Is Sabarimala all about Gender and Patriarchy?
The Unique Sabarimala
It has an estimated seventeen to thirty million Hindu devotees praying here annually. Occasionally it even reaches close to forty-five million a year. This Hindu temple is situated in the State of Kerala, India. On the hilltop, close to the Periyar Tiger Reserve Forest. The deity worshipped there is Aiyyappa. By the scriptures, he is born to Shiva and Vishnu. Hence it is a temple where, Shaivism Vaishnavism, Shaktism, as well as Sramana traditions are followed. The temple is opened for the Mandala poooja and remains open from November 14th onward till Sankranti in January, until the sighting of the auspicious Makara-velaki. A large light that has mysterious origins and can be seen blazing in the forest.
A confluence of Isms
Hinduism is largely divided into Shivites, those who follow Shiva, and Vaishnavites they who follow Vishnu. Later wedged in further divides like Shaktism, which worships Parvati and her various avatars. Later came the non-Vedic Sramana traditions, which is basically an ascetic way of life. These traditions run parallel, to the Vedic ones. Like Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivika, Ajnana, and Carvaka. Sramana, in particular, is a practice, which believes in self-expression. The soul shall do as it deems fit. It is possibly the most permissive of all Hindu practice. It even advocates meat eating. Sramana practice is possibly the most liberal of all Hindu traditions.
The deity Aiyyappa
The deity of Aiyyappa is in the sanctum sanctorum, which is an enclosure eighteen steps above, from where the pilgrims begin to ascend, once they reach the foot of the temple. Aiyyappa is known as a Dharma Shasta. Shasta is a teacher, and the posture of Aiyyappa is thus. The Swami’s vahana or mode of transport is the tiger. My own observation here is this forest was swarmed by tigers, and this deity took it upon himself to take care of their preservation. Hinduism is all about ecology and natural balance of things. One Avatar of Lord Vishnu is Mohini who is an enchantress. Mohini entices Shiva and by their union, Swami Aiyyappa is born. Thereafter the scriptures are vague where this child grew up, but he was found in the forest by a king of Pandalam, and he adopts the boy. But despite the fact the boy is an exceptional son, he faces persecution in the hands of his adoptive mother. Whether he was deeply disenchanted and disappointed in life or he became braver for it and renounced the royal life and went back to his life in the forest is debatable.
Why Women were Not Allowed to Visit the Temple?
The temple is situated on a hilltop amidst eighteen hills at an altitude of 1,574 feet. This used to be a tiger ridden forest. It was a very arduous task to visit this temple. Hence men braved the visits there. Men abstained from sex, so as not to become physically weak. They slept on hard surfaces, so they could become acclimatized to the tricky-terrain, hike up to the temple, and practised vegetarianism to be able to sustain on little energy through a laborious hike.
A lot has changed since then. People motor up to the Pampa River, trek up the Neeli Mala, to Sabarimala. This trail is highly supported with medical camps to take care of any emergencies and other facilities. So, the extreme austerity practised before has only religious significance and no relativeness to the hike to the temple. The Lord Aiyyappa is assumed to be meditating, and his meditation must not be disturbed, that is the religious advice. Meditation can be disturbed by male devotees as well. Swami Aiyyappa is an astute ascetic if we believe women are a distraction to the Lord, we are undermining his ability at penance.
Should Women Visit the Temple?
Well if you are religious and are a stickler for convention, then stick to the ancient traditions of this rich Hindu heritage. If you are a Hindu and believe in evolution and that Hinduism has sustained because it has evolved since its conception, from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, then accept the change and let women partake the trek up to the hills, why not? Yet there are women who want to be spared the visit of one more temple.
Sabarimala is Fascinating
The conceptualization of this Deity, born to Mohini, the enchantress avatar of Vishnu and Shiva, this conceptualization recorded in our sacred texts, is fascinating. Had science grown to that extent in those days? The liberal act of being an enchantress, and being born to one, only amplifies the fact that Hinduism is progressive. The Supreme Court Verdict on 28th September 2018, allowing women to enter the temple is Hinduism in progression. The learned Judges will not deliver such a judgement without due diligence, keeping in mind social justice and gender equality. By protesting against the judgement by mere religious clerics and self-appointed keepers, is questioning the intelligence of a five-member constitutional bench. This is a changing world, and Hinduism in its ancient wisdom gave supremacy to women, in the way Shakti wins a war over her husband Shiva, Saraswathi is younger and stronger than her husband, when Lakshmi leaves Vishnu angry over an incident with Saint Bhrigu, Vishnu follows her down to earth penniless, and the story of Padmavati begins.
Hinduism and its religion are so beautiful, in uniqueness and contrariness, a religion which allows healthy debate and changes toward progress. There is no other way a religion could have survived through centuries. Respect for ecology, the earliest environmentalists, keeping snakes, rats, elephants and other animals safe. They are futuristic. Are the tigers not getting nearly extinct? Had not Hindus foreseen this? Was not Aiyyappa as deity protecting it? These are the relevant pressing issues today, not whether women can enter the temple or not. I will make the choice, to visit the temple or not, but dear men you cannot tell me not to! Those days have passed.