneath the Communist pneuma. For the same reason, it is mere futility to look forward to the colloquially fashioned but inherently inconsiderate Indian Communist organisations or their governments, for justice on this regard.
Is the celibate concept of a God Ayyappa, shaking the supreme justice apparatus of this largest democratic nation which identifies herself as secular state granting freedom for all diverse communities to practice their traditional worship practices? In contrast with the “single” God who sits on a decorated golden throne in the seventh heaven, has the native God concepts of Ayyappan, Mariyamman, Yellamma, Hanuman and Bhairavan, etc, cherished by tens of thousands of locals, lost their glamour?
Most of the present day media which blows its own trumpet for the strong unwavering stand it has taken several times on the individual and religious freedom sides has now dragged the Sabarimala issue to the shades of gender discrimination. Such media houses promulgate the view that there is no right for any individual or community to decide upon whom they wanted to worship and how! Still every second, they would want to celebrate the secular nature of the country. What an irony?! They are, in fact, no different from the Abrahamic mono theistic God systems who would want to crumble down all other religious practices and beliefs.
Disguised in suits and coats of European attire, the “Ethics and Justice” system is inching into the sanctum sanctorum and sacred groves of our society. The culture that survived the iron boots of English are now facing a greater threat from the remnant shadows of the same. When the Procrustes are sharpening their blades and hammers to sever and beat down the customs and traditions under the guise of progressiveness measures, the time necessarily demands for a thousand Theseus.
(The writer is an independent researcher from Kerala with keen interest in science, philosophy and the study of Indian civilisation).
Writer: Sooraj Subramanian
Source: The Pioneer