The Deity’s House: A critical analysis of Sabarimala Temple Judgement

By | September 4, 2021
critical analysis of Sabarimala Temple Judgement

This article on ‘The Deity’s House: a critical analysis of Sabarimala temple judgement.’ is written by Meenakshi Chahar and aims to bring out a critical analysis of the Sabarimala verdict.

I. Introduction

In a country like India, women have faced the problem of discrimination for centuries. Religion happens to be a greater influence on such discriminations. The personal laws of the country have always favour men and this shows the patriarchal nature of such a country.

One such trouble was faced by women devotees of Lord Ayyappa, especially those who are between the age of 10 to 50 because their entries were constrained to the Sabarimala Temple of Lord Ayyappa. The temple is located in Kerala at Periyar Tiger Reserve which is part of the Pathanamthitta district.

It is rule 3(b) that imposes the restriction to the entry of such women under the mentioned Kerala Hindu Places of Public worship 1965, stating that:

“Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.”

II. The controversy

The controversy over entry started with the claim made by a Kannada actress named Jayamal. She claimed in 2006 that she had entered the temple and touched the idol of god presiding at sanctum sanctorum in the temple.

Wherein, these claims lead to a disturbance among the worshipers and celibate students. It was then the Kerala Government considered the situation serious and order the crime branch probe. However, the case got dropped later.

The Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala happens to be one of the largest annual pilgrimage sites for Hindus. The prohibition of entry of women can be easily traced in a legend that the deity of temple Lord Ayyapa was a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’ (who followed celibacy), and as per the supporters of the temple, there has been a ban on those women of menstruating age referred to as “not pure” to enter the temple as that would disturb the celibacy of the deity.

III. Verdict of the Supreme Court

Aftermath, the Constitutional Bench by 4:1 majority held that such a bar is against the principles embodied in the Constitution of India. Saying that it violated women’s Right to Equality and Right to Worship and such custom/usage is a form of untouchability.

However, surprisingly the only female judge on the bench came up with a dissenting opinion, Justice Indu Malhotra. The dissent emphasizing that the state intervention between the religious and the rituals is not appreciable as these are persuaded by the people what they feel fit for them and their Lord, intervening in this will be a violation of their religious practices.

The court held that Sabarimala pilgrims are not a separate sect or neither religious denomination nor it could be.  Such customs of the prohibition of women’s entry to the temple are a violation of Fundamental Rights and are subjected to constitutional validity. The rules prescribing the age group restricting woman entry are prima facie arbitrary and discretionary.

The court observed that “what applies to women also applies to men and thus women’s right to pray is equal to that of men and no law can infringe that by depending such right on law”.

IV. Critical analysis

A very realistic scenario is shown by the dissenting judgment in which Justice Indu Malhotra favouring the protection of religious practices instead. This dissenting judgment shows major loopholes in the majority judgment. This can affect the moral fabric of our pluralistic society.

The Non-Maintainability of PIL is a prima facie glitch. The right to move to the court must directly arise from the infringement of personal rights of an individual professing such religion and faith rather than by individuals or groups who are not professing such religion.

In Sabarimala Case, petitioners were not devotees of Lord Ayyappa and the right to worship of petitioners was not affected by such belief as they were not professing such faith. Thus, if on the same reasoning PILs were allowed for testing the validity of old religious customs and tradition at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this belief or faith would cause harm to the secular fabric of the country.

The restriction on the entry of women between the age group 10-50 in the temple comprises some strong reasoning as this ban was an old age practice of the Hindu religion and followers of Lord Ayyappa. The Sthalapurana i.e the corpus of texts that tells of the origins and traditions of particular Tamil Shiva temples or shrines, tell that since the deity Lord Ayyapa is depicted as a Naishtik Brahmcharya i.e perennial celibate student, who is sunned with any kind of contact with women of reproductive age.

Therefore the prescription of this age band is the only practical way of ensuring that the limited restriction on the entry of women is adhered to, there is nothing discriminatory and arbitrary with the age band. Meaning thereby, the restriction is based on unique characteristics of the deity, which is not founded as social exclusion. Therefore it cannot be called a practice of untouchability under Article 17 of the Constitution.

The Bhoothanathopakhyanam, the Parana on the Dharma Shaastha is the Scripture of the Sabarimala Temple which lays down the rules and prescribes rituals. Religion is the supreme authority that can tell its integral parts. As to maintain constitutional morality and secular polity in a pluralistic society it is important to provide freedom to practice their faith with respect to their religious beliefs.

Therefore equality must be tested in cases of religion by keeping in mind the faith and beliefs of the worshippers and not the logic or legal reason behind it. Imposing any kind of morality and rationality by courts here will negate the freedom of practice of one’s religion according to one’s beliefs and faith.

Therefore it is not the duty of the court to determine the practices of faith which need to be struck down unless if these practices are of oppressive nature, pernicious, or of social evil, like Sati.

“The issue of what constitutes an essential religious practise is for the religious community to decide”[1]

There is a practice in the temple of 41 days ‘Vratham’ where there are abstinence and seclusion of women-folk, be it daughter, wife, or mother. The pilgrimage also includes a holy bath in the river Pampa with 18 sacred steps in ascending which leads to sanctum sanctorum. Thus, the restriction should be understood in this context.

There are several documented shreds of evidence of these practices in the Memoir of Survey of Travancore and in the Cochin States written by Lieutenants Wards and Conner published in 1893 and 1901, revealing such religious practices. Thus, these were the essential practices that were followed for a long time and were considered central and integral to the tenets of the temple. Any interference with the same would amount to conflict with the right guaranteed by Article 25(1) to worship Lord Ayyappa in the form of ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.

The classic evidence is when women devotees of Sabarimala Temple started a campaign #Readytowait in response to #Righttopray, where women were themselves ready to wait till age 50 to enter the temple and were ready to respect and maintain the sacredness of the temple. Article 26 of the Constitution itself gives liberty in deciding, essential practices and rites according to the principles of each religion of the country.

Thereby, the Constitution provides the freedom to every religious sect or denomination to establish and maintain religious or charitable institutions by having their own set of religious affairs subject to public order, morality or health.

The question of Constitutional morality is established from the jurisprudence and precedents that there needs to be harmonization or balancing for all rights and ensuring that the religious beliefs are not being obliterated or undermined.

In cases like  Subramaniam Swamy v. Union of India[2]and Acharya Maharajshri Narendra Prasadji Anandprasadji Maharaj & Ors. v. The State of Gujarat & Ors[3], a Constitution Bench, wherein held with respect to Article 26, that it is always the duty of a court to ensure the balance between the fundamental rights of one individual to that of other individuals. The principle of harmony should always prevail in such circumstances.

V. Conclusion

Thus, the building blocks of the author’s analysis are first, that considering from antiquity to time of immemorial, this temple has always excluded a group of reproductive age women from entering, as the Lord Ayyappa depicted a Naishtik Brahmacharya.

Secondly, that knowingly or unknowingly this span of ages is directly linked with the menstrual cycle of women, thereby it is not the gender-based exclusion as those women who are below 10 and above 50 could enter and worship the deity. Therefore, the exclusion is not based on gender but on the identity, origin, and rearing of the deity with the significant evolution.

Thirdly, that there exist some set religious criteria with identified principles and beliefs with a religious denomination which are constituted by Ayappans. These specific beliefs are performed with appropriate customs and usages where there is ‘Vratham pilgrimage’ with peculiar 41 days.

Fourthly, thus this female exclusion of certain age groups and other self-denying practices, rituals, and observances established the real and actual control beliefs of the sect and were thought-about essentially indispensable for the sect.

Thus, Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules should not be considered as ultra vires to Section 3 of the 1965 Act, as the proviso carves out an exception in those cases where public worship in temples for benefit of any religious denomination or sect thereof, for managing the affairs on matters of religion.

Therefore the judgment in the case of Sabarimala Temple is another judgment in a row after the “Jallikattu Case”[4], which is against the religious beliefs and is not good for the law as this is not a duty of courts. Hindu temple is not a public space.

It is the abode of the deity and the battle is to re-establish the rights of the deity as a living person who has rights as given in our Constitution. We need more clarifications if the deities in Hindu temples will continue to be considered legal individuals.


References

[1] Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. v. The State of Kerala & Ors., 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1690,

[2] Subramaniam Swamy v. Union of India, (2016) 7 SCC 221

[3] Acharya Maharajshri Narendra Prasadji Anandprasadji Maharaj & Ors. v. The State of Gujarat & Ors, (1975) 1 SCC

[4] The Animal Welfare Board of India & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors. (2014) 7 SCC 547.


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