Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The God of big things

The religious pilgrim in India, if Kerala's Sabarimala is an indicator, has abandoned his moderate self in the hope of a godly life

Ernakulam: In John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, a pilgrim is warned about the end of the world by a judgement in a book.

In Kerala, the Supreme Court judgement in the Sabarimala temple case on 28 September may have kindled a similar sense of deja vu among some. Three months on, the furore over granting women access to the centuries-old hilltop shrine refuses to die down.

Women of menstrual age had always been banned, at least in theory, from entering the Sabarimala shrine, perched on top of a hill surrounded by a lush green forest in South Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.

The ban was apparently in keeping with the wishes of the celibate deity of the temple. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, violative of gender rights and equality, and ordered that women of all ages be allowed access.

The judgement almost immediately sparked protests—so much so that the brotherhood and political coexistence that Kerala witnessed during the century’s worst floods in August seems like an illusion now.

The pilgrim’s burden

Sindujan, from Kerala’s Palakkad district, went to Sabarimala at a particularly fraught time this year.

It was in October and, on the same day, Rehana Fathima, an activist claiming to be a devotee, was trying to visit the shrine. She was wearing riot gear and had police escort. This angered Sindujan. He joined a mob of protestors who physically blocked Fathima on her way up the hill, forcing her to abandon the trip and return home.

The day became a flashpoint in the post-judgement life of Sabarimala pilgrims, who subsequently blocked about two dozen women who have tried to enter the shrine.

“My eyes welled up, I have seen this woman as part of a ‘Kiss of love’ protest (a popular protest against moral policing held in Kerala in 2014)," Sindujan said. “Are these the kind of women who should visit Sabarimala? They are playing with the light of our life."

Sindujan was, in fact, articulating a burden that has fallen upon every Sabarimala pilgrim. The annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala is already an arduous affair. Pilgrims renounce material comfort, abstain from sex and alcohol and trek miles through the forest carrying a bulky bag of offerings to the deity.

There is more to the Sabarimala controversy. It is also a tale of the gradual unravelling of the Indian secular state, experts say-

Given the political polarization, one more factor was now added to the mix: a visit to this pilgrim site now has also become a political statement of sorts for many. Sabarimala pilgrims are now part of a loyal group that loathe those that support women’s access to the shrine. Sindujan, 30, sees them as sinners, and is worried about the sanctity of his beloved temple if women are allowed to enter.

He has been dogged in his persistence, having visited the shrine for the 23rd time this year, in the face of hardship. Sindujan lost his right hand in an industrial accident and ekes out a living by selling lottery tickets. Many relish the challenges of these penances, some see it as necessary to attain salvation, and others see it as an opportunity to be seen as a good person.

The pilgrim’s guide

In Bunyan’s book, the pilgrim is assisted by several colourful characters—Evangelist, Faithful, Goodwill, Gatekeeper, Interpreter and so on—who provide the moral boost and support for him to finish the spiritual journey and achieve salvation.

The Sabarimala pilgrim is also not alone in his fight.

Midway through the trek to the hilltop in October, two activists of Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, stand as guides for pilgrims. They were ferried by the party, like thousands of others, to block women, they say. As soon as Fathima tried to enter, they said, they inspired the mob to chant “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa", a devotional chant that now acts as a dog whistle for protesters, and brings on the righteous anger that animates them to break the law.

The first of the two, who requested not to be named, says his wife just gave birth to a baby boy, and is still in hospital. But he does not want to go home anytime soon. He is enamoured by the sort of hero’s welcome his Facebook selfies from the hill are generating.

“My village folks have asked me to tell them in advance when I’m returning so that they can give me a proper reception," he said. “If only we can drag this until the election."

His zeal, mirroring that of an evangelist, highlights how the Bharatiya Janata Party has made Sabarimala the chosen battleground in the only state, apart from smaller north-eastern ones, in which it does not have an elected member of Parliament.

Beyond the hill, several others are also jostling to be seen as supporting the pilgrims; the most faithful would be the leaders of the Congress, Kerala’s main opposition party, who have sworn to be faithful to the pilgrims, despite the party president Rahul Gandhi explicitly telling reporters he favours the entry of women.

The pilgrim’s crusade is also supported by the Nair Service Society, the organization of upper caste Nairs in Kerala. But the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the other major caste organization, belonging to the lower caste Ezhava community, has a blow-hot-blow-cold approach to the protests.

Incidentally, both organizations have their roots in ending caste-based oppression by higher castes in the name of religion.

Then there are the gatekeepers, the head priest Kandararu Mohanaru and the members of the Pandalam royal family who are associated with the temple’s rituals and command respect from devotees, who have threatened to shut down the temple if women were allowed entry.

The interpreters, such as right-wing activist and motivational speaker Rahul Easwar and his wife Deepa Rahul Easwar (Easwar is also related to the head priest), are perhaps the most visible faces of the crusade

In debate after debate, from local TV channels to national news studios, they help explain how allowing women is against Lord Ayyappa’s will. But their detractors charge them with sophistry and speaking without a deep understanding of the land or the religion. Appearing in a quiz show on Sunday, Deepa, for instance, was asked which taluka Sabarimala falls in. She didn’t know.

Met by atheist

A leader from Idukki district of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is busy making arrangements to ferry hundreds of women to a neighbouring district on 1 January.

They will be joining about one million other women to build a human wall in a show of strength “against the ongoing attempts to reverse Kerala to the dark ages", as chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan puts it.

As the Sabarimala pilgrim walked through the forest valley after the apex court judgement, he encountered his biggest nemesis in Vijayan.

The Communist—who was, ironically, until recently criticized within the Left for alleged right-leaning tendencies— has been trying to convince pilgrims to give up the crusade and return the hill to peace. The pilgrims, of course, refused. The pilgrim finds strength in quoting the scripture, even as Vijayan holds rallies across the state peppering his speeches with the history of Kerala’s progressive religious and caste movements, which he terms “renaissance history".

One more factor may have just been added to the mix: any visit to this pilgrim site in future would also be a political statement-

He also persecuted the faces of the crusade, local BJP leaders, and arrested them one by one.

The pilgrims are also ridiculed in the town by Left historians, speakers, writers and even seers. For instance, Swami Sandeepananda Giri, a Left activist-turned-popular spiritual guru, questions some of the basic concepts on which the debate is founded, such as that the deity “Ayyappa" is a bachelor. In his speeches and television appearances, he cites Hindu scriptures to state that the bachelor deity Ayyappa is a later creation, who is believed to have merged with the “Dharma Sastha" deity form who is said to have two wives.

According to P.K. Sajeev, founder of the Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha, Ayyappan is a tribal god who had nothing against women visiting, but was a hapless victim of Brahminisation of the temple and its rituals, which subsequently ousted not only menstrual age women but also the tribal community from the shrine.

Despite this, the Sabarimala pilgrims continue their fight in the apex court, expecting the court to admit a plea for review of the judgement on 14 January.

Vanity Fare

There is more to the Sabarimala issue.

The Sabarimala story is also a tale of the gradual unravelling of the Indian secular state, experts say.

The turbulent situation in Sabarimala can be viewed as an example of a conflict between religious freedom and the regulatory powers of the state, according to Sumantra Bose, a professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics (LSE).

“India is a secular state with no state religion. Of course, the actual reality, the political reality has shifted over time… (but this secular state concept) is not based on a measured and deliberate separation between the church and state, sort of a bedrock of the Western version of the secularism," Bose said while giving a talk on his new book, Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism at LSE on 23 October.

The Indian state, he said, is self-invested with vast powers over religion and religious matters. “So the Indian Constitution assures religious liberty for all, freedom of faith profession, practise, propagation, but always subject to public order, morality and health. And of course the ultimate interpreter of what constitutes or does not constitute public order, morality and health is the state and those at the helm at the state."

What follows from this is the state constantly and inevitably intervening in the religious domain, giving rise to allegations of interference.

In the process, the state should also not give preferential treatment or discriminate against various religious sects, which is much easier said than done, said Bose.

In 2019, such debates are bound to grow louder, as governments try to piggyback to power on the rise of majoritarian forces. With general elections due by May 2019, the central government is already facing pressure from within to commit to building a Ram temple in Ayodhya in place of the Babri mosque, despite the matter being before the apex court.

Both religion and constitution are made out of rules and customs, and come to life upon their faithful observance. Both are built on a ground of social mores. How does one resolve a conflict where the two battle for an upper hand over what constitutes right and wrong?

On Monday: The Voter

Close