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Temple entry and ethics

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    7th Feb, 2019

The Supreme Court is hearing the review petitions on its September, 2018 order allowing entry to Hindu women of all age-groups in the Sabarimala Temple. Subsequent to the court’s verdict, the entry of two women into the shrine in December, 2018 had led to massive protests in Kerala by religious groups and a tussle between political parties in the State and at national level.

Issue

Context:

The Supreme Court is hearing the review petitions on its September, 2018 order allowing entry to Hindu women of all age-groups in the Sabarimala Temple. Subsequent to the court’s verdict, the entry of two women into the shrine in December, 2018 had led to massive protests in Kerala by religious groups and a tussle between political parties in the State and at national level.

During the hearing of review petition, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) supported the entry of women of all ages in the Temple which was earlier against it.

About:

Sabarimala and women entry issue:

Sabarimala Temple is a famous Hindu temple in India, located in Kerala. The temple houses the deity, Lord Ayyapam and is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). The presiding deity is believed to be celibate and hence, women belonging to the reproductive age-group (10-50 yrs.) are denied entry into the temple premises. The devotees have to follow a 41-day austerity period or Vratham prior to entry into the temple which women in menstruating age-group cannot carry out.

Supreme Court case

In September, 2018, Supreme Court gave its 4-1 verdict in favour of allowing women entry into the temple, across all age-groups. The court observed that disallowance of women entry into the temple shrine due to physiological reasons is discrimination based on gender. Equality in devotion is of fundamental import and patriarchy cannot be allowed to dismantle it.

One dissenting note- By Justice Indu Malhotra stating that court must not follow an interventionist role in case of religion, except social evils like Sati and should avoid tinkering in religious connotations to maintain secular ethos of the country. She also said that doctrine of equality cannot override Article 25 and notion of rationality cannot be always brought in the matters of religion.

Analysis

Arguments for women entry:

  • The restrictions are based on and promote patriarchy & inequality.
  • Ban on women entry goes against Articles 14, 15, 19, and 25 of the Indian constitution, which deal with the right to equality, the right against discrimination, freedom rights, and freedom of religion.
  • Right to manage its own religious affairs under Article 26 cannot override the right to practice religion under Article 25.
  • Successful reforms such as abolition of Sati, temple entry proclamation, abolition of untouchability, etc. have come from judiciary or legislature.
  • Another temple, Shani Shingnapur temple, which had earlier barred women from entering the sanctum sanctorum for over 400 years, allowed women entry following the court’s orders.

Arguments against women entry:

  • Women are barred to promote the gender-based discrimination but to maintain the 41-day purity Vratham which mensurating women cannot carry out.
  • Women during their menstruation period are not supposed to enter places of worship as per Hindu religious belief system.
  • The basis of the practice is the celibate nature of the deity and not misogyny.
  • Article 25 provides freedom to practice religious belief and the proviso under Article 25(2) pertains to only secular aspects and to social issues, not gender or religious-based issues.

Ethics of women entry:

The issue of restriction on entry of women in places of worship like Sabarimala, Shani Shingnapur, and Haji Ali have brought the debate of ‘religious tradition versus gender equality’ in public discourse. Such exclusion of women is a clear violation of their fundamental rights to equality, non-discrimination, practice religion, etc. given under Articles like 14, 15 & 25 of Indian Constitution and form the basics of Civil and Human Rights under United Declaration of Human Rights. The equal treatment in entry has material and symbolic equality as well.

The judiciary follows the ‘Essential Practices’ test when it comes to giving verdict on the sanctity of religious practices. The Indian State, also, follows a positive connotation of secularism and takes up an interventionist role to bring about socio-religious reforms in the society.

However, religious beliefs, traditions, and customs cannot be changed through a judicial or legislative process entirely but long-lasting reforms should come from within the society itself. As the cultural beliefs are passed on from generations and are inherent parts of socialisation process. Religious beliefs also provide a glue to hold the society together and act as moral compass for the society to distinguish right from wrong. Yet, the belief system undergoes the process of change with changing times.

Moreover, the pace of change decides the degree of resistance to it. Sudden and enforced change from outside at times is met with large scale resistance as it seeks to alter the inherent values of a society (e.g. protest against entry of two women in Sabarimala). The gradual change has a long-lasting impact upon the mindset of people. Education and socialisation process have an important role to play to bring out such long-lasting reforms in the society.

The diverse and complex nature of Indian society is also one hurdle in taking up equal approach in dealing with social issues wherein one section/value-system is often pitted against the other. The present verdict, also, talks about allowing entry to ‘Hindu women’ which in itself becomes an unequal approach. Also, the conservatives have right to practice their belief system too. Hence, the ethics of social reforms are of complex nature in India.

Best practice:

The temple belonging to Lord Kartikeya in the town of Pihowa, Haryana, follows a gradual approach towards women entry. The legend surrounding the temple speaks of a curse of widowhood to a woman entering the sanctum sanctorum of the temple by the presiding deity. The temple authorities have put up a warning on the entrance of the temple only and do not actively disallow women from entering. This leaves the matter to the agency of women who wish or do not wish to enter the temple. A via-media of this sorts can be followed in other temples as well which balances the fundamental rights of equality and non-discrimination with that of right of religion under the Indian Constitution while maintaining the social peace. 

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