Cultures, traditions and practices can be viewed using two different lenses. People who view a traditional practice by being part of the community following the tradition are “insiders”. “Outsiders” are the people having a perspective towards a tradition as an alien to the community following the tradition and thus lacking familiarity regarding the practices. Customary practices in Sabarimala should also be viewed through this dual lens of insider and outsider. Perspectives of people following the traditions of Sabarimala with understanding about the historical roots of the tradition are extremely dissimilar to the viewpoints of those whose perceptions about the practice are limited to the knowledge through media and word of mouth but without any real-time experience with the tradition.
This divergence in views can be noticed in the reason they quote for the restriction of women aged 10-50 to the Ayyappa shrine. Outsiders believe that the Sabarimala tradition views the menstrual women as impure and hence they were restricted entry into the shrine of temple. Sources of such views exhibited by the outsiders are just some articles written in media houses but not any historical evidences or scriptures about the temple. This is evident in the first paragraph of the recently pronounced Supreme Court judgment and the relevant part is extracted below:
“The Intervenors in the Application for Intervention have averred that they are gender rights activists working in and around the State of Punjab, with a focus on issues of gender equality and justice, sexuality, and menstrual discrimination. The Petitioners have inter alia stated that they learnt of the practise of restricting the entry of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years in the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala from three newspaper articles written by Barkha Dutt (Scent of a Woman, Hindustan Times; July 1, 2006), Sharvani Pandit (Touching Faith, Times of India; July 1, 2006), and Vir Sanghvi (Keeping the Faith, Losing our Religion, Sunday Hindustan Times; July 2, 2006).”
There can be nothing more preposterous than quoting news articles as sources of a traditional practice. A true insider has a completely different standpoint in this issue as he relies on historical evidences and scriptures to brief about the traditional practice of not allowing women of particular age group into the shrine.
An insider quotes the “Naishtika Brahmachari” characteristic of the Ayyappa deity to reason out the exclusion of women into the shrine. Who is a Naishtika Brahmachari according to Hindu scriptures? Naishtika Brahmachari is someone who should practice extreme form of celibacy with extreme sense control and there is no English equivalent to describe this term. Naishtika Brahmachari should abstain from gambling with dice, injuring others, falsehood and casting lustful eyes on females. This characteristic of the deity was evident from the ancient scripture Bhoothanathauphakayanam, which is the Sthalapurana (Scriptural text on temple’s history) of the Sabarimala shrine. This was also observed in the earlier judgment delivered by the Kerala High Court in 1991 and the observations of the Kerala High Court were:
“The deity in Sabarimala temple is in the form of a Yogi or a Bramchari according to the Thanthri of the temple. He stated that there are Sasta temples at Achankovil, Aryankavu and Kulathupuzha, but the deities there are in different forms. Puthumana Narayanan Namboodiri, a Thanthrimukhya recognised by the Travancore Devaswom Board, while examined as C.W. 1 stated that God in Sabarimala is in the form of a Naisthik Bramchari. That, according to him, is the reason why young women are not permitted to offer prayers in the temple.
Since the deity is in the form of a Naisthik Brahmachari, it is therefore believed that young women should not offer worship in the temple so that even the slightest deviation from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is not caused by the presence of such women.”
Restricting women entry inside the shrine to protect the “Naishtika Brahmachari” characteristic of the deity cannot be a form of discrimination against women. Women of particular age group were not allowed not because they were seen inferior and impure because of mensuration but to preserve the tradition and protect the vow of the deity. This is an insider’s standpoint on this issue, which relied on ancient scriptures instead of just relying on some articles written in news media.
One cannot become an insider just by getting exposed to these ancient scriptures but only by understanding them fully by following these traditions at least for few years. It is natural that an outsider has limited dimension of understanding when compared to the insider but the problem arises when an outsider doesn’t realize the limitation of his knowledge when compared to an insider.
Courts and judges are naturally outsider as anyone who is not part of the community following the tradition is an outsider and hence the judges should have realized that they are not naturally neutral in this case between insiders and outsiders. They should have realized that they must put extra efforts to understand the point of view of insiders as it is easy for the judges to understand the standpoint of outsiders when compared to understanding the insider because both judges and petitioners are outsiders with respect to the tradition that was judged.
Even after advocates who fought for the tradition had dismissed that the tradition doesn’t view menstrual women as impure and established that the practice of not allowing women is not because of discrimination but because of “Naishtika Brahmachari” characteristic of deity, the judges as outsiders were unable to come out of the narratives of menstruation and discrimination. This is evident from some of the observations from the four judges who gave the majority judgment:
“Women have a right to control their own bodies. The menstrual status of a woman is an attribute of her privacy and person. Women have a constitutional entitlement that their biological processes must be free from social and religious practices.”
“the notions of public order, morality and health cannot be used as colourable device to restrict the freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against women of the age group of 10 to 50 years by denying them their legal right to enter and offer their prayers at the Sabarimala temple for the simple reason that public morality must yield to constitutional morality.”
This clearly evinces that the judges were still thinking from the perspective of outsiders instead of trying to understand the point of view of insider before pronouncing the judgment.
Celibacy is not the equivalent term of “Naishtika Brahmachari”. Celibacy can only be the approximate English term for “Naishtika Brahmacahri” but still both the terms have vast dissimilarities. There is no English equivalent for the Sanskrit term “Naishtika Brahamachari”. Celibacy is just abstaining from the marriage and sexual relations but the dimensions of “Naisthika Brahmachari”, on which we discussed in this article previously, is much bigger than the elucidation of the term celibacy.
An insider can easily recognize the differences between both the terms but an outsider should put some work to determine the dissimilarities. The observations of court had demonstrated that the court hasn’t even come out of the outsider’s lens to understand the meaning of the term “Naishtika Brahmachari”. This is evident in the following observations of former CJI, Dipak Mishra:
“ Further, mere sight of women cannot affect one‟s celibacy if one has taken oath of it, otherwise such oath has no meaning and moreover, the devotees do not go to the Sabarimala temple for taking the oath of celibacy but for seeking the blessings of Lord Ayyappa. “
A person who had understood the concept of “Naishtika Brahmachari” can never come with such an observation but here it is unfortunate that the justice was unable to grasp the differences between both by coming to a neutral point instead of being an outsider.
Sabarimala judgment is a classic example of case between cultural outsiders and cultural insiders, where the court failed to realize that they are naturally part of outsiders due to their lack of connectivity with traditions and thus failed to understand the perspectives of insiders to arrive at a constitutionally genuine judgment.