//Women in Sabarimala: Legends, dogmas and hypocrisies

Women in Sabarimala: Legends, dogmas and hypocrisies

Friday, July 7th, 2006, IndiaEnews.COM

The controversy involving a yesteryear actress’ claim of entering the Sabarimala shrine – where women’s entry is banned – has exposed some redundant but deeply entrenched dogmas and hypocrisies in society, particularly that of Kerala.

Although it could be a harbinger of a more in-depth understanding of the social and emotional involvement of society with religion, it is difficult to accept the actress’ claim.

It would have been practically impossible for her to enter the shrine’s premises, let alone touch the presiding deity’s feet, which is placed inside a single door structure with three footsteps and scores of lamps in between the idol and the devotee.

However, the larger question is: So what if Jaimala – an adult woman – did enter the temple?

In a day and age where ‘equality’ – irrespective of religion, gender, caste or creed – is seen as an ideal, the shooing away of sexually active women from places of worship is simply anachronistic.

While some of the arguments to bar women in the temple sannidhanam (the holy seat) could be understood to be a result of the social construct of a bygone era, others are manifestations of sheer hypocrisy and misogyny.

The temple is nestled in the heart of the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The area trekked by the pilgrims is densely foliated; even now it is full of scary giant centipedes and leeches.

One can imagine why women were ‘advised’ not to go for the trek that lasted weeks in the olden days when the jungle was probably infested with wild animals.

Women in that age perhaps were never conditioned for the physically draining climb up several hills. But today we have women even in the military.

Perhaps another argument that could be accepted to a certain extent as being scientific is that women undergoing hormonal changes during their periods are not in a mental state to be spiritually active.

But spirituality, ultimately being a personal issue, should be left to one’s reason and discretion.

The main reason behind the ban on women in the temple is that Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala, would have his chronic bachelorhood defiled by the presence of grown up women.

Is it not belittling the character of a god by considering it so fragile that it would be shattered by the simple presence of a woman?

Secondly, the legend of Ayyappa says that he had promised to marry goddess Malikappuram – who resides just a few metres away from the main temple – the year no new devotee visits him.

In fact there is an elaborate ritual observed every year at Sabarimala where the goddess checks the number of devotees who have visited the temple that particular year and returns disappointed.

So technically he would marry Malikappuram if the flow of devotees comes down, which doesn’t seem to be happening though.

The argument against women’s entry is focused on menstruating women. There is no reason to believe that the menstrual fluid is any more ‘unclean’ than human faeces or urine.

This in a state where citizens also

patronize a menstruating goddess at the Kodungallur temple in Thrissur district, for whom the most important gift taken by the devotees is the ‘bharanippaattu’ – a series of rhyming verbal obscenities crudely naming sexual organs and acts.

But what does expose the hypocrisy of the temple board and society is the insistence on observation of ‘age old rules’ and ‘pious norms’!

By that standard many men should also be barred because there are those who do not observe the 41-day period of penance before going on the Sabarimala pilgrimage.

The ’swamis’ are not supposed to shave their beard or wear footwear. But it rarely happens.

The most compelling argument in favour of the ban on women’s entry is that women themselves are against it.

This is not surprising because for ages women in Kerala, as in other parts of the world, have been conditioned to think they are impure during their periods.

This has been used as a subtle but effective tool to subjugate the female psyche in god’s own country, which ironically prides in having the country’s best sex ratio and a much-hyped matriarchal society.

All said and done the age-old norms cannot be changed overnight. The authorities could make a good beginning by opening the doors to women who are not going through their monthly cycles.

Ultimately ‘god or gods do not discriminate’ is a message that society must inculcate if it has to progress.

(Harish C. Menon, who hails from Kerala, is a correspondent of IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])