Five million women in India formed a human chain to protest gender inequality at a major shrine,” reads one headline in the American media just learning about a major controversy that’s been brewing for months in India.
“The two women who broke with centuries of conservative taboo to enter a temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala are now in hiding…” reports CNN.
“This brave act of resistance, called #VanithaMatil, joined by women in Kerala of all faiths and backgrounds — and what has followed since, is receiving little attention in the United States...” laments another by a South Asian blogger.
What none of these reports or others published throughout the international media is the full and complex story of what one Supreme Court ruling has done to religious freedom, secularism, and equality in India.
In the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling that this gendered aspect of the temple’s tradition was unconstitutional, the decision triggered protests among millions of Hindu women well before #VanithaMatil. But they weren’t protesting against what most American media outlets and blogs might lead readers to believe.
Indeed, on Jan. 1 masses of women, reportedly “of all faiths,” did line up along over 600 kilometers as part of the state-sponsored protest demanding that the Sabarimala temple open its gates to women.
But on Dec. 27, scores of other women (and men) also lined up to oppose state interference in the traditions of a beloved Hindu temple. In fact, that grassroots protest involving 180 Hindu organizations spanned the entire coastal length of the state (over 600 km).
The Sabarimala case is not a simple story about equality or women’s rights. It’s a story about gross overreach by the Indian judiciary and a state government interfering in the internal matters of a religious institution. In the lone dissent from the lone female justice on the bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, poignantly stated:
“Judicial review of religious practices ought not to be undertaken, as the Court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to practice one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs.”
It’s also a story about divisive politics, begging questions of why a state government would sponsor a protest against a temple and its traditions; why members of other religious communities would join forces with the government to protest those practices when they themselves have yet to resolve gender inequities of their own; why the local opposition party leaders would flip flop from supporting the case to opposing it; and how two petitioners who are not even devotees of the temple would even have legal standing in the first place. From that same dissent:
“The Petitioners do not claim to be devotees of the Sabarimala Temple...To determine the validity of long-standing religious customs and usages of a sect...would require this Court to decide religious questions at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this faith.”
It’s a story about woeful ignorance of Hindu teachings and practices.
But most mainstream media has chosen to ignore these key elements of the plot.
There are thousands of Hindu temples across India and none bar women worshippers. There are also a number of temples which allow only women to enter year round or during specific festivals.
There are also dozens of temples in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, so Sabarimala is the only temple in the state that has the practice of restricting temple entry to women of a particular age (transgender devotees are allowed, as are devotees from all religions and castes). The restriction is thus rather unique and not representative of the Ayyappa worship tradition, let alone all of Hinduism.
Sabarimala facilitates the practice of male celibacy. The age-based restriction on women in this temple derives from this, as well as from a key ritual called prana pratishtha. This elaborate process welcomes the life force or divine spirit into the image that is being worshipped while also detailing the form of worship that would be practiced. At the Sabarimala temple, the deity has been thus invoked as ‘eternally celibate’ and thus serves as a space for men to gather, reflect upon celibacy and seek blessings, including for being able to retain in their daily lives some of the self-control gained through the 41 days of strict austerities required of all pilgrims.
Prana pratishtha and specific temple rituals can all be quite esoteric for even the lay urban Hindu today, not to mention non-Hindus. However, the objective here is not to claim that the benefits or the impact of such practices have been demonstrated using objective, scientific standards. Rather, it is simply to point out that these temples, and the associated rituals, are exceptions based on certain unique, long-standing, and spiritually grounded Hindu traditions. They are not merely “conservative taboos” as outlets like CNN have stated.
Nor are these rituals necessarily seen as being rooted in patriarchy or misogyny — certainly not by the countless women devotees who welcome on a practical level the austerities of abstaining from alcohol and anger required of men partaking in the Sabarimala pilgrimage — alcoholism is the main cause of domestic violence and an estimated 59% of all crimes in the state are alcohol-related according to state authorities.
There may be a few, limited circumstances in which judicial intervention is warranted, but the legal standard in India is that the religious practice must be “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil.” If the state does intervene, it must proceed cautiously as only a steep slippery slope lies ahead. The Indian Supreme Court’s ability to slow its plummet down that slope will soon enough be tested when it hears arguments in April for a writ recently filed.
The writ seeks a court order to ensure that women of all ages and religions be allowed to enter and pray at temples, mosques and zoroastrian fire temples, and that women be allowed to be ordained as pujari (Hindu ritual specialists), imams, and priests in their respective traditions. A second writ has also been filed to seek a court order to allow men entry into women-only temples.
Hinduism is a decentralized, fluid religion with no central authority or doctrinal body. It is possible that Hindus as a community may decide to give up practicing some of these traditions. But as of now, millions of women devotees of Sabarimala have joined the #ReadytoWait movement, pledging to wait until menopause before entering Sabarimala. Perhaps time will bring about change. What is certain, however, is that it is not the job of India’s Supreme Court nor Kerala’s state government to interfere and force it.
Swaminathan Venkataraman is a member of HAF's National Leadership Council and Senior Vice President, Global Project and Infrastructure Finance at Moody's Investors Service. Suhag A. Shukla, Esq. is a cofounder of the Hindu American Foundation and serves as its Executive Director.