The argument is that an agnostic view must be taken, the third generation human rights of a certain group of believers must be respected, and this has nothing to do with woman's rights. Secularism alright but why atheistic secularism, why not agnostic?
By giving all women the right of entry to the Sabrimalai temple is the Indian system of law not stretching itself higher towards perfection? Is it not a sign that the nation is making progress? Not necessarily. The questions involved are not as straightforward as they seem.
For an atheist it is a matter of women’s rights being pitted against what they see as the naivety and superstition of the believers, so atheists have no doubts on this matter. The agnostic will give credence to both perspectives and look at finding a middle way. For the believers however, something of unmeasurable value is poised for destruction at the altar of a needless misdirected controversy.
The United Nation uses an agnostic approach in its definition of Human Rights. Over the decades it has arrived at what some scholars call as the third generation of human rights. This concerns peoples’ rights to pursue their own faith and beliefs. And India is a signatory. So, for instance, a Christian in India would have the right to profess and practice his religion under the rule of law.
But, if the Christianity community itself does not have a right to exist, how would a Christian get his third generation rights? So by implication, the community itself should be able to enjoy its sacraments, its holiness, its beliefs and its places for worship. This calls for a new generation—the fourth generation—of Human Rights; not for individuals but for communities. A community needs to be treated as a legal entity and this legal entity must have the right to exist under rule of law.
The Indian Constitution leads the world in allowing for such diversity; for example the Indian legal system supports diversity in its civil code, something uncommon in the world. The Indian courts have also used terms like ‘integral to the practice of the faith’, ‘denominational’ or ‘essential practice’ to address this. If a certain practice is considered an ‘essential practice’ of a certain denomination or faith then credence has been given to such claims against challenges. The question therefore is to establish whether or not the traditional restrictions on the entry of women into Sabrimalai temple are integral to the faith or not.
The question gets further complicated by the fact that neither the belief system surrounding the deity Ayyappa Swami nor the whole of Hinduism can be defined as religions. If Christianity is the perfect example of a religion, then Hinduism is more than one. Hinduism is actually a confluence of sub religions or alternatively it can be called as a confluence of ‘denominations’. Each denomination by itself has a certain operational wholeness about; they can each be considered as sufficient paths to the divine experience. The scriptures celebrating Lord Ayyappa may only be a part of the voluminous scriptures of the Hindus, but the worship of Lord Ayyappa is traditionally considered to be adequate to meet the faithful’s spiritual needs. This makes the community of believers of Lord Ayyappa a complete and valid denomination. The faith in lord Ayyappa is a living reality for the believers and it plays a huge role in their daily lives.
For example, Kannagi (name changed) is close to 60 years old and works as a daily wage labourer in one of the gardens in Chennai. She has a son of around thirty who is an alcoholic. His marriage is on the rocks and he lives with his mother separated from his wife and child. Advice, counselling, de addiction, medicines, nothing helped him get rid of his habit. Then it was suggested to him that he should wear the ‘mala’. And to Kannagi’s surprise and joy the man agreed. The young man’s awareness of culture surrounding the institution seemingly gave him hope. And in due course one night, he had one last swig at the bottle came back measuring the road, and the morning he wore the ‘mala’.
A week down the line I asked Kannagi Amma “How is he doing?” and she replied, “He got angry and stamped me on the chest yesterday and I am in some pain. I held his feet and said ‘Sami should not get angry’. He calmed down after that. But he is finding it difficult, fighting it, I hope all goes well.”
The son was probably battling withdrawal symptoms, and the mother was both compassionate and hopeful.
This real life instance shows how deeply the legend and traditions relating to Swami Ayyappa are integrated into the living culture in south India. Besides non-drinking the austerities include, non-smoking, no bad habits, no non-veg, no cutting hair or shaving, regular team prayer and most of all avoiding contact with women—including one’s own wife.
It naturally implies austerities for the wife as well. The man first of all seeks permission from his wife for undergoing the pilgrimage. Then it is she that hands out the ‘black’ robes to him. The family abstains in honour of the swamis in the home. And it is a process of purification for all the members of the family. So both men and women have different prescriptions in the pursuit of their faith in the deity. And in totality these practices in some way bind a family together in prayer and promote the family’s wellbeing.
These austerities come as a package. And it includes the entirety of the disciplines coming through scripture, through living tradition and through the disciplines associated with the ‘Mecca’ of their ‘denomination’. The purity of such austerity may seem meaningless to atheists and agnostics but it means the world to the believers.
Then there are those who believe in a Universal God; for them all holy places, whether temples or mosques or churches are the same. The following two verses throw light on this system of belief: Bhagwad Gita 7:21, 22.
“Whatever form a particular devotee wishes to worship with full faith—concerning that alone I make his faith unflinching. Endowed with that faith, he worships that deity, and from him gets his desires, which are indeed granted by Me alone”
The Universalists therefore consider deity worship as having limitations, but they overlook the limitations because they accord far greater value instead to the graces which faith brings. They recognize that for the faithful the worship of that deity is their only access to the Divine, so in wisdom they refrain from disturbing denominational faith.
As for those who do not believe in God, they must realize that there is no conclusive proof about the non-existence of God either. It can be considered a matter of perspective alone that while one believes that God exists the other believes that God does not exist. As such the faithful may be allowed a private place they call holy with associated notions of purity and defilement. One can therefore avoid wickedness and show kindness instead by abstaining from doing something that ‘defiles’ what the faithful consider as pure.
The arguments placed in defence of women entry tend to reduce the profoundness of faith related matters to the simple question of a monthly biological cycle in women. In truth it is incidental that the cycles are natural to fertile women and it is the fertility instead that is addressed in the austerities associated with the deity. If the scriptures said that the deity distanced himself from fertile women then what is the hassle in respecting that? And though the board that takes care of the temple is under government control, the institution is still not a public utility equivalent to a hotel or a tourist spot; instead it is an integral part of denominational faith. Protecting the temple’s traditions is the protection of the third generation rights of the faithful.
Even if the judges do not want to change their minds, it still leaves the women the freedom to act in wisdom. The options are clear: believers in the Universal Spirit will not disturb the denominational faith. Those that believe in Lord Ayyappa will observe the required austerities and those that do not have faith can, out of compassion, desist from wickedness against the faithful. Just because the law permits someone to do something that hurts another for no reason it does not mean one should necessarily do it. And if the judiciary finds itself helpless, the legislature can still amend the laws to ensure that the third generation rights of the faithful are protected.
Note: Kannagi Amma’s son eventually had to cancel his pilgrimage on account of a death in the family. And his mother sighed deeply in the hope that he will undertake the pilgrimage the next time. And one prays of course that the verdict and its aftermath have not sullied the faith which the young man experiences it in surroundings.