Sabarimala – The sage under siege

Every six months, as if on a clock, a fresh controversy, a new slur or news of mismanagement at Sabarimala crops up in the newsfeed. This time, it is the classic party piñata of liberals – Entry of young women into Sabarimala.

Actress and entrepreneur Twinkle Khanna, while promoting a movie with sanitary pads at its core theme, was asked to respond to Sabarimala and the restriction of women of fertile age. She went on to say that if women are restricted based on menstruation then men should also be checked for celibacy and that a machine should be used for this! The talk went back to how patriarchal society and the women it has brainwashed join hands to keep other women oppressed. Menstruation is just a bodily function and cannot, just cannot be a reason to discriminate in a temple, they cried!

Had there been a single person on the panel who had any knowledge about temples, more so the Mahakshetras of Southern India, they would have explained to them the basic difference between ashuddhi and ashaucha. Ashuddhi is what happens to a temple when dead bodies, excrement or body fluids including blood pollute the temple premises. Ashuddhi is about the physical cleanliness of the temple being violated and entails penance procedures.

In every temple consecrated as per kshetra-tantra/agama, there are various ashaucha – unclean states, where a devotee is supposed to abstain from entering the premises, leave alone have darshan. Menstruation is one of the five – death or birth of a blood relation, couples on their wedding day and a newly delivered mother and child, till the infant’s annaprashana. As is evident, ashaucha has nothing to do with physical cleanliness and everything to do with the prana, which gets polluted by certain events/occurrences.

No temple checks any devotee for menstruation or other impurities. As with every aspect of worship and bhakti, these restrictions and rituals are self-regulated by devotees out of their shraddha for the deity.

Even in case of Sabarimala, till the High Court judgement of 1991, women of fertile age voluntarily refrained from visiting the forest abode even when there was no one to check their ID. The judgement was based on a plea by a devotee who witnessed gross disregard to the deity and his traditions by the very people who were appointed guardians of the temple by the Government, Travancore Devaswam Board (TDB). The judgement was a slap on the consecutive governments of Kerala, who were vested with the authority and responsibilities of upkeep of Sabarimala but were instead trying to make it a commercial golden goose with no regard for sanctity or sentiments of lakhs of devotees.

Ayyappan at Sabarimala has many unique aspects and rituals which are not followed even at Ayyappan temples consecrated by the same tantri, elsewhere. Being Ayyappan’s choice destination for Vanaprastha, the presence of Sastha who had also chosen the location for the last of his chaturashrams and that it is possibly the only temple which also is a samadhi all make Sabarimala truly one of its kind. A devotee is expected to take a vow of brahmacharya, undertake strict vrat (of which celibacy is only one restriction) for 41 days – a mandala, and turn himself into Ayyappan himself.

18 steps at Sabarimala

Once the mudra is worn and the vrat starts, the devotee is then addressed as ‘Ayyappan’ or ‘Swami’ by everyone. People, young and old, treat him as Ayyappan and participate wholeheartedly in helping him keep up his vow. He wears black robes denoting a rejection of all worldly matters, walks barefoot and lives the life of an ascetic even amidst society. At the end of this vrat, he fills a hollowed-out coconut with ghee and places it in pouches called the Iru-mudi which he then carries on himself throughout his journey to Sabarimala. Only devotees bearing the Iru-mudi on their heads can climb the eighteen steps that lead up to the main abode.

The coconut denotes his physical self and the ghee, his essence.

Devotees bearing the Iru-mudi

At Sabarimala, the devotee Ayyappan with his essence separated from himself and carried like an offering on his head, meets his Guru, Ayyappan. This is the moment where the devotee triumphs in his sadhana, his struggle. After darshan, he breaks open the coconut and submits the ghee to the temple priest, who pours it on the idol as Abhishekam. It is then returned to the devotee as prasad.

The seeker’s essence submits and envelops the sought, his Swamy. Purified, fortified and rejuvenated, the devotee gets his own self back as prasad, perfectly attuned to live a valiant, dharmic life as Ayyappan himself did.

Old women often are part of this vrat as the intense asceticism that it demands is easily attainable for a matriarch who is about to enter vanaprastha. Children of both gender too participate in the vrat and visit Sabarimala, as the innocence of childhood is as close to godliness that a person can ever attain. Before puberty, the child’s awareness about gender and sexuality are dormant, a condition that grown ascetics yearn to reach.

Saguna worship, the school which teaches the seeker to find resonance with the Paramatman through narratives, lore, art, sensory inputs and visual cues, is epitomized in temples. When an idol is made alive by tantric rituals of prana-prathishta, it takes the form of a physical beacon, a shoulder or a crutch for the devout, who would otherwise have been sucked asunder by the struggles of his mortal life. Ekam Sat and other Vedantic thoughts are often unattainable to someone who is clutching straws to stay afloat while being tossed about in giant waves by the ever-mischievous Maya.

The maharishis of yore designed various schools and programs to suit the needs of every mind demographic. They were the true masters of equality, ensuring the sameness of outcome while tailoring methods and paths to suit all predominant psychological sub-groups of seekers. The goal remained the same, but like every patient teacher who teaches a toddler to count – first using stones, then fingers thus slowly moving them up the mental process of arithmetic – a variety of tools and techniques were made available. What works for you may be the worst learning tool for me.

It is imperative that we channel Ayyapan the consummate warrior and fight hard to stop the attempts at bullying, the relentless campaign to modernize. The cost of this change far outweighs the outcome and devotees of Sabarimala cannot be expected to bear the burden of someone else’s warped views of what ideal society should look like.

Having no experience in making or acting in movies, I do not presume to sermonize Khanna about the gross objectification of women that most Bollywood movies, including the ones she has acted in, enshrine. All attempts at liberating women from the unseen shackles of patriarchy should also deign to include the portrayal of women as mere sidekicks, objects to be pursued, teased, wooed and fought over. A lonely shrine atop a hill in the dense forests of the Western Ghats has much less impact on women’s equality than the all-pervasive, in-your-face movies that are beamed relentlessly into every living room.

As every movie buff’s favourite master Yoda would have said: Fix not, what is unbroken.