If Swami Vivekananda undertakes a forward time travel to Kerala today, he will be shocked to see that the situation there is crazier than what was in 1892 when he visited the state and called it a “lunatic asylum”. The celebrated monk witnessed deep-rooted social evils like caste system, untouchability and low caste women not being allowed to cover their breasts.
It took about a century and efforts of many enlightened social reformers, modern education and a forward looking political and bureaucratic class to transform the madhouse into a modern society boasting of highest literacy, human development indices comparable to many European countries and inclusivity in diversity.
Alas, attempts are now being made to put the clock back. God’s Own Country is in danger of becoming a la cow belt state. People have been divided along caste, class, gender and religious lines like never before. A deadly potion of politics, communalism and casteism has entered the veins of the state. The Supreme Court order upholding the fundamental right of menstruating women to worship at the Sabarimala temple set off a rash of protests and violent threats should the “impure” women enter the shrine. All in the name of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity, believed to be a celibate.
A potpourri of competing issues — faith, belief, reason, fertility, religious patriarchy, gender inequality and communal and caste politics have come into play making an intelligent debate difficult. While upper caste Hindu women have come out on the streets aggressively protesting the court directive, their lower caste counterparts are divided.
The court lifted the ban on the ground that the centuries-old custom “was not an essential religious practice and the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender.” The apex court was guided by legal and constitutional safeguards and the violent reaction to its ruling underlines the inherent dangers of faith sans spirituality.
In August S Gurumurthy, co-convenor of RSS affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch, tried to scare the apex court with a veiled, irrational warning. In a tweet, he linked Kerala’s devastating floods to the move to allow women into Sabrimala temple and asked the court to rethink; the learned judges junked the unsolicited advice. Vijayapura, a BJP MLA from Karnataka, discovered that floods in Kerala occurred “because of beef eating and slaughter of cows.” Around the same time as many as 325 people were killed in the Uttar Pradesh floods with no apparent divine wrath over beef or women.
Call it communal politics or blind belief, the underbelly of Kerala’s faith jihadists bared their fangs soon after the court order. On October 12, Kollam Thulasi, Malayalam film actor and BJP member incited the elderly woman taking part in the protest to “rip apart the ones who try to enter the temple; one half should be sent to Delhi and another to the Kerala chief minister,” he roared addressing the ‘Sabarimala Protection’ rally led by the BJP in Kollam district.
Earlier, Rahul Easwar, president of Ayyappa Dharma Sena, addressed a presser wherein he lamented that the verdict will “destabilise the soul” of the deity. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, former president of Travancore Devaswom Board (that manages the temple) said that allowing women of all ages into Sabrimala is going to “turn it into Thailand” (It is not clear if he was alluding to the famous Thai massage). “If young women are allowed to enter Sabrimala…the aura or power of Lord Ayyappa will be diminished”, he said warning that if the women go there “they can get caught by a tiger or MAN”.
Comments, that many consider as insulting to both the deity and devotees. Men who undertake the pilgrimage have to observe the mandatory 41 days of austere “vritham”, including 36 rituals, to purify their mind and therefore the abode is safer for women than in Delhi, Mumbai or any other place.
The latest to join the theatre of the absurd is Kerala unit of Shiv Sena; it warned of mass suicide if women dared to enter the temple. “If any young woman tries to enter Sabarimala, our activists will commit suicide,” Peringammala Aji, a Sena member, said (ANI report). Indubitably, 126 years down the line, the “lunatic asylum” has grown by leaps and bounds.
The Kerala unit of the Congress and the BJP are opposed to women’s entry into the temple while the Left parties have taken a pro-women stand hoping for a gender dividend at the time of elections. In a clever balancing act and keeping Kerala’s Hindu vote bank in mind, the Congress, BJP and RSS (at national level) endorsed the court’s directive while their state leadership is allowed to pander to the communal sentiments. The BJP is elated that the court verdict has come as a blessing in disguise for the party long struggling to harvest state’s heterogeneous Hindu votes.
At the root of Sabarimala agitation is politics and “belief”. While belief is a product of the mind, faith comes from deep within, from the soul where there is no violence; no duality; no division, no male, no female. But faith minus spirituality has only wreaked havoc on humankind. It has spawned militancy and terrorism across the world. The Catholic Church is tainted by the blood of thousands of innocents killed during the Inquisition and Crusades.
The anti-Jewish pogrom has its roots in Hitler’s evil mind and faith. The Islamic State and the assortment of jihadists have been on killing sprees blinded by faith. Back home radical Hindu outfits kill and maim in the name of religion. Trouble starts when religiosity and faith make quantum leap without the spiritual bulwark. And, last but not the least, two nagging questions — if menstruation is impure, what about passing urine and excreta? And can a just God be offended by menstruation…a divine software He Himself installed, to sustain life?
Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.