Sabarimala Verdict: A Judicial Overreach

Published : Oct 29, 2018 12:21 pm | By: M D Sridharan

Protests erupted all over Kerala over the Supreme Court’s verdict on allowing women of all age groups to enter Sabarimala. The holy shrine dedicated to Lord Iyyappa became a war zone with pitched battle between the so called “activists” and staunch devote

"Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion," said Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman judge who dissented on the five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court that opened the gates of the famous hill shrine of Sabarimala for women of all age groups, thus ending the age-old ban on the entry of women between 10 and 50 years.

Incidentally, she is the only woman judge of the five judge bench that gave the landmark judgement and also the only one who dissented. But, her dissenting voice was heard by millions of ardent Hindu devotees who simply refuse to simply accept the judgement without a fight.

Over the years courts have stepped in to ban various social issues. Even, recently, the Supreme Court came strongly against Triple Talaq, which was seen more as a regressive practice that leaves Muslim women vulnerable. It is welcome if the judiciary steps in to decide and act against such social evils such as “Sati”. But, when it comes to religion and faith related issues, majority of the people of the country are of the view that “judiciary should not decide”. The Sabarimala verdict is not a progressive decision but a clear infringement on the customs and traditions followed in Hindu temples.

Customs and Traditions of Hindu Temples

Temple customs are beyond rationality and judiciary cannot decide what needs to be followed and what needs to be banned. All over the world, faith is the most underlining factor that binds a religion.  Certain practices may defy rationality but an ardent devotee sees God through the prism of faith. The unshaken faith turns into deep devotion and he or she tunes their mind to follow the customs and traditions with unflinching faith.

Matters of faith should be decided by people who follow the particular faith. Absolutely judiciary cannot dictate terms on what is correct and what is not. As rightly pointed out by Justice Indu Malhotra, "What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court."

Moreover, the nature of a Hindu temples are different, it is just not a place of worship, but the abode of the deity. Hindu Temple worship focuses on Agamas and not just idols. The “Agamas” (Temple sastras) are Vedic in spirit and character and are the basis on which Hindu temple rituals are followed and executed.  The Agamas deal with the entire gamut of activities associated with temples right from architecture to performing pujas.   The Agamas prescribe specially designed procedures for each type of deity, the details of daily rituals, occasional celebrations, festivals etc.


Once the consecration of Idols (the act of infusing life into idols), has taken place Hindus do not see them as just idols, but as the manifestation of the supreme God. The simple idol becomes a powerful deity. Many temples follow different rituals and customs which have been followed religious for many centuries. In most cases the legend has that the customs are prescribed as per the wishes of the principle deity of the particular temple.

Certain customs and traditions are integral to Hindu temples and Hinduism as a whole. Certain customs and traditions followed by temples have not only been simply practiced but also indeed have deep underlining of faith. It is only such faith that draws the devotees to a temple or for that matter to any religious place of worship. Millions of Hindus are of the opinion that the Supreme Court’s verdict is nothing but an infringement on Hindu belief.

Why Sabarimala is Unique?

In fact Hindu religion has never excluded women in their practices. There are thousands of temples dedicated to Hindu Goddesses across the country. Even today Hindus celebrate many special pujas and festivals that glorify womenhood Then, why so much hue and cry over Sabarimala?  The one followed by Sabarimala temple banning the entry of women of certain age should not be construed as a practice against the progress of women by the so called chauvinistic men. 

As per the legend Lord Iyyappa is a Naishtiga Brahamachari, (an eternal celibate), He is in deep penance and in no way it should not be disturbed.  As for the entry into the Sabarimala temple, The Travancore Devosam Board (TDB) had explained in its deposition before the Supreme Court that the traditional ban on menstruating women was “attributable to the manifestation of the deity at the Sabarimala Temple which is in the form of a Naishtika Bramhachari’ (an eternal celibate), who practises strict penance, and the severest form of celibacy”. In fact there are hundreds of temples dedicated to Lord Iyyappa, which do not ban menstruating women because the deity in those temples is not in the form of a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’.

The restrictions in Sabarimala are more on Lord Iyyappa than on women and they are self-imposed because he does not want his penance to be disturbed. It is of course a matter of faith and not anyone has the right to dismiss it. Religious faith has its own logic, beyond rationality and science and rightly millions of Hindus follow them with reverence.

It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court ignored the importance of faith in a 5,000-year-old society and delivered a judgment that toppled a revered tradition based on the very concept of the deity concerned. This issue was not about morality, equal rights or emancipation but about a traditional ritual that was not harmful to society as such. Therefore, it should not be mixed up with repressive practices such as Sati and widow abandonment. Those were social evils which needed to be abolished. Sabarimala is a nuanced story about a God, with freedom to follow or not follow. Why demolish a ritual based on belief?

It is nothing to do with gender or discrimination. Moreover, people who have real faith will respect and follow the rules of the temple with devotion. It is for the devotees and faithful to decide and certainly not the   court.  It looks like that Justice Indu Malhotra’s plausible dissent in Sabarimala verdict by the Supreme Court has resonated across the country, especially in Kerala. Many Hindu organisations held marches and dharnas in different parts of Kerala to express their dismay at the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to offer worship at the Sabarimala Iyyappa temple.

Ever since the verdict came out, it has triggered a massive protest a sort of cultural movement like the one that erupted in Tamil Nadu over the banning of Jallikattu. It could be visibly seen that majority of the protestors are young women, who are in the fertile age and willing to “wait” for their time to pay their obeisance to Lord Iyyappa. The protestors also  point out that there has never been any ban on women at Sabarimala and scores of women devotees above the age of 50 and below the age of 10 had been undertaking the Sabarimala pilgrimage for the past so many decades. It is time such bona fide dissents, especially with the people in large number show their angst, should be honoured by taking corrective steps.  The verdict has undoubtedly polarised the state with several Hindu fringe groups across the Southern states joined the protests against the verdict.  The protest gathered momentum when the shrine was opened for the “Mandala” puja on Oct,17th. The fact that thousands of Iyyappa devotees, a large number of them women, joined the activists speaks for the overwhelming support that majority of the people are not willing to accept the Supreme Court’s verdict.

Fearing that some women in the 10-50 age group may enter the holy shrine, groups of Iyyappa devotees gathered in large numbers en route and they even checked the vehicles for the presence of women and in some cases forcibly  pulled them out of the vehicle. Hundreds of devotees stay put at the entrance of the holy shrine.

Despite continued vigilance by the Iyyappa devotees, some activists under the garb of devotees continued their journey towards the shrine. Two women, one a Christiaon and the other a Muslim, were given  full police protection.  Finally, only when the temple head priest (Tantri) Kandararu Rajeevaru threatened to shut down the temple if they attempted to force their way in, did teh police team persuaded them to return. The incident has further agitated the true devotees of Iyyappa as the fact remains that the police failed to conduct the background check on the two women who attempted to enter the temple only to garner publicity.

Even political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress had asked the government to file a review petition against the verdict. But, the adamant LDF government has refused  to go for a review petition against the SC verdict. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has criticised the Kerala government for immediately implementing the Supreme Court’s order and urged the stakeholders including spiritual and community leaders, to collaborate on taking the available legal measures to challenge the order. Meanwhile, the Pandalam royal family, which has an integral role in the affairs of the Sabarimala temple, has reportedly begun legal consultations to file a review petition against the verdict. But, Pinary Vijayan’s LDF government was unrelenting.. 

Politicising the Religion  

Earlier in the 1991 judgment of the Kerala High Court, upheld the restriction on women of a particular age group offering worship at the shrine and  the restriction was in accordance with a usage from time immemorial and not discriminatory under the Constitution. The court also declared that the final decision regarding the pujas and rituals lies with the Sabarimala Thanthri (chief priest). The power of the Tranavancore Devasom Board is restricted to only maintaining the temple. The then LDF government under   EK Nayanar did not object. But, now the Pinarayi  Vijayan’s government is hell bent on implementing the Supreme Court’s verdict.

While the Pinarayi Vijayan’s government dismissed the suggestion by the Hindu religious groups and Sabarimala temple authorities to appeal against the Supreme Court order to seek a stay and a review, few months back when the Supreme Court ruled  in favour of the  Malankara Orthodox Church in the battle between them  and the Jacobite Syrian Church, the Left  government  refused to implement the order and sought for a compromise between the stake holders  stating that the Supreme Court order will hurt the sentiment of the other section of Christians. Similarly, the LDF government wasted no time in saying that it will move the court against the central government’s order banning sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter.

It clearly exposes the double standards of the Communist government as they continue to adopt different stand for Hindus and other religions. Rather than accepting the demands of the majority Hindu community,  Pinarayi Vijayan squarely blamed the BJP and the RSS of instigating communal tension and declared a war on the Sangh Parivar. He declared that his government would not tolerate Sangh's attempts to turn Sabarimala into a battleground for its hidden agenda for trying to communalise the Sabarimala issue for vote. But, actually it is the Left government which is indulging in communal politics.

Unfortunately the Sabarimala temple row has brought the atheist Left government face to face with religion. It has indeed forced the communists to change its track and talk about religion in order to take on the BJP.  At a juncture when BJP is making all out efforts to make meaningful inroads into Kerala and is predictably gaining momentum, the atheist Communists have failed to understand sensitivities of Sabarimala devotees.

The tradition of millions of devotees which have been followed peacefully with religious fervour has been interrupted. Ignoring the sentiments of crores of Hindus and also handling the Hindutva in its own way and failing to adapt to changing socio-political circumstances, clearly the LDF has erred. Though the Left party for which Kerala remains the only state, will hardly want to cede any space to the BJP in the coming 2019 polls, but clearly the BJP sees a golden opportunity to consolidate its Hindu votes.

Sabarimala Verdict and the Reality

It is hugely surprising that after couple of decades after the Kerala High Court judgment, the Supreme Court has questioned the “logic” behind the restriction. Is it not a clear infringement upon Hindus beliefs and traditions.

Markandey Katju, Former Supreme Court judge said, “Justice Indu Malhotra's judgment is correct and majority is wrong. With this judgment and Section 497 (Adultery law) the Supreme Court has embarked on a perilous unpredictable path of over-activism like US' Supreme Court in 1930s utterly lacking in self-restraint, heading for we know not where." Justice Indu Malhotra herself noted that if courts begin to get into an area that is best avoided, they will surely open the floodgates for every belief of every religion to be questioned even by non-believers.

There is a danger that the Supreme Court’s verdict may open up more such battle between faith-denouncing and faith-asserting people. The order would have far-reaching consequences on the sentiments of the true devotees cutting across religions. Is the Supreme Court want a clear divide between the faithful and the atheists? Will it not be a precarious path that could impact the social order itself? Our society is different and the country is deeply rooted in spiritual beliefs and traditional customs.

In the end the undeterred protests by the staunch devotees of Lord Iyyappa, showed the world that indeed the Supreme Court  has erred as the Supreme Court  completely failed to consider the faith behind the devotees and looked at only the logic behind the rationalists. In the case of the Sabarimala deity, the faithful have strong arguments in their favour.

In the battle between faithful and rationalists, it is the will of the sincere faithful that emerged victorious as millions of devotees have already rejected the judgment. In the end after the week long drama at the abode of Lord Iyyappa, it is very clear that the faithful women devotees, as distinct from women activists, will not trek to the hilltop because they believe it would destroy the raison d’etre of the celibate Lord and the rituals thereof.

In a democracy there should be a fine balance between the supremacy of law and the religious sentiments of the people. Not even the greatest legal luminary can match the voice of  People. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ignored such reality in the Sabarimala Verdict.

It is clear that the Supreme Court has failed to understand sensitivities of Sabarimala devotees and the atheist Left forces tried to clamp it down using power and machinery.  The actual women empowerment lies not in certain temple practices but in fighting against rapes and other social evils.  This is not a fight for the rights of equality.  Female chauvinism is not an answer to male chauvinism.  The widespread ground level sentiment by the people against the verdict must be honoured.

The Supreme Court verdict is a clear case of judicial overreach and goes against the spirit of this land.  What is at stake in Sabarimala is just is not a mere temple issue. It has escalated in to a movement with a spontaneous response from millions of Hindus not only from Kerala but across the Indian nation. 

It is the deep spiritual legacy that are part of the Hindu traditions which are even alive, as  aptly demonstrated  by the devotees at Sabarimala that  has indeed  taught a lesson or two to the atheist LDF government.  As the majority community see the entire episode as against the Hindus and the Hindu hatred is getting institutionalised, it is time for both the Government and the Court to understand the sentiments of more than one billion Indians and without the Hindu nation, the Indian state will cease to exist, and implode.  The best course of action for them would be to approach the court for a review of its order and act within the secular limits of governance. It is time for both the governments and the judiciary to respect what ought to be respected?

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