Gender, Rights and Sabarimala – T. N. Seshan

Square plug in a round hole

T.N. SeshanThe argument is that men and women are absolutely equal. Nobody questions this wisdom. But the creator, in his wisdom, has not made men and women identical. The tasks that men can perform, women cannot, and vice versa. However much we try to force a notional equality, the two sexes are functionally different. – T. N. Seshan

The Supreme Court has said that women should be allowed entry into the Sabarimala Temple. Its recent judgment on the issue is based on equality between men and women. The verdict delivered by the apex court is being hailed by a section of people as a step forward for equality. The same section of people is also branding any opposition to the judgment as a reaction from chauvinistic or patriarchal forces in our society.

On the other hand, another section of people, which is contesting the verdict, terms it an attack on their personal faith and even women among the faithful are coming out in support of this perspective, saying that the verdict is violating their right to practise their faith. Now, the ideas of constitutional equality are far younger than original ideas of tradition about how worship is to be done. This is not to question the wisdom of the Supreme Court judges, or their decision, but constitutional equality is a recent notion, whereas traditions of religion and faith are far older.

The argument is that men and women are absolutely equal. Nobody questions this wisdom. But the creator, in his wisdom, has not made men and women identical. The tasks that men can perform, women cannot, and vice versa. However much we try to force a notional equality, the two sexes are functionally different.

Constitutional equality cannot make the functioning of the two sexes identical. Constitutional equality cannot make a man do the job that a woman can do and vice versa. The issue under consideration is not a question of equality between man and woman. The question here is of performance of certain tasks. Looking at it from the perspective of the faithful, with due regard to the way God has created man and women, and to the scriptures and the belief systems associated with the deity, tasks are enjoined on the faithful by tradition to visit the temple under certain conditions.

Like most other rituals in the Hindu faith, there is no compulsion on anyone to visit—it is optional and it is encouraged. The task given to men is to visit at any time in their life after following the mandated austerities practised over a specified period preceding the visit. And though the task with similar austerities is also given to women, tradition has said that women cannot enter the temple, especially at certain times. The recent notion of constitutional equality cannot change this practice, which is much older and basic, rooted as it is in scripture and tradition.

There is no inequality in this context in the sense that all women are free to practise their faith in that deity. The holy place for this particular faith is the Sabarimala Temple. But the faith also prescribes those specific tasks that are to be performed by the faithful. If one does not have faith, he will not feel obliged in fulfilling the prescribed tasks. And the person’s desire to go to the holy place regardless becomes anything but an expression of faith; in such an instance the person can be described more accurately as a tourist than a devotee.

Rights are being demanded by some people as if this is about a right to enter a public place like a hotel or tourist spot. If one believes it is a holy place because of his or her faith, then there should be no hassle in adhering to the way tasks must be performed, as prescribed to the faithful in the context of that faith.

For that matter, while stressing on constitutional rights-based equality for women on the same level as men, one can make a completely valid demand in the context of Parliament. It can be demanded that in Parliament or in our political parties there should be equal representation of men and women.

And nobody has been able to secure equality for Indian women in Parliament. Political parties and Parliament are crucial parts of the functioning democracy and constitutional rights can be demanded in the latter. In contrast, the tasks performed for one’s faith are designed according to the God-given nature of man and women, in the context of faith in the deity, and these have been the traditions of those belief system for centuries. Equal rights in Parliament and in holy places are altogether different issues.

It must be mentioned once again that this is not an attempt to question the wisdom of the Supreme Court judges, nor are we questioning the apex court’s judgment. What we are questioning is the fundamental basis of attempting to impose constitutional equality, of trying to force equality where God has not made man and woman identical in performing tasks. – The New Indian Express, 1 December 2018

» T.N. Seshan is a retired IAS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre. He was the 10th Chief Election Commissioner of India, who reformed elections by ending many of its malpractices in the country.

Sabarimala Female Pilgrim



6 Responses

  1. Yes, you are right, Madam Professor. But ‘same’ is a synonym for equal and, unfortunately, it is how most people understand the word.

    It is also what westernised feminist professors like yourself mean when you use the word—isn’t it?

    If that observation is not true, then why do you ignore what Seshan is saying, that duties are divided differently between the genders in all of life’s various activities including religion.

    But this discussion is irrelevant and beside the point. You are not listening to me or Seshan or Sandhya Jain (who wrote a very fine article that you commented on).

    What everybody continues to ignore is that Sri Ayyappan is a living entity at Sabarimala and continues his residence there under certain agreed conditions. We call these conditions ‘tradition’ as they are passed down verbally and through practice (rituals). If these conditions of engagement between the deity and devotee are broken, the deity is likely to leave and return to his own loka. That would be a disaster for the devotee—though getting Sri Ayyappan to leave appears to be the objective of the Supreme Court and the Communist Kerala government.

    It is also not understood that the temple priest is a servant of the deity only, not of the devotee. His obligation is to see that the deity is served in accordance with the traditional rituals and discipline that so far have pleased him and caused him to remain in residence at Sabarimala.

    Breaking these traditions and rituals because an ignorant and unsympathetic gang of secular judges has a newfangled ‘feminist’ idea about equality of the genders in the service of religion is just not on. Let them first ‘equalise’ their own house and include a few more females on the bench. With their devilish order on Sabarimala and overt indifference to the feelings of Hindus for the Ramjanmabhumi in Ayodhya, they have proved the truism that men have balls and no brains, while women do have brains but not the power to act on their true Hindu understanding and intuition.

    Let me end these remarks with a story of an encounter I had in the early 1970s when I lived in a beach house in Juhu, Mumbai (Prithviraj Kapoor was my neighbor).

    The house was run by a Gujarati family who belonged to the popular Swami Narayan sect centred in Gujarat. Swami Narayan sadhus are true nashitka brahmacharis and strictly follow the rule of no contact with women including visual and audio contact. They travel in groups in curtained busses and when passing through crowds in a station or market, they fix their gaze on their feet and lay men go ahead of them shooing the women in the crowd out of their path.

    One Rakhi Purnima the Swami Narayan guru and brahmacharis from the Mumbai ashram came to our beach house for a sea bath and to change their sacred threads. The house was full of women plus two servant boys and myself. The day ahead we scrubbed and cooked delicacies and prepared the house to receive the famous guru—I believe it was Pramukh Swami Maharaj—and his forty chelas.

    When the bus arrived, the women disappeared into the side rooms and the servant boys and myself were left to look after the guests. They had their sea bath, changed their threads, put on new clothes, and tied rakhis on the guru. They then stuffed themselves with the tea and goodies we had provided for them. The guru graciously blessed the house and went away with his troop of brahmacharis in their curtained bus. Everybody was happy and nobody thought that the women who had worked so hard to provide a clean house and special food had been ostracized or treated badly. The sadhus were our guests and we, in true Hindu fashion, were most concerned with pleasing them and respecting their discipline, not in them pleasing us. Not one woman complained and all were happy that the holy men had eaten our food and graced the house with their special presence.

    But you are not interested in understanding this Hindu point of view—are you, Madam Professor? Having spent your life teaching in Catholic universities in Canada, you know better than we do about ‘equality of the sexes’. Believe me when I tell you you don’t. Equality exists only in the eternal divine Atman which enlivens us all and all extant beings, not in our genders or duties or social position—balls and brains notwithstanding.


  2. Equality doesn’t mean they are the ‘same’. It means that they have equal access to rights, opportunities, etc.


  3. Like

  4. Sabarimala Pilgrims

    Sabarimala Temple Footfall Drops by 60%, Board Launches Advertising Campaign After Revenue Takes a Hit – Team Latestly – Yahoo News – 2 December 2018

    In the wake of the declining number of devotees visiting the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, the temple management is launching an advertising campaign to inform devotees that visiting the shrine is safe. In its advertisement, the temple board assures that there is no threat to the lives of the devotees visiting the Ayyappa Temple in Kerala. According to a report by Hindustan Times, the number of devotees visiting the shrine during the annual pilgrimage season, dropped in the first two-weeks as compared to last year. According to the Travancore Devasom Board, which runs the temple, the number of visitors is down 60% and revenue has taken a hit by 70%.

    Even the ones who visited the temple during the annual season that started mid-November, donated less in the donation box. Moreover, the devotees who visited this year bought less Aravana Payasam prasadam, the offering at the temple, the report informed.

    The report informs that when the temple management opened the donation boxes, they found less money but found paper notes with “Save Sabarimala” written on them. In the wake of the crisis, the temple Board approached several advertising agencies to run the ad campaign in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as a majority of devotees come from these states.

    The Sabarimala Temple complex has been witnessing a high drama as protestors are agitating against the entry of a woman pilgrim, suspecting her to be in the menstrual age. The report informs that protesters have been advising devotees not to buy payasam or donate to the temple. The protest is against the local government and the temple board’s willingness to implement the top Court’s order of allowing women of all age groups to enter the temple.

    Due to early incidents of violence at the hill-top shrine, police have had imposed strict restrictions on devotees at Sannidhanam, the temple premises. The HT report informed that a businessman from Tamil Nadu, M. Muthuswamy, who has been a Sabarimala veteran of 20 years, bought just one can of the payasam, as against the 40 he used to buy for friends and relatives while returning home. He said he was convinced to do so by protesters he met on the way to the temple who said the his money will go towards destroying his “favourite deity”.

    On September 28, the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment, paved the way for entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in Kerala. The five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, said that banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates rights of Hindu women. While Justices R. F. Nariman and D. Y. Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice A. M. Khanwilkar, Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.


  5. Marxist Flag

    Government trying to re-establish caste divide among people: NSS – Express News Service – Kottayam – 2 December 2018

    Continuing its tirade against the LDF government over its adamant stand on the Sabarimala issue, the Nair Service Society (NSS) on Sunday alleged the government was trying to re-establish a caste divide in the state.

    Coming down on the meeting of progressive social and community organisations convened by the government the other day, NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair said the government organised the meeting in the name of the renaissance, only after it failed in its attempt to impose its one-sided decisions at the all-party meeting, convened by the Chief Minister. According to him, the attempt of the government to differentiate savarna (upper caste) and avarna (lower caste), would ultimately create a caste-based divide in society.

    “When the government’s attempt to implement the Supreme Court order on the woman’s entry issue failed to yield any results, it is now trying to build a caste-based divide in society by raising upper-caste hegemony as the reason for everything,” he said.

    The NSS general secretary said the effort of the stalwarts of the renaissance helped sweep away unethical practices, superstition and discrimination based on caste and religion in society. “Anybody can see there were clear political motives behind the government move to resolve the Sabarimala issue by triggering a caste-based divide,” said Sukumaran Nair.

    Moreover, what is the connection between renaissance and young women’s entry into Sabarimala, he asked. “While renaissance activities eliminated unethical practices and discrimination, young women’s entry in Sabarimala is based on rituals and practices, as well as faith in God. They are not correlated. Realising these facts, the government should have come forth to protect the faith of devotees by convincing the court,” he said. Not only did the government not do that, but it also prevented the Travancore Devaswom Board from doing so. “Hence, the government was inviting such an order from the court. It would not be wrong to say the government is trying to impose atheism under the cover of the Supreme Court order,” he said.

    If the government thinks they can make political gains by creating a savarna-avarna divide and flaming caste sentiments among people, they are mistaken, said Sukumaran Nair.


  6. Men's Rights

    The newfangled idea that men and women are equal—meaning ‘the same’—is absurd. Men have balls and women have brains—where is the equality?


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