Sabarimala Judgment: An Analysis

This article is written by AASHIKA AGGARWAL, pursuing BBA-LLB (H) from AMITY UNIVERSITY, GURGAON.  

The Sabarimala Temple is a temple complex located at Sabarimala inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Perinad village, Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, India. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimage sites in the world with an estimate of over 40 to 50 million devotees visiting every year. The temple is situated on a hilltop amidst eighteen hills at an altitude of 1260m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. This temple is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). The Supreme Court has made a rule about the Sabarimala temple that women of all ages can visit the Sabarimala temple now. 

The shrine at Sabarimala is an ancient temple of Lord Ayyappa also known as sasta and dharmasastra. There is a strong belief of everyone that in the 12th century, Manikandan, a prince of Pandalam Dynasty, meditated at Sabarimala temple and became one with the divine. Manikandan was an avatar of Ayyappa. If we will talk about the Lord Ayyapa then the Lord Ayyappa is a pure god that means Hindu God. They are known as eternal celibate. The Lord Ayyappa fully believes in celibacy which means no contact with the female and they maintain a huge distance with the females, that’s why they have been given a title named NAISHTIKA BRAHMACHARI. Since this temple is for Lord Ayyapa, then purity is very important. All the males visiting at the temple their purity is very important, not only from the body but also mentally. The devotees are expected to follow a vratham (41 days austerity period) before the pilgrimage. This begins with wearing a special mala (a chain made of rudraksha or tulsi beads is commonly used, though still, other types of chains are available). During the 41 days of vratham, the devotees who have taken the vow is required to strictly follow the rules that include following only a Lacto-vegetarian diet, follow celibacy, follow teetotalism, not use any profanity and have to control the anger, allow the hair and nails to grow without cutting them.

In 1990, a petition was filed in the Kerala High Court seeking a ban on the entry of women inside the Sabarimala temple. In 1991, the Kerala High Court restricted entry of women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 from offering worship at the shrine as they were of the menstruating age. In 2006, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the Indian young lawyers association seeking entry of women between 10 to 50 years. In 2008, the matter was referred to a three-judge bench two years later. In January 2016, the Court had questioned the ban, saying this cannot be done under the Constitution. In April 2016, the United Democratic Front Government of Kerala led by Chief Minister Oomen Chandy informed the Supreme Court that it is bound to protect the right to practice the religion of Sabarimala devotees. On November 6, 2016, the Kerala government had told the Supreme Court that it was in favour of allowing all the women inside the temple. Advocate Jaideep Gupta, representing the state government, said it would support the entry of women of all the ages to the temple. In 2017, the Supreme Court referred the case to the Constitution bench. On September 2018, a five-judge bench of Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice, Dipak Misra, in a 4:1 verdict, said banning the entry of women in Sabarimala temple is gender discrimination and the practice violates the rights of Hindu women and allowed the entry of women of all ages in the revered shrine. The state government sought time to implement the verdict, however even after the entry was allowed a large number of followers camped outside the shrine to prevent the entry of women of all the ages inside the temple. In February 2019, the order was reserved by the Apex Court. The order expected to be announced is likely to uphold or set aside the 2018 order. While Justice of India R F NARIMAN and DY CHANDRACHUD concurred with the CJI and Justice of India A M KHANWILKAR, Justice of India INDU MALHOTRA (only a single female judge) gave a dissenting verdict. 

The observations of Judge INDU MALHOTRA said that the petition does not deserve to be entertained. She was of the view that it is not for the courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like SATI. Adding that the issue is critical to various religions, he said, issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily interfered by the courts. The Sabarimala shrine and the deity are protected by Article 25 of the Constitution of India and the religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. ‘Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in the matters of religion’, said Justice Indu Malhotra adding ‘what constitutes essential religious practise is for the religious community to decide, not for the court. India is a diverse country. Constitutional morality would allow all to practice their beliefs. The court should not interfere unless there is any aggrieved person from that section or religion.’ 

Now the final thing comes that the temple is open for worship only during the days of mandalapooja (approximately 15 November to 26 December), makaravilakku or Makar Sankranti (14 January) and maha vishuva sankranti (14 April) and the first five days of each Malayalam month. Here, the Supreme Court verdict is very revolutionary and path-breaking. In India, there is a wave going on for feminism. Recently, the Section-497 of the act has been scrapped and now the Sabarimala temple issue. A few years back, in the USA, there came a lot of waves on feminism and there the USA has empowered women.  

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