The first temple entry agitation in modern history had taken place in the fifteenth century when Ghazni entered the temple in Somnath on the Gujarat coast. He had come there primarily because he had heard of the wealth accumulated there and this was not being used fruitfully. As Ayatullah Khameni said in Lucknow in 1994, Ghazni was not a religious leader or an upholder of Islam, but a plunderer and brigand and that in his country he and Mohammed Ghori had always been treated as such, and not as religious crusaders. That was also the reason why Pandit Nehru, rightly, dissuaded President Rajendra Prasad from attending the consecration ceremony of the temple in the fifties. He clearly drew the line between the secular and denomination turfs.
Temples have been the focus of arguments, contentions, seen as landmarks to be overpowered, and controlled, as places for subversive activities. These have also become rallying points for struggles for rights, for justice and many other vital issues. They also had a symbolic value as focal points of peace and solace and where you could tarry awhile and leave the place in peace and tranquillity. Collective prayers sometimes had a therapeutic effect that could not be measured or quantified. Another 500 years earlier also there was another intruder who entered a place of worship and chased away the moneychangers there. In a sense wealth and Godhead do not seem to go together.
When we were liberated from the shackles of poverty and inequality by our redeemers from overseas they also pointed out what had been the cause of our backwardness and why we were always being overrun. This was because of the many layered hierarchy of castes and tribes, they pointed out. It was to rectify this that Gandhiji, fresh from his education in law from Britain, turned social reformer as well apart from his political aim of throwing out the rulers, and launched his temple entry movement at a famous place of worship in a southern state. He demanded that everyone should be allowed to pray there and that it should not be the exclusive preserve of any section of people. That some of the people who participated in that movement did not believe in God is another matter. Another social reformer had, at the same time, countered this movement by saying that if some temples were kept exclusive, he would rather have other temples made for all people and just shame these obscurantist sections. A variation of this happened in a neighbouring state where a political party that was rationalist to the core erected concrete plaques in front of places to worship to declare that there is no God, even if they had not heard of Nietzsche.
Beliefs change with the season or the fortunes and many of these leaders and celebrities, very rational otherwise, started to visit temples, as they grew older or prospered or had visions, and were ready to undergo the arduous penance that some of these places demanded. For example in the temple situated amidst thick forests invested with wild animals where you had to trek the whole stretch on bare-foot, these leaders did not hesitate to follow those rigours. A popular cinema actor trudging the hill carrying his bundle of clothes certainly carried many messages and tugged at many heart strings. Many pilgrim centres which only the old faithful used to trek suddenly became quite popular this way and this has nothing to do with increasing faith or a slide into obscurantism. One result has been the increasing numbers of people undertaking these pilgrimages. One reason has also been the pay packages that the government announced around that time that provided for the additional facility for ‘leave travel concessions’. One spinoff of the LTC has been the rush to pilgrim centres and the consequent degradation of the environment and the rivers that flow through these pristine forest regions.
This has been the fate of many of the pilgrim centres, as also of other tourist places as well as places of historic importance. The plastic age also began at the same time to thicken the plot.
The sixties and seventies were times when the public began to be conscious of their rights and entitlements and assert these. If certain sections have been excluded it is only logical that such exclusion need not be gender-specific. The seventies had the third wave of feminism that resulted in the exclusive preserves, such as the bar at the Delhi Golf Club and the newsroom of the Statesman, move with the times and throw open these sanctified portals. But for some time other exclusive preserves like some temples were not on the radar of these activists. But that could not have lasted long.
The Sabarimala temple has been unique in many ways, it is one place where no discrimination is practised and people of all faiths are allowed entry if they followed the practices. In a state where women had been liberated much before other parts of the country and where matrilineal customs provided for equal rights to all irrespective of gender, it needed the last decade of the last century for some of them to become conscious of this exclusion at this one temple.
The recent arguments in the Supreme Court that had been going on about the temple make for an interesting study for the detached observer and amateur sociologist. For example, an intervenor, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, raised a question as to whether the Sabarimala temple falls within the definition of ‘public place of worship’ in accordance with the 1965 Act. He submitted that in the context of the unique nature and history of the temple, a narrow definition of a religious denomination may not do justice and that those devotees with faith in the temple and its practices would qualify as a religious denomination as per Article 26 of the Constitution.
He slammed the word ‘chauvinism’ in this context and referred to the unique matrilineal and matriarchal nature of Kerala society.
Two other advocates, Kailashanatha Pillai and V. Giri, also arguing for preserving the celibate nature of the deity, stated that a deity should be worshipped in accordance with the Shastras as the life infused in the sculpture is as per ‘prana pratishtana’ which is kept alive by preserving the unique nature of the deity.
K. Parasaran, senior advocate who has crossed 90 years and had almost stopped practising since 2016, appeared in court that triggered excitement, as did his arguments. He described the Legislature as ‘Bramha, the Executive as Vishnu and Shiva as the Judiciary, because only Shiva’s ardhanarishawara form embodies Article 14, that provides equal treatment of both sexes.’
He dismissed the assumptions of male patriarchy and pointed out that with 96% of the women of the state being educated, independent, socially advanced and belonging to a matrilineal society, it was fundamentally incorrect to assume that the practice of the temple is based on patriarchy.
He also dismissed the notions of misogyny, citing specific examples to establish that the faith follows a broad and liberal approach in its practice of the religion and he pointed out that Sati had no basis in Hindu faith and it is not comparable with the practice at the Sabarimala temple.
He made one clinching remark, ‘If a person asks ‘can I smoke when I pray?’ he will get a slap. But if he asks, ‘can I pray as I smoke? he will be appreciated. The right question will bring a right answer. The jury is out and a decision will be pronounced in due course.