Temple Tantrums Rajeev Dhavan THE TIMES OF INDIA Friday, July 7, 2006
The Sabarimala controversy tests India's dual secular guarantee of religious freedom and social justice for all. Every citizen has the right to profess, practice, propagate and manage one's own affairs in matters of religion including the myriad of essential practices that define a faith. To strike a balance, the Constitution permitted the state to provide, for "social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus" to ensure temple entry for untouchables and others. But, religious freedom is subject to gender equality. The Ayyappan temple at Sabarimala is undoubtedly a public temple which must normally be open to all including women. The core question is whether temple entry or social reform can override what is sacral to a faith. The present controversy stems from the latest astrologically based Astamangala Devaprasanam in which the deity was, allegedly, upset by many things, including thefts and favouritism in the temple, de-forestation and a woman having defiled the temple sometime earlier. In a secular vein, the deity also wanted worship at the Vayar shrine managed by Muslims in the vicinity. All these supposed oracular wishes of Lord Ayyappa stand unfulfilled. But, what has attracted attention is actress Jaimala's confession that she had touched the deity in 1987, her defiant stance that she will answer to God and not high priests and her apology.
The high priest refused to admit a dereliction of duty to doubt the Jaimala story. Where do we go from here? As a matter of law, Kerala high court has clearly laid down that the exclusion of women aged between 10 and 55 is essential to the faith as a core 'essential practice' of the followers of Lord Ayyappa. If this is so, the past is secured and the future sealed. Non-believers cannot be told to believe in God. Nor can believers be compelled to deny their faith. But we can ask them to re-examine the validity of their belief. We can go down a partisan bifocal BJP route of preaching a uniform civil code to Muslims in the name of reform whilst defending many irrational Hindu claims to be part of India's national heritage. Such an approach has too many 'Hindutva' contradictions to command secular respect. For the rationalist, on the other hand, empirically unproven beliefs and practices should be allowed as personal belief not social practice. Religions cannot be compartmentalised into inner beliefs, which are to be protected and external practices which can be reformed out of existence. Faiths come as an integral whole. Believers may well say that the forced entry of women into the temple will render everyone's prayer at the temple valueless. If the Supreme Court's logic is followed, women may obtain entry to the temple but not to the inner sanctum of Lord Ayyappa. The Kerala high court surmised that the reason for excluding women from the Ayyappan temple was to protect them from suffering the privations of the 41-day ordeal of penances. The rest is blind tradition based on astrological conjecture. Hindu orthodoxy may have social and political reasons for seeking refuge in obscurantism. But Hinduism is no stranger to reform and change. Temple entry of untouchables and other reformist intervention have not weakened but strengthened the faith. Hindus cannot preach gender justice to others and indulge in practices that their own reformers have found wanting. For the moment we must proceed on the basis that the practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple lacks critical, moral and religious foundation. That the Kerala high court decided otherwise is hardly the point. The writer is a senior Supreme Court advocate.