SPECIAL STATUS TO TEMPLE CAN OVERCOME ISSUES OF CONSTITUTIONAL MORALITY
The Supreme Court approach of applying the principle of ‘the heart, mind and healing’ in its Ayodhya verdict has gladdened the hearts of millions of Ayyappa devotees, who are waiting desperately to hear the court deliver its judgment on a spate of review petitions on Thursday.
Luckily for them, the issue at Sabarimala is not as complicated to resolve as it was in Ayodhya, although in terms of its impact on hearts and minds it is as deep and far-reaching as the other.
The challenged verdict, which allowed women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, traditionally closed for women of productive age, had caused deep wounds in the psyche of the Kerala society, with the devotees defending their faith with all their might.
Now it is for the Supreme Court to apply the healing touch and calm the nerves. The beauty of the situation is that the court can do that without compromising constitutional morality. All that it needs to do is to use its powers under Article 142, as was done in the Ayodhya case, to order either the central government or the state government to enact a law that will restore the special status of the Sabarimala temple to reflect its uniqueness, which is an unquestionable fact of life but for certain administrative procedures.
The Supreme Court by a majority 4:1 judgment had in September last year had permitted the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple on the ground that ‘devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination’ and that the temple could not claim any exemption from the rituals and practices in other places of worship as it is managed by the same administrative set-up that ran the other temples.
It was Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman member of the bench, who expressed dissent, arguing that matters of faith cannot be subjected to intervention by the state. Now that view has the backing of the Ayodhya verdict, in which faith has won precedence over evidence, which of course had gaps.
The original verdict on Sabarimala suffers from a grave error in determining the nature of the temple on the basis of the character of the body that manages it than the nature of the temple itself. The Sabarimala temple is steeped in antiquity and to give it an identity on the basis of a statutory board that came into being only in 1950 is simply preposterous, but unfortunately this is one of the considerations that went into denying Sabarimala its distinctive denomination status.
Unlike other temples in Kerala, Sabarimala gives access to all those who believe in Lord Ayyappa and the practices followed in the temple. Sabarimala is the only temple which allows entry to non-Hindus and secularism is basic to its doctrine.
Long before the Father of the Nation preached temple entry for all untouchables, this ancient temple stood as a beacon light and guidance to the whole of India. For example, the members of the lowest caste and the high caste Brahmin rubbed shoulder and offered prayers in this ancient temple. Non-Hindus also offered prayers at Sabarimala and in fact the temple has deep-rooted connections with churches and mosques.
Acquiesance to Vavar, who was supposed to be a Muslim commander of Ayyappa’s army, at a mosque at Erumeli, which forms the gateway to Sabarimala from the other side of River Pampa on the foothills, is part of the rituals of Sabarimala.
The contention that since Sabarimala is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which also manages all other temples in Travancore, and by implication that it is funded by the state is a travesty of truth. The fact is that the Sabarimala does not need any grant from the government to run it as it collects huge amounts by way of offerings from the devotees. In fact, Sabarimala contributes huge amounts to the state coffers and the money earned by the temple is used to run other temples.
In Sabarimala, Ayyappa is an eternal bachelor who does not wish to be in the company of women of reproductive age. That is his choice or, the choice ascribed to him by his worshippers over centuries. Ayyappa belongs to all worshippers who accept him to be so and not to those who do not believe in his ways.
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 of 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 cannot ask Ayyappa to change his attitude so that they can get the gender equality granted under the Constitution enforced at Sabarimala. They should rather worship a deity who likes to receive them on their own terms.
The exclusion in Sabarimala is not because of perceived impurity of women. If that was the case they would have been allowed when they are out of their periods, like any other temple. The exclusion in Sabarimala is for women of marriageable age, because that is linked to the concept of the temple itself.