The Sabarimala shrine bans women between the ages of 10 and 50 to access the temple to worship. The shrine’s controller Travancore Devaswom Board cites the vow of celibacy taken by Lord Ayappa, the impurity linked with menstruation and the 41-day penance as justifications for this age-old practice.
Each of these reasons directly or indirectly discriminate against women and also stands contrary to the text and spirit of the Indian Constitution. The view of the defenders is that the Constitution grants the right to determine its own rules to every Religious denomination. They further state that women can visit any other temple where such restrictions aren’t applicable.
In its 4:1 verdict, the Supreme Court’s five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra lifted the ban this September, stating that banning women’s entry to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple is gender discrimination and this practice violates the rights of Hindu women. Being a secular state means according to the autonomy and freedom from State interference to religious orders and religious groupings. But such practices which may conflict with the constitutional order are not allowed to stand.
Following this verdict, thousands of devotees protested against the SC’s verdict in Kochi. They have also stopped the entry of many women activists who tried to visit the holy shrine post the SC’s lift of the ban.
We may talk about exemption to religious orders from complying with a constitutional scheme in a society where religion is a private affair like in American society. But in India, religion is a deeply public affair and very closely bound with an individual’s social and moral standing in the community. Religion is a vast domain in a country like India and if it is left untouched by the constitutional principles, then it would belittle the value of the core principles of the Constitution.
Thus, in order to get them the full Moral Membership of the community and equality, it was essential to get a remedy to such practices. Entry was never an issue then and now as well. It is a matter of equality and we as a society are still continuing to discriminate against women by rules, by customs and by social sanctions.
There is thus a need to understand the struggle of women to enter the shrine, which is more about the struggle to get equal moral membership of the community through invoking ideas of purity and pollution and has nothing to do with undermining Lord Ayappas’s vow of celibacy or defeating anyone’s religious faith.
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