The ancient shrine of Sabarimala on the Western Ghats in the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala, famous for being one of the largest pilgrimage places with over 100 million devotees visiting every year, finds itself at the receiving end of a PIL questioning the validity of its hoary practice of disallowing women of menstrual age (12 to 50) from entering the temple. While from a secular, modern perspective it may seem like a discrimination, the outrage stems from a disconnected and superficial idea of enforcing modern-day perspectives onto an ancient custom which, otherwise, seems to be well accepted by the devotees of Lord Ayyappan, both men and women.

Hindu tradition as followed in various sampradayas and matas, from Smritis to Agamas and other generic localised customs, and specially those that claim to have been derived from the Vaidika traditions are unequivocal in stating that a woman while menstruating should not be present during the performance of religious rituals and/or enter temples where deities have been consecrated into the vigrahas. One of the reasons for this is because menstrual blood was/is considered unclean, with a specific kind of subtle odour that emanates from it, which can potentially disturb the environment inside the temple. In any worship, a most basic step is offering of the panchatattwa to the deity. The simplest of this process is the panchopachara puja, which includes making offerings flowers and dhoopas. Gandha, or smell, especially of the variety that has an uplifting effect on the human consciousness, is considered vital for most rituals. Hence, while chandan (sandal) remains one of the favourite ingredients for ritualistic worship across India, women during periods are strongly discouraged from entering into shrines.

For a similar reason a person is advised to take a bath or, at least, a small purification exercise through achamana after a visit to the loo before s/he can participate in a ritual or enter a temple.

There is another reason for this injunction. In yogic parlance, the body is ruled by five main vayus or forms of vital air: Pprana, apana, vyana, samana and udana. Of these, apana vayu rules all downward bodily movements, from defecation to menstruation or orgasm. One of the primary aims of a successful yogic process is to force the apana to move upwards inside the body, synchronise it with the prana, and awaken a state of heightened awareness and concentration, referred to as the kundalini awakening.

It is not that every time a person visits a temple such is going to happen; nevertheless, every time a concentrated attention is diverted into a process or an object, religious or secular, there is always the chance of such a happening. During menstruation, there is a continuous increase or greater prevalence of the apana vayu inside the body. Hence, trying to concentrate hard on anything would be equivalent to forcefully trying to change the direction of an already aggravated vital air in the body. This can potentially open the individual to the unpleasant prospect of undergoing various physical or psychological problems if such a course of action is deliberately pursued for a sufficient length of time. All successful worship is finally a matter of applied concentration. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, it is traditionally and, if I may add, wisely regarded that entering a shrine during the ‘periods’ is a bad idea.

While most temples may not apply this rule strictly, it is left to the good judgement of the individual to follow this prohibition. In Sabarimala, however, this principle is enforced strictly, more so since the specific manifestation of the deity in the temple is considered an eternal celibate. Hence the traditional rule of disallowing women of menstrual age from entering the temple.

It must be mentioned in this context that there are certain tantrika rituals that allow (or rather require) the presence of a woman who is menstruating. But this is extremely rare, and mostly never followed inside temples. Beyond the specific context of the ritual, this rule remains invalid and cannot be transplanted or made into a general rule for every occasion. As such, even temples that follow tantrokta vidhis do not encourage women to enter during periods.

Why the objections are invalid

Let us discuss the various objections raised by those who have filed the PIL and those who consider this practice as discriminatory. The arguments of the defiant have been paraphrased and put in quotes. My answer to each appears further indented in the list below.

  1. “Every religious ritual is valid only within the context of, and as per, the rules of the community or sect that believes in that ritual.”
    1. They may seem quite superstitious to those who do not share the same belief system. This cannot be a reason to allow or disallow any practice.
  2. “If a practice is deemed to cause significant harm to human life, and a substantial section of followers of that sect want it gone, there is good reason to interfere in such a practice. For example, the Thugees of Bengal would loot people and offer human sacrifice to Goddess Kali until General William Sleeman  put an end to the menace.”
    1. Thugees’ was a fit case. But Sabarimala is not. In general, most devotees of Sabarimala, both men and women, consider it to be an accepted part of the tradition and have no great objection to following this rule. The opposite of this tradition can also be seen in some temples. For example, the Attukul Bhagavathy Temple in Kerala is famous for its Pongala festival with a record participation of nearly 4 million women while men are traditionally not allowed to enter it.
  3. “We must modernise!”
    1. What is the locus standi of the people who are filling this PIL? In the name of modernisation, a tradition cannot be erased simply because it follows a reason and logic alien to someone’s secular sensibilities. That was the kind of spurious logic that the Europeans applied in their colonial invasions, and destroyed native cultures in the name of westernisation or modernisation. Probably, this stems from a deep-rooted monotheistic wordview categorising the world into those who are with them and those who must be converted into one of them, and thus trampling over non-mainstream and native discourses.
  4. “Hinduism is not alien to change and reformation.”
    1. That is precisely why we have so many traditions, so many shatras and so many injunctions based on desha-kaala-paatra. But every change must come from within the system, initiated by those who are regarded as spiritual leaders, not imposed by ignorant and superficial do-gooders. Many great acharyas slowly moved away from the tradition of animal sacrifices in Vedic rituals and people followed them. Vidyasagar worked to enable widow remarriage, abolish Sati (which was rampant in eastern India) and put an end to the abominable practice of Kulin (aristocratic) Brahmins in Bengal marrying endlessly. However, these reformers were people with a solid grounding in Hinduism, both its philosophy and the practice. So, who are these people who have filed the PIL? What is their level of commitment to the Hindu traditions of Sabarimala?
  5. “The judiciary is supreme!”
    1. The High Court of Bombay refused to interfere in the practice of disallowing women from entering into Haji Ali, so why should the SC interfere with the age of tradition of the Sabarimala temple? Parsi fire temples do not allow non-Parsis to enter; Jews disallow conversion to Judaism; Islam believes only a Muslim can attain salvation…Applying the same secular, disconnected logic, are these not discrimination of one form or other? Do the courts have the gumption to strike down all these and many other such rules? If not, why go after Sabarimala?
  6. “I don’t trust your ‘spiritual’ justifications.”
    1. A rule is valid only for the believer. Whether others believe in it or not, whether they see reason in it or not, is absolutely irrelevant to the discussion as long as the rule does not cause direct, grievous harm to another human life. Also, if you do not believe in what a deity stands for, why seek to worship him?

In the light of these arguments, I am certain that true justice will be served if the PIL is dismissed as frivolous and the court questions the locus standi of those who filed the PILs. Are they devotees of Ayyappa? If not, what is their real agenda?