The Supreme Court judgment on women’s entry into Sabarimala has got Hindutva women in Kerala into a hand-wringing, hair-tearing frenzy, and that is to put it lightly. I say ‘Hindutva women’ deliberately, to refer to a sub-set of Hindu women, who (1) believe, like the RSS chief, that the Hindu(tva) lion is under threat from dogs (guess who the dogs are in this case) (2) identify craven submission to Hindutva commonsense about gender as ‘Indian tradition’ (3) are willing to sacrifice all public decency for the sake of upholding that common sense.
To take a very public example of the member of this species who could be seen shouting on national television a few days back, Deepa Easwar, who is known in Kerala as a television anchor and is apparently employed in the HR department of an IT company in Thiruvananthapuram. Now, as I watched her go all ballistic over the SC judgment claiming that (1) the deity of Sabarimala is a Naishtika Brahmachari who does not prefer women visiting the shrine; (2) the denial of entry to women of menstruating age there is a cast-in-stone-tradition of eternal Hindu faith ; (3) the denial is also because the journey was too tough for women to undertake; (4) that no ‘real’ female believer would choose to go there ; (5) that really there is no denial of entry to women there, and only youthful women between 10 and 50 years are not permitted, and (6) she represents the true Hindu woman’s voice, I pinched myself to check if I wasn’t transported back in time to some early-twentieth scenario in which certain grandmothers went cuckoo because the ‘dirty’ lower castes were now permitted to enter their temples.
Now let me make it clear that I am no fan of anybody’s entry to Sabarimala though I am with the Supreme Court’s sassiness in general and in this one. If anyone asked me, I’d vote for the relocation of India’s most ferocious tigers there, at least the threatened ones, especially poor Avni and her two cubs, so cruelly condemned to death. After, of course, the place becomes safe for living things that move since the whole area was taken over by the Pampa recently — and it stayed connected to the mainland not because of the TV-savvy spokespersons of the Brahmin family that supplies head priests to the temple but because of tribal men. The Lord’s Garden, Ayappa’s poonkaavanam, is where only tigers ought to romp (remember, Ayyappa milked nursing tigresses, and Avni is a nursing tigress). The ecology of the entire area is utterly devastated now, and given that landslips, and deaths, are continuing in Kerala’s highland areas in the wake of the returning monsoon, the band-aid applied on the ecological cancer that is ‘Sabarimala development’ may well come loose; if you ask me, go there at your own risk, brothers and sisters. But Avni and other animals will know better than you and me, so it is better that they hang about there with Lord Ayyappa, and they know to leave when it looks ecologically dicey.
Yet Deepa Easwar’s sentiments are being bandied around so much so that the very centrality of wild animals to the Ayyappa myth seems well-nigh forgotten. Deepa’s sentiments appeared, for example, in a Whatsapp group I am a member of, on care for animals in our city. The person who shared it seemed least bothered about the rights of Ayyappa’s favoured mounts (according to Sivakashi images and Amar Chitra Katha comics also, so even the instantly-Hindu mindset, the very succour of the Hindutva tribe, would know) – tigresses – even though that was our group’s purpose, but was all flustered about saving the Lord from menstruating women! So I want to spend some time on this tsunami of deception that is as nasty as it is ignorant and incoherent.
Let me start from her claim no (6), about being the ‘true’ voice of the female Hindu believer. Now, in the national and local media, plenty of women feel that they shouldn’t go there or that women shouldn’t be let in there. But Deepa Easwar isn’t innocently echoing their voices. In fact, she is precisely defending the interests of her marital family, being married to the son of a daughter of the senior Tantri, of the Tazhamon family that supplies head-priests (exclusively male of course) and controls the rituals of the Sabarimala temple. That introduced a clear conflict of interest when she sets herself up as the ‘voice of Hindu women’, in a situation in which most Hindu women are socialised to stay in the thrall of the decisions this Brahmin family — the head priests and masters of rituals — about the shrine. Deepa Easwar’s biography is no secret — and yet she does not think that it affects her views on the shrine. Instead, her personal/familial interest is camouflaged as ‘public interest’ and further concealed by a veritable tantrum on TV !! The family’s interesting in propping up the image of the shrine as governed by age-old customs is also material since they do make plenty of money every year, crores of it. In other words, this is actually not a dispute about respecting traditions and changing them: it is about whether this temple should be projected and managed in ways that ensure that it remains the cash-cow to the tantri family (and other beneficiaries, direct and indirect) or whether it should become a place of truly inclusive worship.
After this wily move, Deepa Easwar bombards her audience with a series of claims which need to be examined one by one for their general regressiveness, not just with reference to the immediate issue of temple entry. Take (5) first — her claim that there is really no denial of entry to all women, just to ‘youthful’ women between 10 and 50. This implies that women capable of procreation may be seductresses irrespective of whether they choose to seduce or not. How different is this from the egregious claim that women of the 10-50 age group who are subjected to sexual violence are primarily responsible for their fate because their procreative bodies trigger sexual feelings in men? If the very Gods — Ayyappa who has practised brahmacharyam over centuries, what hope is left for ordinary males, mere mortals? Should not all male brahmacharis be permanently locked up in female-free spaces permanently and denied access to newspapers, and God forbid, TV? Are only men who rape girl children below 10 or women above 50 are culpable? And women, including Ms Easwar, must stop going out at all and what do we do when our daughters cross 10?!! When she implies that children aged 11, 12 or 13 may be counted as ‘young women’ who may disturb Ayyappa’s penance, verily, like Menaka, of Viswamitra’s, Ms Easwar sounds like some horrible relic of the nineteenth century shivering with indignation against the protests against the rape and murder of eleven-year-old ‘women’ ; and she has probably never heard of, or never felt bothered by, Phulmoni Dasi’s short life. No wonder Hindutva women do not seem to desire a transformative education. Since clarity of thinking is not for the ideal Hindutva woman, she includes children under 10 in the category ‘women’ while screaming at the anchor that ‘women ARE permitted to enter Sabarimala!
This is further confirmed by her desperate deployments of all sorts of arguments haphazardly gathered from all over the Hindutva space — some are practical, some relate to unshakeable faith. So she does, in (3) (the denial is also because the journey was too tough for women to undertake) (4) (that no ‘real’ female believer would want to go there). Yes, it was indeed a tough pilgrimage back in the 1960s, but it has become progressively easier with the passage of time. So is it not time that (3) falls flat? In any case, if senior women and little girls can make it now, why can’t able-bodied young women? A version of the argument is being advanced now, that facilities have not yet been set up for women. Now, it is perfectly possible for the authorities, if they were interested, to facilitate the SC judgment’s implementation, by limiting the number of pilgrims permitted there and reserving a certain percentage of that for women! This should be actually the case given the monsoon devastation there and the incredibly fragile state of the environment there.
But then, since she has many diverse asthras in her quiver and in true Hindutva moronic fashion doesn’t notice contradiction, our Hindutva Avenging Angel pulls out the women-believe-in-not-going asthra which is actually contrary to the earlier claim. Because now the claim is that women won’t go because they believe in not going and not because they can’t! It is, of course, true that many women do not believe that they can go and that the sanctity of the temple may be affected if they do. Yeah, so what? So many old fuddy-duddies all over India believed that the sanctity of temples would be extinguished if the lower caste people entered temples when untouchability was abolished and temples were thrown open to all — and still continue to do so. In good time, many of the dunderheads changed their minds. And whatever Ms Easwar and her ilk may think, the number of women, many of them vocally in the public, who do believe that they must be treated as equal in matters of the faith including at Sabarimala are not small, and they are a growing voice. Just like Ms Easwar cannot see her conflict of interest, she also cannot see these other women, sisters in the faith, and all she can see is the men who control the faith! One cannot also expect her to see, from her position within the brahmanical Hindutva fold, that every single revision of ‘tradition’ has had precisely such a history — and each time, in time, steps to expand the faith and make it inclusive trumped over narrow brahmanical interests.
And it can hardly be denied that if not for such shifts in Malayali ‘tradition’, there would have hardly been ground for such rage from upper-caste, especially Nair and Ambalavasi Hindutva women in Kerala at all. Before the struggles against ‘traditional marriage’ among certain Malayali castes, women of those castes in marriage alliances with brahmin men were not counted as members of the man’s family — they were kept at a humiliating distance as menials and marginals and if things were better in some families that was only because of the non-reciprocal benevolence of the brahmin family. If some people, minority voices to begin with, had not begun to criticise and openly resist this, these women (including anti- Hindutva women including me, and non-Hindutva women of the same caste origins!) would have been still sweeping brahmin illams, overflowing with gratitude for the leftovers from brahmin kitchens, and preferring to call sexual use – consensual or rape – by brahmin men of their bodies benevolent beeja daanam, the gracious bestowal of brahmin semen to low women in the interest of improving their race and producing ideal progeny (as Golwalkarji argued)!
I don’t know about others, but I am so glad such ‘traditions’ have gone away despite Ms Easwar’s manasaguru Sri Golwalkar’s enthusiastic explanation and celebration of them, and I know many other Malayali Hindu women like me who are similarly relieved. The likes of her might perhaps respond by saying they wouldn’t want that tradition, but are okay with this one at Sabarimala as if these are totally unconnected. They are connected but as usual, their blinkers won’t let them see. Both differently but equally serve/d the interest of preserving brahmanical authority. When the tantris of the Tiruvalla temple, where similar (not same) restrictions existed about women’s entry, opened it up for women in the late 1960s, they were actually giving up older forms of control of that space. They may have well gained new forms of power — but the brahmin family that controls Sabarimala is so much worse, it will not give up even the older forms of control (how old they really are is a moot point, actually, for the declaration of Sabarimala Ayyappa as Naishtika Brahmachari was apparently formal only be late 1970s!). The sambandham arrangement too was in the clear interest of the brahmins and bolstered, precisely, by a set of mamool — unquestionable observance of hierarchies and their rituals and when first attacked, fiercely defended by brahmins and the women in alliances with them.
Further, in their claim that ‘Hindu women chose not to go to Sabarimala’, Deepa Easwar and her ilk cite ‘women’s preferences’, but then immediately deny women individual choice and agency by quickly indicating that their ‘true’ choices can flow only from such traditions and no other. This is a familiar trick, and we are not going to fall for it.
Of course, the worst tirade was around the Naishtika-Brahmachari status of Ayyappa at Sabarimala, as different from other Ayyappa temples elsewhere. This manner of attributing personalities to Gods is very much a feature of the Hindu faith in Kerala — and so the deities of major temples even if they all refer to same God, may have very different personalities. Thus Vishnu at Guruvayoor is attributed with a different personality from the Vishnu at Ambalappuzha, and so on. Now, if all these traditions were to be strictly followed, then there would be no such thing as a common ‘Hinduism’ in Kerala, no common faith, and the claims of Sanatana Dharma go through the window. If Hinduism in Kerala were to unravel into a bunch of local cults, it would become positively dangerous, especially today when a veritable market for divine boons has proliferated in the state! (It is not at all uncommon to hear advertisements of poojas etc. garishly announced as cure-alls for all worldly ills in Kerala today). I can imagine horrible clashes, for example, between the devotees of the Krishna of Ambalappuzha and those of Padmanabha Swami in Thiruvananthapuram, since the treasures of the former were once brought to the latter by Marthanda Varma. Or between the Sivas of Vaikom and Ettumanoor. And formidable rivalry and contests breaking out between the worshippers of Attukal, Karikkakom, and Chakkulathukaavu, three Bhagavathis who would now be all exclusively local, each equipped with a separate following.
If Ayyappa is part of the larger religion, then there should be no issue at all in adjusting traditions to times and allowing women in, since other he is, in other Ayyappa temples, had two consorts. You cannot claim to be speaking on behalf of Sanatana Dharma and defending the practices at Sabarimala as those of a local deity or a cult. In a religion, ritual and custom are subordinate to faith. If we can sacrifice a gourd in the place of a goat and permit online pujas, then we can perfectly well set up a new set of vratam-rules for women intending to pray at Sabarimala.
Honestly, if not for these brainless, dangerous, loose-tongued people who I fervently pray, will migrate to the lands of Indo-Gangetic barbarism in the north and leave us alone, the issue could have been resolved so easily. During Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Malabar, several Gods were rescued by the faithful and taken to temples in southern Kerala, and later taken back when the danger receded. Why on earth can’t we do something of that sort, since we do know that the ecological damage to that area is huge? Why can’t Swami Ayyappan be temporarily relocated to Pampa or even Nilakkal for a decade so that every devotee can feast their eyes on their Lord? Then his poomkavanam which countless number of men have shitted and pissed on could restore itself, and then we can honour the tradition of him being a recluse – and not merely a brahmachari – by reducing those allowed there to a fixed number and choose impartially, maybe by lottery in which all applicants’ names could be entered conducted publicly and transparently? If we can have the dubious, non-transparent devaprasnam as a way of communicating with him, the lottery can work better and that way he could get to choose whom to see? If you are serious that Ayyappa is a deity with personality attributes, then you cannot but grant him agency, let him choose!
Or maybe do not permit the pilgrimage for a year — in that case, the condition he set for the Malikappurath Amma, who is believed to be waiting for the day when first-time male worshippers do not reach there, would be met! I mean, if Ayyappan did promise Malikappurath Amma that he would receive her that day and of course he wouldn’t make a false promise (he can’t possibly be like cheap Romeos in the movies) and so maybe that day has finally arrived and we ought to be rejoicing for them both!
I can fully understand the resentment of men, especially working-class men, in Kerala. There are many men who faithfully observe the vratam, but there are many more who are lax to various degrees. These latter men are angry because they have lost yet another homosocial space — strangely enough, not much longer after the loss of the all-male spaces of Malayali bars. But what I truly feel concerned about is the predicament of Ms Easwar and other women like her who are clearly riding a menacing tiger, of Hindutva gender norms. They think they are little durgas but they aren’t; they can’t get off the damn creature. For then they would have to ride inside its belly. These women are not Ayyappa who milked the tigresses and rode them, nor are the Hindutva gender norms Ayyappa’s tigers for sure.