Sabarimala – Questions And Answers

Question 1: What is the background on Sabarimala?

People already know that it is a temple in Kerala to which a lot of people make a pilgrimage. The vast majority are Indians resident in the 4 large Southern States.

The Sabarimala temple is actually a small Keralan ambalam in the middle of the forest. The ‘proper’ method of darshan is to keep the vratam for 41 days, walk up the hill, ascend the 18 steps with the irumuDi on your head. It is a hill in the middle of reserved forest. From 1940s until late 70s, there were only about 10-20,000 people who made the annual yAtra, and that too mainly during the mandalam season. The tantri leaves the temple when no pujas are conducted. Only the melsAnthi and a few helpers remain through the year. The temple is opened a few days a month for minor puja. Up until the late 70s, it involved a trek through forests, with no running water, toilets, electricty. Hence, no women made the pilgrimage. The main restriction is on the sannidhAnam, where Ayyappan resides. To ascend the 18 steps, one must have kept the vratam for a manDalam, and vratams are not imposed/necessary or are of no efficacy when carried out during a woman’s periods Hence there is no question of being able to ascend the 18 steps to the sannidhAnam. also, Ayyappa maintains his brahmacharya by avoiding company of young women. Now, all these fine restrictions are of no use when the crowds are huge. You have to see the crowd at the sannidhAnam to realize that it is almost impossible to monitor who does what and which restrictions are being followed or broken. Easier to restrict entry at the foot of the hill itself. And if someone is truly inclined to worship dharma shAsta, almost every single shAsta temple except sabarimala is free for entry to all pilgrims.

Question 2: What is the legal history behind the restriction on women’s entry to Sabarimala?

The definitive judgement was arrived at by means of a petition moved against Travancore Devaswom Board and disposed of in the Kerala High Court. Detailed judgement copy here –

Petition was moved by a devotee asking leave to conduct a function for her grandchild with her DIL present. Grounds were that puja during 5 days/month of non-Mandalam period had women devotees visiting. Also, the petitioner wished to know if this had been the practice since time immemorial.

Respondents were – Thanthri of Sreekovil, representatives of all Thanthri association and representative of Pandalam royal family. Sreekovil Thanthri deposed that no precedent existed of women devotees between ages of 10 and 50 climbing 18 steps or undertaking vratham or participating in worship. Representative of other Thanthris confirmed that form of Sastha in pratiShTa is a NaiShTika Brahmachari, i. e, someone who continues studies life long. (Side note: the restrictions placed on a Brahmachari are listed here – ) Representative of  Pandalam family confirmed that all activities are to be carried out as per wishes of Ayyappa, which includes explicit instructions on Brahmacharyam. If disobeyed, the family was to be cursed. Having taken these facts into consideration, the bench opined that

  1. Ayyappa worshippers constituted a denomination of their own, with primary responsibility of determining worship to be vested with the hereditary Thanthri of the Thazhamon family.
  2. Also, it opined that since restriction was placed on only women of a certain age not all women as a class. Hence, it may not seen to be discriminatory and the restriction, under freedom of religion, must be continued

Question 3 – Why would a God be disturbed by women, who are his own devotees?

To understand this, One should understand the nature of murti puja. To transcend the murti and achieve para brahma anubhava the method is to undergo sAdhana of murti puja. To get there, the sAdhaka must first engage in puja with full shraddha. This is the spirit in which our people live their faith. Your grandparents knew fully well that the murti was of stone or wood. But in their engaging with the murti they would perform their rituals in complete belief that the murti was indeed the devata being worshipped. Without the belief that it is indeed Srinivasa and Padmavathi who are getting married the kalyaNotsava becomes irrelevant. Watch the Swamiji put Sri Krishna to bed at Udupi. He knows fully well that it is a idol, but he performs the ritual with the complete faith that it is the baby Krishna being sung & cajoled to sleep.

The people who took artis of the TV screen while watching Ramayan were fully convinced that Ram had come to give them darshan in the form of flickering images of actors on BW TV screen. when a 5 yr old has the irumudi on his/her head, you will find aged guruswamis touching their feet. That is plain shraddha – the belief that Ayyappan is in the form of the young pilgrim. It is that shraddha that concinces one that Ayyappan at Sabarimala is a NaiShTika Brahmachari who has to follow all the shastric regulations for a Brahmachari.

Question 4: How do we know it’s not man made restrictions? How can we be sure it is the God’s will?

These have specifically mandated by means of daiva prashnams – methods of augury used to determine the deity’s wishes – and by dreams to the members of the Pandalam family.

Question 5: How do we get to this daiva prashnam method? What is the background?

Hindu religious practices are defined in shastra manuals called smriti – grihya (household) and shrauta (public Vedic) rituals are determined by shrauta and grihya shastras – manuals composed for the purpose. They are predominantly vaidika in scope and have limited direct application in construction and operations of temples. For that one refers to various Agama manuals – vaikhanasa, saiva and so on. However when it comes to conduct of worship in a specific temple lot of considerations come in to play – the community, the presiding deity, the location, the parivara devas, the specific form of the deity installed. The prana pratiShTa of the deity implies that the specific deva is avahita or infused into the form – idol or picture. This implies that the deity is actually present in physical form at that place. Thus, a lot of specific practices are actually as per the deity’s instructions. Each temple has its own tradition given as per instructions. This could take the form of a devotee’s dream, a specific instance of possession by the deity (Avesha) or through different forms of augury – daiva prasnams are only one form. There are others such as udukku pujai, a veriattam or even a simple drawing of lots. This is extremely common and almost every temple has an instance of the deity making its preferences known. Thus, if for legal purposes, the deity can be considered a respondent, all aspects of the temple premises and conduct of worship are to be with the deity’s agreement. Thus any restrictions are said to be placed on the deity’s explicit or implicit order. If you are willing to offer worship at a shrine, it is assumed you accept the idea of the deity being present in a physical form there. If you accept this then why would you not be ready to accept the deity’s preferences made known through a daiva prasnam or an instruction delivered in a Kings dream 1500 years ago? You cannot adopt a ardha kukkuta nyaya – of being willing to accept only that half of the hen that lays eggs but not the half you are obliged to feed!

Question 6: What is the issue with menstruation? Why would the monthly period interfere with the vratam?

For this, we must go back to the traditional Hindu view of blood and other bodily fluids. There are two aspects to how bodily fluids are looked upon, once they leave the body

  • As impurity
  • As loss of energy/vital life force

This is common across cultures. Now, with respect to vaidika procedure, bodily fluids/emissions must be restrained to avoid impurity as well as conserve vitality. During the simplest of performances, such as the fortnightly darsa-purna rite, the performer is required to avoid shaving and clipping of nails, to not shed blood. The ceremonial bath is for the purpose of removing sweat, traces of semen etc. In the most complex of rites, such as the agniShToma, the yajamana is required to avoid bathing, shaving, cleaning teeth, speak as less as possible, restrict to light, mostly liquid food, to avoid even defecation and urination to the bare minimum. This principle is present in all Hindu ritualism, across time and place. Now to agamic forms of worship, the entire focus is on energies, positive and negative.

In common temples and all agamic rites, pujas etc, the focus is to maximize positive energies and minimize negative. The form/idol being worshipped, premises, officiating priest, worshipper all must be taken into account. The positive energy is looked upon as something of a mutually-reinforcing cycle. Thus, the worshipper must also try to maximize positive energies in himself/herself to derive benefit. How exactly this is achieved depends upon the deity being worshipped and form in which the deity is worshipped. Overall, fluids such as blood and semen must not be shed, due to their vitality. Menstrual blood especially is known as a store of energy, being the female equivalent of semen. Thus, men are required to bathe after sex and before visiting a temple, to remove sweat/semen and vaginal fluids. However, bathing is not sufficient to remove menstrual blood and hence, women are generally restricted from visiting temples during periods. This is the same reason for restriction on letting clipped nails or hair be strewn in temples. Hence the restriction to tie up hair for both men and women in temples, to avoid strewing hair and nails, and thus giving room for negative energies. It may be noted that abhichara rites, for bringing harm upon others, use blood, pus, hair, nails, semen and menstrual blood as sacrifices/puja items.

Thus, the reason is not misogyny, but a complex system of energies. Now, if all this sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, you might want to consider why a worshiper visits a temple in the first place. Is it not to increase your serenity/positive mental energy? If visiting temples is not superstition, why would the rituals and disciplines be superstition? Where does the line start and end?

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