Vratabhanga, Paapa and Adharma: Sabarimala and a Case of Justice in India

By M. S. Chaitra and Ashwini B. Desai

The recent judgement by the Supreme Court of India regarding the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has generated an acrimonious debate in India. The secularists (a broad group including, feminists, liberals, leftists, …) believe that, if women of any age group are not allowed to worship Sabarimala Ayyappa, this action amounts to gender discrimination. Therefore, they believe it necessary to reform Hindu religion to ensure equality in worshipping Sabarimala Ayyappa.

In order to assess the claim about gender discrimination, one must examine what is believed about the rituals of Sabarimala Ayyappa. Every devotee knows that Sabarimala Ayyappa is ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’. That is, Ayyappa in Sabarimala follows a ‘Vrata’, namely a Brahmacharya of a kind. In Indian traditions, individuals often follow different vratas, which demand that the individual follows strict procedures of living in the world. For example, we are familiar with Rama, who was an ‘Ekapatni vratasta’: his vrata allowed him only one wife. In the same way, Harischandra was ‘Satyavratasta’; therefore, he was a truth-teller irrespective of the situation. In the same way, Brahmacharya is also a vrata. There are different kinds of Brahmacharya that are followed by different traditions. In case of Naishtika Brahmacharya, a vratadhari will not look upon women of a certain age, i.e. women of menstruating age, which is the case with Ayyappa.

This vrata is not ‘other’-directed but ‘self-directed’. That means Ayyappa does not have a problem with women. But because of his vrata, he will not look upon, meet and touch women of certain age. If one knows that his vrata is self-directed, how could this be a case of gender discrimination? Surely, Sabarimala Ayyappa can follow Naishtika Brahmacharya, if that is what he chooses.

In the agitations, one notices that women too are protesting the temple entry of women of a certain of a certain age group. Why do these women oppose enforcementof the law? Here is one way to make sense of their behaviour: if someone (like Ayyappa) follows a vrata, one should not disturb it. That means one should not wilfully bring about a vratabhanga (breaking the vow). For most people in Indian traditions, vratabhanga is a paapa and an adharma. Thus, women of a particular age do not go to this temple precisely because an Indian avoids disturbing the others’ vrata and thus becoming responsible for vratabhanga. No one belonging to the Indian traditions would call vratabhanga a ‘good thing’. Because it is an adharma, one does not consciously commit vratabhanga. A simple understanding of Indian traditions tells us that women do not go to this temple because it amounts to vratabhanga and not because of a male prohibitory order of Hindu religion; in fact, many people do not see this as a case of gender discrimination at all.

However, what happens when gender discrimination is alleged with respect to such a practice? In such a story it appears as though Ayyappa should seek ‘permission’ (whose?) before undertaking this vrata, which implies gender discrimination because he vows not to ‘look upon’ or meet women of a certain age group. Thus, the argument has to be that Ayappa’s vrata is bad or evil and, therefore, justice requires interfering in this practice to bring it to an end. This means that vratabhanga, which is considered as an adharma in our traditions, becomes ‘an attempt to enforce justice’ in the secularist arguments. Strangely enough, the Sangh Parivar, an organization which intends to protect and defend Indian culture, has fallen prey to the same story. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevaksangh’s  (RSS) executive body resolution and the subsequent statements by others have affirmed that not allowing women into this temple is unjust and must be reformed through dialogue in society. This essentially means Ayyappa’s vrata in Sabarimala is an unjust practice, and they want to reform people and their traditions such that vratabhanga rectifies the unjust and evil vrata that Ayyappa practices. That is, these organizations apparently believe that doing adharma is necessary to reform Hinduism and that encouraging people to do adharma and breaking vratas preserves dharma!

Further, many have argued that women have a right to worship and that women must, therefore, be allowed inside the temple. Though it is unclear what worship means in this case, the question remains: who has given this right and what exactly does it imply? In Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), God enjoins human beings to worship Him in the ways that He instructs them. No human being has the right to interfere in the worship of the other.  However, we cannot straightforwardly translate Semitic religions to Ayyappa even if the secularists (and the courts) believe that Ayyappa, by “excluding women of a certain age”, is giving unjust and evil instructions about how to worship him! From what other source might this right to worship be derived? To appeal to the Indian constitution or to the UN human rights instruments is to go far beyond the absurd: the Indian constitution (or any such secular document) cannot dictate how human beings ought to worship God. Therefore, in the case of Sabarimala, one cannot talk about the right to worship. One can still ask the question whether women have freedom to worship or not. Of course, they do have the ‘freedom’ to worship Ayyappa the way they have the freedom to worship anyone or none. But how do we know which mode of worship is to be followed? How do we know that vratabhanga is the mode of worship of Ayyappa?

The entire discussion seems to draw upon arguments that emphasize a need to reform Hinduism. The questions of the reform of Hinduism emerged in 18th– and 19th-century India when Christian missionaries were trying to understand India and deal with Indian religions. In Indian society, they saw a false idolatrous religion called Hinduism, corrupted over millennia.  For Europeans, most of the Indian ritual practices were corrupt and superstitious. While responding to such criticism, 19th-century reform movements like the Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, etc. developed ‘criticism’ of Hindu religion. They had an action plan to reform it in the backdrop of what they saw as corrupt practices of Hindu religion. Today, scientists, courts, secularists, liberals, Hindu nationalists, etc. are all in a race to continue the reform agenda that the British had set. But this reform agenda is breaking India and her traditions. What we see today in Sabarimala is that one treats the vrata of Ayyappa as an unjust and evil practice and celebrates the vratabhanga of Ayyappa as a socio-religious reform. This is sensible only against the background of Europeans’ understanding of a false heathen religion that requires reform, which essentially requires the destruction of Hindu practices. Consequently, in contemporary, independent India, what we see is a race to destroy India and her traditions.  The irony is, this time the leaders of such activities are not Muslims or Christians but Hindus themselves!

Author details:

M. S. Chaitra is the Director and Fellow, Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email: chaitra78@gmail.com

Ashwini B Desai, is Research Fellow at Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email: ashwini.b.desai@gmail.com

One thought on “Vratabhanga, Paapa and Adharma: Sabarimala and a Case of Justice in India

  1. This is nothing complicated like the high brow stuff you write. The Supreme court interfered in muslim personal law by saying that triple talaq infringes on woman’s rights. Now in a similar case of hindu woman it cannot afford to do the opposite when the argument is framed as one of woman’s rights.
    In the second issue of kerala government being firm in ensuring the implementation of Supreme court judgement, it has to do more with the personality of Pinaryi Vijayan. He does not seem to be behaving like a typical indian politician who would like to see a sensitive issue go away especially when in power.
    I think Pinaryi takes it personally since he comes from an untouchable caste who in the past were not allowed inside temples. He looks at this as another sign of upper caste recalcitrance which has to be resisted. Just as lower castes were allowed inside the temples in spite of the agamas, women will be allowed inside Sabarimala in spite of traditions.

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