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The rational-religion paradox!

The rational-religion paradox!

In matters of popular religion, rationality seldom finds space. So, in a tussle between the Supreme Court's constitutionally-backed verdict and devotees' age-old belief, a standoff is the least unexpected outcome. Ever since the apex court revoked the ban preventing women of the contentious menstruating age group (10-50) from entering the Sabarimala shrine located in central Kerala, an unending row has brought Kerala, and the rest of the country, to the edge of their seats. Touted as a historic judgement, the Sabarimala verdict on September 28, last year, paved the way for what has been a longstanding demand — entry of women of all ages into the holy shrine of Sabarimala. In a land governed by the rule of law, upholding the SC's judgement is absolute. Yet, protestors protecting the age-old traditions of Lord Ayyappa have risen to oppose the very absolute decision. And, their determination is commendable for they had, until yesterday, kept every menstruating-devotee from entering the shrine. In October, a journalist and a social activist did reach within the three-mile distance of the shrine's sanctum after resisting violent protestors hurling stones at them. Protected by a hundred policemen, with protective gears, they marched in vain trying to realise the Apex Court's order but failing miserably. This deepened the gap that had divided the public into two sections, one upholding the SC verdict and the other protecting Lord Ayyappa's wishes – wishes that have been derived from legends passed down across generations. The protestors, having a dignified opposition-stance, are ever-willing to adamantly advocate the temple's mythology which cites Lord Ayyappa's avowed celibacy. December 24 had seen 11 women activists of a Chennai-based outfit being prevented from reaching the shrine, they were instead chased away by Ayyappa-mantra chanting devotees. After several clashes and failed attempts to enter the shrine despite the mandate, this turn of calendar witnessed a 'vanitha mathil' or women's wall on January 1. The wall was basically a human chain, composed entirely of women, from Kasaragod district in northern Kerala to Thiruvananthapuram in the south. Stretching across 620 km, this state-organised expression of solidarity was in response to thousands of devotees who lit 'Ayyappa Jyothi' (lightening of sacred lamps) and lined up in a similar fashion, vowing to protect the age-old customs and traditions of Sabarimala. This historic human wall stood against communalism and gender discrimination. Around five million women from different backgrounds joined hands and stood across the national highways stretching to 14 districts at 4 PM. The CPI (M)-led LDF government's decision to implement the SC order witnessed frenzied protests from the Sabarimala faithful. Living up to the values of democracy, the short demonstration was to counter the rightwing groups that support the ban. And, the globe watched. While the demonstration captivated everyone's interest in the unanimity displayed, two middle-aged women entered Sabarimala scripting history. In their 40s, which falls in the menstrual group, the women trekked to the shrine hill dressed as pilgrims at four on Wednesday morning. Following this stunt, Sabarimala was shut for a 'purification' ritual. The two women have supposedly angered the Lord by breaking the tradition. In a thunderous strike, they could be decimated to dust or cursed for life, had this been one of our myths. But it is not. They are, however, being given police protection in case matters take an ugly turn in a plausible retaliation from the Lord's devotees. The two women practised their right to pray and took the blessings of Lord Ayyappa. They, however, have angered a lot of people. But, their actions were not fearful of the localised stigma that they would earn anyway. So, in their pursuit, these two women have put forward a fragment of the reality that these ardent devotees turned protestors have been fearing. If their incessantly staged protest was to prevent any women from ever entering, then that has been slain in essence. What remains to be seen, now, is how this 'purification' of the shrine restores faith and resummons the strong opposition that has been resisting the landmark SC order. This entire issue could have been a simple standoff with far fewer complexities and ramifications had it not been severely politicised. Just like the Ram mandir-Babri Masjid impasse that has become a contentious issue in North India, Sabarimala seems to have transcended to a similar position in the South. India's ruling BJP has argued that the SC ruling over Sabarimala is an attack on Hindu values and has found an unlikely supporter in Congress. In this light, and in the run-up to the general elections in April-May, the politicised approach is unappreciatively steering the row, influencing people and fuelling the chaos that plagues Kerala. The human wall shows LDF government's intention, while the resistance marks the opposition's agenda, both dividing people along the lines of discrimination based on a myth – classic Indian misfortune!

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