A classic Indian conundrum debating the binaries of religion and rationality, the Sabarimala conflict has revealed the essential bigotry pervasive across our population
The Lord would be angered they said, as they anxiously guarded his fortress from 'enemies' — about half of their very own people — women of menstruating age. In a bid to fulfil their Lord's sleeping wishes, they quickly forgot the first duty towards their own living community. The Sabarimala Temple conflict has today gripped the entire nation, with clear lines segregating sexes, communities and political colours. In a cusp, it is a classic Indian conundrum – a battle between religion and rationality, constitutional validity and common sentiments. It also pinnacles a crisis that has marred India's electoral landscape in recent times – political parties carefully capitalising upon popular sentiments, adding fire to fury and fuelling ordinary people to act upon delicate religious sentiments, ignoring the promises of a secular state. This has duly given birth to mob violence, which appears to be driven by impulse but, indeed, conceals a planned narrative scripted by political masters, who twist their whip to determine which irrational sentiment will fetch them the most rational gains. While devotees claiming to protect the legacy remain unyielding to women aged between 10 and 50 entering the temple, women of the state have displayed equal rigour in refusing to bow down to Brahmanical patriarchy while upholding the Supreme Court verdict that had indeed called out against this blatant sexism preventing menstruating women from entering Lord Ayyappa's shrine in Sabarimala.
Why so angry?
Like every myth in Indian tradition, the story of Ayyappa too has different versions; but they ultimately resound one belief – fertile women should not enter the temple. The Puranas describe Ayyappa as a child born of the confluence of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. He was born to slay a female demon, who, by a curse, could only be annihilated by a child born of the two Lords. The demon though was indeed a beautiful girl. As Ayyappa slays the demon and she is released from his body, she asks Ayyappa to marry him. He refuses, saying his ultimate goal in life is to answer the prayers of devotees at Sabarimala. However, he gives her a small assurance that he will marry her the day kanni-swamis (new worshippers) stop visiting the temple. Legend says that she awaits him at a neighbouring shrine, where she is worshipped as Malikapurathamma. Women, thus, do not visit Sabarimala for two reasons – first, for their empathy towards Malikaputharamma and her devotion to Lord Ayyappa and, second, to respect Ayyappa's decision of remaining celibate while fulfilling the prayers of his loyal devotees.
Of course, there are several versions outlining many more stories that reinstate with added vigour that women must not distract the Lord. But, what's a Lord who hasn't mastered the control of his body and mind?
As a secular country flourishing in flavours of diversity, it is our duty to protect the indigenity of each community — yet, the protection of one's values can hardly come at the cost of another's discrimination. The Supreme Court judgment overruling the Sabarimala tradition had aptly said, "In the theatre of life, it seems, man has put the autograph and there is no space for a woman even to put her signature. There is inequality on the path of approach to understand the divinity. The attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender."
While we decorate our goddesses and elaborately worship them across the year, women in our homes continue to be disparaged — the Sabarimala Temple is at the forefront of this ideological conflict. Progress is relevant only to the extent that it emboldens our masculine muscle-flexing; and, any paradigm of modernity that attempts to unseat our deep-rooted malice is resisted as an attack on 'tradition'. This fallacy is so entrenched that Sabarimala has been at tipping point since October, when temple gates were opened post the September Supreme Court judgment. Despite the highest court of the country upholding the rights of women to worship and seek religious emancipation, 'devotees' continue to be stifled. Religious fanaticism in India has become so very misplaced that it now appears to always be in conflict with rationality. Not only does the current Sabarimala conflict disregard notions of rational modernity, but it is also a complete departure from Hindu philosophy that speaks of emancipating the mind by detaching oneself from worldly frivolities.
Politics of popular sentiments
The Sabarimala conflict has lent a disturbing lens into the true functioning of the average Indian psyche. In reality, the Brahmanical, patriarchal Indian mind struggles to cope with change. Even when that change is in view of larger societal upliftment, the Indian mind shivers in fear, anticipating a loss of pride. Small wonder then that the Supreme Court judgment was met with only hostility without a single thought spared for upholding jurisdictions of law. What makes matters worse is indeed this – India's political parties that coyly stand at the wings hoping to catch the slightest hint of uprising, waiting to capitalise on trouble that will bring hefty electoral gains. Kerala has witnessed a historic divide between Congress and CPI (M). While the communists have traditionally shunned religious zeal, Congress has tapped on people's unfulfilled godly sentiments. And, now, with the rise of BJP-RSS in the south, the latter has found an unlikely friend, as both stand against their common enemy, the ruling CPI (M)-led LDF government of Kerala. While the state government went ahead with implementing the Supreme Court judgement, as is the norm, Congress and BJP have backed the irrational, angry devotees – who they believe will constitute a massive electoral chunk in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. This has paved the way for extreme violence, bigotry and discrimination. In Kerala, the stone pelters, otherwise sanctified as 'devotees', attacking police are tacitly encouraged by these two outfits – in Kashmir, we all know what happens to those pelting stones. This religious divide, which is indeed accelerated by the mechanics of crude politics, carries the seed of destroying India's secular fabric.
The Sabarimala conflict is another reminder that laws are never enough to run a polity. Murders, rapes, child sexual abuse, all continue unabated despite hefty law codes condemning the acts and lending stringent punishment to the guilty. Sabarimala then is no exception. The population will do as it desires without an iota of consideration for law — because, in India, to be punished you must be poor and without political tutelage. In Sabarimala, of course, those that are pelting stones and vociferously preventing women from entering the temple are doing it less on their own accord and more at their master's will. So, not only is the Indian mind fragile in the face of change, but it also sells in a rather easy bid.
Conflicts of choice
We today stand at difficult crossroads of choice. First, there is the eternal conflict of protecting religion vis-à-vis protecting fellow humans. To what extent are we willing to sacrifice the ethos of our fellow citizens in the name of preserving religious heritage? 'Half-knowledge is devastating' – this adage succinctly defines the plague of 21st century India. By flipping a few scriptures, hearing a few myths and adorning a few coloured robes, we believe that we have appropriated God and, thus, are emboldened in our fight to continue this misguided appropriation. The true devotee though will always realise that devotion and salvation can never demand the subjugation of another species – not even a plant, let alone an entire community of humans. While religion truly is the opium of our masses, the opium that Indians are today consuming is surely spiked – though the high is as intoxicating, the quality is way below average and will eventually choke the lungs.
The Sabarimala conflict brings another painful reality to the forefront – any given populace can be misguided with a manipulative motive that supersedes individual, or even collective, sensibility. This second conflict ought to irk administrators of our country. How do we contain a population that has decided to become a law unto itself; how do we reprimand and correct our people who actively decide to stand against law, do not care for the consequences and remain adamant in their demands. The role of the State in administering this aspect is irrefutable. As soon as political parties stop lending explicit or even tacit support to majoritarian and fringe groups, exciting their noxious demands, we will witness a better India. The duty of the State is not only in declaring policies or appearing dressed for formal events – the State is also the guardian of its citizens and it is simply not doing enough as a guardian. Neither is it protecting its citizens (women) nor is it reprimanding them (devotees). If CPI (M), Congress and BJP today decide to let go of electoral differences and, for once, even by chance, think of the greater good of our country, we will be able to build a more evolved society where every member of each community can cohabit with pride.
Two women below 50 years of age made history on January 2 by entering Sabarimala Temple. Perhaps, one day, our generation will script historical stories of excellence where achievements will emerge out of innovation and advancement; not out of a citizen accomplishing only that which is prescribed in law.