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Kerala’s Sabarimala: Celibate deity, ‘impure’ devotees, unholy politicians — recipe for disaster

Will the opportunistic agitation orchestrated by Hindu groups on Sabarimala lead to 'saffronisation' of Kerala?

Image Credit: Reuters
Women protest the lifting of ban by Supreme Court that allowed entry of women of menstruating age to the Sabarimala temple

Barely weeks after projecting the image of a people united in fight against the unprecedented floods, Keralites are back to what they do best – protest. India’s southernmost state is witnessing a religious agitation of sorts that is unmatched in its history.

Egged on by an unholy coalition, thousands of people are on the streets protesting a Supreme Court verdict that permitted entry of women in Sabarimala. The agitation, ironically, has become a frontal attack on the state government and brings up queasy parallels to a chain of events that led to the ouster of another Communist ministry in Kerala.

In 1959, the first democratically-elected communist government in Kerala was overthrown.

It was the result of a protracted struggle by certain elements with vested interests that saw the unholy combination of the Church, caste-based groups such as Nair Service Society (NSS), Indian Union Muslim League, the Congress party  — and even the CIA.

EMS Namboodiripad was the first chief minister of an Indian state from the Communist Party, elected in 1957.

Two years later, the Education Bill and the path-breaking Land Reforms bill led to the government’s downfall.

In what was called the "Vimochana Samaram" or Liberation Struggle, orchestrated agitations by factions belonging to all the three prominent religious groups — Hindu, Christian and Islam — against the "infidel" communist government spread like wildfire in the state.

The Congress government at the Centre in New Delhi, whose state unit was part of the agitation, finally dismissed the state government on the pretext of deteriorating law-and-order situation.

The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles, the Supreme Court said in its verdict.


History repeats?

Today, in an eerily similar pattern, the protests against the Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala Temple case present a Waterloo moment for Pinarayi Vijayan, the current chief minister, who hails from the same party.

Is the current Left front government, now just two years in power, heading the same way as its predecessor?

In the midst of massive, and religiously-charged agitation following the apex court’s decision, it’s hard to predict the outcome now.

But one thing’s for certain: Kerala will see more such convulsion in the coming days over Sabiramala, a Hindu shrine visited by up to 50 million devotees each year. And now that India’s Supreme Court is in no hurry to take up the review petitions filed against the court verdict, the situation has developed into a perfect storm in Kerala.

No doubt, the issue is bound to be exploited to the hilt by the ruling BJP, its factions and other Hindutwa sympathisers for their own gains.

They are rallying behind the Sangh Parivaar’s biggest agenda down south. The ultimate aim: to capture the so-called Red State in the general elections in 2019.

And like all bigots, they have no qualms about misusing religion to achieve their political ends.

Sabarimala Hundreds of devotees, mostly women, take part in the 'namajapa' during a protest march in Kottayam. PTI

In fact, the BJP has shamelessly used articles of faith as a weapon to divide and rule the people of the cow belt and, hence, India.

While the Ramajanambhumi, the Hindu movement to build a Ram temple at the place of the demolished Babri Masjid, and anti-Muslim cards failed miserably in Kerala, BJP stalwarts now hope to make inroads in the state with the “Save Sabarimala” movement. 

So if you see street fights of the most preposterous kind in Kerala in the coming days, don’t be surprised. In fact, factions within the Kerala community are aiding the Save Sabarimala brigade. 

Not many Keralites, this writer included, would like to be reminded that theirs is essentially a society that is becoming an increasingly regressive one. But it is a fact. 

Behind the façade of 100 per cent literacy, an open-defecation-free, beef-eating, communist-loving, seemingly egalitarian society of happy mums and fathers preparing their children to be Non Resident Indians and nothing else, Kerala is a prisoner of its own myth and filth. 

Like any other society, Kerala — dubbed as “God’s own country” — has its own demons.

Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres in south India, located in Pathanamthitta District, in the state of Kerala.

It needs only the slightest provocation and there will be moments of reckoning when this filth, accumulated for centuries, erupts — as it’s likely to happen now, in no small part fueled by social media and instant messaging.

This was exactly what happened in 1959, after Kerala had elected its first communist government.

The government led by EMS initiated pioneering land and educational reforms which faced stiff opposition from influential groups such as the Catholic Church, the Muslim League and the Nair Service Society. 

Back then, rallies and demonstrations were held against the government throughout the state. The protests were led by the Indian National Congress, India’s then-ruling party, and were later supported by various religious and communal groups.

Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa devotees take part in the 'Ayyappa Namajapa Yatra' in protest against Supreme Court verdict, in New Delhi. PTI

After the verdict: casteist party, political ploy

In the present case, all that was needed for all the hell to break loose was just a judgement from Indian Supreme Court and deft management of the latent Hindu groups.

On September 28, following a 12-year process, the constitutional bench of the apex court declared that women of all ages can go to the Kerala temple Sabarimala, reversing a ban on women of reproductive age at the temple.

For a developed society like Kerala with so many unique achievements for its womenfolk, this would’ve been just another occasion for celebration.

Sabarimala is open for worship during the 41 days of Mandalapooja (November-December) Makaravilakku (in January) and Vishu Sankranti (April) — and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

As the Supreme Court rightly observed, the ban violated constitutional principles and was nothing but pure discrimination of the basis of gender.

However, that was not to be. 

Sleeper right-wing cells and the society’s traditionalists have surfaced all of a sudden.

They are calling for the removal of the ban as if it is the biggest misfortune facing the Kerala society today. A campaign was initiated by certain women “Ready to wait” (apparently until after their reproductive age is over) till they are “pure again” to see Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala. 

Huge processions were taken out all over the state and BJP’s social media army went into overdrive, spreading false claims and blatant lies.

But, most importantly, they peddled hatred against the women of Kerala.

It is one of the ‘richest’ temples in India in terms of seasonal income. During the festive season last year it has achieved a record income of Dh 126,140,810.

The women who welcomed the verdict or who are ready to go to Sabarimala were promptly called “feminists”, the worst epithet the “aristocrat” sect can imagine. And as usual they were threatened with rape and other consequences if they attempted to enter Sabarimala.

The idea is to subliminally spread the message that the “aristocratic women” or the “Kula stree” would not go to Sabarimala when she is “impure”.

Thousands of women marched along Kerala streets apparently to “Save Sabarimala” and Ayyapna from the “impure” women like themselves. This was an unusual kind of gathering and many wondered why these women were never seen in any other protests Kerala women waged against atrocities women face, including the latest nun rape case.

More than anything, their blatant acceptance of the male decree that the women are impure was the confirmation that these processions are orchestrated and have larger motives than saving Sabarimala.

Sabarimala A woman chants hymns during a protest called by various Hindu organisations against the lifting of ban by Supreme Court that allowed entry of women of menstruating age to the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi. PTI

One by one, Hindu organisations entered the scene. 

A meeting of 41 Hindu organizations was convened by RSS in Kochi to chalk out the detailed strategy to take the campaign to the next level. 

Members of the conservative Hindu group Ayyappa Dharma Sena said will they lie down at the entrance of Sabarimala temple on October 17 to stop women of menstruating age from entering.

"Those women who come to worship defying the temple custom will have to walk through our bodies,” said its leader Rahul Eshwar, defying the court verdict.

Sabarimala is the only major temple in Kerala where people from any religion could go freely.

The right-wing parties, BJP and RSS, were against the verdict from the beginning. But it was the stand of Congress state unit that has baffled everyone.

With mere vote bank in mind, the Congress party has shed its semblance of neutrality secular pretensions and joined the right wing in attacking the state government for trying to implement the court order.

Same pattern

This is a different time and different issue. But the pattern of the agitation is strikingly similar: Two of the major factions of the 1959 protests, the Congress and the NSS, have joined the “Save Sabarimala” group in the fight against the state government in the name of a Supreme Court verdict the government is duty bound to implement.

The NSS, headed by its secretary Sukumaran Nair, is the so-called cultural and social organisation of the mostly unorganised Nair community. Congress in the state is led by Ramesh Chennithala

Incidentally, NSS does not have any significant influence in the Nair community it represents; yet it somehow manages to eke out an existence, largely due to complexities of the left-right coalition politics in Kerala.

Other religious groups have also come to the aid of the so-called Ayyappa devotes in their fight as they claim the court has transgressed its mandate on religious freedom. Christian and Muslim priest have become a standard feature at these protest meetings now. They feel, if they don’t come out now, it will be their turn next.

 

 

Watch: Members of Kerala Muslim organisations supporting protest against the removal of ban 

However, one major difference from the 1959 protests is the emergence of Dalit organisations in the scene. 

Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS) has openly dissociated itself from the ongoing agitations and has asked the Kerala government to “implement the court order that gives the marginalised women a chance to be part of the religious community.” 

Another one is Sanathana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP, the umbrella organisation of dominant Ezhava community, though not exactly a Dalit one.   

The SNDP, which earlier had electoral ties with the BJP, has termed the latter move as “political opportunism”. SNDP leader Vellappally Natesan has also issued stern warning that they will fight against any opposition to the court verdict if BJP and its factions attempt to break the communal harmony in the state. 

Ominous signs

Will the second Liberation Struggle succeed? It is too early to say. The signs are ominous, to say the least. The state’s opposition group and one main community have joined hands in the fight against the state government though it has nothing do with the verdict.

The BJP, which rules the Centre, is now using every trick in the book to set a foothold in the state.

There is a massive behind the scene nexus of Kerala’s regressive religious groups who are keen on proving their might once and for all to keep judiciary out of matters of faith.

Sabarimala witnesses one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world — with up to 50 million devotees visiting every year.

The massive devastation left by the worst flood in 100 years did not break the Keralites’ spirit. Despite the extensive loss of life and property, the state’s 35 million inhabitants came out stronger, joined together by the common good. 

But now, the fires of division are fanned by opportunists hiding under the skirt of religious fervor. And if the CIA helped scuttle the first Liberation Struggle from outside in the late 1950s, it’s the RSS and the Sangh Parivar fueling the agitation both from inside and outside the state today.   

Revision petitions

On Monday, Shylaja Vijayan, president of National Ayyappan Devotees Association, filed a plea with India’s Supreme Court to review the Constitution bench’s judgement lifting the ban on entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

The plea stated that the September 28 judgment in the hill-top shrine is "absolutely untenable and irrational, if not perverse."

People for Dharma, Nair Service Society, Thazhamon Thantri Family and Pandalam Royal Family have also filed review petitions.

However, the government and the Travancore Devaswom Board, which controls the affairs of the temple, have made it clear that review petition will not be filed on their behalf, citing that they are bound to execute the apex court order.

Whodunnit? And conspiracy theories

The deluge of disinformation by parties involved in the agitation seems unstoppable as the recent floods; it is difficult to find out where it all started.

Is it a policy of the state government? Is it a BJP strategy to make inroads into Kerala, a state that has long shunned communal strife and Hindu extremism?

Or just the sagacious wisdom of the learned apex court? It all depends on what you want to believe.

Sensing blood soon after the verdict, the BJP and its factions have deftly tried to put the “blame” on the CPM and the Chief Minister.

What’s getting inundated in all the noise is that the verdict was handed down by the constitution bench of the Supreme Court. The decision in the 12-year-old case came after all parties involved — be it from the Pandalam Royal family to NSS – had their say in court to depose their point. 

‘Desecreting Sabiramala’

Most of the right-wing campaigners target Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan and CPI (M) for the removal of ban.

“Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala will never forgive you for desecrating Sabarimala,” one poster circulating on social media states.

The CPM and Left factions are not sitting idle again, of course. Conspiracy theories are being circulated about a plan by Amit Shah and, none other than the SC judge, to collude the atmosphere in order to polarize the Hindu vote in Kerala.

“The BJP couldn’t divide Kerala with Ramjanambhoomi, they know they can split Kerala and win votes with Sabarimala,” says another campaign leaflet doing the rounds on social media.

What Kerala women say  

There are essentially three different types of voices emerging out of this cacophony of protests: The “Ready to wait” group, the “Must go” group, and the “Won’t go but it is our right” group.

■ The 'ready to wait' gang

The “Ready to wait” group is the voice of conservative Hindu women in Kerala. They are believers and are usually the temple-goer types. Mostly composed of upper-caste Hindus who are traditionally considered to be the flagbearers of tradition, they are unhappy at the Supreme Court verdict and consider it against norms to visit Sabarimala when they are of menstruating age.

Community organisations like NSS, Bhrahmana Sabha and Sangh Parivar parties (BJP family) such as Ayyappan Seva Sangham, Hindu Aachaarya Sabha, Vishwa Hindu Paridshad (VHP) and Siva Sena have been able to tap into their sentiments and bring them out on roads to protect the sanctity of Sabarimala. Ironically, this has unflattering historical parallels of slaves protesting the abolition of slavery.

■ The 'must go' group

Most of the people who argue for women going to Sabarimala after the verdict reiterate that the erstwhile practice was a denial of their constitutional right. And they don’t want it to be treated as a symbolic victory.  Wherever women can go, they should go. 

A judicial victory without the women actually exercising their right to worship at Shabarimala would be hollow, they argue.

Contrary to what the BJP-allied media portrays, there are women devotees of Ayyappan in Kerala who do not want to wait for the pilgrimage. “I have gone to Sabarimala when I was studying in LKG,” writes one devotee on her facebook page. “I still remember the priest who called me and gave the prasadam (offering). I will be posting a picture next time when I go and receive the prasada – especially for those who can’t bear it.”

■ 'Won’t go but it’s women’s right' group

For them it is purely a constitutional and rights issue. Women have the right to equal treatment in all areas and that should be recognised, they argue. This group includes both believers and nonbelievers cutting across the boundaries of caste and religion. 

They are united by the idea of women empowerment and in curbing all forms of gender discrimination.

Understandably, it is this group that has drawn the most flak from the conservatives as the latter see them as trouble makers interfering in their religious affairs. Obviously, the traditionalists fail to recognise the concept of equality and constitutional rule. 

The agitators’ core arguments

The main argument at the root of the current agitation against the court verdict is the alleged “impurity” of menstruating women.

In fact, it is a taboo in almost all temples. It is more of a voluntary sort of thing considering the difficulties in enforcing it.  Whether the court has any right to intervene in the affairs of the faithful is just tactical point to divert the attention.

The protest organisers have taken special care to bring women to the forefront of the agitation but it presents a bizarre spectacle. Thousands of women marching to the tune of some invisible men — to save Ayyappan from their own “impurities”.   

The other point was the “eternal celibate” nature attributed to Lord Ayyappan. It is believed that Ayyappan’s celibacy will be affected if women of reproductive age enter Sabarimala.

What the court said

The India Supreme Court primarily looked in to the issue on the basis of gender discrimination and right to worship. 

Right to worship is given to all devotees and there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender, the court said.

The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles, the Supreme Court said in its verdict.

What is Sabarimala and who is Ayyappan?

Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres in south India, located in Pathanamthitta District, in the state of Kerala.

The temple is open for worship during the 41 days of Mandalapooja (November-December) Makaravilakku (in January) and Vishu Sankranti (April) — and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

The shrine witnesses one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world — with up to 50 million devotees visiting every year.

It is one of the ‘richest’ temples in India in terms of seasonal income. During the festive season last year it has achieved a record income of Rs 255 crores or Dh 126,140,810.

In 1991, the Kerala High Court bench restricted the entry of women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 from Sabarimala Shrine, as they were of the menstruating age.

Essentially, it is this order that the Supreme Court constitution bench had scrapped through its 4-1 judgement, allowing women of all ages the right to enter the temple.

The legend of Ayyappan

There’s one popular legend associated with the birth of Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala shrine. Ayyappan is also called Hari-Hara putra, which literally means “son of Hari” (Vishnu – an important deity in Hindu pantheon) and Hara (Shiva - another important Hindu deity). And these two are male deities. 

How could Ayyappan be born of two male deities? The story, popular in many South Indian texts, goes like this: In those days, there were constant fights between Devas and Asuras or the gods and demons, but they united once for “Samudra mandhan”, or the churning of the ocean to get Amrit, something like an elixir of immortality.

When the pot containing the elixir emerged from the ocean, the Asuras grabbed it and they wanted to keep it for themselves.

Sensing trouble, Vishnu then took the form of Mohini, a gorgeous female enchantress, and tricked Asuras to hand over the pot containing the exilir.

When Shiva came to know about this, he wanted to see the enchantress Mohini. Vishnu assumed the form again and Shiva couldn’t control his desire for Mohini — and Ayyappan (or Shasta) is born out of their union.

The union of Shiva and Vishnu is narrated in the same vein, with additions and subtractions, in various south texts like Bhagavata Purana, Brahmanda Purana and Tripurarahasya.

Was Sabrimala a Buddhist temple?

Sabarimala is the only major temple in Kerala where people from any religion could go freely.

And it’s not because of the Hindu tradition or heritage, but points to the Buddhist connection.

Women were denied entry probably because of the same connection as Buddhist “viharas” were out of bounds for the women in the early days.

Ayyappan is also called “Dharma Shaastaavu” and the word Dharma or Dhamma clearly indicates the Buddhist connection.

Another curious link to Budhdhist tradition is the call for Sharanam (a request for protection or help).

During Shabarimala pilgrimage, Ayyappan devotees’ talismanic chant is “Swami Sharanam, Ayyappa Sharanam” and this has obvious roots in Buddhist sharana chants like “Budham Sharanam, Sangham Sharanam”, scholars have pointed out.

The third one is the posture of the deity, it has a close similarity to Buddhist idols. 

Noted Kerala academic Sunil P. Ilayidom has commented that the Sabarimala idol is similar to those found in the Gandhara style of Budhdhist art.

All this point to the strong possibility that Sabarimala could be such Buddhist shrine appropriated by the Hindu mainstream groups from a Buddhist sect.

So whose tradition are they trying to protect now? 

Most of the people protesting on the streets and attacking women devotees on social media who want to go to Sabarimala have no idea about any of these — other than what the campaigners have pushed down their throat. 

The Tamil connection and Ayyanaar

Ayyappan is also called Shashtavu.  Shasta is also identified with the Tamil deity Aiyyanaar. Village temples of Ayyanaar can be seen everywhere in Tamil Nadu. He is considered a guardian of many other folk deities. 

The origins of Ayyanaar worship is not very well documented, and some studies have pointed to the Sinhalese and possible Buddhist connection for this deity too. Sinhalese worship him in the name of Ayyanayake, according to scholarly studies.

 

Why the ruckus on Sabarimala?

Reader says people should know the reason behind the practice

By Huda Tabrez, Community Web Editor

Dubai: Every temple has its own belief system and Dubai resident Smita Nair felt it was important to understand the story behind the restriction on women of a certain age entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

“Each temple has a certain deity and a certain belief system attached to it and with the Sabarimala temple, it was a tradition that women were not allowed to go inside and it is not only because Ayyappa Swami is a brahmachari [celibate]. Even Hanuman is a brahmachari, but we can visit the Hanuman Temple. However, Ayappa made a promise to Bahgwati, as Bhagwati wanted to get married to him, that he won’t set his eyes on any woman of a reproductive age. I believe that it is a promise that he has made and I don’t see why we should create a ruckus about it,” Nair said.

She also added that the issue was not about gender equality as there were several temples in India that allowed women.

“In fact, there are some temples where men are not allowed, why does gender equality not come up in that?”

Rights over tradition: Twitter users on Sabarimala verdict

Social media users hail decision against ‘misogynistic culture’

By Huda Tabrez, Community Web Editor

Dubai: Twitter users came out in support of the Supreme Court verdict after two petitions were filed in the highest court challenging the decision to allow women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

Tweeting under the hashtag #ShabarimalaForAll, users spoke out against a practice they called patriarchial.

@rekha_s_nair wrote: “Patriarchy’s ugly face; The misogynistic custom of disallowing #women pilgrims in the 10-50 years age group was the handiwork of the Namboodiri Brahmins of yore, who were known for their misogynistic culture and customs. Times have changed now! #ShabarimalaForAll”

In subsequent tweets, she added that the constitutional rights of citizens could not be secondary to the right of religion.

“Why #ShabarimalaForAll matters? Because it is a perfect reflection of the traditionally inferior role Hinduism has assigned to women. Social morality will not change the misogynistic roots of this tradition; it is time for change. #gendergap #WomensRights,” she added.

Another Twitter user @binoojohn commented on conflicting reactions to the Supreme Court from the same group of people.

She tweeted: “Why is it that those who supported the Supreme Court saving Muslim women in triple talaq judgement are now attacking the Supreme Court when it is saving Hindu women from a similar patrirachal ritual? #SabarimalaForAll #SabrimalaVerdict”

@dineshgrao added: “The #SabarimalaForAll verdict by Supreme Court is progressive and most welcome. Customs and rituals which discriminate must be shed. India must stand for liberal values and #GenderEquality. Another step in the right direction for #WomensRights.”

Believer supports Sabarimala protests

By Evangeline Elsa, Community Solutions Editor

Dubai: Vidya Rajeev, a 35-year-old Dubai-based expatriate from Kerala said the men in her family observe the Sabarimala fast every year. She told Gulf News: “I agree with the protests taking place in Kerala, as a believer I won’t go. I like to think that I am a modern educated woman, but I respect religious traditions and ancestral rituals. I do understand other women’s desire to go, but personally as a believer, I would not go.

“I have grown up hearing my grandmother telling us stories of the birth of Ayappa, his celibacy and his promise to Malikapurathamma, who according to popular belief, wanted to marry Ayappa but could not. Ayappan told her he would marry her only when new first-time worshippers stop coming to his temple. It’s out of empathy for Ayappa’s commitment and Malikapurathamma’s eternal wait, that I choose not to go.

“One can pray from anywhere, inside their homes and in thousands of other temples that women can enter without issues, I cannot understand the fight for this one place.”

However, Rajeev’s reasons are not strictly religious. She added: “Visiting Sabarimala requires rigorous fasting for 45 days and difficult lifestyle and dietary changes, which I cannot comply with. Moreover, there are many hurdles we face during the hard on-foot trip up the mountain to the temple. It can get very crowded and uncomfortable.”

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