Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa – “Happy to Bleed”
Incongruous as the title might sound, that is the sense of disharmony that one feels in this holy season of the Sabarimala deity Ayyappan.
Makara Sankranthi has just gone by and bhaktas from all over India have congregated to this hill shrine in what previously were dense jungles in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But amidst the chanting of Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa (Ayyappa you are our refuge) and the overwhelming feeling of being on a different plane with the chanting of these words by the faithful, another harsh shadow looms over this temple shrine.
Far away from Kerala’s jungles and in the capital city of Bharata desa, Delhi, the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court has raised a question.
The question that the Supreme Court has asked is that the temple has to explain why it bars entry for women devotees between the ages 10-50 at the shrine. This is the outcome of a case that has been filed by some women lawyers many years back.
Like all things Hindu, the story and the history of the temple is shrouded in some mystery. This is because Hindus do not base their belief in historical events in iron clad terms. There are no absolutes in history as long as the story is cohesive. There are many stories regarding this hill shrine all more or less having the same subtext. However, the consensus among all these narratives is that Ayyappan is a celibate god.
I am not getting into the stories about Sabarimala and a curious reader can go through the links below this article for the various versions of the history of this shrine.
Now, the reason given by the temple authorities for barring of women in the reproductive age is that since the deity is celibate, he cannot be defiled with the ‘impurity’ of menstruating women. This obviously has not impressed the court which looks at this defense as pure discrimination in an age when ‘rights’ rule the world.
Outlining the issue: Using a western lens to solve a dharmic problem and how it is inappropriate
Bharata desa faces a peculiar problem today. Her civilization is many millennia old. The length of her existence is still a matter of debate but much research today points to her being the mother of all civilizations[i]. What has shaped the worldview of this civilization then? It is the culture, language, and tradition of that part of humanity that today calls itself Hindu. Many present day traditions have an unbroken continuum with her ancient civilization. Today, the group of people practicing these traditions are called Hindus but they belong to the same stock as their ancestors who believed in the system of Sanatana Dharma. Civilizations developed in other lands (and I’d like to believe from the same common root) and gave rise to organized religion in the form of the three monotheisms seen today.
Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is completely different from the organized religions. With regard to women and science here is the difference.
Organized religion in its canons or holy books, looks upon women as being inferior beings and the source of temptation and evil. Sanatana Dharma however, considers women as divine. In fact, as someone remarked on twitter, the three main portfolios of education, finance and defence if we were to look at ministries in a political setup, are controlled by women in Hinduism. Goddesses preside over these three ministries. Hence, using a western framework to deal with issues of our civilization is not just without merit but even dangerous. When the lens used is wrong, obviously an analysis made with such a lens will yield an outcome which will eventually serve to facilitate cultural genocide.
As a result of women being considered inferior to men in organized religion, for the largest part of history, this group has found itself to be severely oppressed. Additionally, organized religion has been in continuous conflict with science. This is due to the linear notion of time in organized religion related with the idea of when the world was created by god and how it will have a finite time period to exist. It was not until the enlightenment movement that an uneasy truce was reached between religion and science. Bharata desam has suffered no such conflict on either issue by and large. While the above statement lays me open to accusations of supporting brahmanical oppression of women and other classes, I have to state that I think these theories were also propagated by the colonial invaders. In my view, there is no oppression inherent in Hinduism’s philosophy. As we have seen above, woman is considered as divine as man and worshipped as goddess. In fact purusha and prakriti are complementary and necessary for the creation of a whole.
To come back to the point, organized religion needed to have various movements to release its adherents from the centralized control of the powers that be. The enlightenment movement helped science to achieve a level of truce with religion. Then the feminist movement helped women break free of the shackles that made them second class human beings. Since a fight was involved to secure basic freedoms, this society then latched on to the rights paradigm for everything. It became a feminist rights movement, animal rights movement, human rights movement and so on. Thus, the society that was shaped from this churning was one which was based on individual rights.
In the case of Bharatiya civilization, it is a society that has evolved with the family as its bedrock. Duties are more important than rights here since people are committed to the greater common good. The basis for all behavior is Dharma. Hence the tree has its own dharma, a dog has its own dharma, a woman has her own dharma, a man has his own dharma, why, even a mountain has its own dharma. However, while they have their individual dharma, they are all connected like in Indra’s Net[iii] (introduced to me by Rajiv Malhotra) where each microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm infinitely. It is this inter-connectivity which finally ensures that the individual karmas (deeds) are in harmony and for the benefit of the larger good. This is such a powerful and affirmative concept while the rights based paradigm is a debilitating and negating concept.
This rights based paradigm is alien to the Bharatiya worldview and is in fact helping to destroy this culture. In fact I fear for Bharata desa when I see how much the western rights based paradigm has come to dominate our thinking. I was trying to research a little bit on the Sabarimala issue and I was aghast to see my google search throw up page after page of shrill shrieking articles advocating ‘Happy to bleed’, castigating the temple authorities and generally making enormous noise for menstruating women to obtain this right. I counted fourteen google search pages which had almost every article shrieking about women’s rights. After the 14th page I was dejected enough to not want to search anymore. There was not a single article trying to explain the rationale properly for this ban on women of reproductive age! As a woman, I found this upsetting.
Trying to explain the restriction
When the Supreme Court question broke out, there were many of us on social media trying to understand this prohibition. This blog had a lovely take on the subject of menstruating women and how they are looked at in Bharatiya culture.
“There is a build up of energy in the days leading to menstruation as the body prepares for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place and menstruation starts, this built up energy gets dissipated from the body during menstruation. During menstruation, Vata is the predominant dosha. Apana vayu, one of the elemental air functions of the Vata Dosha, is responsible for the downward flow of menstruation. Therefore, any activity that interferes with this necessary downward flow of energy during menstruation should be avoided. During menstruation, women are more likely to absorb other energies in their environment. This forms the basis of most of the cultural practices around menstruation in India.”[iv]
However, I know there are many who think Ayurveda is some pseudo-science and that all this talk of energy is so much gobbledy gook. We are of course afflicted with the disease of over-rationalising, a gift from the science versus religion battle of the West. Rationality and ‘science’ are the buzzwords today and even when science admits there are things it doesn’t know (which is why most scientists in the field of astronomy and space research are humble and believe in the divine), we are so fixated on negating anything that does not fit into the limited paradigm of science. This is a kind of arrogance of science that has replaced the arrogance of religion. While we dismiss talk of energy as being hogwash, the same is being studied very keenly by neuroscience experts in the West and the day is not far off when it comes out with a theory similar to the one explained in the above blog. Then of course we will all embrace it as science. For such of us who worship “rationalism” (as distinct from logic) as if it’s the new god, explanations like the one which the blog uses will be brushed off as force fitting an idea to feel good.
For such doubters here is a blog that explains why women cannot go to Sabarimala.
“I have been going to the temple at Sabarimala for over 25 years and one question that people ask me often is “Who placed the restrictions on women entering the temple?” And the short answer is, Ayappa himself! According to legend, Ayappa is celibate so that he can focus on answering the prayers of his devotees. And he will remain celibate till the day kanni swamis (first-time devotees) stop coming to Sabarimala.”[v]
The author of this blog uses a story or legend associated with Ayyappa to explain the position. Do read the rest of the blog to know the story. He is right. It is Ayyappa himself who does not want mentruating women to visit him. But then, rationalists can rationalize that these are human beings speaking for Ayyappa and that they are basing their explanation on some unverifiable myth; easy to take down. The author also goes on to say, “Since he [Ayyappa] is celibate, he should not be distracted”. This is easy pickings for the shrill feminist. I would like to use his words but back it up with something very simple. The explanation for why women are not allowed is simply explained by the following twitter thread.
What it basically explains is that for Hindus, a murthi in a temple is not simply a lifeless idol. Prana pratistha is done which means that the deity being consecrated is considered to be infused with the physical presence of the divinity represented. Thereafter the god/goddess is deemed to be physically present in that place and that the space where s/he resides belongs to him/her. Hence, no decision regarding the working of that temple, the rules to be maintained, the rituals to be followed can be taken without consulting the resident deity. The deity’s preferences are determined through various methods lightly touched upon in the twitter thread.
So, if it is the decision of the deity (in this case Ayyappan) to not have women in the reproductive age visiting him, why is it that his wishes cannot be honored? Even in legal terms, the deity can be considered to be a respondent and the court is bound to take note of this living practice of Hindus in the running of their temples as is explained in this article on the rights of Hindu religious institutions.
Further, which woman wants to offend the deity if he wants not to have her in his presence. What would she want to prove by going against his wishes? She claims to be his devotee which means he is her ishta devata and she has surrendered to him as per Hindu sastra. That being so, why would she not want to respect his wishes?! What kind of a devotee does that make her? I don’t think any real devotee of Ayyappa male or female will want to go against his wishes. If you do so, then you lose claim to be a devotee and hence the right to decide how things must be run at his shrine.
Moreover the assorted brigade of feminists will never tell you that the same Kerala has a tradition called Attukal Pongala where men are absolutely not allowed. In contrast, in Sabarimala, it is hardly a blanket ban on women. Girls who have not yet reached puberty and women who are post menopausal are most welcome to visit. At the Pongala no such leeway is provided. It is an out and out women only festival with no admission whatsoever for men or boys of any age. How come none of the placard hoarding, ‘Happy to Bleed’ feminists highlight that. Can not our menfolk also start a petition to cry foul of this discrimination?
Here’s another article from Kerala again, where it is shown that the woman is the only one who has the rights to do puja in this temple. Am sure you will find many such instances of temples with women only archakas or rituals where only women can participate. Contrast this with the church where even today, no woman can be a priest. What explains this? This is so because Sanatana Dharma is multi-layered. It is not limited to binaries, let alone false dichotomies. When will our people begin to realize this?
This is what a purely rights based paradigm does. It sees things only in black and white. The binary mode of Western thought permeates the rights based lens to look at issues. Dharma is far more nuanced and cannot be force fitted into the rights regime that is imported from the Western experience. Bharat Ganarajya’s laws are not really representative of the dharmic nature of her civilization. Many of the laws have been framed using the western lens which the outgoing British left for posterity in the minds of Bharatiya lawmakers. The true success of the British regime is that it left the Bharatiya populace (particularly the section that has the means and wherewithal to steer the course of this country) mentally colonized while physically being independent.
While I think the lawyers and elites need to mentally decolonize, the Bharatiya citizens need to do this more urgently; otherwise what explains the ineffectiveness of the Ayyappa temple authority spokesman’s defence of the temple ritual? He opened himself up to ridicule by calling menstruating women as impure and demanding for a scanning machine to check if women devotees were having their period when they came to Sabarimala. Why could the temple authorities not take the help of Agama shastras to explain why the rules at Sabarimala are what they are? They are the strongest argument against letting the discrimination charge leveled by the feminist brigade. We really need to rearm Hindus to develop their self confidence and knowledge about their own customs and traditions. A thousand years of foreign invasion and rule has crushed the spirit of the Bharatiya. It will take time to decolonize the mind and build the confidence. But do we have the time given the realities in the world?
Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the Author, and should not be considered a reflection of the views of the Indic Civilizational Portal. The Author is responsible for ensuring the factual veracity of the content, herein.