It was a harrowing week: one that witnessed a battle of nerves, ample drama, changing of stances by eminent people and challenging moments for those involved. What stood out amidst all this, however, was the steely resolve of a group of otherwise docile and non-combative group of people, the devotees of Lord Ayyappan, whose collective actions have ensured that, for now, the centuries-old tradition of the world-famous shrine of the naishtika brahmachari, the form in which Lord Ayyappan is worshipped in Sabarimala, stays unviolated.
Despite efforts by several activists, the hill shrine along with the final 18 steps remained out of access for women in the age group of 10 to 50. The biggest irony in the whole saga was the conspicuous absence of the actual women devotees of the celibate deity in this media-judiciary-propped feminist rush; these women rather chose their place at the vanguard of the protests against the opening of the gates of the shrine to women of the menstruating age. Young girls below 10 who had come with their families on the pilgrimage were also party to the protest. One 9-year-old girl wielded a placard stating this was her third visit to Sabarimala, and that her next would be after 41 years.
[pullquote]The biggest irony in the whole saga was the conspicuous absence of the actual women devotees of the celibate deity in this media-judiciary-propped feminist rush[/pullquote]The irony was quite evident in the manner in which the issue was reported in the mainstream media, with terms like ‘trek’ instead of ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘women’s activist’ instead of ‘devotee’ being freely used. Evidently, of around a dozen women who undertook their self-described ‘trek’ escorted by the Kerala police – and were forced to turn back by the waves of protesting devotees — not one was comfortable with terms like ‘pilgrim’ and ‘faithful’. It was, understandably, all about proving a point. That point could not be proven as yet. As the gates to the holy shrine were closed for the current period, the steadfast perseverance of women and men was victorious, despite several arrests being made and cases lodged.
The biggest takeaway over the last week has been the sheer tenacious fearlessness of the devotees of Lord Ayyappan, foremost among them two groups: the women proclaiming that they are ‘Ready To Wait’ and the Malai Arayan tribe that have fiercely protected the Sabarimala shrine for ages.
The resistance over the past week has firmly brought the spotlight on several aspects:
That the Sabarimaladebate was never about gender justice. Any question of inequality has been simply absent here, existing only in the minds of the delusional or the misinformed lot. Those who tried to change the goalposts by making this a gender issue were either suffering from a terribly skewed perspective or, worse, they had a definite socio-political axe to grind by pushing a particular narrative.
The first point is conclusively proven by the existence of scores of other Ayyappan temples, within Kerala no less, that have no restrictions on entry for anyone, including women belonging to the menstruating age. Again, what would be the driving reason behind hundreds of shrines existing in India from which men are expressly banned? Certainly not gender inequality, as deemed by the honourable court?
The third aspect is even more diabolical: the need to monkey-balance. In this age of open source information and robust discussions on social media, this is no longer a clandestine theory. In light of recent events like the government’s promulgation of a law banning Triple Talaq among Muslims or incidents of criminal misconduct by certain members of the Catholic clergy, the inception into the collective consciousness of a need to reform ‘parochial Hinduism’, and thereby score political brownie points, would have certainly helped the cause of certain sections that have traditionally dominated the thought process in our country and whose influence have been dwindling of late. In this they found an unlikely ally in certain members of the judiciary with little knowledge in traditional Hindu traditions and with almost no proclivity to think from the perspective of the ‘other’, on whose traditions they were, ironically, sitting in judgement. The resulting judgement on women’s entry to Sabarimala, quite predictably, took zero cognisance of the tenets of the Vedas and the Agamas, of the differing concepts of divinity in Hinduism like Ishwara and Devata, etc. Small wonder then, that the rights of a naishtika brahmachari deity were so blatantly ignored and the faith of his devotees so mercilessly trampled on.
The fourth aspect of this spontaneous and fearless protests of the Sabarimala devotees stand to serve as the proverbial silver lining. After a really long time did we get to see such multitudes of people, transcending the barriers of caste, social background and gender, come down on the streets to protest and to fiercely protect the faith they hold so dear, something so potent that it serves as a vital aspect of their very existence. The unity among the different section of people was palpable: from the common devotees to the Tantri, the head priest, who on Vijaya Dashami stated that he would be forced to shut down the temple and hand over the keys if forced to break tradition.
[pullquote]The biggest takeaway over the last week has been the sheer tenacious fearlessness of the devotees of Lord Ayyappan, foremost among them two groups: the women proclaiming that they are ‘Ready To Wait’ and the Malai Arayan tribe that have fiercely protected the Sabarimala shrine for ages[/pullquote]
The last aspect refers to India as a country of glorious diversities. It needs to be kept in mind that as long as any such diverse social or religious practice is not a direct affront to physical or economic integrity and well-being of a human being, it needs to be preserved. By maintaining their tradition, even at a practical level, the devotees of Sabarimala harm no one. For this reason, any comparison with evils of the past or the present like sati or triple talaq respectively is a fallacious, albeit definitely mischievous, non-starter of an argument.
After the unfortunate debacle in the first round played on an unfair, uneven ground, the second round has been conclusively won by the devotees, who stood in a firm and unwavering defence of their faith. This was an instance of pure belief that seeks to harm no one but does stand up for itself unapologetically when unnecessarily provoked. It is this kind of faith that can move mountains.
If anything, it is this faith that can see the devotees through to a final victory over the remaining rounds.