Re-examining Sabarimala

As the Supreme Court refers the Sabarimala case to a larger bench, thereby giving a foot in the door to the devotees, it is time to grasp the essential ideas that make the case for the tradition so compelling and unignorable.

Re-examining Sabarimala

Today, the case for allowing all women to enter the ancient Hindu shrine of Sabarimalai has been referred to a larger bench by a 3:2 decision. This decision validates the very important concerns raised by the petitioners on behalf of the devotees and gives them some breathing space in the suffocating atmosphere created by frothing-at-the-mouth celebrity news anchors.

Sabarimala has been in the news for years now and has opened up a pandora’s box of conflicts of perspectives, which have, if correctly understood, tremendous civilizational implications. A dumbing down of the matter is to bracket the whole episode into a problem of civil and gender rights of individuals, which is of course true but only at a superficial level. I will not go into the history of the case and arguments and counter-arguments which is already well known to most who have read the papers and followed the events, but analyse some of the most persistent arguments for entry of women into the shrine of Sabarimala and how they become problematic for a culture and society that is largely polytheistic. I hope that this article provides the right context for correctly understanding the questions raised in the review petition that the larger bench will eventually ponder on.

Rituals and Methods

Sabarimalai, dedicated to Lord Ayyappan  or Hariharaputra or Manikanta, as he is variously known, is easily one of the holiest shrines of Hindus located in the verdant land of Kerala. By some accounts, it draws the largest annual pilgrimage to a holy place among all religious places anywhere in the world. The belief is that Swami Ayyappan was born out of the union of Siva and Visnu in his Mohini avatara. Another local legend records a king of the of Pandalam empire discovering a baby in the forest whom they raised in their family. Eventually, at the age of 12, overcoming challenges posed by a scheming queen and her evil adviser, Manikanta as he was named, performed a series of miracles and revealed his Divine nature to the king and the people, thus establishing himself as the devata we know as Ayyappa.

For centuries, people irrespective of caste have been following a 40-day vratam where they shun normal engagement with life, try to live as frugally as possible in honour of the ascetic nature of the Lord – shunning meat, sleeping on the floor, some even refusing to use footwear, robed in black and spending their time in prayer and japa, until finally at the culmination of the tapasya, they undertake an arduous pilgrimage to the shrine of Sabarimala to dedicate their sadhana to Swami Ayyappa.

Practicing Hindus – those engaged in the upasana of Hindu deities – will be able to relate to these conditions. Very often in mantra upasana, sadhaks (practitioners) are advised to follow this kind of strict discipline until the end of the mandala or period of upasana. For a stipulated period of time, which can be 40 days or 108 days or more, there are restrictions on food intake, sexual activity and even on speaking, depending on the exact nature of the practice. Such restrictions last till the anusthana gets over. At the end of the sadhana, the individual is  asked to perform the ritualistic worship of the ishta or chosen deity and dedicate the whole effort to Him or Her. In the case of Sabarimalai, a 40 day anusthana-like vratam is taken culminating in the devotee’s visit to the kshetra to dedicate his efforts to the Lord. Countless accounts of benefits, both of a material and spiritual nature, can be recounted by devotees who have performed this vratam and that is precisely why this shrine has gained such immense popularity among the people.

But fundamental to the process, as with any spiritual process within dharma, is the key aspect of Shraddha, a sanguine faith on the inevitability of the devata’s sanction to the fruits of the penance, which means that an atheist trying out this or any sadhana is effectively barred from deriving any benefit. In the same vein, anyone violating the rules of this upasana is also unlikely to derive any meaningful benefit from visiting Sabarimala. The mechanism of how upasana works, whether by a psychological reprogramming of the individual, or some supra-human agency is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that this methodology is followed across all religio-spiritual systems since time immemorial.

Denial as a ritual

Central to the idea of Sabarimala is the concept of celibacy, not just for the upasaka during the time of the vratam, but the deity itself. The texts are clear. Swami Ayyappa in  Sabarimalai is a ‘Naistika Bhramachari’ who has of his own accord accepted a vow of celibacy  and from this stems the practice of women of a specific age group not entering the shrine, as a mark of reverence for the will of the devata.

In dharmic traditions, devotion is not only through acts of positive invocation but also crucially, through restrain and self-denial. This is as much a part of the upasana as anything else. If one picks up the texts on highly revered Yogasutra-s of Patanjali, it starts with a section on yama and niyama: dos and don’ts that will help the yogin in his path. The restrictions, for one who is to follow the path of astanga yoga, include celibacy, truthfulness, ahimsa etc. What happens if these rules are violated? Two things: the results will fail but more importantly, it shows a fundamental disbelief, lack of shraddha, on the path and that itself disqualifies such a frivolous practitioner from venturing further.  In the same way, women who are devotees of Ayyappa willfully follow the restrictions imposed on them until they reach the suitable age of entry. This itself is a part of the process. Interestingly, almost all women devotees of Swami Ayyappa were in favor of continuing the tradition and all objections have come from those who do not qualify on the grounds of lack of shraddha.

This begs the most fundamental and commonsensical question which seems to have been lost in the age of instant outrage and superficial activism: what is the locus standi of the people who demanded a change in the tradition? If they are not believers, then their opinion is perfectly irrelevant. That an atheist will not understand this is quite reasonable, that we must bow down to the atheistic understanding or a lack thereof, is patently ridiculous and defies all logic and reason.

The constitution guarantees the basic freedom of worship to any individual or group without diluting their tenets and doctrines as long as it is within the ambit of public health and morality. What public health or morality is violated by the Sabarimala tradition? Secondly, who is to really decide on this: the people who follow the tradition or aliens with no empathy with or understanding of the culture?

So long as a practice does not cause physical harm, or violate basic tenets of public health and morality, no evidence of which was found in the essential practices of the Sabarimala devotees, there is absolutely no case for anyone else, even a court of law to sit in judgment on the morality, validity or the value of a practice. Not to mention that it is blatantly insulting and smacks of hubris to assume that someone with no knowledge or experience of a path has the authority to decide on doctrinal matters. This is precisely how the colonizers looked at India and Hinduism. Unfortunately, that same mindset has carried over to the highest echelons of power in a so-called independent India where a great majority of the population follows a culture and religion that is at odds with the moral commitments of the Anglophonic elites.

We are also told in this context that the issue is similar to the matter of entry of SCs/STs into temples. Really? In case of SCs/STs, it was amply evident that those who desired entry into the temple were devotees themselves and barring them from worshipping was a plain and simple case of discrimination. A bunch of holier-than-thou outsiders appropriating for themselves a moral high ground based on an atheistic paradigm, with total disregard to the sensibilities of even the women devotees of Ayyappa, are not victims by any stretch of imagination. At best, they are ignorant. But more likely, they are insidiously arrogant.

Essential Practice, Dharma vs Monotheism

One of the ideas that has been in vogue and which perhaps played a part in determining the outcome of the original judgement is the concept of essential practices of a religion. From the Abrahamic religious point of view, this can be easily determined. For example, the supremacy of a specific book, a particular format of prayer, pilgrimage to a certain location, reverence for historical prophets or originators of the path clearly delineate one sect from another. But what is an essential practice for Hinduism?

Dharma contains within itself various divergent branches, that agree and disagree with each other from both the doctrinal point of view as well as the ritual praxis. A Saivite is fully within his rights to consider Shiva as the Supreme being, much as a Vaisnavite thinks the same way of Vishnu or a Shakta about Devi. Many sects within large Hindu Dharma consider the Vedas as supreme, while the Tantric sects revere the Agamas and in some extreme heterodox sampradayas, they entirely reject the Vedas and consider their specific Tantric texts as the supreme guidelines. Apart from this, there is a vast array of folk or sabar practices which have been passed down orally generation after generation with no specific scripture. Some consider multiple deities as worthy of equal reverence, some believe in monism (one supreme underlying reality), some even qualified monotheism (one devata is the supreme, rest lesser). Some believe in the Divine with form while others perform upasana of the formless. But within the bounds of that specific path or sampradaya, its own rules are supreme and need no validation from other paths. This has produced a tremendously healthy culture of multi-faceted approach to Dharma quite unlike the bland monoculture of Abrahamic religions.

So the basic idea of defining any essential practice for Hindus is fundamentally flawed, and if at all such must be done, then the onus falls on experts of that specific sampradaya, in this case the Tantri of the Sabarimala temple, and not anyone who might have read a casual book here and there.  This too is commonsense which of course seems not so common these days.

Legal historians tell us that till 1864, the British employed pundits in courts for interpretation of the Dharmashastras and passing judgment according to the culture and history of the people. After 1864, the practice was discontinued on charges of variance in interpretation among scholars and suspicions of corruption. This eventually led to a deficiency in the judicial system due to a lack of clear knowledge and understanding of dharmic principles and this comes out most glaringly in a case like the Sabarimala dispute.

Take, for example, the confusion between God and devata. It is a confusion most rampant among those whose knowledge of dharma comes from ill-chosen books and articles and must be addressed in the context of this piece.


Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing has caused more Westerners to see polytheism as ignorant or childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype. The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases and therefore unconcerned with mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It is pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman. The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus who are sadhus or sanyasins devotee their lives to uniting with the Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment.

Most Hindus however are not sadhus. They are sunk in deep morass of mundane concerns, where the Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with the gods and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness. Hence the plurality of gods. This insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance… [it] is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind , by Yuval Noah Harari.

That is a fine summation of the fundamentals of polytheism. The gods or devatas as we call them are personalities with their specific likes and dislikes. So, when doing upasana, for example, of Shiva, we are asked to pour water on the Linga and offer bel leaves, for Visnu the devotee offers Tulasi etc. One cannot replace the other nor can you randomly offer anything whatever you like. Likewise, there are mantras and tantras to harness or contact a specific deity, which is independent and separate from other deities. And this includes even the place where a temple is constructed for a devata. Unlike in the case of Abrahamic or monotheistic religions, where a religious building is just that, a structure for congregation of humans, a mandir for a Hindu, specially a Tantrokta temple like Sabarimala, is literally an abode of the devata. Read the last line again and understand the core idea carefully. The Kamakhya temple has to be exactly where it is for the Shakti to reside in it because the land, in fact the very geography embodies the deity. A temple cannot be constructed anywhere and expected to replicate its original power. Not only the location but every single ritual that is done is exact and precise and irreplaceable because the idea is that by these methods, which were designed by the seers and rishis of yore, the specific deity can be invoked in that particular place so that humans can benefit for their interaction with this Divine power. So, while bali is needed in a Shaktapitha like Kalighat, a Vaisnava temple like Badrinarayan abides an entirely different set of rituals and. None of this can be randomly interchanged or substitute, because such an act will result in the devata leaving the abode which, to the believer, is a loss of immeasurable proportions. To be absolutely clear, the temple is the house of the deity and He or She has set the norm of what to be followed and what not to be followed. Therefore, if Ayyappa Swami in Sabarimala is a naistika brahmachari – a very valid idea in Hinduism – then honouring that is the sacred duty of every single devotee of Ayyappa. Violating this rule is akin to destroying the shrine and the path.

This is the basic concept that underlies the idea of treating the deity as a juristic individual who must enjoy the rights to decide who can and who cannot access his shrine much in the same way that any private individual can decide who can come into his home for a cup of tea and interaction. And if this were a case of mass discrimination against women why is it that other temples even of Lord Ayyappa do not hold this rule? Because the nature of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala is entirely different from His manifestation in other shrines. Moreover, had it been the case that the most traditional women devotees of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala wanted to change this rule then at least, there would be a case for so-called reform. On the contrary, the gathering that the atheistic Left-front government could muster to show support for their stance consisted of burka-clad women and the communist party comrades, not exactly friends of Dharma.


Reform is a much-reviled term in traditionalist circles while those who have learned Hinduism via soft Vedanta find it to be a morally inspiring motive. It is true that Dharma has changed itself at least in its customary rules with times, but always by efforts from within the community by leaders who are deep into the tradition. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, when he proposed widow remarriage, arranged for a traditional shastrartha to debate the opponents and he was confident he could make his case using the very same Hindu shastras that his opponents quoted from. That is the correct way to go about reform because it implies that you have first thoroughly understood what you are contesting. But what happened in the case of Sabarimala? Ignorant people with a misplaced sense of superiority sat on judgment of a 500-year-old spiritual system and decided merrily that such and such is a violation of rights. Sorry, that’s not reform, that’s bullying.


There are human rights and then there is Nature. Hinduism and most pagan thought systems understand that Mother Nature has infinite modes of expression. Accordingly, diversity and difference are celebrated rather than suppressed. This leads to a proliferation of approaches to the Divine. One’s religious path is tailor-made to suit one’s psychology and spiritual capacity, which is again partially a function of biology.  This grand and inclusive vision is entirely missing in a simplistic social-justice-warrior mode of reductionist thinking that has become the bane of modern society the world over. Whole communities are shamed into submission and their faiths and beliefs trampled upon using superficial logic and embarrassing propaganda. Those who do not understand their own tradition and culture make up for the deficiency by being loud critics of practices they don’t understand. There is no easy solution in sight for the malady except honest self-introspection.

Meanwhile, irony has not yet given up on India. So the only dissenting voice and the only woman judge from the 5-judge panel, Justice Indu Malhotra observed in the original judgement:

It is not for the courts to determine which of these practices of a faith are to be struck down, except if they are pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati,. Judicial review of religious practises ought not to be undertaken, as the Court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to practise one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs. It would amount to rationalising religion, faith and beliefs, which is outside the ken of Courts.

Yes, we need reform, nay a full churning, but not of Sabarimala and its tradition, which have withstood the test of efficacy and time. We need to reform the mindset of our elites out of the colonial hangover they suffer from. We need to reform our power structures that perpetuate the agenda of plunder that our erstwhile colonial masters pushed. We need to reimagine a new order where the sacrifice of our ancestors to keep this civilization alive is acknowledged and the will of the masses to be true to who we are is honoured. We need justice in the true sense of the word. Judicial reform, anyone?

About Author: Rajarshi Nandy

Rajarshi, a sadhaka and adherent of the Sanatan Dharma, is a technical writer by training, and a spiritualist by passion, currently working as a Contributing Editor for

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