Sabarimala temple controversy is mostly commented upon as a fight between urban feminists and tradition – obsessed devotees, most of whom, the argument goes, belong to rural areas and therefore are less educated. The TV visuals showing mobs of angry devotees blocking entry of women to the temple amplifies this line of thinking.
But there exists a category of women such as Deepa who are as cosmopolitan and modern in their thinking and way of life but are staunch defenders of the traditions of the temple.
These women who otherwise would fit the label of cosmopolitan and modern in every sense, but is on the side of those refusing entry of women (aged between 10 and 50) to the temple. It is a beguiling question for a state that is progressive by Indian standards and is markedly different on many societal indicators from the rest of India.
This writer spoke to a few such women and found that they do back their viewpoint with an argument instead of merely expressing sentiment. Here are their accounts.
1. Deepa Vijayan
On Wednesday, at a comfortable, homely apartment in Thiruvananthapuram city in Kerala, Deepa Vijayan, wife of Ayyappa Dharma Sena president Rahul Easwar, gets a call. Her husband who is leading protests near Sabarimala against the Supreme Court verdict ordering opening up of the temple for women of all ages has just been arrested.
Soon she starts fielding media queries on the issue. Deepa is aggressive in her answers.
The news channels demand answers on why the situation turned violent at Sabarimala. Deepa answers crisply that while the violence was regrettable, the seeds of the present conflict lie in a recent Supreme Court judgment that allowed entry for all women into the temple. The court simply did not empathise with the devotion of the Sabarimala devotees, according to her.Deepa works for an IT firm, was born and raised in Kuwait and has travelled the world.
“Atheists are given security at Sabarimala but not devotees. They are mocking our beliefs. They say am going to Sabarimala because it is a public space. We respect the Constitution. But they (the women demanding entry) must also respect our beliefs,” says Deepa.
“Who is a devotee? Devotee is someone who admires someone and is strongly interested in that subject. Who is the subject? The deity. Every Hindu deity is a legal entity that has been accorded rights,” she asserts emphatically.
The television at the apartment shows images of the protests at Sabarimala. A relative calls and informs her about Rahul’s grandmother and a few relatives having been detained at the site of the protests. After dealing with the situation and making necessary calls, Deepa gets back to the issue at hand.
“ A deity cannot talk and is treated as a minor and is represented by the Tantri or priest. The character of the deity here is Naishthika Brahmacharya or eternal celibacy. The Supreme Court in its judgment says the burden of celibacy cannot be forced upon the women. We are now filing a review petition stating that the rights of the Naishthika Brahmacharya must be protected.”
Right now the law is protecting only the “pseudo-feminists” and questions all traditions. If you question every faith and belief based on constitutional rights, this could become a violation of article 25 which grants right to faith, she said.
Deepa further argued that the whole concept of the Sabarimala temple and the idea behind the 41 days of abstinence practiced by devotees before coming to the temple was to inculcate in them a sense of detachment from the world. The location of the temple, situated in the forest is also an indication about its character as a Brahmachari’s space, she says.
“There are lots of other temples where the women can go, including Ayyappa temples. In other temples, deity is established in different Bhavas or emotions.
The reason behind the rule pertaining to entry of women is simple: the deity has taken a vow not to see women of child bearing age. It is a space to practice celibacy. The idea is that after keeping vows for 41 days, you go to the highest point of celibacy to the abode of God. That space is Deity Space and not Public Space. There were many instances of violation of this tradition, which is why a case was filed which resulted in the 1991 judgment.”
Deepa works as an executive with an IT firm and has also hosted television shows and anchored stage performances. She was born in Kuwait and has traveled widely.
“As a person, I consider myself modern. I support
But when it comes to her personal beliefs, she just cannot go with any argument just because it is labelled modern. Deepa explains her stand at length:
“God is present in the subtleties of life. God (for me) is my Hindu God. God’s choices matter more than mine. Between me and God, there is no conflict: God is above me.
But between man and woman, we can discuss equality. A woman should be able to step out late at night and if she then gets attacked – it is the man’s fault.
Women are not subordinated during the preparation for Sabarimala pilgrimage and there are several temples that worship the female form. The famous Attugal Pongala festival (which involves women across age groups getting together to cook “Pongala” a combination of rice, jaggery and coconut) does not include men.We are not against the Constitution or modernity. But if this trend carries on, the idea of religion itself could be eliminated. We are moving towards atheism.”
According to Deepa, women who tried entering the temple are pseudo-feminists. “Feminism should mean more freedom but it cannot mean ‘challenge the deity’,” she said.
What makes the Sabarimala controversy a vexing issue for the government s that it is the only temple in Kerala that
disallows the entry of women of a particular age group. That is because of the spiritual practice at work on account of the nature of the deity.
Deepa says the Krishna at Guruvayur is characterised as a friend of the women folk and he is associated with Gopikas and Radha. “So he is at times called ‘Kalla Krishna’(naughty). But you cannot make such characterisations about Ayyappa as the very nature of divinity here is different.
We are ready to wait because we know why we need to wait. It is my belief that is being violated when women in the restricted age-group are allowed to enter.”
Deepa who spent her childhood in the Middle-East has never been to the Sabarimala Temple although the temple permits entry up to the age of 10 for girls.
“I got attached to the temple because of my husband’s family (who are priests at the Sabarimala temple).
I am offended that people are trying to interfere in our traditions. Where was the need to interfere in our beliefs? I took the decision of not going to Sabarimala now because my tradition says so and not on account of the 1991 judgment.”
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Parvathy Prasad specialised in Neuroendocrinology from Monash University, Australia. “Sabarimala Ayyappa temple has its own tradition followed for years because of the celibate form of the deity and the culture of believing in this tradition continues now,” she says. These traditions have been handed over by the preceding generations and in her case by parents, says Parvathy.
2. Parvathy Prasad “I don’t think access to the temple will help women in any way to maintain equality or to elevate women’s empowerment, rather it destroys the sanctity of the temple.”
3. Nisha K Kumar
Nisha K Kumar, an IT executive based in Kochi, says the SC verdict does not appear to empathise with the sentiments of the Ayyappa devotees. Nisha, who has done a professional stint in the United States, did her schooling in Delhi and vividly remembers the construction of an Aiyyappa temple in her neighbourhood. She says she has strong attachments with Ayyappa as the “temple came up before my very own eyes.”She says she gets offended when people characterize deovotees protesting at Sabarimala as “behaving like terrorists.”
“We as Hindu women, should not go to the Sabarimala temple (before turning 50). That is how the deity is in that temple. I go to temples to get positivity. If there is no positivity, why go at all? There is no point in saying you are a believer if you do not understand the nature of the deity. “
“I have seen the consecration process at the temple in neighbourhood and we were taught about the nature of a deity. The form or “Roopa” of Ayyappa at Sabarimala is that of Nasthika Brahmacharya. The deity there is not happy to see us at this age.”
For Nisha, visiting Sabarimala at the “right age” is a dream she has been nurturing for years.
“When I got married, one of the first things I asked of my husband was to take me to Sabarimala when I turn 50.”
KP Narayana Kumar is a journalist based in Kochi