The Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala allowing entry of women of reproductive ages into the shrine, violating the centuries-old tradition, has given birth to a mass movement on the streets of Kerala. Lakhs of women and men are coming out on the streets protesting against the judgment which, when implemented, would violate the naishtika brahmachari avatara of the resident deity of Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappa. 

The debate that has ensued during the case and even after the judgment firmly portrayed it as a battle of “feminism” vs “patriarchy”. Thus, it is natural to ask if the prohibitions on the entry of women of reproductive age between 10 and 50 was an infringement of women’s rights, why are lakhs of women across Kerala on the streets to protest the removal of said “discriminatory” prohibitions?

Equality as a principle

The equality discourse was developed in the West, fully rooted in Abrahamism. Christianity, like Islam and Marxism, advertised itself as destroyers of societal differences since “all were equal in the eyes of the Lord”. This idea, while quite appealing in theory, is only suitable for homogenous societies with a monoculture — where people speak the same language, dress alike, look the same, and often believe in the same things. Equality does not and should not mean sameness. But, since the deriving key assumptions and principles are from homogeneous societies which form the Abrahamic religious worldview, it often ends destroying diversity and promoting sameness, especially when implemented with a missionary zeal to “reform” on a land as diverse as India. This is especially true for non-Abrahamic religious traditions like Hinduism, whose worldview is rooted in harmony, diversity and spirituality. 

This is especially evident in the case of Sabarimala, a unique temple with unique characteristics and unique criteria for entry of devotees. In this very Kerala, there are temples and festivals where women alone participate and men are prohibited. Lord Ayyappa has other temples at Kulathupuzha, Aryankavu, and Achankovil, where he exists as a child, as a married person and as an ascetic, respectively, and none of these temples have any prohibitions on the entry of women. In Sabarimala too, there is no prohibition on entry of women before menarche or after menopause. 

All differentiation is not discrimination. As such, while there are restrictions on entry in many temples, it is not gender-based discrimination, and the (mis)application of equality discourse into the issue is misleading. 

Sabarimala sees millions of devotees from all walks of life from all religions and from all social classes. Ironically, as per the Constitution, Sabarimala would have been granted denominational status, which allows restrictions on entry, had it been more exclusive and not so accepting.

The menstruation strawman

Another misconception about Sabarimala is that the restriction of entry is placed on women due to menstruation because the prohibition is placed upon women between menarche and menopause — on women of reproductive age. 

While all Hindu temples generally expect women to not enter the temples during menstruation due to considerations of them being in a heightened rajasic condition during the time, Sabarimala’s restriction of entry of all women of reproductive age is not because of menstruation. 

It is pertinent to mention here that, according to Hindu belief, a temple is not just a solemn place to pray or meditate or congregate like a church or a mosque. A temple built according to Agamic stipulations is an energy centre where a deity has been invoked and established. The deity is thus believed to be alive and residing in a temple and therefore devotees go to “see” him or her (the concept of darshana), just like you would go to a relative’s house to “see” them. In other words, a temple is an abode of the deity, where the deity lives invigorated with the specific kind of energy associated with that deity. 

In the case of Sabarimala, Lord Ayyapan resides in the form of a naishtika brahmachari, the one who eternally practices Brahmacharya (or celibacy). According to the rules of naishtika brahmacharya, the practitioner must not only maintain celibacy but also maintain no contact with women — especially of the reproductive age. Since, in Sabarimala, the deity is practising naishtika brahmacharya, women of reproductive age are prohibited from entering the temple so as to not violate the vow of Brahmacharya taken by Ayyappa. 

Further, it is important to understand that Hindus consider women of reproductive age to be in possession of very powerful energies symbolising fertility, which is why suhashinis (married women) are worshipped after every Chandi homam and it is recommended that a married man must always do every yajna along with his wife. Since the energy of the Sabarimala temple is the energy that promotes brahmacharya, the repeated and prolonged visits by women of reproductive age can cause imbalance in their reproductive biology, which is also why entry restrictions apply.

In short, the prohibition of entry of women of reproductive age in Sabarimala has nothing to do with menstruation. It is a practice which has been stipulated owing to the unique nature of the deity and the energy of the temple, and to ensure that the vow of brahmacharya of the deity is not violated. 

What do we stand to lose?

Hinduism is an ecosystem built upon diversity of spiritual practices, each catering to different groups of people with different temperaments and competencies. Sabarimala is one such unique spiritual tradition, which is now under threat by the forces that want to destroy diversity and promote a monoculture. If the wishes of the deity are not respected, if the traditions of the temple are violated, we would forever lose access to Lord Ayyappa in the form of naishtika brahmacharya, which will be a great loss to the Hindu civilisation and, more importantly, to the male and female devotees of Ayyappa Swami. 

This is why lakhs of Ayyappa devotees are on the streets today and this is why we continue to strive for justice.