A Scientific Approach To The Sabarimala Controversy

Markandey Katju

Nov 17, 2018, 08:10 PM | Updated 08:10 PM IST

Members of Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple. (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Members of Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple. (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Faith and reason stand at odds with each other. Applying reason in the matters of faith, therefore, doesn’t work. That is the folly in making the Sabarimala temple issue about gender equality.
  • T M Krishna’s article in the Hindu, titled ‘Sabarimala and the quest for equality’, reveals the superficial and emotional but unscientific approach of the writer towards the Sabarimala controversy.

    Before dealing with the article, I would like to briefly describe my own philosophy. I am an atheist. I believe all religions are superstitions, and the truth lies in science, which, unlike religion, never claims to be final but is constantly developing.

    Having said that, I would also like to add that most people in India are unlike me – they are deeply religious.

    What is the basis of religion? It is the feeling of helplessness before natural and social forces. All early religion was nature worship, e.g. the Vedic gods Indra, Agni, Surya, etc. These forces could benefit the human or harm him or her, like rain, fire, etc. Since humans did not know the real nature of these forces, they thought they were some supernatural entities that must be propitiated to avoid their wrath or get their favour.

    Most people are poor, and their lives are so miserable that they may go mad if they did not have religion as a psychological support. But even most middle-class and rich people in India are religious. This is because the chance factor is very important in our lives. We plan something, but something else happens. Thus, we cannot control our lives. For instance, in business, there can be losses due to bad management, competition, recession, or a change in government policy. Hence, most businesspersons in India are highly religious, and seek to propitiate goddess Laxmi to avoid losses. But it is not due to any supernatural entity but due to the low level of development of science as yet in the world that we cannot control our lives.

    Even today, in India (and many other countries), religion has a powerful hold on the minds of most people, and will continue to do so for several generations, maybe for over 100 years from now, until science has advanced to such a high level that we can control our lives.

    It is important to understand that the basis of religion is faith (shraddha), not reason. Hence, it is a mistake to test religious beliefs on the anvil of reason.

    For instance, in Srinagar, there is a Hazratbal shrine, where it is believed that the hair of Prophet Muhammad is kept. Now, one cannot ask the question what proof is there that it is the Prophet's hair. The only question that can be legitimately put is: do Muslims coming to this shrine believe that it is the Prophet's hair? The answer is yes, and the matter ends there. Many years ago, the hair disappeared, and there were huge disturbances in the Kashmir Valley, which only ended when the hair was found.

    In Chitrakut in Uttar Pradesh, there is a “Sita rasoi”, where it is believed Sita used to cook food for Rama and Laxman.

    In Lourdes, France, it is believed that the Virgin Mary had appeared in the nineteenth century, and also that the church there has healing powers. Millions of people come there every year. The same belief is about Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, known as the Lourdes of the East. In Kandy, Sri Lanka, there is a temple presumably having Buddha's tooth.

    The Mormons of America believe that Angel Moroni appeared in 1823 to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon sect, and presented him golden tablets on which was written the Mormon faith.

    These are all matters of faith, and cannot be tested rationally. One cannot ask how Mary could give birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin, or how could Prophet Muhammad fly on a winged horse, Burraq, from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven?

    Now coming to Sabarimala. The devotees (called Ayyappans, who become celibate, wear black clothes, fast partially, and pray for 41 days before beginning their pilgrimage) believe that Lord Ayyappa is a Naishthik Brahmachari (celibate) who does not want menstruating women in his presence. One cannot test this belief on the anvil of reason. It is a strongly held belief, and some people may even be prepared to die for it. If menstruating women are allowed, it would destroy the very nature of the temple.

    So, it is wrong to believe that it is the political parties who are obstructing the Supreme Court verdict (though they may have joined the agitation seeing political benefit).

    With regard to the majority judges on the Sabarimala bench, it must be said with respect that they took an abstract, theoretical, avant garde view of equality, women's dignity, etc, ignoring that religion is still powerful in India, and attacking religious beliefs is counter-productive and makes people more bigoted. The correct view was of Justice Indu Malhotra, who, displaying the balance and restraint that characterises great judges, pointed out that in a country with such diversity like India, it is extremely imprudent for judges to intervene in religious beliefs and practices. She has observed that the right to equality in Article 14 of the Constitution cannot be read in isolation; it must be read along with Article 25, which guarantees the right to hold religious beliefs and observe religious practices, and the two rights have to be harmonised.

    If the Sabarimala verdict is followed, one will have to interfere with hundreds of religious places. There are temples that do not permit women, others that do not permit men. Recently, it was reported that a lady Member of Legislative Assembly entered a temple in Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh, and there was an uproar because women are not permitted there. The temple priest later said he was not present, otherwise he would never have allowed entry to the woman. The temple was washed with Ganga water for purification, and the idol taken to the Sangam in Allahabad for cleaning.

    Moreover, though in theory there is no bar, in practice hardly 1-2 per cent mosques permit entry to Muslim women, who have to pray at home. So, can the Supreme Court be selective? Should it not also direct that Muslim women must be allowed entry in mosques?

    Krishna, in his article, has written against the stand taken by Shashi Tharoor and Nirupama Menon Rao, but it is not necessary to go into that. However, he is mistaken that the practice of denying menstruating women into Sabarimala is due to caste prejudice and misogyny. What has caste to do with it? All women of that description, whatever be their caste, are denied entry. And the practice does not denigrate women; it is only because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is believed to be celibate. In fact, among the demonstrators against the Supreme Court verdict, there were as many, if not more, women who support the old custom.

    Markandey Katju is former judge of the Supreme Court of India and former chairman of the Press Council of India.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.