My friend was animated as he narrated an experience to prove a point. Our discussion was about the Supreme Court case on entry for women in the mountain shrine of Sabarimala Sree Ayyappan in Kerala, frequented by lakhs of pilgrims from across the country. He raised the issue of a temple not being a public place and hence restrictions are natural. He said how a very senior police officer once invited him for lunch at the Delhi Gymkhana and was told that he should wear a pair of shoes which was mandatory. He argued that he actually did not agree with a colonial practice but had to admit that the Club is a ‘Private’ place meant for its members and hence was ready to abide with their regulations.
For people who wear ‘desi’ clothes of ‘Kurta- jacket and trousers to an Army Officers’ Mess for lunch or dinner also face a technical hitch on entry. ‘Kurtas’ are not allowed in the Mess even for guests and no questions asked! Well, that is another colonial etiquette but one had to adhere to and respect it, my friend said. When you enter a ‘Private’ place the regulations and restrictions of that space have to be followed. There is no point in arguing or objecting the practice even if it is not in tune with a free and democratic country. My friend used these two analogies to support the ban of entry to women between 10 and fifty in Sabarimala. For him as a faithful, it is disquieting that a practice of the shrine has become a matter of media hype and projected as a gender inequality issue and misogyny.
Well, ours is a country where people practice different faiths and have respective worshipping places and follow different customs and practices. Can secular traditions be in conflict with religious practices, regulations and restrictions? While those opposing the lifting of ban on entry of women like this friend point at Article 26 of the Constitution which gives as fundamental right to religious denominations to manage their own affairs, those arguing for lifting the ban say that such a ban is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. The final phase of hearing by a 5 member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, there was an array of eminent lawyers arguing for and against the ban.
Isn’t the ban on entry to women in the Sabarimala Temple a matter of faith and religious practices of a large number of devotees? The sea of pilgrims visiting the temple, after they observe fasting for 41 days vouch for its importance as a premier place of pilgrimage. Can the faith and belief system of such numbers be overlooked? What after all is faith? It is difficult to define faith. Rationality and logic may not apply to one’s faith. There are any number of definitions and arguments about faith. Bertrand Russell in his famous collection of essays ‘Why I am Not A Christian’ advanced and later in fact demolished what is known as ‘the First Cause Theory’. Everything ought to have a cause and stretching it to what one may argue, who created God, may be problematic. St. Paul wrote that, ‘’Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’’. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India, considered universally as an authority on Hinduism, said that Hinduism cannot be defined but can be experienced. “It is the union of reason and intuition that cannot be defined but is only to be experienced. Evil and error are not ultimate. There is no hell, for that means there is a place where God is not, and there are sins which exceed his love.”
In 1995, in its judgment in the Ramakrishna Mission’s petition to be declared a non-Hindu religious minority religion under the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court of India stated the following :-
“When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions of the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet, it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophical concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion of creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.”
Presently an age old practice in Sabarimala, the mountain abode of Lord Ayyappa, one of the most important temples in Kerala is in the news and is undergoing judicial scrutiny. Women between the age of 10 and 50 were not allowed to enter the temple as part of the Tantrik tradition of the temple. The presiding deity is a celibate or a ‘Bramachari’ and hence menstruating women are denied access to the shrine. This is an established custom and until recently there was not much of questioning of this or other temple practices. The demand for lifting the ban on entry to the shrine received an impetus after a similar attempt by some women in Maharashtra succeeded in gaining entry into Shani Shignapur temple following a Bombay High Court verdict. Such actions are an articulation of the fact that ‘Change’ is inevitable and human perception and even faith are not exceptions. In school, one had learned what Bhagavat Gita says about change- “Samyak sarati iti samsaarah” which was translated by our teacher as, ‘that which flows incessantly is creation and that flow would mean change’.
The decision of the Supreme Court is expected any day and is eagerly awaited. Whatever may be the decision the media hype in the name of an issue of women’s right seems rather farfetched. Interestingly a large number of women in Kerala say that they are ready to wait till the age of fifty to have a Darshan of Lord Ayyappa. What one would like to opine is the questioning age old customs in public or through the judiciary may ultimately shake the roots of our heritage. An octogenarian friend, a staunch believer in Sanatana Dharma commented that as a country we have remained loyal to our time tested traditions and any departure from that may lead to avoidable socio-cultural discord.
There is a danger of many more such ancient traditions being questioned leading to social discord. The old gentleman said that the state and even the judiciary should keep away from tinkering traditional or indigenous customs and practices?
There is another event emanating from Kerala which also has as its talking point as an issue relating to a religious practice. It was during a visit of the chairperson of the National Commission for Women, established under an Act of the Parliament in 1992.The visit was following the arrest of some Orthodox priests for alleged sexual assault of a married woman. One of the main reasons for the charge was exploitation using confession confidentiality.
Ignorance on the part of people in statutory positions can lead to unseemly controversies. The problem is that political appointments to various Commissions are not made on the expertise, merit or accomplishments of a person but almost entirely on loyalty to an ideology or for its leader or leaders. When public pronouncements are made by such people on sensitive issues extreme caution, discretion and sagacity are needed to avoid embarrassment.
The Chairperson of the National Commission for Women in a press conference recommended that the practice of women confessing before a male priest should be stopped forthwith. This kicked up a major controversy in Kerala with a large Christian population believed to be as old as Christianity itself. Everyone from the CPI [M] led State government to almost all religious and community leaders condemned the demand for banning confessions in the church by the chairperson of the NCW. They said that in a secular country such demands are an infringement of the constitutional right of a religious community. A majority of Christians, predominantly the Catholic and Orthodox churches across the globe practice the sacrament of confession and it is preposterous and indiscrete on the part of the chairperson of the NCW for making such a statement.
It is worth quoting what a veteran politician and former Kerala Minister R. Balakrishna Pillai in a programme ‘POLIMIX’ in the Malayalam channel Media ONE. What he said is paraphrased here in English; “Why on earth this ignorant person has been sent to recommend ban on confession? This is fascism. She does not even know the spelling of the word.… All of us know what happened to Fr. Benedict who was accused of murdering a young women and was sentenced to death because he refused to divulge the content of a confession the lady made before him. His death sentence was later reduced to imprisonment and after undergoing a long jail term he is presently leading a retired life. Later at a press conference in Kottayam the family of the real culprit said that the convicted priest was innocent and asked for pardon for their family elder who had actually committed the murder. For the fault of some priests an entire community should not be penalized and ridiculed.”