Customs that threaten communal harmony must be eliminated
On September 28, 2018, a five-judge Constitutional bench ruled in favour of lifting the ban on entry of women aged ten to fifty years into the Sabarimala Temple, Kerala’s most celebrated temple. This verdict, which has paved way for prolific discussion and heated debate, presents a reality that India as a democracy must regard with non-tinted lenses.
The rhetoric we use today owes tremendously to Greek Mythology. One such myth that is pertinent to this argument is the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, the cunning king of Corinth, was punished in Hades (the supposed underworld) by having to repeatedly roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit. An analogy can be established, where the nation’s judiciary assumes the role of Sisyphus, and Secularism the stone in question.
The foremost point commanding attention is that upholding Secularism, instead of being a ‘punishment’, is the effort that the judiciary is charged with in order to hold the nation together as a citadel of democracy. The Supreme Court indeed did attempt to thrust Secularism to the top of the summit by ushering in the ban. This ban reflects the inherent ideology of a nation progressing towards global assimilation – that worship and gender are mutually exclusive. No person should have to put away their devotion on grounds of their gender. Further, this judgment has eliminated stasis and rust, and brought forward motion in terms of policy and the human condition. Interestingly enough, when the head priest threatened to resign over the expunction of the ban, he was told by the court that “The temple belongs to the people, not to the priest.” Fair enough! One could go on about the positives of such a verdict upholding gender equality before law ad nauseum, but there remain other issues, even if far from plain-sight, that need to be assessed simultaneously.
Now that Sisyphus has the stone where he wants it i.e. at the summit, why then does it roll back down with full force? First off, we must realize that the idea of Secularism can be perceived in varied ways. One way would be saying that the Secular State can and ought to interfere where it sees fit, even if it concerns religious regulations and the other way would be to say that Secularism can only be established once the State divorces itself from matters that concern religion and faith. Be it any religion, its codifications and regimen have never claimed to adhere to rationality as we know it or even to similar treatment of genders. So, it is but obvious that the stone will roll back down, if an issue that has no basis but faith is fidgeted with. Furthermore, those women who want to pay their respects to the Lord Ayyappa, the deity of the Sabarimala Temple, need not be present in the space we call the Sabarimala, for devotion really knows no bounds or confines.
Plato, the philosopher who gave us the foundation of Logic, was a great contender of the dialectic: he believed that ‘thesis ‘(read: the pros of the verdict) and ‘antithesis’ (read: the repercussions of it) together allow ‘synthesis’. This synthesis has been woven in the form of a national temperament that has brought in a massive wave of deliberation. For instance, one of the latest PILs to be have been filed pertaining this case is a gentleman seeking the allowance of women of all ages in all places of worship, be it temples, mosques, churches, fire-temples or even male-only places of worship. The Supreme Court dismissed it, but the point here is that, as Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Salman Khurshid puts it “The Supreme Court has opened a Pandora’s box.” The judiciary will have to rethink its philosophical commitments in light of the definition of a Secular State that it adheres to.
Lastly, it is imperative to recognize that customs and traditions that pose an actual threat to societal and communal well-being ought to be eliminated, as was done with Sati. But when it comes to gender-selective entry in places of worship, it is a practice bringing no grave harm. Then, there are those of us who, being women, wish to enter the temple as a political or a feminist statement, notwithstanding the fact that politicizing religion is something the politicians do enough of for the nation already. As for those of us who have ‘faith’, it demands certain things of us – we either give in to those demands or we don’t. As the faithful, we don’t question the demand or discard. That’s just not how religion works.