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A matter of belief

Court deliberations over Sabrimala, while interesting, show the folly of involving the judiciary and invoking the Constitution in matters of ‘harmless’ religious practices

A matter of belief

Shorn off the emotional quotient of the Sabarimala women's entry issue, the proceedings of the nine-member bench considering the larger issues of religious practices and fundamental rights constitute a real thriller.

The arguments and interjections by the bench are so absorbing that there is no scope for even a moment's diversion. The disruption caused by the inability of some members of the bench to attend is indeed disappointing.

Currently, engaging attention are the issues pertaining to the scope of freedom of religion and also of judicial scrutiny into 'essential religious practices' of separate 'religious denominations'. Also being examined is whether a person who does not belong to a particular faith can question the religious practice of another religion or sect of a religion. The most important one is, of course, whether matters of faith are subject to court jurisdiction.

All faiths are blind and there is no one faith which is more scientific than the other. Faith is also deeply held between the devotee and object of worship and, therefore, highly personal. Each devotee has his or her own basis for worship, which may be far from uniform and not open to questioning. Making it subject to the court's approval would not only be against the concept of worship but most impractical and irrational.

Take the case of the Sabarimala temple itself. There are thousands of Ayyappa temples across the country. And if an overzealous judge were to raise a question over how the Sabarimala temple has more of Lord Ayyappa's presence than the other Ayyappa temples, there cannot be a convincing explanation, except perhaps the different rituals followed there. In fact, this is one of the crucial issues involved in the women's entry question.

Hindu religion has an estimated 33 crore gods, which makes their size equal to a quarter of the country's population and each of these gods is supposed to be different from the other. So individuality and diversity are integral to the concept, just as the fiercely defended diversity of India is. Each of these gods and goddesses have to be accepted on their own terms and what defines their relationship with their devotees. A uniform code of conduct for the gods is simply out of question.

Our Constitution has been given to us by 'we the people'. The gods were never a part of it and as such its provisions may not be applicable to the gods as these are to every Indian citizen, except that the gods will not be assumed to enjoy the right to do things that harm the society, such as the practice of sati and animal sacrifice. But it also means that the gods cannot be expected to behave in a secular manner, as the term is popularly understood, so as to consider believers and non-believers alike. There can be selective don'ts, but no do's for gods. They are only answerable to those who worship them.

The Constitution has given gods the status of a legal entity who can own property and has other rights but no god is ever known to have approached any court of law, although people have apparently done so on their behalf. When gods have complaints, which they seem to have in plenty, they go to their higher authorities and not the courts. At least, that is what religious texts tell us.

A deity is what worshippers make out of it. You cannot create a deity under the provisions of the Constitution and as such provisions of the Constitution cannot be applied to define the characteristics of a deity. In other words, a deity cannot behave in a manner prescribed by the Constitution and the only constitutional restrictions that can be applied are when the deity stands for values that are repugnant to societal values and can cause harm to its members.

So, the example of banning Sati or such evil practices does not apply to Sabarimala, because the hindered practice does not bring any harm to anybody. It may, at best, be a notional opportunity loss. If a deity demands animal sacrifice, that can be prohibited but if it wants its worshippers to offer a particular flower in preference to other flowers or visit it in a certain attire or prefer to be worshipped in a certain manner that is different from the preferences of a particular section, nothing can be done about that and the deity's 'conduct' or the 'attributed conduct' cannot be open to questioning.

Those who do not accept the way the deity likes to see the devotees can simply deny its existence and refuse to go before it or seek its blessings. The will of those who do not accept the deity in whatever characteristics it has cannot be forced on it. If a deity only wishes to bless men, with the exclusion of women, or women with the exclusion of men, as long as such preferences are not meant to harm the excluded categories, so be it. There is nothing that the excluded categories can do except not to worship that particular deity. Nobody can dictate to a deity as to how it should behave.

There is no logic in invoking equality guaranteed by the Constitution to demand access to Sabarimala because the entry to the temple is conditional to the devotees believing in Ayyappa's doctrine and accepting the rituals stipulated for him by those who established the temple and its rituals.

It would have been a different story had it been so that every visitor to the temple would be entitled to receive a certain amount of cash, or benefit in any material form in the shape of prasad or something else. In fact, Sabarimala is one such temple where devotees have to buy the prasad. Equality before law cannot be cited to demand the right to pray before a deity one does not believe in.

If any woman or a group of women do not like the idea of Lord Ayyappa preferring to meet only devotees taking a certain type obeisance and in certain physical condition, the best that they can do is to ignore him and declare that they do not need his blessings. They should rather worship a deity who likes to receive them on their own terms. If they are true Ayyappa devotees, there are any number of other Ayyappa temples that allow entry of women irrespective of their age, which they can visit and pray.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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