SC Ignores Devotees’ Plea & Overturns Timeless Sabarimala Tradition, Judge Indu Malhotra Dissents

Supreme Court has upheld the 2006 PIL filed by Indian Young Lawyers Association and overturned the timeless tradition of women between ages 10-50 abstaining from visiting the Sabarimala temple where Sri Ayyappa manifests as a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’ (eternal celibate).

In so doing, the 5-judge bench also ignored the arguments of the temple tanri (head priest), Travancore Devaswom Board (the Government-controlled body which manages the temple), the Pandalam royal family, and the group ‘People For Dharma’ which represented the millions of silent Ayyappa devotees.

Out of the 5-judge constitution bench consisting of  CJI Dipak Misra, Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, ironically it was only Justice Indu Malhotra, the sole woman judge on the bench, who dissented with the majority decision:

A matter of faith and age-old rituals followed in the temple where the deity Ayyappa Swami is said to have taken strict Brahmacharya vrata (celibacy), was presented as a war for gender equality, feminism and women’s rights by the left-liberal brigade of Bharat.

The fact is – there are at least 1000 other temples dedicated to Sri Ayyappa across Bharat where women visit freely as the deity in those temples is not celibate as is the case in Sabarimala; there are many women-only Hindu festivals/rituals/temples as well.

The issue was distorted as one of patriarchy, of menstruation being considered impure by Hindus  – but as Advocate J Sai Deepak argued so brilliantly, these were all red herrings. The primary object of the religious practice followed at Sabarimala was to preserve the celibate form of the deity. Since Ayyappa devotees share a common faith in Sri Ayyappa, and respect the practices associated with his worship, they qualify as a religious denomination and are thus granted protection under Article 26 of Constitution to manage their own affairs in matters of religion.

But all these logical arguments were brushed aside by the 4 male judges on the bench –

  • CJI said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination. “Patriarchal rules have to change. Patriarchy in religion cannot be allowed to trump right to pray and practise religion”, he said. Justice Khanwilkar concurred with the CJI’s verdict.
  • Justice Nariman: “To exclude women of the age group 10-50 from the temple is to deny dignity to women. To treat women as children of lesser god is to blink at the Constitution”
  • Justice Chandrachud: “Religion cannot be used as cover to deny rights of worship to women and it is also against human dignity.” “Prohibition on women is due to non-religious reasons and it is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.”
  • All judges ruled that devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious denomination.

The ‘essential religious practise’ riddle

Time and again, we have seen centuries old Hindu religious practises being challenged in courts, and judges invariably try to determine if the practise/tradition in question is ‘essential’ to Hindu Dharma or not.

Dharmic practises and beliefs do indeed flow from established schools of philosophy, find mention in Agamas and other Shastras, with certain local adaptations. But is this enough to deem a practise essential, especially in the eyes of people who are viewing this from a legal black-and-white perspective and with a healthy contempt for most Hindu religious practises anyway? It is virtually impossible for a faith and belief system as diverse as Hindu Dharma to prove that any practise is ‘essential’.

Some members of intelligentsia even claim that ‘murti-puja’ (derisively labelled ‘idol-worship’ by Hinduphobes) finds no mention in Vedas, so is extraneous to Hindu Dharma. Going by present trends, it will not be a surprise if the next attack on Hindus is one where murti-puja is targeted as ‘non-essential’/’superstitious’/’wasteful’.

It all boils down to lack of ONE book and ONE institution being the formal, defining last word on Hindu Dharma.

As highlighted in our earlier article on court ruling in triple talaq case,

“in the triple talaq case, the 5-member SC bench made it explicitly clear that their priority was to check whether instant triple talaq was sanctioned in the Quran (holy book of Muslims) or not. They declared it illegal based on the fact that it was against the basic tenets of Islam – which means that there is negligible chance of the non-instant form of triple talaq ever being declared illegal (since, as the judges mentioned, it is very much part of the Quran).”

Our courts are clearly telling Hindus to become like the Abrahamic religions, if they want to be taken as seriously. 

So what should a practising Hindu do when their core beliefs are being distorted and demolished in this cavalier manner? It is time to take a leaf out of the Muslim handbook and declare that Dharma is supreme and above review on the altar of Constitutional ethos. Hindus should NOT follow the easy path of creating exclusivist definitions or fragmenting into minority sects/denominations to win Constitutional protection, but we must apply our own minds to stand steadfast as devotees of Sri Ayyappa and respect the Brahmachari form in which the deity has manifested in Sabarimala.


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