How can we be a progressive society if we believe that women must be barred from religious places because of certain customs?

Sabarimala row If womens humanity is not our culture we should make it so
Blog Sabarimala row Sunday, November 06, 2016 - 20:34

By Raju P Nair

A few days ago, a debate in the virtual world sought to figure out how Lord Rama could reach Ayodhya after his victorious war in Lanka in 20 days – the time period between Dusshera and Diwali. Netizens tried to find the distance from Lanka to Ayodhya through Google Maps and match up the distance with the time. Though I am an atheist and believe the basis of these festivals is an epic and not a real life incident, I found it very interesting that people are trying to find logic in faith, which is progressive. One such debate on the rationality of faith is coming back as the Supreme Court is hearing the Sabarimala women entry case tomorrow.

The readers who are on the other side of argument will raise the first argument that an atheist’s opinion on this issue is not solicited, an argument which they have always raised in this debate by the statement that believers should decide. But never ever in our history, have those blinded by faith made any progressive change in our customs. It was always atheists or reformers who questioned faith and put an end to the misogynistic attitude and ‎atrocities in the name of religion. Those who were believers were busy sacrificing animals and even their own children to please the 'Gods' for their prosperity and resolve bad omens. Some of them are still rolling on the food leftovers of Brahmins and walking on fire to protect their religion.

Remember, prior to 1937, the majority of people in Kerala were not permitted to enter temples. Many believed that all hell will break loose if untouchables are allowed into a temple. But nothing of that sort happened after Dalits entered, following the temple entry proclamation. The actress Jayamala incident where adolescent woman entered Sabarimala a few years back breaking all security barriers to protect Ayyappa from menstruating women, negates the defence put up by the #ReadyToWait campaigners also. 

Even though the officials of Sabarimala themselves have limited their point of contention on women’s entry to the Naishtika Brahmacharyam of Lord Ayyappa, some of the protectors of Sabarimala also raise a point that no matter what, the centuries old custom of restriction on adolescent women entering  the shrine should continue. They argue that entering Sabarimala must be preceded by a 41-day penance, which would be difficult for women because of the menstrual cycle. The present Chairman of the Travancore Devaswom Board had even gone to the extent to state that the day a machine is invented to find whether women are menstruating, we can permit them to enter Sabarimala. This sounds as if the worst thing the women can do in their life is menstruating. If we consider this for the sake of an argument, how are we sure that all the male devotees observe the 41-day customary penance? So why not ban those men also who do not observe the 41-day penance, which will in a way remove the gender bias in Sabarimala? It is hypocritical that people hold on to the centuries-old custom to deny Sabarimala for women, but are ready to reduce the year-long death rituals of their loved ones to a capsule form in the name of convenience. The 16 days Hindu death rituals has in the modern era been customised to a three-day ritual, citing convenience and work pressure as reasons for embracing change. It is obvious then, that it is not the custom, but the patriarchial bias that is the basis of this argument.

Perhaps the only argument that Sabarimala officially raises now is the Naishtika Brahmacharyam or religious celibacy of Ayyappa. This argument should now be seen on the grounds that Ayyappa is a person with all the characters of a human being and not as a God. On Brahmacharyam, Swami Vivekananda says that a person who observes celibacy for 12 years develops an inner nerve which he calls the nerve of memory. Through this he understands all, remembers all. Celibacy gives him the mental strength to overpower human desires. In other words, the mental power of a brahmachari will be so powerful that even if he sleeps with naked women he does not get carried away by sexual desires. To depict Ayyappa as someone who has not attained Brahmacharya even after countless years, is the worst thing to do to disgrace the idea of Ayyappa. The biggest disrespect and disservice that Sabarimala devotees can do to the idea of Sabarimala and Ayyappa is implying that Ayyappa's celibacy will be distracted by the presence of adolescent women who come to worship him. Are the so called protectors of Sabarimala implying that the Lord Ayyappa in the shrine is a lesser Brahmachari than those Jain saints who walk nude in the presence of women and still do not have a sexual desire? Also Hanuman is considered to be Aajanma Brahmachari. However there is no restriction for women worshipping Hanuman even though there was a controversy and debate on chanting Hanuman Chalisa. 

The most significant aspect of religious places is its collective character. Peoples’ participation is both the purpose and the means of such institutions. The community or society is either actually or symbolically involved in worship. The rituals that dominate are therefore socio-religious in character. Over the last century, blind faith has overshadowed the science behind and the idea of a temple. A temple has become a place where illogical blind belief is being propagated. This does no good, either for humanity, or for believers. Rather, it has led to temples becoming commercial centres.

As the apex court is debating on the constitutionality of the gender bias in religious places, all the stake holders in this case should be ready to accept the judgment whether it ratifies their position or not. No god, no faith, can be above the rule of the land.

But, how can we claim to be a progressive society if we believe that one section of the society must be barred from religious places because of customs that don’t hold any relevance now?

As the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture.” 

Note: Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.

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