Ayyappa: Ascetic extraordinaire
by Sandhya Jain on 27 Nov 2018 86 Comments

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 (pathinettaam 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 arddhasana (yogapadasana), a posture of extreme tapas (meditation). His knees are bent upwards, bound to his back by ‘yogapatta’ (a belt made of cloth) with right hand in Chinmudra (gyan mudra) 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 Naishtika Brahmachari (student who accompanies His Guru everywhere and learns Vedas from him), 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 (observing) state, Sat-Chit-Ananda, the supreme meditative state. The only 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 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.


The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal

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