Written January 2019
I went to Sabarimala in December of 2009. I was a college freshman, sporting unseemly peach fuzz on my upper lip. My father and I boarded a train to Kerala. He was in māla, the term we used for men who practiced 40 days of austerity in advance of their visit to Sabarimala temple. He wore black all over, smeared ash on his forehead. He slept on the floor at home, ate blander food than the rest of us. I was supposed to call him Swami, as in saint, out of respect. I switched between doing so and calling him Papa, as in father, out of habit.
On the overnight train to Kerala, there were other Swamis. They were raucous, yelling and fighting like any boys’ high school locker room. I saw no austerity. I called them Swami only begrudgingly, as in “Swami, you’re stepping on my foot.”
My father was in dignified contrast. He sat in silence, staring out the window, answering my mother’s phone calls, praying. I respected him from a distance, as I had learned to do for most of my life. I wanted to be like him one day.
When we reached Kerala, before I woke, my father showered in the train bathroom with a mug of water. Prissy and immature, I deemed it “gross” and asked for a hotel room. The tap in the hotel bath let out black water.
We started our trek later that day from the town of Pampa to the hilltop temple of Ayyappa (40 million people made that same trek in 2015; for comparison, about 2–3 million pilgrims visit Mecca every year, and 5 million visit the Vatican). The hike was grueling. Steep climbs for 3–5 hours, rocky paths interspersed with respites of paved cement. My father’s knees grew sore. We kept climbing, shouting out the names of Ayyappa along with thousands of other pilgrims.
As with many religious experiences, the fatigue and delirium from the hike, mixed with the passion of call-and-response shouts, made the sight of the deity remarkable. I remember thinking the God was smaller than I expected, but he was beautiful, shining bright and golden, tucked away in an inner sanctorum above 18 gilded steps. The sun set, lamps lit our way to the deity. I teared up.
When we finished our darshan, or view, of the God and prayed, we prepared for the hike down towards a road where we could catch a taxi. My father’s knees were still sore. He spotted an alternative.
Men hoisted us on to small cots and carried us down the hill for ten minutes. I still remember looking over at my father, both of us laughing and clutching the sides of our cots, afraid to fall. Undulating masses of pilgrims moved beneath us. Men as far as the eye could see.
Sabarimala temple is beautiful, its tradition is rich. I wouldn’t give up those memories with my father for anything. I fail to see why I should have been forbidden from those beautiful moments if I were a woman. With the recent controversy around the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to allow women aged 10 to 50 to enter Sabarimala, protests and riots have taken place in Kerala. Women who tried to enter the temple have been stoned and barred by angry mobs, until two were successful. As I’ve read and re-read articles about the events, I’ve noticed a few common arguments raised by supporters of the prohibition of women.
Here are the top 5 arguments for the ban and why they are wrong in my personal view of Hinduism:
1. The Ayyappa deity is celibate
This argument is often positioned as the entire religious basis for a ban on women. Let’s first consider the history, and then the implications of celibacy.
A prominent version of Ayyappa’s mythology states that he is the son of Siva and Visnu (thus, the popular name HariHara Suta, which translates to son of Siva and Visnu). How can he be the son of two men?
In a fundamental origin myth about the churning of the ocean to find ambrosia, Visnu transforms into a woman, named Mohini, to steal ambrosia from the demons and distribute it to the Gods. Siva, upon seeing Mohini, is so aroused by her (even though he knows Visnu has transformed), he embraces her and spills his semen onto the ground, creating Ayyappa. Who says religion is boring?
By Balaji Srinivasan — originally posted to Flickr as Wood carving detail2 — Vishnu Mohini, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9711645
Ayyappa himself grows up to defeat demons and answer prayers in the Kerala hillside. A woman, Maalikapurathamma, falls in love with him, but he says he will only marry her if new devotees stop coming to see him. As the story goes, that hasn’t happened yet. Interestingly: Ayyappa pilgrims today stop to visit the shrine of Maalikapurathamma, placed just a few hundred feet away from the main shrine, as if to revere her devotion.
The history claims: since Ayyappa has foregone marriage, he is celibate. People (i.e., priests), not God, decided women of menstruating age must be kept from his temple at Sabarimala to protect that celibacy.
Given the hyper-sexed origin of Ayyappa, it’s ironic that he himself is celibate. Indeed, in other Ayyappa temples, he is not depicted as celibate. He has not one, but two wives: Poorna and Pushkala. Therefore, the tradition internally has different views on his “celibacy,” and the protection of it need not be so sacred. It has been defeated already.
Note: this inconsistency is common within Hinduism because Gods are relational. Different styles of depiction represent different ways that we’re supposed to relate to God. The married Ayyappa is a householder God (a family man), while the celibate Ayyappa in the mountains is a renunciate (hence the austerity expected of devotees). That being said, it is clear that celibacy is not Ayyappa’s defining characteristic, even within the tradition.
Also, the “celibacy” ban at Sabarimala was only for women aged 10–50. That is meant to bar all menstruating women. There are two undeniable problems with this: A) some women still menstruate after 50, and B) women above 50 can still have sex, so this age limit does not “protect his celibacy” by any means. Moreover, women who enter the temple are not aiming to have sexual relations with the deity. That is plain ridiculous. They are visiting the temple to pray.
The entire mindset espoused by this argument of celibacy is one of patriarchy. It assumes that women are surreptitious, and their sexuality is a threat to men, who must be protected. Why is the onus not on men to keep it in their pants?
A final note on irony: on the façade of Sabarimala temple is an inscription that reads “Tat Tvam Asi.” This is an important Advaita (non-dualistic philosophy) phrase that asks us to realize we are one with an all-pervading God (known as Brahman). Women are being barred from entry at a temple that believes God is in all of us.
2. It’s a tradition, and we must honor it. Some women agree.
Those who recognize the poor logic of the celibacy argument, as pointed out above, still claim that the tradition should be preserved. According to this argument, if something is old enough, it is automatically a moral good.
We should know better by now: we spent a large part of the 20th century and beyond making up for the way we treated our fellow humans. Apartheid, Jim Crow, no voting rights for women. These were all “traditions” until people had the guts to say they were wrong. There is no point in keeping traditions alive if they discriminate against people for biological reasons.
What is important in the Sabarimala tradition is what I described at the outset of this blog. Austerity, the view of the deity after a tiring day, the feeling of singing and praying at the temple, memories with loved ones. None of the important traditions that define Sabarimala are dependent on gender. There are ways to honor tradition that do not demean women based on a natural process they can’t control. Moreover, as I described earlier, the men who are going to Sabarimala are not exactly keeping tradition alive as they should be. Why should they be given free reign?
Finally, there are always members of the minority or the oppressed who resist change that would benefit them. That doesn’t mean we stop progressing. Some women resisted suffrage in America — we would not say that they were correct now. The Women’s Wall proves millions of progressive women are eager for change.
3. Menstruation has always been considered a polluting substance in Hindu texts, so menstruating women must be kept out.
Devdutt Pattanaik explains it best in this video.
Hindu texts were written at a time well before the development of sanitary products, when menstrual blood may have fallen onto the altar or temple floor. Even then, for some traditions, menstrual blood was seen as holy or powerful instead of contaminating.
There is absolutely no reason to keep believing this now that we have the benefits of science and sanitary products. We cannot continue to let men decide whether or not women are deemed “polluting.”
Moreover, many important (and surviving) Hindu texts were written by high-caste men, who wanted to consolidate and codify their power and influence into religious texts. Those who argue that resisting the ban is a “Western” idea are ignoring the long history of women and other marginalized groups in Hinduism fighting for their rights/ writing alternative religious texts (or creating new practices) against the dominant strain of Hinduism. Resistance is universal.
4. There are other temples women can go to. There are some temples that don’t even allow men.
40 million pilgrims visit Sabarimala because they have faith in the journey and the power of the deity. If other temples were just as powerful or important, then they would have the same number of devotees. But they do not. Women should not be restricted to less popular temples.
Moreover, it does not matter in the least bit that men are not allowed to some temples, because those temples in question are rarely even known, or considered to have the same devotional importance. Those who bring this up are merely citing a technicality to make themselves feel better about the prejudice they sustain. That’s like refusing to let women into Harvard because men are not allowed into Eastern Roanoke Women’s Community College. Give me a fucking break.
5. The Supreme Court should not interfere with our religion, they are not saying anything against the other religions with gender discrimination.
It is fair to question why the Court had to involve itself with religion, but I would reposition the question. Why did we Hindus take so long to realize what is right, that the Court had to step in? Why couldn’t we fix this issue ourselves? Sometimes we are blind to our issues and progressive laws must help us see. That is what happened with the Indian Supreme Court overturning Section 377 — the law paved the way for the inherent morality we should’ve practiced in the first place.
Regarding other religions: as Hindus we don’t need to look outside and compare ourselves. We should be reaching our own decisions about what is right first. If similar cases like Sabarimala are brought to the Supreme Court about other religions, I fully expect and demand that the Court rule similarly.
As people, I believe we are inherently knowledgeable about the moral good, and equally inherently capable of ignoring the moral good for the sake of power, influence, and discrimination. I do not believe any of the main arguments against the entry of women into Sabarimala are sound. I believe, instead, that 50 or 100 years from now we will wonder how we ever protested so much against giving women the basic rights to pray and chant that men have hoarded for thousands of years. Change may be scary, but it is coming, and it is better to accept it.
Modern Hinduism can be as progressive as we make it, if we ignore the voices who aim to limit it. I believe people like Devdutt Pattanaik can guide the way at times, and I aim to do my own part in the years to come. I believe there is beauty and truth and wisdom and wonder in Hindu traditions. I believe we can access that while championing modern equality. I believe all of this because I have a hope: one day I can take my daughter to Sabarimala just as my father took me.