Sabarimala and the Supreme Court Judgment


By: R. Veera Raghavan, Advocate, Chennai

Can you name the most talked about judgment of the supreme court in recent years? You are right, if you answered “the Sabarimala judgement”.

By a 4:1 majority, supreme court judges declared a week ago that women aged 10 to 50 could also worship at Sabarimala temple in Kerala, as part of their religious freedom.  But this ruling is not relished by an incredibly large number of women whom the court thought was rescuing from an unlawful denial of freedom. Huge numbers of women have come out in the open in Kerala, displaying their resentment spontaneously through rallies everyone can see, while political-minded Hindu-bashers are elated.  What has gone wrong, and where?

Hindus have been observing a rule in their pilgrimage to Sabarimala temple where the presiding deity is Lord Ayyappa. That is, women in menstruating age do not, and are not allowed to, visit the temple. For convenience, the Travancore Devaswom Board determined that age group as 10 to 50.  This practice has been followed for centuries in Sabarimala, since the temple first opened. Kerala had also recognized this practice by making it a statutory rule which was questioned before the supreme court. After a hearing, the court struck down that rule as opposed to its parent statute and violative of the Constitution too. Now there is no legal bar on women of any age to visit Sabarimala temple.

Don’t you know: Hinduism is not observed the same way in all of India’s regions or amidst all its people or even between those within a family. Believers express their submission to God or their acknowledgement of a supreme being in diverse ways – privately, publicly, ceremonially, subtly, joyfully or as a penance.  If men alone pray in a temple or women alone worship at a shrine, and neither group feels left out or excluded, law must recognize and protect those practices.

All religious beliefs and practices are a matter of faith. Keep or follow them, as a member of that religion, if you have faith. No one should object to those beliefs and practices, unless they or the way they are observed inflict suffering on another person.  So why not legally recognize those practices and let them prevail? After all, even Communists whose political beliefs and objectives do not honestly go with democracy are allowed a free play under our democratic Constitution.

If a law lets people follow a religion without asking for rational proof of existence of the God they pray – that’s good – but forcibly thrusts its idea of equality between men and women for the way they worship their God, is that law rational?

To be sure, don’t imagine that the law aims to liberate Muslim and Hindu women on an equal footing, and that just as the supreme court invalidated triple talaq and saved Muslim women, so it helped Hindu women by lifting the bar for their entry into Sabarimala temple. There is no comparison between these issues. Better say it and explain, in case anyone thinks otherwise.

To start with, marriages are also a protection for a woman, unlike for a man. No woman of any religion, certainly no Indian woman, would relish her husband having a right to divorce her at his unquestioned sweet will by uttering a word three times. So, the supreme court’s judgement of doing away with triple talaq is a true liberation from a clear injustice for Muslim women. The Sabarimala verdict does not cure any injustice on Hindu women. Nor does it create any equality for them with men.  It dismantles no discrimination against Hindu women. In fact, they cheerfully stand by the men in their families who gear up for 41 days before journeying to Sabarimala, and support in preparatory ceremonies in their homes. They feel blessed for their men’s journey to the hill temple and for the backstage roles they play at home.  To look upon women in the age group of 10 to 50 as suffering some inequality or injustice here is to blindfold reality.

A Constitution and a law will evoke respect among men and women it is meant to serve if it reflects the peaceful aspirations of those people.  The law contained in the Sabarimala judgement doesn’t score high marks on this touchstone – because the Sabarimala temple is perceived in the mind of Hindu men and women differently from other temples, even other Ayyappa temples. There are about 1,000 other temples for Lord Ayyappa which all women freely visit.  But the Lord’s deity in Sabarimala temple is believed to be in the form of anaisthik brahmachari (an eternal celibate), and legend says that the mode and manner of worship at this temple was revealed by the Lord himself. So, Hindus view the Sabarimala deity and its rules of worship uniquely, though they may not explain their sensibilities in cold logic to the satisfaction of an inquiring court. You will appreciate this better with an example.

If a mad government or temple administration bans the entry of women of any age group in Ramanathaswamy temple at Rameswaram, or Kashi Vishwanath temple at Varanasi, Indian women are not going to take it. Nor will Indian men. And, when that happens, if the supreme court steps in and overturns the ban, that verdict is going to be hailed by all women, and men too.  Do you now get an idea of the different perceptions of Hindus about their different Gods?

To be sure again, sensible persons don’t expect the law to stand aside and permit every action or practice prevalent in a society on the strength of a religion, even if it hurts others unfairly and cannot survive in modern times.  Law has to do its pruning on such actions or practices, wherever it nurtures people’s mental health, unity, freedom and happiness – as was done with the abolition of sati or with the codification of the Hindu law. As in good pruning, law makers should know where and how far to click their scissors and where to stop.

The Sabarimala judgement could also trouble Hindus for a psychological reason, in the environment they live in.  Indian law, law enforcers and politicians treat adherents of alien minority religions more indulgently and respectfully, and they have privileges that are denied to Hindus in the land of their forefathers.  With all this, when Hindus witness on the ground more of antipathy and conversion agents from other religions fiercely at work, any sort of hit Hindus take from the State gives them more hurt than the real blow. So, Hindus deserve some sympathy and a soothing touch at this time from fellow Hindus.  Now let us move on.

Where do we go from here? Hindu women aged 10 to 50 have something to do – the very young ones will of course be advised by adult women in the family.  If a third person has to view them as genuine and serious with their long-held Sabarimala faith and practices, they just have to keep off Sabarimala temple till they reach 50 as they did before the supreme court verdict. As long as they do this, their sense of pride and dignity about their religious beliefs will shine more than before.  If a few women in that age group will be seen in Sabarimala temple from now on, it makes no difference – that scene will only highlight the fact many are not coming.  If abstainers can stick to their resolve they stand taller for what they assert on their wish or belief. Succeeding generations can take their call, as the present generation has done for itself. Fair enough?

(Note: This article is borrowed with thanks from HERE)

Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2018

A note by: Shreepal Singh

Equality under Indian Constitution is NOT absolute. Those who have anything to do with law in India, like lawyers, know very well that Supreme Court itself propounded the law of “reasonable classification” under the very concept of equality.

This enunciation of law is that there cannot be an absolute equality; that there can be classification; that this classification must  be to seek an objective; that this classification must have a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved (by such classification).

Now, as the Hindu belief goes, it is the temple of Lord Ayyappa and it is HIS wish or dictates that must prevail here in the matter of granting PRIVILEGE to whom HE wishes to bestow upon: Men or Women or Both or None.

Humans are not supposed to have any rights or claims enforceable against HIM. Constitution applies to humans and not to God – God, the way HE is believed by humans.

Simply put, it is a matter of faith – whatever this faith be and Constitution itself protects such religious faith and belief, even if it looks discriminatory.

Thus, where the Supreme Court finds  it discriminatory, the women in large number in Kerala do not find any discrimination in this practice, and these very women are now out in agitation against the supreme Court judgment that gives these women equality with men!

Does it not sound very strange that those who got right are agitating against the grant of that right?

Indeed, it is very strange; because faith does not demand reason in its application in the form of religious practices and traditions. Faith and belief are something else! And they are very valuable ones. They are protected by the Constitution – unless, of course, they seek to sabotage the State established by this very Constitution, either by their intent or by words or by actions!!

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