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I was disappointed when the Supreme Court of India ruled that the restriction on the entry of women of a certain age group into the Sabarimala shrine was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Consequently, while my heart warmed up to the protesters in south India, my head felt heavy at the sight of the crowds challenging the Supreme Court’s ruling, i.e. rejecting the rule of law.
There was also a sense of helplessness aggravated by the inanity of television debates on the subject. The presumption of a superior understanding displayed by television anchors and social activists to the irrational logic put forth by defenders of the tradition, both were frustrating.
In some ways it felt like the assault on Indian traditions, which started with the Turkish, Afghan, Moghul and European invasions, was continuing in independent India at the hands of self-styled superiorists (yes, I know that it is not a legitimate word in English). These folks want to treat Indian religious and cultural traditions as works of art, which to me is simply appalling. The fact that there are underlying reasons for many such ancient Indian traditions, which may have become hazy or lost in time on account of wars, knowledge destruction, and other factors, is lost in debate.
One such factor is the age-old inclination to keep knowledge captive in the hands of a select few. This last factor, to my mind, has no place in the present age of reason. In the past, all such knowledge was woven into stories and fables and passed down generations to the common man as the Puranas. But today, most common people seek rationality in life and hence bearers of this ancient knowledge, if any remain, need to speak up.
In this environment where allegations and counter allegations are flying, I am attempting this analysis in a personal and hopefully rational context.
The Constitutional test
The first question is whether Indian courts ought to get into issues of religious tradition. While some say no, in my view, religious traditions also need to be open to the test of Constitutionality. However, while undertaking such a test, the law needs to be cautious on a few aspects:
Putting some of this in perspective.
To start, it is critical to understand that Hindus in different parts of India come to their religious traditions from different perspectives. While some might approach it from an atheistic perspective (i.e. the Vedic schools of Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimansa, Vedanta or the non-Vedic schools like the Siddha, Agama and Tantra, some of which got assimilated into the Vedic schools over time), others might have an atheistic approach (like the Jain, Buddhist, Ajivaka and the Charvaka traditions).
Hence, to some Hindus, there is a God and he/she is omnipresent (the Advintins), to others these is a difference between God and the self (the Visishtadvaitins and the Dvaitins) and the two shall never meet, and yet to some others, God does not exist and the only truth may be to follow a righteous path (the Jains, Buddhistss and the Ajivakas) or even a highly materialistic path (the Charvakas). At the same time, some others may attempt a logical analysis of existence and the forces of nature (the Nyaya and Smakhya schools).
As a result, followers in one school may not find traditions of another acceptable of even tolerable. Hence to my mind, where religious tradition is put to a Constitutional test, the locus standi of any challenger ought to be tested on a real and personal basis. What is difficult to grasp is the professed belief of people in Ayyappa at Sabarimala (who is a construct of tradition and a Puranic tale) and the simultaneous rejection of the restriction on women imposed in tradition – a problem, is it not?
2. Testing religious tradition on rationality basis
This then brings us to the question of religion and rationality. The whole idea of God and divinity is belief and tradition based and not scientifically rational. Hence, it is incapable of being tested on a rationality basis. So, to me, a review of any religious tradition from a rationality perspective is in most ways counter-intuitive.
3. Viewing specifics of the tradition
The Tantric tradition, in accordance with which the Sabarimala temple is established, perceives the universe and all of creation, as a manifestation of the divine energy in the physical and metaphysical dimensions. Over time, through the recitation of mantras, use of yantras and the practice of various occultist rituals, mankind developed a mechanism to harness this divine energy for specific human purposes.
The tradition of building temples also draws upon the ancient and pre-Vedic Tantric and the Agamic traditions. Central to the idea of temple construction and deity consecration is the notion of focusing the divine energy into a deity. While in certain instances the energies were harnessed for the general benefit of a visitor, in other cases this energy was consecrated into a stone/idol and harnessed for special purposes. In the latter, visitors are required to follow specific rituals and customs that are prescribed to derive benefits.
My limited research regarding Sabarimala suggests that in the ancient past, certain individual(s) (identified in the legends/the Puranas as Parasuraman), consecrated that shrine. They also prescribed rituals and customs, derived from their understanding of these forces of nature, to
(i) preserve the energy at the shrine
(ii) for humans to approach this energy field and to derive benefit from it and
(iii) avoid adverse consequences consequent to any non-compliance by a visitor.
These instructions included practices of abstinence from food and sexual activity and a prescribed dress code for a period of 41 days or more and the restriction on women of menstrual age from visiting the shrine.
Apparently, the perspective was that humans, i.e. energy beings, who comply with the prescriptions would transform their energies, allowing them to approach the energy at the shrine without risking an adverse consequence either for themselves or for the shrine’s energy field.
The sense was that the event of mensuration disrupts a woman’s ability to transform her personal energy in a manner that would allow her to approach the shrine such adverse consequences. In these terms, the restriction was not meant to discriminate, but was meant to preserve the shrine’s energy field and eliminate the risk of any negative consequence to a visitor who had not sufficiently transformed their energies.
These Tantric ideas, which also incorporate the seemingly distasteful restriction, are narrated through the Puranas, i.e. stories for the common man where the restriction on women is constructed as the lord being a Naisthic Bharamacharaya.
Now of course, one could question the very basis of the energy hypothesis, but then why waste your time by visiting Sabarimala and trampling on the sentiment of the believers.
First, we need to begin to appreciate the multiple schools of Hinduism and appreciate that it will always be difficult for followers on one tradition to accept the other tradition easily, particularly when the traditions vary in fundamental ways. However, this luxury of bias for a common person, ought not to be available to the courts, which need to weave themselves out of this limitation.
The lesson for the traditionalists is that in an increasingly rational world, it is incrementally difficult to justify tradition based on blind faith. Hence, a differential treatment of women, justified on faith, has a high risk of being seen as discriminatory.
It is time for the traditionalists that preserve these Tantric secrets to speak up and attempt a rational explanation to some of the underlying rituals and customs that exist regarding Sabarimala. Any failure to do so could destroy our traditional institutions and in such an event the responsibility will not be that of the Court, but of the traditionalists that hang on to their secrecy.
The author is an independent lawyer based in Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author and Bar & Bench does not necessarily hold the same views. Bar & Bench does not take responsibility for the same.