India has all too few written records and even less respect for its ancient history.
Emotions are running high in the surroundings of the Pampa river, which flows alongside the Sabarimala temple. Many are surprised at the stir created by the Supreme Court decreeing that the traditional prohibition on entry of women of childbearing age be struck down. Such a practice is extant only in the Ayyappa temple atop Sabarimala, and not in any other of the hundreds of Ayyappa shrines across the world. The reasoning of devotees is that it is only the idol within the sanctum sanctorum at Sabarimala that represents the principle of celibacy. By implication, the entry of women of childbearing age into the inner core of the temple, from the time they step on the first of the 18 steps leading to the sanctum, would be contrary to divine wish. Those unfamiliar with or dismissive of such beliefs are unable to understand what the issue is all about, and see it entirely as a question of “equal access under law”. If carried forward, this would imply that numerous temples that admit only women should throw open their doors to men, or even that the higher reaches of the Catholic Church or mosques should not consist only of men, at least in India. While zealots for “modernity” would find nothing objectionable in such moves, they may be looked at askance by many who are backing the enforcement of the Supreme Court’s majority verdict on entry into the Sabarimala temple.
It is actually small wonder, in view of the history and significance of the shrine and its rituals and traditions, that there is so much hubbub over the move to do away with longstanding practices and traditions that do not seem to have done much (or any) harm to society. To gain an understanding of the traditions which surround the deity resplendent in His majesty amongst His devotees, let us remember that tucked away near the foothills of Kedarnath is the ancient temple of Trijugi Narayan. It is here that Shri Maha Vishnu gave away His beloved sister, Shri Parvati, in marriage to Lord Shiva. There is a homa fire pit where the flames have been burning uninterrupted since this Divine wedding.
A lesser known story is that the surroundings of Trijugi Narayan are the birthplace of Shri Vamana, the boy man and fifth incarnation of Shri Maha Vishnu. It was from here that Vamana set out to ask three steps of space from Mahabali, the pious demon king whose piety and prowess as a ruler was giving the perpetually insecure Devendra, Lord of the Devas, the jitters. Vamana measured the Earth and the subterranean places with one foot, and the sky and heavens with the other. True to form, Mahabali offered that Vamana should place the final step on his head, only to be dispatched to Pataal, or the netherworld. Mahabali comes up on Earth once a year to see his beloved subjects, which is the origin of Onam, which is one of Kerala’s greatest festivals. During that day, to make their beloved King believe that all is well with them, the humblest of homes dresses nattily and prepares a delicious repast so that Mahabali can be happy at seeing such prosperity.
What is of interest is that the site of Mahabali’s yagna is in Kutch in Gujarat and is far removed from Kerala geographically. Yet this does not prevent Onam being celebrated in Kerala.
India has all too few little written records and even less respect for its ancient history. Even the Vedas are still transmitted from generation to generation mainly orally. A lot of interpolation and personal versions have entered various forms of worship in many religions in India. The (welcome) lighting of lamps in many of Kerala’s Christian churches in place of a candle is one such example.
Ayyappa is considered to be an incarnation of Dharma Shasta, who has two wives, Poorna and Pushkala. Before the advent of Shri Adi Shankara, Buddhism had spread widely in India. Even the majestic Kodungallur and Vedakkad temples were once founts of Buddhist prayer. Today, Buddhism has evolved into a more fundamentalist strain within Sri Lanka, as also the intensely political variant adopted since his exile in India by HH The XIV Dalai Lama, as also the gentle, introspective strand of the faith in Vietnam and now increasingly in China. The Hindu religion underwent a seismic change during the era of Shri Adi Shankara. He sought to standardise Hinduism and cast away the variants and characteristics of the faith that had been in common practice and belief for centuries. Sattva, rajas and tamas gunas were part of Hindu philosophy, along with Goddesses and Gods who manifested these qualities. The method of worship, as well as the qualifications of the worshippers, was different from people to people, place to place. There was no hierarchy of divinities or castes as later became the case. All that changed into a form that was Brahminical in tenor and which was presented as mandatory for everybody who belonged to the Hindu faith.
Shri Adi Shankara was a practitioner of Advaita, which he preached with rigorous self discipline. In the process, a lot of nuances of Hinduism were amalgamated into the largely Brahminical pujas we witness today. But did not rajas and tamas have the same source of creation as the Shankaracharya-decreed politically correct school of sattva? Steps were taken to halt multiple traditions, such as such as tribal people doing the honey abhishekam. This effort at hierarchy and uniformity had immense consequences both for society as well as for the land of Bharata. To some, the recent effort to alter longstanding and divergent practices in Hindu traditions is a replay of Adi Shankara.
However, such a move towards uniformity in the practice of faith is not proceeding smoothly. Had the traditional Thanthris of Sabarimala taken the stance that they would quit rather than continue under “unacceptable” terms such as changes in the composition of those entering the core of the temple premises, much of the present confusion about the way the situation is evolving in the shrine may have been avoided. After the Supreme Court verdict, the innovation introduced through the pleadings of activists determined to enforce uniform standards across temples, is seen by the Thanthris and by several hundreds of thousands of devotees as a test of their commitment to Lord Ayyappa. After all, love is a form of energy, and Newton’s law holds good even in matters relating to worship. An unconditional surrender to Lord Ayyappa, including the practices and traditions associated with Him, would, in their minds, ensure that the Lord would be presented with the loyalty and dedication of his servitors: the temple Thanthris as well as the many tens of millions of devotees of Sabarimala’s Lord Ayyappa.
Of course, to suggest (as some ardent believers have) that Lord Ayyappa would be at risk of losing His celibacy if females younger than 50 but above 10 visited His shrine, may be a theological reasoning that has gone too far. We must not forget that legend has it that the local feminine deity, Malikapurathamma, leads the queue of prospective female wooers of the deity. Lord Ayyappa, so goes the belief among the believers, has promised to marry Her if there were no first time Sabarimala pilgrims in any year, something yet to happen.
On the other hand, women “reformers” of temple practices who are stridently against “patriarchy” (as expressed in their view that such is the effect of the prohibition of women between ten and 50 entering the temple) should look at changing their surname to that of their mother’s lineage. This is, after all, done in many places in Kerala. For any person, male or female, to visit Sabarimala to merely prove a point seems distant from the devotion that each worshipper is expected to bring into the sanctum, thereby transferring energy to the deity that is given back to other worshippers after being added to the immense storehouse of devotion that has accumulated at Sabarimala. As seen on television, some of the “reformer” women seeking to enter the shrine seem to be dressed as though for a safari. To behold Shri Ayyappa without devotion in the heart and veneration in the mind, as though gazing upon a portrait in a museum, would be a travesty of the spirit of the worshipper who seeks to enter the temple. This realisation, that the motivations of many women for demanding entry may not be grounded in devotion, but on political motives, or because such actions form part of the gender wars of the era, may be why the majority of protesters against the Supreme Court verdict are women. These are genuine devotees of Shri Ayyappa, including many who may only have seen Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in their childhood and are prepared to wait 40 years before seeing Him again. In the meanwhile, they would revere Him unseen till menopause for another look at Sabarimala Ayyappa. Accusing a deity (for whom all His devotees, male or female, are respectfully referred to as “Swami”) as being patriarchal and partisan is unfair.
What makes a piece of stone divine are the esoteric rituals going back millennia that have been designed by the ancients to energise it into Godhead, to infuse the divine power of the universe within its form. To this is over time added the faith of millions of devotees who experience in themselves the energy and power of God in the vigraham sculpted by an artisan. Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala has been worshipped for ages within the rules and rites of tradition that are particular and exclusive to Him. Even the Supreme Court, in all its majesty, functions within traditions that have long outlasted the many gifted men and women who have delivered verdicts within its chambers. Surely, true love can only be one of accepting the object that is loved in its totality. A show of “devotion” to the deity sans respect for the unique, societally benign and age-old traditions and practices created around Him and for Him seems to many to be a sham.
Thiruvathira Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi is XII Princess of the erstwhile state of Travancore, within which is situated the Sabarimala temple.