Breaking Religious Barriers in Kerala

Protests erupting at Parliament Street, on October 14, 2018 in New Delhi, India against the Supreme Court Verdict.

Protests erupting at Parliament Street, on October 14, 2018 in New Delhi, India against the Supreme Court Verdict.

The Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha Temple located in Kerala, India stands centuries old and has a tradition of banning women of ‘menstruation’ age into the temple out of fear of defilement and weakening of the idol possessing the deity’s spirit. The Temple is one of the more popular to visit with an estimated one hundred thousand devotees pilgrimaging to the site each year during the two-month period of open access. It has many rules engineered towards keeping the holy place clean. These rules include a ban on cow and deer slaughter and the death of people on temple grounds. Critics of this ban believe that the temple’s holy texts reek of Brahminic hegemony as they not only mention defilement by blood and urine, but also by lower castes’ entrance. Such criticism brought the ban to the attention of Kerala’s High Court in 1991. At that time, the High Court upheld the decision that women between the ages of 10 and 50 could be restricted from entering the temple as the justices believed the prohibition was constitutional as it was “only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class.” In a move that would cause massive discontent by the Brahmin caste, as well as protests supporting the religious rights of women, the Supreme Court of India in September 2018 moved to overrule this previous Kerala law to allow women of any age to visit the temple.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud commented on the overturn of this law by stating, “religion can't be used as a cover to deny women the right to worship” as well as saying that “to treat women as the children of a lesser God was to blink at the Constitution.” Yet a political opposition still lies within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative faction within the Indian government, as well as locally in the more left-leaning state of Kerala, who are largely supported by Hindu-nationalists who cling to religious and cultural tradition. The BJP are so opposed to the overturn of this ban that they have called for a state-wide shutdown in protest with closures of schools and businesses. Breaking out across multiple cities, protests have led to BJP-supported shutdowns in the way that the BJP supported due to the heavy amount of violence and arrests being made by state government culminating in 3,000 arrests and one death.

Due to protests over September’s decision, women choosing to pilgrimage to Sabarimala Temple face dangers of harassment along their way. Many groups of women have since tried to enter, but have been turned away due to mobs attacking the police escorting these women trying to enter safely. Bindu Ammini was one of two women under 50 years of age who ventured to the temple and was not turned away. She recounts to the New York Times that once she entered Sabarimala her visit was peaceful. “The violent mob was out of that place,” she said,“No devotee raised any voice against our journey to the shrine.” Yet hours after the visit, the temple was shut down due to the priests’ desires to partake in purification ceremonies due to the women’s entrance. The ceremonies included cleaning the building with water, removing soils and debris, as well as giving a feast to the Brahmins. The head priest of Sabarimala, Kandararu Rajeevaru, stated, “I am sad that the verdict came in this manner. But now, we will respect it and make arrangements, along with the Travancore Devaswom Board [which runs the shrine], for women of all ages to enter Sabarimala. We will not stop women from entering Sabarimala. Nobody will.” This action of closing the temple to purify and feast soon after the arrival of two women that desire to pray appears to be directly in opposition to his statement above.

The striking down of this ban against women is not just a matter of religion and women’s rights, but has become political in nature. Allowing women to enter the site of prayer threatens the Brahmin caste and their hold on India’s society. As a priestly class, the Brahmins hold weight on government decision-making due to the cultural importance of Hinduism within the nation. With the Supreme Court striking down this one temple’s ban, it  now asserts its ability to strike down or uphold religious bannings and rulings of other regions of India if they deem them to be unconstitutional. In this way, the power of the Brahmin caste appears to be slowly crumbling and making room for a separation between church and state if the BJP and other hindu-nationalist do not push back relevantly to reverse the decision or keep other decisions by the judicial branch at bay. Further evidence shows that these protests and upheavals rocking the state of Kerala have occurred only months before the upcoming general elections of April and May. Critics believe that the overturn of this Kerala law is being used as a political move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to court the needs of the Hindu-nationalist who may look at his rhetoric and condemnation of state government’s decision to follow through with the Supreme Court ruling as a reason to re-elect him and his party in the near future. The political nature of this ruling is being used as a ploy to get more people outraged and involved, thus appearing at the polls to vote in favor of their supported stance on this one issue. The massive protests may lead to victory for the BJP party in the upcoming elections, as we have seen in other historical settings that those who fear the breaking away of tradition and religious value will make their way out to protest, riot, and vote due to alarm of the change. Sabarimala Temple will continue to be at the forefront of national debate as the elections grow near.