Ayyappa: Ascetic extraordinaire – Sandhya Jain

Swami Ayyappan

Sandhya JainIt would be appropriate for the Supreme Court, when hearing review petitions on January 22, 2019, to reconsider its decision to permit women of all ages to visit the temple in violation of the specific tenets of Ayyappa worship. – Sandhya Jain

The 50-odd day Mandala Puja at Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, climax of 41-day long austerities by devotees who piously trek barefoot through Pampa forest to reach the shrine, has currently become a spiritual obstacle course for the faithful who have to suffer shabby sabotage by the State government that has ruthlessly curtailed transport and civic facilities for pilgrims, while hyperactively facilitating women of the prohibited age group to ascend the sacred sannidhanam (sanctum sanctorum).

Interestingly, in its controversial majority judgment of September 2018, allowing women of all ages to enter the temple on grounds of gender equality, the Supreme Court did not actually strike down rule 6(c) of The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act (1950, 2018), which prevents entry of women aged between 10-50 years in Sabarimala. Hence the Travancore Devaswom Board is duty bound to implement the rule and prevent women belonging to the said age group from entering the temple.

The State Government-dominated Board is refusing to implement its mandate, forcing devotees to brave stressful circumstances to protect the sanctity of the temple and its traditions. When police could misbehave with Pon Radhakrishnan, Union Minister of State for Finance, who came as a devotee carrying the sacred irumudi kettu on his head, the plight of ordinary pilgrims can be imagined. Images of women of the now-permitted age group weeping at the prospect of the tradition being defiled would surely have stunned the Honourable Justices who had tried to “liberate” them.

So far, vigilant devotees have ensured that attention-grabbing women of the prohibited age group do not ascend the sacred 18 steps (pathinettam padi) to the sannidhanam; many have been halted along the route itself. But until the temple opened for Mandalam Puja on November 16, it was open for only a few days in all; such intense vigilance may be difficult to sustain up to January 20-21; this has heightened tensions among the faithful. A devotee told this writer that while he was there, two women sporting false beards managed to escape scrutiny and reach the sacred steps; they were stopped with the demand that all men must ascend the steps bare-chested.

It would be appropriate for the Supreme Court, when hearing review petitions on January 22, 2019, to reconsider its decision to permit women of all ages to visit the temple in violation of the specific tenets of Ayyappa worship. The Court should also revisit the principles on which it has been ruling on questions of faith. Too many judicial interventions in recent years appear to be driven by the personal opinions of the honourable judges of the day; flout the constitutional separation of powers; and otherwise tread on tricky terrain, leading to complaints of judicial activism and overreach.

In the Shirur Mutt case (1954), the Supreme Court enunciated a doctrine of essential religious practice, and ruled that what constitutes the essential part of a religion is to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines of that religion itself. It stated that a religious denomination or organisation enjoys complete autonomy in deciding what rites and ceremonies are essential according to its tenets and no outside authority has any jurisdiction to interfere with their decision in such matters. Over the years, however, experts have observed that the Court has used this principle to itself decide what is “essential” and what is not, in an interventionist manner.

Ayyappa at Sabarimala is a unique yogi (ascetic); he sits in yogapattasana, a posture of extreme tapas (penance). His knees are bent upwards, bound to his back by a yogapatta (belt made of cloth) with right hand in chin mudra (knowledge gesture) and left hand facing downwards and resting on the knee. This is a rare yogic posture and symbolises the wish of the ascetic to leave no space for anyone to sit on his lap.

There is a powerful symbolism in this posture. When the seated image of a god has the left thigh folded, His divine consort sits over it; the folded right leg is for the child. Normally, the deity’s legs are crossed. However, Ayyappa Swami’s legs are not crossed; as a naishtika brahmachari (perpetually celibate student with a guru) he has no need to fold his legs because he has no wife or offspring. His raised and bound knees deny space to all. While divinities sit on simhasanas (royal thrones), Ayyappa sits on his feet, on a peetham, in deep meditation, with eyes open. In this state, he elevates one to the conscious awareness state, sat-chit-ananda, the supreme meditative state. The other deity wearing yogapatta is Narasimha in Yoga Narasimha form, but his legs are crossed and his consort sits on his left thigh.

This is the “essential religious practice” and core sanctity of the Ayyappa tradition that thousands of devotees, men and women alike, are fighting to preserve. Only the oceanic depth and diversity of the Sanatana Dharma can sprout such subtle and profound forms of divinity. They are not easy to comprehend, even for the devout, but they are worthy of utmost reverence. Justice Indu Malhotra understood that the Supreme Court should avoid wading into theology.

There was no threat to public order, morality or health. A bunch of busybodies with no locus standi had no right to tell a religious group what rites and ceremonies are essential to its practice; the august Court should have dismissed their nuisance petition. Sadly, it negated its own wisdom as defined in the Shirur Mutt case and failed to honour the assertions of the respected thantri regarding the tenets of the faith, denied his autonomy to decide its rites and rules, and allowed the mischief of non-devotees to prevail over believers. The fact that well-funded activists flew to Kerala to become the “first” to shatter the sacred barrier proves the iconoclastic mindset of the group which moved the petition.

In S. Mahendran vs. The Secretary, Travancore (1991), the Supreme Court opined that the prohibition of women of a particular age group was a reasonable restriction and did not apply to women as a class. It noted that the identity of a religious denomination consists in the identity of its doctrines, creeds and tenets which ensure the unity of the faith and bind its adherents together as one community. The Court should protect this bond of unity. – Vijayvaani, 27 November 2018


» Sandhya Jain is an author, senior journalist, and Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.


4 Responses

  1. Pramukh Swami Maharaj

    Let me tell 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. The brahmacharis 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 after asking after the family, went away with his sadhus in a curtained bus. The women of the house then reappeared. None the them thought that they had been ostracized or treated badly. The sadhus were guests of the house and all of us, in true Hindu fashion, were only concerned with pleasing them and respecting their discipline, not in them pleasing us.


  2. Sabarimala Issue: Man attempts self-immolation near BJP’s protest venue – The Pioneer – Thiruvananthapuram – 13 December 2013

    A 55-year-old man, said to be an Ayyappa devotee, attempted self-immolation near the protest venue of the BJP in front of the Secretariat here early Thursday.

    The man, identified as Venugopalan Nair, was a native of Muttada near here, police said.

    Chanting ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’ mantra, Nair set himself ablaze after pouring petrol over his body and tried to run to the makeshift tent where senior BJP leader C. K. Padmanabhan has been staging indefinite fast demanding the lifting of prohibitory orders at Sabarimala hill shrine, they said.

    However, the party activists and the police, who were present near the venue, doused the fire using drinking water and rushed him to the Government Medical College hospital.

    He suffered burn injuries all over the body, but was able to speak, they added.

    Police said Nair is an Ayyappa devotee.

    The BJP is opposing any move to allow women in the 10-50 age group to trek the holy hill for ‘darshan’ at the Ayyappa temple.

    When the temple was opened for monthly and special pujas in October and November, there were massive protests by devotees, following which severe restrictions, including prohibitory orders, were imposed.

    On September 28, the Supreme Court had lifted the ban on the entry of menstrual women in the Sabarimala temple.


  3. BJP protest against Kerala government at Thiruvananthapuram (13 Dec 2018).

    Ayyappa devotee immolates himself, BJP calls for Kerala shutdown – Zee News – Thiruvananthapuram – 13 December 3018

    A 50-year-old man early on Thursday set himself on fire at a BJP protest venue here and died at the state-run Medical College Hospital in the evening, police said.

    Venugopalan Nair poured kerosene on his clothes, set them on fire and ran into the protest venue in front of the state secretariat.

    At the venue was former state BJP President C.K. Padmanabhan, who is on an indefinite fast against the manner in which the Kerala government is handling the Sabarimala Temple issue after the Supreme Court ruled in September that all women can enter the shrine.

    Nair was rushed to the hospital. He had suffered 90 per cent burns and breathed his last on Thursday evening.

    Following the death, the BJP called a dawn-to-dusk shutdown in Kerala on Friday.

    While the police are yet to ascertain the reason for the immolation, the BJP is linking it to the Sabarimala Temple issue.


  4. Police yet to remove curbs despite Kerala High Court order – Express News Service – TNIE – Sabarimala – 14 December 2018

    Despite the High Court directive, police are yet to remove restrictions imposed on pilgrims at Marakoottam or take down the barricades at Lower Thirumuttom. Even on Thursday, police officers barred pilgrims at Marakootam claiming that sree kovil of the temple was closed at 1 pm in the day and 11 pm at night. Interestingly, the High Court had once again issued an order on Wednesday not to impose such restrictions.

    The restrictions on the movement at Marakoottam have a cascading effect on pilgrims as they have to stand in the queue for hours together and spend another two hours to reach the sannidhanam. Police have also failed to take down the barricades at Lower Thirumuttom. The barriers prevent free movement of pilgrims from reaching the pradasam counters, mahakanikka set up near the staff gate on the north-east of Sopanam and the Vavar Nada.

    Sources said police here have not received requisite order from the DGP’s office. The authorities also have not implemented the HC directive regarding the opening of Valiyanadapandal for the elderly, women and child pilgrims. During night time, the police deny the pilgrims to use Vailyanadapandal as the resting place. Hence, the pilgrims are forced to rest in front of Malikappuram Devi temple at night.


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