Women and Worship

 | October 01,2010 07:11 pm IST

The ludicrous hullabaloo in Kerala over an actress confessing that she visited the famed Sabarimala shrine way back in 1987 refuses to die down as the 'unthinkable' possibility of a woman 'defiling' the premises of a 'holy' temple by her mere presence is still being hotly debated.

It is heartening to know that some women lawyers have taken this as a cue to file Public Interest Litigation in favour of women's rights to worship.

It is not so much the fact that women are not allowed in to Sabarimala, which is incensing as the high-handed reasons, which are given for doing so.


The trek to the temple is said to be too arduous for women to handle. In that case, women past their menopausal age and girls below ten, who are permitted into the shrine by merit of being not fertile, must find it more difficult to trudge up the path than a woman in her prime. In that context, are the women who trek through icy terrain up to icy Himalayan shrines somehow organically different from those in Kerala?


Other reasons range from odious assumptions that women cannot stand the test of asceticism and self-discipline, which are pre-requisites for the pilgrimage. Women are said to be temptresses who may disturb the brahmacharya of the deity as well as the pious male pilgrims. Why is it forgotten that true brahmacharya is not a gender-specific state, but a state of the mind, which can be aspired to, by both man and woman?


Menstruation is also taboo, which is a denial of the fact that it is the essence of femininity, a symbol of procreation. Each one of us enters this world covered in the blood of our mothers and women must learn to accept it as representing their power of motherhood. At best, it is a matter of personal hygiene just like every other bodily function and not a vile curse.


Most of these purportedly pragmatic reasons fall flat on their face and smack of obscurantism. A woman was actually arrested because she desperately tried to approach Lord Ayyappa's sanctum in order to pray for the health of her terminally-ill child. It is high time that all religions discard their inherent gynophobia, which leads them to view women as the proverbial 'other' instead of including them in mainstream humanity.


In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a Kerala High Court judgment that allowed non-Brahmins to officiate as priests. The Bench observed that any custom or usage, irrespective of its existence in pre-Constitution days, cannot be countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights when it is found to violate human rights and social equality.


Therefore, tradition is not an unquestionable static code. Scriptures and practices must be practiced in tune with the contemporary objectives of the nation at large. In the past, the bhakti movement lifted Hinduism out of empty ritualism towards equality, surrender and devotion. Similarly, various practices considered fait accompli in earlier times are thoroughly unacceptable today, such as the prevention of temple entry to lower castes, the devadasi system and sati.


To speak of women 'desecrating' a place of worship today is a sad commentary on our collective psyche and cannot be excused on grounds of faith and custom. Almost sixty years have passed since the Indian constitution hailing the lofty ideals of equality and freedom of religion was set in place. Article 25 ensuring uninhibited access to Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes has unfortunately done nothing to stop discrimination against women in this respect. Sabarimala is a publicly-funded temple according to Article 290A and it is only right that those women devotees who wish to visit are allowed to do so.



Contributed by: -
Remya Mohan
Alumnus of SCMHRD, Pune