During the recent raging agitation against the Supreme court’s order to allow women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, there was a lone but strong voice that said - it was reported in some sections of the media - that ‘we would not allow our culture to be ‘Abrahamised.’ Of course this voice came from the camp that was a strong votary of the right wing Hindu ideology of retaining the popular tradition of barring menstruating women’s entry in to the Sabrimala temple because as the belief goes, the presiding deity, Ayyappa, of the said temple is considered to be an eternal celibate.
This tradition of barring women of certain age group to enter the Sabarimala temple was challenged in the apex court of the land on the ground that it was patently discriminatory as it goes against the constitutional right of equality of every Indian citizen to have access to places of worship. That it was not only violation of constitutional right of equality of every Indian citizen, but it was also a grave injustice to women based on their natural bodily function. The learned court in a majority verdict asked the temple to be opened to women of all ages thus putting an end to centuries’ old discriminatory practice of keeping some women out of the temple.
While the apex court has gone by the provisions of the constitution of the country, and rightly so, it was certainly not taken kindly by those who were opposed to any change in the status quo of the temple’s tradition. A number of arguments were pressed in to service to defend their point of view, and a sizeable number of Ayyappa devotees resorted to agitation and indulged even in physical intimidation of women pilgrims to drive their message home. Illegal surveillance was imposed on women pilgrims so much so some of them were harassed on their way to the temple by asking them to prove their exact biological age. There was a typical case of woman pilgrim whose actual age was 52, but she was also stopped on the way suspecting her age; only after she proved her age she was permitted to go forward.
While every religious community has its right to retain or reform its customs and traditions it must be borne in mind that there are forces outside the domain of religion today that exert greater pressure for social and even religious changes. And when such forces are sweeping across the country and even the globe, a particular religious tradition cannot withstand it for long; it will have to give in, if not immediately but in the near future.
Women’s rights in homes, institutions, politics, religion and society are non- negotiable. The earliest all religious institutions understand it, the better. For, far too long women have been relegated to the margins of society and institutions and they had to content themselves in playing the second fiddle. That scenario is fast changing not just in India alone but even in an ultraorthodox society like that of the Saudi Arabia. Women are coming out asserting their legitimate rights to be treated equally in society and in social and political institutions. The sense of justice, particularly gender justice is gaining currency in the modern society transforming the way of social interaction between men and women.
The demand for gender justice is often resisted and even scorned at in a traditional society like ours; it is often viewed as borrowed from feminist movements in the western counties that are largely Christian in faith and culture. The social values and cultures of the western countries therefore are largely influenced by the Bible and its teachings. And Abraham is a key figure in the Biblical account of the Jewish history which is shared both by Christians and Muslims; that is why these three religious traditions are known as Abrahamic or Semitic religions.
It is in these Abrahamic religions, particularly in Christianity, gender equality is of paramount importance. However, it wasn’t always so, going by the history of the western Christian society. The medieval Christian society in the West wasn’t quite kind to women and their rights; but changes happened in course of history, and the western Christian society was open enough to accept social and religious changes. As for instance the universal franchise gave women voting rights in the political process. Similarly women also began to actively participate in the apostolic activities of the Church thereby giving them opportunity to mainstream them.
When it comes to entry to places of worship women in Christian community always enjoyed equal freedom. There was no discrimination in providing access to places of worship; in fact, women devotees contributed much to the upkeep of churches and places of pilgrimage. And in the contemporary Christian society at least in some denominations women have even access to ordained ministries. This cannot be said of all other religions, there were and still continues to have religious traditions that impose entry barrier for women in some places of worship. Sabarimala is a case in point and that is precisely what is being challenged as discriminatory, and the fierce resistance to alter the status quo.
It is in this context of demand for reform in religious tradition, the ‘Abrahamization’ remark gains significance. Any attempt to adapt what is considered a legitimate right of women in the Christian religious community is suspected by certain sections of ultraorthodox groups as an apparent assault on their traditions. It is this viewpoint that unfortunately still guides those who consider entry barrier of women of certain age to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple as something sacrosanct to their beliefs and rituals.
If ‘Abrahamization’ has enabled women to unshackle the age old social and religious traditions that were oppressive then it was worth it. The call for social and gender equity has already taken strong roots in most parts of the world today, and one cannot just turn a blind eye to this reality any more. One may be able to garner some feeble support even from women against this trend, as we have seen in the current agitation, but then such show of solidarity, to my mind, is more of a camouflage than born out of real conviction. Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala, has stated in one of his recent speeches, and I think he has hit the nail on its head, that Kerala had many inglorious social and religious traditions that were transformed in due course of time as the society progressed. And this progress cannot be arrested; rather it must be strengthened and reinforced for a more modern and progressive society.
Kerala’s flagship festival Onam has King Mahabali as its protagonist. His rule was known for its fair treatment of all people without any discrimination. The people of Kerala have nostalgic feelings about the long lost rule of the ideal King Mahabali who brought about social equity, joy and peace amongst his subjects. I wonder what the just and ideal King Mahabali would have done in the current situation when two camps have locked horns in the name of a temple entry. May be that he would have endorsed ‘abrahamization’ of culture if that meant equity, respect and freedom of both men and women.(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)