In a battle between faith on the one side and laws and logic on the other, millions of Hindu devotees of the centuries-old Sabarimala shrine in India are awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on a batch of review petitions relating to temple entry to women of childbearing age.
The top court on Wednesday heard petitions from various Hindu groups and the temple head priest seeking reversal of its earlier ruling which lifted an age-old ban on entry of female devotees of the 10-55 age group to Sabarimala temple dedicated to the celibate god, Ayyappa.
After hearing some of their petitions and those challenging them from the government of Kerala and Travancore Dewaswom (temple) board, the Supreme Court adjourned the ruling to a later date.
Devotees were not surprised when the lawyer representing the left front government said the 56 review petitions should be dismissed. But they were shocked when the temple board, which is expected to stand by them, reversed their earlier position and toed the government line.
The Sabarimala case gained international attention as it raised the question whether a centuries-old tradition relating to women’s temple entry or their constitutional rights to equality is more relevant.
Lawyers representing Hindu groups and the temple head priest put forward the following views before the judges:
*The ban on women devotees of childbearing age has nothing to do with gender bias or untouchability. Girls and old women can visit Sabarimala. The ban applies only to women of menstrual age since the deity has an eternal celibate status.
*Sabarimala is not a public place. It is only for the faithful who respect the rights of the deity. Temple is a private place whose sanctity has to be preserved by all. Centuries-old rituals and traditions at Sabarimala cannot be stopped as such a step will impact all shrines and hurt beliefs. These rituals and traditions cannot be measured by logic as they are part of one’s faith. Sabarimala is not a science museum. The Supreme Court’s lifting of the ban on temple entry to women devotees of childbearing age late last year has hurt millions of Ayyappa devotees.
*Priests have a responsibility to the deity. They are its guardians. Since Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala is a celibate deity, they have to ensure that devotees respect that status. Each deity is an entity. Priests have the ultimate say when it comes to upholding the age-old traditions and values of the temple.
The government’s lawyer said devotees of Ayyappa do not belong to a special category and denying women the right to worship is unconstitutional.
The lawyer representing the temple board said temple rituals cannot violate one’s right to equality. The purification ceremony performed by the temple priest after the entry of two women was an act of untouchability, the lawyer said. The Supreme Court is expected to pronounce its ruling in a fortnight.