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Sabarimala: Can respecting beliefs and reforming practices go hand-in-hand?

If belief and practice in religions were unrelated - it would be reasonable to expect that one could find two different faiths that nevertheless have the exact same or similar practices

P K Vijayan | The Wire 

Sabarimala

This is the first of a two-part series.

The Sabarimala controversy, like many other such matters of ‘faith’, seems to be boiling down to a question of ‘belief’ – more even than ‘tradition’, because ultimately, ‘belief’ decides ‘tradition’. Take the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, for instance: the Hindu-right has been asserting with increasing insistence of late that a will be built on the contested site, regardless of any judicial order on the matter, because it is a matter of respecting the religious ‘beliefs’ of the ‘Hindus’. This matter too is currently being heard in the (SC).

This could be one reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sudden aggressiveness on the Sabarimala ruling: it could be testing the tolerance of the judiciary towards any violations of its orders. If the court rules against the building of the Ram temple, Sabarimala will be just a dry run for Ayodhya. And if both can be pulled off successfully, then the 2019 elections are likely to be happy indeed for the BJP.

Such realpolitik concerns aside, and the cynical manipulation of sentiments and ‘beliefs’ therein, there is the intractable question of those very sentiments and beliefs themselves. There is possibly a substantial population that actually – and in their perception at least, very legitimately – believes that the order of September 28 violates the beliefs, traditions and practices of Ayyappa devotees everywhere. There is a very real apprehension that the deity in question will be displeased (at the very least) by the implementation of the SC order.

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The devotees in question consequently feel themselves duty-bound (even if this ‘duty’ is possibly just a euphemism for a deep sense of awe and fear) to ensure that the deity’s purportedly preferred practices are not profaned. It would be tragic to dismiss these as ‘superstition’, or as ‘the opium of the masses’.

This is not to say that Karl Marx was wrong in characterising religion so, or that he was arrogant and stupid about it. Indeed, there is no doubt that he was absolutely right in this characterization of religion; and the full statement of the ‘opium of the masses’ phrase, steeped in understanding and compassion, shows clearly that he was neither arrogant nor stupid in doing so. But he left this characterisation incomplete: it is neither sufficient nor satisfactory.


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It was left to the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, to take this understanding of religion forward. Drawing heavily on psychoanalysis, he argued that religions existed only in their practices. The belief underlying any religion has to manifest itself in some form in order that the subject may be identified as the holder of that particular belief – as one particular kind of worshipper, rather than any other. It must be noted that no two religions remain ideationally and ideologically different, while at the same time having identical practices of some kind.

If belief was not manifest in practice – i.e., if belief and practice in religions were unrelated – it would be reasonable to expect that, in at least one or two cases, one could find two different faiths that nevertheless have the exact same or similar practices. The worshipper, in such a scenario, would be able to believe in her mind that her performance of the rituals is her own form of worship to her own deity, which – though identical in form with it – is different from the deity-of-identical-form being worshipped by a larger community of other worshippers performing identical rituals (but, as noted, to a different deity). We can then never know the difference between the two faiths, unless the different believer changes her practice in some way, to show that difference.

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Thus, religious belief is not just superstition, or opiate; it is bodily practice. The belief is manifest in the conduct of the body; hence, and conversely, the directed conduct of the body, especially through the repetitions of ritual, induces and inculcates belief. These shared practices, reflecting a shared belief, constitute an identifiably distinct community of such believers – a single religious community.

The conflicted religious believer

Many of the protestors – the ‘genuine’ protestors, as opposed to the allegedly politically motivated ones – are believers of this kind, for whom their belief exists in their rituals and practices – i.e., there is no real distinction between belief and practice. For them, the SC order effectively asks them to violate their own belief, because it asks them to violate its practices.

Within this belief, the practice of excluding menstrual women has multiple significations, all pertaining to a core component of this belief: that Ayyappa is a naishthika brahmachari, a celibate in the pursuit of truth. In this version, his vows of celibacy are so extreme that he may not have even have visual contact with any menstrual women; and since in this form, he is manifested as an immobile murthy, or idol, he cannot turn away from them, they must be turned away from him.

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The SC order stating that women cannot be turned away, creates a dilemma, a conflict of beliefs: on the one hand, to uphold the SC order would be to adhere to the laws of the land, and thereby to uphold the constitution as supreme and sacred, in practice, even over the believing community’s own beliefs and practices. On the other hand, to not uphold the SC order, and to uphold the impugned practice instead, is to maintain that the community’s practice is supreme, even over the SC order, and hence over the constitution itself.

This also probably means that, if there are many who decided to actively uphold the traditional practice, thereby actively defying the SC order, there are probably many more who do not actively oppose the order, but whose belief in the law of the land, and hence the constitution, get seriously eroded, because they see the order as unfair, unjust, and as a direct erosion of what they believe are the constitutional rights of a community to follow its own religious practices.

This is a demographic ripe for the picking for an organisation like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which seeks to replace the secular Indian constitution with a ‘Hindu’ one.

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The trouble arose, thus, because of a conflict between religious and civic practices, religious and civic beliefs. The possible converse impact of practice on belief, raises the question as to whether the (religious) practice of excluding women was reinforcing (civic) practices of sexism, gender bias, gender and/or sex based harassment and violence, etc.

I don’t know of any studies that have asked this specific question in this context; but there are several that do indicate that religious sexism does often extend into, and validates and legitimises, sexism in civic contexts (this also applies to religiously sanctioned practices like caste).

But the response from most religious outfits, when not outrightly dismissive, is to question the propriety, even the right, of secular perceptions to challenge these religious practices. They pose the question as a conflict between the rights of the secular state over its subjects, versus the rights of the subjects to practice their religion.

However, what if there was no such conflict? What if there was a different meaning to the same practice available in the same belief-system, which could allow its meaningful discontinuation within that same belief-system, thereby making the SC order viable, as well as bringing customary practices in harmony with the secular practices of the country?

Harmonising religion with the constitution

I am referring, in this instance, to the version of stories in which Ayyappa encounters and slays the female asura, Mahishi, thereby releasing her from her asura form into a beautiful goddess who proposes marriage to Ayyappa.

Not wishing to deny her outright, the latter assures her that they will get married the day no new young male devotees, called kanni-Ayyappans, come to visit him at the This, it is presumed, will never happen – because it is also presumed that this putative visit will happen in the main worship period, when the temple stays open from November 17 to December 26 every year, and then again from January 1 to the middle of January, of the following year. Hundreds of thousands of devotees throng the temple at this time, which means that it is highly unlikely that there would ever be a year in which, during this period, no kanni-Ayyappan visited Sabarimala for the first time.

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However, the temple is also open for five days at the beginning of every month, during which time it is opened, cleaned and prayers and rituals are conducted. Today, there are devotees who throng in large numbers even during these five days.

In the past however, it was more often than not, only the priests and pujaris undertook the trip and perform the rituals. One can safely assume that there must have been many such visits to the temple during which no kanni-Ayyappan was present among the visiting priests.

There is no reason then for Mahishi – now worshipped as the goddess, Maalikapurathamma, with a shrine adjacent to Ayyappa’s on the same hilltop – to continue to wait for Ayyappa, even within the same belief system. Nor does Ayyappa need to feel bound to wait for the day when no more kanni-Ayyappans visit during peak season, to unite with Maalikapurathamma.

Then, there is no reason to not believe, that the order to allow women to visit is actually a divine gambit, to allow Maalikapurathamma to visit her beloved Ayyappa in the form of menstrual women devotees (just as the male devotees are seen as embodiments of Ayyappa, and are in fact referred to as ‘Ayyappans’).

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It would also explain – still within this belief-system – why evidently neither Maalikapurathamma nor Ayyappa sought to influence the decision of the SC towards upholding the ban on women – which surely, for any gods worth praying to, would have been a very minor matter to ensure.

Some objections by believers, and counter-objections

It may be argued that this assumes knowledge of the divine minds and ascribes motives to them based on these. But so is stating that Ayyappa does not want menstrual women near himself. Neither claim to knowing the deities’ minds can be proven in any concrete way; then, the version that most closely adheres to constitutional requirements and provisions, must be promoted (perhaps even as a legal requirement, through due amendments of the personal laws).

Furthermore, on this same question, we are faced with another possibility – that, despite the deities themselves facilitating a change of practice through the SC order, the traditional practices are adhered to. This could possibly thwart the intentions and desires of the deities themselves, thereby incurring the very same divine wrath that the devotees fear.

Given the fact of the impossibility of knowing the divine mind with any degree of certainty, it is probably best – from within this belief system – to see the developments in the mundane world as not outside the control of its divinities, but in fact, intended by them in ways that are harmoniously explicable even within its own theology, cosmology and mythology.

It may also be argued however, that this would fly in the face of the very conception of Ayyappa as a naishthika brahmachari, thereby fundamentally altering the belief-system itself, transforming it into another one altogether, in which he is not conceived of as celibate but as betrothed, perhaps even married, to Maalikapurathamma.

But there is nothing to prevent those devotees who want to believe Ayyappa to be celibate, to continue to do so, even while worshipping at the same shrine, with the same rituals and rites, and even in the presence of women – just as there is nothing to prevent the emergence of a new conception of the divinity, perhaps of Ayyappa with a consort, more suited to the contemporary world in which women are more visible, audible and empowered than they have possibly ever been before.

There is nothing to prevent the emergence of the conception of Ayyappa as at least entertaining women worshippers, without necessarily compromising his status as a naishthika brahmachari – much like say Hanuman, or some forms of Ganesh.

There are thus precedents within this same belief-system, to seeing the same deity as married with a consort in one form, and as a naishthika brahmachari, in another. These multiple conceptions can co-exist, because within this same belief-system, the same deities are often very legitimately worshipped in multiple forms, but through the same rituals and practices.

Moreover, this could also be seen as exemplary of the vaunted ‘Hindu’ claim to plurality of worships within its traditions.

The argument that the presence of women possibly threatens the vows of celibacy of both deity and devotee, can again be countered from within the same tradition, by referring to the understanding that the true naishthika brahmachari is not one who remains celibate by avoiding the threats to celibacy, but who does so in the face of these threats (from women or otherwise).

Another argument in this connection was that the deity’s and the devotees’ purity of celibacy was threatened by the impurity of menstruation – a perception of impurity ratified by no less than Central minister Smriti Irani, in her caustic and highly controversial observation that one did not take blood-soaked menstrual pads when visiting someone.

The perception that menstruating women are ‘untouchable’, because ‘impure’, was likened to caste untouchability by the SC; but this was categorically denied on the grounds that the is one of the very few that allows entry to (male) devotees of all castes and creeds. It was argued that the nature and basis of caste untouchability is very different from sex/gender (menstrual) untouchability; the latter is supposedly based on immutable biological factors, unlike the former, which is based on social and professional perceptions that are no longer tenable.

There is a deep, if not always perceived, irony that both these forms of untouchability continue to be practised despite being untenable. When they were first sought to be reformed in the nineteenth century, a similarly intense resistance was mounted against that change, on the very same protestations that religion and religious practices are eternal and immutable, among others.

In fact, those genuinely interested in reforming ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, may do well to see this as an opportunity to make the religion more contemporary and relevant, rather than as an attack on it – not unlike the great socio-religious reform movements of the nineteenth century, that substantially improved the socio-religious status of women.

If such an approach and understanding is adopted towards all religions, and by all religious communities, towards as many such religious dilemmas as possible, so that they are conceptualised in alignment with constitutional law, rather than as departures from, and exceptions to, it, then the long-desired, repeatedly proposed Uniform Civil Code will be much more feasible.

In the next part, I will address some of the issues involved in such an approach.


By arrangement with thewire.in

First Published: Sun, November 18 2018. 12:07 IST
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