Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Jayamala Vs Sabarimala

Background: The renowned Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala was going through a lot of trials and tribulations. A deva prashnam(astrological inquiry) was done to find out the problem. The astrologers declared that a woman had entered the temple precincts, which was a violation of the temple rules that had resulted in this current state of affairs. Kannada actress, Jayamala, then admitted that she had entered the temple in the late 1980s, praying for her ailing husband.

Poor bachelor Lord Ayyappa is now in the midst of a controversy as to whether a woman visited him or not. The world is aghast as to how could a fertile woman go to Sabarimala and touch the feet of the Lord - a place where one requires undergoing about 40 days of purity before travelling. There are 2 angles to this issue - One, as to how a woman could have gone to the place and touched the idol when women in the age group of 10-50 are not allowed there and two, the larger issue of whether there should be any such discrimination/tradition (depending on which side you represent) in terms of the entry of women into religious places.

Clearly, there are mischief mongers in the background willing to pounce on an opportunity to defame the temple, otherwise why would Karnataka State Assembly get involved in an issue which is of no concern to them. There’s a clearly known rule in Sabarimala that women before menopause are not to be allowed inside the shrine and if Kannada actress, Jayamala had entered it, as she claims, it probably needs to be probed. How could a woman enter the temple and return unnoticed when there would have been so many devotees who would have witnessed this? The head priest claims that even he does not touch the idol during the daily worship and so it is impossible for Jayamala to have done so. The first observations suggest that Jayamala is probably lying but then one wonders what could be the motive to make any such claim, that too after about 15 odd years. This would need to be investigated further to check the veracity of the matter.

However, the larger question that begs discussion is should women be stopped from entering the shrine. I have been arguing with people on this and one explanation given to me is that a woman in menstruation is impure and should not be allowed to desecrate the place. Some others have suggested that people come to pray in temples and that the presence of women could be a major distraction while others have used the familiar excuse of sticking to temple traditions and that the Lord was a bachelor and so women must not be allowed.

Correct me if I am wrong, but does this not affect other places of worship? Is it that only Sabarimala needs to protect itself from the vice called "women”? How can we refer to women as "impure" or "unclean" when we meet the same women in offices, in educational places and other religious places? Men cannot push the blame of lusting at women on women themselves; they need to take responsibility for their actions and not blame them for everything. One wonders why India's most socially forward state is trying to hide male chauvinism in the garb of religious traditions and rituals and shying away from making a potentially significant statement on gender equality.

A religious institution should not be run on the grounds of any discrimination like religion, sex, caste etc. After all, God has no form or features that we discriminate this way. Traditions come into existence due to certain existing social norms and these need to change as times change. Obviously, these cannot change overnight but we need to create an atmosphere where they must be debated. I am thankful that this incident, whatever the merits or demerits, has resulted in focussing the spotlight on the larger picture - Role of Women in Religion.

We may disagree with each other when it comes to this but it’s, nevertheless, important to deliberate on it. But it's important not to mix a genuine gender issue with a religious issue. Attempts have been made to paint this as a Hindu religious problem (like how it happened in the Shah Bano case) but that would communalize the issue and deviate from the true focus required.

P.S. As I write this article, I hear that one of the tantris (priests) in Sabarimala has been suspended for sexual misdemeanours with a prostitute. So much for women desecrating temple sanctity!!!!!


  1. Hmmmmmmmmmm.
    Thats a good blog buddy. However I like to view at from a different perspective. I am also nto sure what is the motive of Jayamala, when she mentioned about the entry into the temple and how she escaped the eyes of people who were there at that time. As a devotee of Lord Ayyappa and having been there for 5 times I can easily say it is pretty easy to identify if a female enters the crowd.
    During one of my trips there, I was talking to a security guard (a typical Malayalee cannot keep his mouth shut and gets involved in chit-chat) who informed that it is regular for high class people to bring their wife/daughters due to influence. This is achieved by bribing the people there or by masking thier "females". What I mean to say here is that Jayamala entering the temple is not a single issue. Also that it is not possible to enter the temple bybrining a small officer, but one has to bribe the top people.
    However I oppose the entry of females to the temple. As indicated by you that femlaes have rights like that everyone have their own perspectives and issues. SO when a group of people have aperspective and have decided something which is cultural and culd hurt majority of people has to be prevented. Having said this I am not saying that if the person is a religious leader then he/she has to be punished.
    However the entry of femalesinot the temple is not because of any discirimination against females but because of the ancient literatures. There is a pretty good reason mythologically as t why females during the menstural period are not supposed to enter the temple. Hence that is sort of a right of a person and duty of the otherssss.

    I know I have written a poor summary here because the time I have is limited, but I needed to convey this point here.


  2. It's a sad state of affairs that by bribing one can enter into Sabarimala.Then, what's the point of all the rituals and the strict conditions to be followed before entering the temple.

    Regarding the entry of women, I'd like to know the reason why a menstruating woman cannot entry the temple.The only reason I have been able to gather is that they are impure during that period.But what is so impure about menstruation? It is a natural process for a woman and to regard her as impure because of that is not proper.Many women themselves are not too keen on entering the temple themselves,so it's not such a big issue in Kerala but then there are women who are questioning this tradition and we must be in a position to answer them or else allow them to be a part of this piligrimage.

  3. Hi,

    Pretty impressed with what you have written and quite strange to find a man writing so strongly for what we would consider a woman's issue. Yes, we do have some weird practises and I do not agree with the women being considered 'impure' if they are menstruating. If that was the case, then every religion would preach / practise rituals accordingly...
    More later...

  4. It is said that the magnetic emanations from a menstruating woman can damage the aura of a saintly person upto a distance of around 10 feet. It is recorded in the Holy Bible that as Jesus was on His way to heal a sick child, a woman whose menses were unnaturally long, touched His robe to which He immediately said: "Who is it who touched me?" Nobody answered, so Jesus said: "Someone touched me for I percieve that power has gone forth from me." Such is the effect of menses, even though it may be a normal monthly affair for all women. Not only women, but even if a priest has a festering wound, or bleeding wound, he is not allowed to perform religious ceremonies.

  5. i come to know from your words that you are much more of a spiritual person than a religious one and interestingly spirituality has nothing to do with relligious institutions! and all this jayamala case and the preceding deva prashnam was a hue and cry raised to bring sabarimala into public debates afresh and for others ignorant of its existence, an issue having great advertisement potential?!

  6. I understand this is a very old post, nonetheless I wanted to post and throw my few cents at it. What amazes me is that we believ that God sits in judment of right and wrong and has notions of pure and impure. Then again god is supposed to be Karunamuruthi with forgivness and acceptance of all. What a load of crap. If there is indeed a God that lays down these rules for his creation would one want to hold him/her in such high regard and worship him/her?

    It is time that we get over these petty things that we do in the name of GOD.

  7. Reading about this for the first time here. The way I see it, every religion has 3 main components - mythology, ritual and philosophy. The philosophy of Hinduism allows the bhakthi, gyana and yoga paths, and for those who opt for the first to have an ''ishta devatha''. Of the whole wide pantheon in the Hindu religion, if one god has this mythology and ritual that says he does not want women around him, so be it. I mean, why the hue and cry? I would want to ask both those who try and wiggle their way in on the sly, as well as those who challenge them with rational/ women's rights discourses.

    Regarding the larger issue of menstruation as impurity, and access to places of worship being bound to it, i do think that it is a bit jarring for all young women to be told at some point in their lives that they are kind of ''second class'' even in the eyes of the (supposed) creator, for having what, as you have pointed out is a perfectly natural God-given (for the believers)condition.
    Here perhaps Hinduism's roots as a way-of life, of primarily agrarian communities beyond the river Sindhu, offers some insight. As feminist reading of history suggests, I think it is awe and ignorance and fear of the power of the female to procreate and bring life forth (in the absence of an understanding of the role of the male) that led to the most primitive rituals and taboos around the menstruating woman. She may well deserve some rest that seclusion affords, and may perhaps, if we are to take some lessons from the animal kingdom, feel less concerned about matters of the soul/God than the body at this time. If that is the case, women not being in places of worship at such times, may not be a bad thing. But, and it a big but, I do think both the ''gatekeepers'' and women themselves need to be examining these issues and making decisions for themselves, rather than anyone imposing on anyone else out of force of habit and unexamined practices.