Lord of Shabarimala — Man or Myth

Illustration by Anjali Kamat

Ayyappa is the incredible story of a boy of twelve, born in the princely state of Pandalam in Kerala, who is worshipped as a God by thousands of people all over South India. His fame is slowly spreading all over India. This holy land of Bharat has produced thousands of saints who have taken birth on this soil in order to revive the Sanatana Dharma (ancient law of righteousness) whenever it was in danger of decline. The Hindus believe that when this ancient Dharma needs to be drastically rectified, the Supreme Himself takes on the form of a human being. Such people are known as avatars or incarnations. Rama and Krishna were the greatest of these. Ayyappa is the last to appear in this degenerate age of Kali in order to revive the values of this ancient order that has existed in this land for thousands of years.

The British conquest was more ideological than military. They subtly educated the Indians and brought up a generation who believed that everything English was good and everything Indian was bad. We were also made to believe that our great incarnations like Rama and Krishna were mythological figures. Today with the use of modern technology it has been conclusively proved that they were historical figures who trod the soil of this holy land and have left their footprints for all those who have come after them. The incarnation of Ayyappa took place towards the end of the 12th century and there has never been a doubt in the minds of the people of Kerala that he was indeed a human being born to revive this ancient faith known as Sanatana Dharma. The place he lived in and his wondrous exploits have led us to believe that he was not just an ordinary human being but the divine clothed in human form. In the short span of twelve years he accomplished all that he had come to do which itself is a proof of his divinity. The Keralites (the people of Kerala) have never doubted either his historicity or his divinity.

It cannot be denied that there is a tendency in Hinduism to deify any human being who proves to be of an extraordinary stature. The process of deification becomes much easier if some relationship can be found between the person and some other fully established God. The story of Ayyappa also went through these metamorphoses. Fact and fiction have been beautifully combined into the incredible story of his life. However there is no doubt whatsoever that he was indeed a great personality who at a tender age performed many miracles. His greatest miracle was the way in which he converted brutish men into great devotees. His message was one of pure love to God and absolute surrender to him. The fascinating story of him being the avatar of Dharma Shasta and therefore the son of Shiva and Vishnu were woven into his life in order to prove that he was of divine origin. Actually even without this, the story of his life is so enthralling that it shines like a diamond without a setting. One thing for sure is that he was indeed the incarnation needed for this Age as he tried his best to unite the state of Kerala so that all religions lived in accord with each other. His temple in Shabarimala is the only one that makes no distinction between Hindus, Muslims and Christians. It is indeed sad that at the time of writing this, such a huge controversy is going on about this most benign and amazing being who is the Lord of Shabarimala.

Shabarimala Temple

The rules of Shabarimala Temple

The temple of Shabarimala is unique in many respects. It has a set of most unusual rules. It is not open every day of the year. It is open only for the first week of every Malayalam month and again for forty-one days in the Kerala month of Vrischikam culminating on the Makara Sankranti day on January 14th which was the day on which Ayyappa was born and which marks the auspicious time of the beginning of the summer solstice when the sun starts its journey to the north, thus heralding the end of winter and the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. At these times it is said that the Lord allows his devotees to visit him and be blessed by him. For the rest of the year Ayyappa, the Prince of Pandalam wished to be left alone in blissful solitude.

This year (2018), the temple opens on the 1st Vrischikam (17th November) and is open until 12th Dhanu (27th December). The temple closes after the night puja on that day and opens again on 30th December evening. January 14th is marked by the most important festival here and is known as Makaravilakku. It is the biggest festival of this temple and is marked by many miraculous events which will be described in the book. After this the temple is open for a week or ten days before it closes again till the next month. This year after the special puja on the 14th it will be open till January 19th 2019 evening and on the 20th morning, the temple closes after the morning puja.

In olden days, during the limited time when the temple was open, anyone who wanted to visit had to undertake a very strict vow of continence and observe many other stringent rules for a period of forty- one days. They also had to undertake a long and arduous trek lasting for a week to ten days through a thick forest in order to reach the temple.

There are many misconceptions that have recently come to the forefront concerning the great temple of Ayyappa situated on the hill known as Shabarimala. It is a fact that women between the ages of ten and fifty were debarred from going to the Shabarimala temple especially during the peak season.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court seeking that the temple do away with this “barbaric” custom and allow women to enter the temple. The lead petitioner — a non-profit body called India Lawyers Association, lists a Muslim as president. Bhakti Pasrija Sethi — the General Secretary of the India Lawyers Association together with Prerna Kumari, Sudha Pal, Lakshmi Shastri, and advocate Ravi Prakash Gupta were the ones that were fighting for the rights of all women to enter the temple.

It is to be noted that all the petitioners were all non-Keralites. The women of Kerala have never objected to this rule and never considered this as gender discrimination or any of the other things that are being said now. Consequently, the court declared that women of all ages should be allowed into the temple. A huge war is being waged in which the Hindus of Kerala have come together to protest against this order.

Let us examine the old customs of the temple that have been broken down by this order and then judge if any court has the authority to go against the practices of this ancient Dharma known as the Sanatana Dharma.

1. The Nature of a Temple

Hindu temples are not just places of worship like churches and mosques. They are the homes of the deity to whom it belongs. All Hindu temples, like our own homes, have their own rules and regulations which are incumbent on all visitors to follow. A father might well make it a rule that his children should be back in the house before 11 pm. If a friend comes to visit, and they go out together, then it is incumbent on the children and their friends to follow this rule. If they do not wish to follow the rules, the father has every right to forbid them from visiting.

2. Why are women not allowed to enter temples during Menstruation?

Hinduism is a way of life — a way, by following which both men and women can enjoy physical, mental and spiritual health. A woman was always looked upon as a goddess in this culture since she was the one who was responsible for nurturing a new generation in her womb. This was a great duty and hence she was always protected. Women were always encouraged to take rest for three days during their monthly periods for practical reasons. During these three days her body is cleansing itself and recouping and preparing for another cycle in which she would be able to produce a healthy child. This rest is absolutely essential for her since normally a woman’s work is never done. During this period she was exempt from all household tasks and encouraged not to go out anywhere. This was not meant to curtail her liberty but it was actually a precaution against exposing herself to any types of germs since it was known that she was extremely vulnerable at this period. Temples were places where lots of people congregated and there was every chance of her contacting some virus or disease. This was the original reason for forbidding women from going to temples during their menstrual cycle.

There are many deeper and scientific reasons for forbidding women from going to temples during this period. In order to know this we would have to explode the myth that exists around the natural process of menstruation.

All devotees who wanted to go to the Shabari temple had to take a forty-one day vow. For obvious reasons no woman during the years of her menstruation period, would be able to undertake this forty-one day vow since she would certainly get her monthly period during this time and women were always debarred from entering any temple during the course of their monthly period. However, ignorant men who knew nothing about our ancient culture took this as an opportunity to suppress and control women.

3. Men are proverbially weak

Some absurd questions are raised as to how a deity who is supposed to be the very essence of the Supreme can be distracted by the presence of young women. All this is pure nonsense. There is no question of such a thing. Of course the deity is above such conditions. This rule was made in order to protect the male pilgrims and not the deity. But of course it is a fact that Ayyappa prefers to be left alone most of the time and does not allow any devotee either male or female to visit him for the best part of the year.

Another rule laid down by Ayyappa was that all those who wanted to visit him had to take a forty-one day vow of rigid ascetic practices. Men are proverbially weak when it comes to practicing celibacy and there was every possibility of them being distracted by the presence of women during the long trek to the temple. The path is narrow and they might have to jostle with women while walking. This would certainly be a strain on their vow of continence. Kerala abounds in stories of men who had fallen from this strict rule and who had been caught by tigers during the trek through the forest to the temple. Whatever be the reason it is the duty of those who go there to abide by the rules of the place and not argue as to why they are kept and why they cannot be broken.

In Shabarimala, the point to be noted is that it was not just that menstruating women were debarred from entering the temple (which is the rule in all temples), but that “young women” were not allowed since they posed a potential threat to the vow of continence that was taken by all men who wanted to go. The forty-one day vow that all men had to undertake was a very strict one and included the stringent maintenance of perfect continence in thought, word and deed. In order to reach the temple one had to go through a forest infested with wild animals in olden days that used to take at least ten days which would have entailed close proximity with women during the trek. The reason given by men for this particular taboo involves Lord Ayyappa himself.

It is said that Lord Ayyappa being a Naishtika Brahmachari (eternal celibate), does not approve of young women going to the temple since he might get tempted. This is an insult to the Lord who is above any such mundane desires. Men have used his name as a cloak to cover their own frailties. Men are notoriously incapable of controlling their sexual instincts when they come in close contact with women. This weakness has been recognised from ancient times. The Puranas are never tired of telling the story of how even a great rishilike Vishwamitra had fallen for the charms of a nymph called Menaka! But of course men don’t like to admit their weakness and would rather put the blame on women. In fact in this case they have not hesitated to put the blame even on the Lord himself as we have seen.

Hence our scriptures always warn all men who undertake such vows never to have anything to do with a woman during that period and never even look into her eyes. This being the case naturally the rule about young women being forbidden to go to Shabarimala was made to protect the male devotees and safeguard them from falling from their code of chastity.

4. The Women of Kerala

The rules of Shabarimala Temple were not meant to insult women because they were considered inferior on any religious, spiritual or philosophical grounds. It is because of the nature of the presiding deity. Young women of Kerala respect the celibate nature of Ayyappa and the celibacy that has to be maintained by his devotees. It is the same tradition that makes a woman, the chief priest of the snake temple of Mannarshala, that celebrates the festival at Koovaka temple by transgender devotees, that insists that only a man dressed as a woman is fit to carry the auspicious lamp at the Kottamkulangara temple etc. There are festivals in Kerala — like Pongala in Trivandrum, where only women take to the streets to celebrate. The roads are blocked off, and no men are allowed.

Hinduism is the most diverse religion in the world but this diversity should not be mistaken for discrimination. All Hindu Kerala women know this and none of them have come forward to support the court decision. In fact they are the ones who have come forward to fight against the court’s verdict.

The strange thing about this case is that the court petition was not given by a woman devotee of Lord Ayyappa. The entire case seems to have been cooked up for political reasons as the events on the opening date showed, when the government gave police protection to a Muslim and a Christian woman with orders to go to the temple and defile it. Every temple like every home has its own rules. No court can go against this and force devotees to defy the laws. Kerala women are very strong and certainly do not need a court or the government to fight for their rights.

Let us pray to Ayyappa to solve this conflict and thus allow him and his devotees to go the way they have gone for centuries without any interference by the communist government who are the last people who can be expected to know anything about religious sentiments.

Swamiye Sharanamayyappa!