I am republishing an answer I wrote in Quora regarding the recent Supreme Court Verdict on allowing women of all age groups to Sabarimala temple. The question was “Should women be allowed to enter Sabarimala shrine?”. I am quoting from Wikipedia to give some background for this issue:
Sabarimala is a Hindu Temple in the Indian district of Kerala, where women pilgrims of menstruating age (10-50) were not legally allowed to enter from 1991 to 2018. In September 2018, a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court of India ruled that all women pilgrims, including those in the menstruating age group, should be allowed entrance to Sabarimala. This verdict led to widespread protests by the believers.Several women attempted to enter Sabarimala despite threats of physical assault against them but failed to reach the sanctum sanctorum.
It is time for our society to understand the correct reasons for the ban of women between 10–50 and decide something for the greater good. Whether these women should be allowed there or not depends on what we agree to as a society, after carefully weighing down the pros and cons. Rules are made for people, people are not made for rules!
There are advantages in not allowing the women of that age group. But there are disadvantages too! After understanding both, let us decide what should be done!
First, the Supreme Court has approached this issue with a wrong assumption. There is no gender discrimination here and it is not the reason for disallowing young women to Sabarimala!
There are three different reasons which are said for disallowing women of age group 10 -50. The first reason is no longer relevant, the second reason is absurd and the third reason, which is the actual and the important reason, is completely ignored.
But if the third reason is properly explained, I think most of the people who are now protesting will understand. Let us see those three reasons one by one.
- Usually, there are different rules for the temples which are situated in mountains with high altitude or mountains which are amidst dense forests. Just imagine how people went to Sabarimala two or three centuries before. They have to take long and dangerous routes which were completely unsafe for women. Such temples cannot be kept open during all days of the year just like other temples. To state an example, devotees climb the Velliangiri mountains in Tamil Nadu during the month of April and May. But women of age group between 10–50 are not allowed to climb Velliangiri hills either. This ban is for their own protection. Because, there are chances that they can get raped and killed. In the dense forests of high altitude, there are lot of chances for women to get stuck at some place along the way where there is no one to help. Even now, it is better for women of young age to not to climb Velliangiri hills. Because I have climbed those mountains and anyone who climbed it can understand why it could be dangerous.But this is not applicable to Sabari Mala anymore. Sabari Mala today is not dangerous for women anymore as it was once. Women devotees can be completely protected. So as I said, this first reason is no longer relevant.
- We also have a story associated with it. It is said that Ayyappa is a Naishtika Brahmachari and he doesn’t want to see young women at all. Whether a woman is 13 or 47 doesn’t matter, she can still disturb the penance of Ayyappa and spoil his Brahmacharya. We need to stop taking myths too seriously. Because, sometimes myths go to the extent of insulting and degrading the divinity which is all pervading and beyond space and time. First of all, there is a difference between Dharma Sastha and Ayyappa or Manikandan. Manikandan was a human prince who lived about 1000 years before. The myths about Manikanda are not reliable because they were written for certain reasons that I will explain later in this answer. Manikandan was considered as an incarnation of Dharma sastha just like we consider Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu. Dharma Sastha is depicted as having two consorts: Poorna and Pushkala. These words mean completion or fullness and prosperity respectively. Here the idea is, after a person attains Moksha, he also attains fullness and prosperity. Also, in Sabarimala, the pujas and moola mantra are addressed to Dharma Sastha directly. Manikandan is said to have merged with Dharma Sastha which is a symbolic way of conveying that Manikanda attained Parinirvana and merged with divinity. So stating that allowing young women to Sabarimala will disturb Ayyappa’s Brahmacharya is completely absurd! He doesn’t exist as a distinct personality anymore. So in the name of Ayyappa, all you are worshipping is Dharmasastha, which in reality is the same as Shiva, Vishnu or Shakthi. It is one divinity that we pray to!
Some people even went ahead and said that the floods in Kerala is the result of the anger of Ayyappa. They also go ahead and say that there will be serious consequences if women are allowed. The idea that all pervading divinity would punish innocent human beings because of anger is totally primitive and complete nonsense. This self-contradicting God is not what Sanatana Dharma talks about. Such ideas are spread by common folks who hasn’t read Bhagavad Gita or Vedas, and has got nothing to do with Ayyappa. Please don’t make God limited and portray him as such a dumb person who will get angry and punish innocent people just because a 12 year old girl or 47 year old woman spoiled his Brahmacharya vrata. Even a human being wouldn’t do that!
3. Here is the actual reason for disallowing the women of age group 10–50. Sabarimala temple has a uniqueness that other temples do not have. To my knowledge, it is the only temple which is maintained for this special reason.
Once it was believed that renouncing the world and practicing austerities were completely necessary for an individual to attain liberation. Even Adhi Shankara has written in his commentaries that if one is seeking liberation then he has no choice other than renouncing the world, own only a begging bowl and keep wandering. But after Bhakthi and other spiritual traditions became popular, it was said that even married people and women can be seekers. So, there are many spiritual sadhanas which have been designed for people who live in family. For example, during the month of Dec-Jan (Marghazhi), women wake up very early and go to Vishnu temples and sing Bhajans; this is a spiritual practice for women but it is open for men too. There are some sadhanas which are open only for women and not for men. For example, women in Tamil Nadu do a special worship for Lord Ganesh by offering him with a snack known as ‘Auvaiyar kozhukkattai ’. Men are not allowed to know the reason and purpose of this worship; they are not allowed to eat those kozhukkattais either which is so unfortunate. 🙂 I have tried to get them many times when I was a kid but no luck! The same way, the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is a spiritual Sadhana for men. Women do not need it and I will explain why.
There is enough scientific evidence now for the fact that men lack self-control when compared to women. Since men have more testosterone, they are naturally very aggressive, lack self-control and very week in delaying gratification. In other words, women can very easily sacrifice a smaller reward that is immediately available for a bigger reward that awaits them in the future. They can also very easily go through a smaller difficulty now to avoid a bigger difficulty later. We have all intuitively known this. Back in school, we all know who makes more noise when a teacher steps out and which gender always fails to do the home work .
A pilgrimage to Sabarimala allows married men to live like monks and practice severe austerities, see divinity in each and every person, completely surrender oneself to divinity and avoid even the sight of women. Doing this for 41 days can free men from many of their habitual tendencies or Vasanas. Such a spiritual practice that is done once in a year for 18 years is actually enough for a person to reach spiritual liberation.
The devotees are expected to follow a Vratham (41-day austerity period) prior to the pilgrimage. This begins with wearing of a special Mala (a chain made of Rudraksha or Tulasi beads is commonly used, though still other types of chains are available.). During the 41 days of Vratham, the devotee who has taken the vow, is required to strictly follow the rules that include follow only a lacto-vegetarian diet (In India, vegetarianism is synonymous with lacto-vegetarianism), follow celibacy, follow teetotalism, not use any profanity and have to control the anger, allow the hair and nails to grow without cutting. They must try their maximum to help others, and see everything around them as lord Ayyappa. They are expected to bath twice in a day and visit the local temples regularly and only wear plain black or blue colored traditional clothing. Saffron colored dresses are worn by Sannyasi who have renunciated material life. But, many devotees still continue to wear saffron colored clothes which becomes a part of Vedic culture which connects the whole Hindus worldwide.
When a devotee reaches the Sabarimala shrine, he can see the Mahavakya ‘Tat tvam asi’ written above the temple in Devanagari script:
This is the truth one realizes by experience when a person attains Atmajnana. This is the spiritual instruction that Dharmasastha attempts to give. The whole purpose of pilgrimage to Sabarimala is to realize this truth in one’s experience at some point of time in his life.
A true seeker of liberation who is a devotee of Dharmasastha would want to meditate in and around the temple and he doesn’t want to see anything that is distracting. He doesn’t the want sight and proximity of women because sometimes the sight and proximity can distract him and make him to start thinking about something else. This is a specially designed Sadhana which can help men to get rid of many vasanas, including any obsession they may have about women.
A woman doesn’t need such a sadhana because nature itself has given her a lot of concession by making her more disciplined. As I said, it is a scientific fact that women have more self-control than men because of their low levels of testosterone. More over, women also have enough compassion to understand the weakness of men and allow them to have their own space. Do men ever claim space in a ‘Ladies only’ bus or women’s gym? We understand why they need their own space sometimes. Just like that, Sabarimala has been a space for men (and women who are under 10 or over 50) to the spiritual practice created for them.
Because of this, Sabarimala has attracted people from all religions and all faiths and helped people to forget their religious differences. I know of many Christian men who wore mala for Sabarimala without letting their wives know; only after they came home, their wives found out that their husbands just got converted! I used to have a close friend in primary school whose dad did the same thing. Ever since, their family follows both Hinduism and Christianity.
There is also a sannidhi for Vavar who was a Muslim. Sabarimala already includes the aspects of all sects within Hinduism:
The customs of the pilgrims to Sabarimala are based on five worshipping methods; those of Shaivites, Shaktists and Vaishnavites. At first, there were three sections of devotees – the devotees of Shakti who used meat to worship their deity, the devotees of Vishnu who followed strict penance and continence, and the devotees of Shiva who partly followed these two methods. Another name of Ayyappa is Sastha. All these can be seen merged into the beliefs of pilgrims to Sabarimala. The chain the pilgrims wear comes from the Rudraksha chain of the Shaivites. The strict fasting, penance and continence is taken out of the beliefs of the Vaishnavites. The offering of tobacco to Kaduthaswamy can be considered to be taken from the Shaktists..
There is also a Buddhist aspect to Sabarimala too. To understand that, we need to explore the history instead of relying on the myths. As we understand some history, we can also understand why these myths are created. The form of Dharmasastha itself was created to resolve conflicts between Shaivites and Vaishnavites.
I would like to give an example to illustrate a point here. Years before, I saw a Telugu movie (starred by Chiranjeevi I think) which was dubbed in Tamil. After watching the movie I realized that the Telugu movie itself was a remake of the Tamil movie ‘Mannan’ starred by actor Rajinikanth. So, both these movies have the same story and screenplay; only the hero has changed. The same has happened with Sabarimala. The spiritual sadhana and uniqueness of the Sabarimala has stayed the same over many centuries but the hero of Sabarimala was changed once in the history! But that doesn’t matter. Wise people know that ‘ekam sat viprAh bahudhA vadanti’ (Truth is one; but called by many names).
Have you heard of Avalokiteshvara?
(Image source: Wikipedia)
Avalokiteshvara is the Buddhist version of Lord Shiva. Mahayana Buddhism which was popular in Tamil Nadu had once adopted many deities of Hindu sects for the tantric practices they had. It would be right to say that except the terminology and some minor differences, Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism are the same. Because, these Buddhists also consecrated idols and temples. For the forms of deities, they mostly absorbed the deities of existing sects of Hinduism and portray these deities as forms of Bodhisattva. They also have other deities surrounding the main deity forming a mandala and use it for meditation. This is exactly what we do in Hinduism when we consecrate temples. A temple is nothing but a big mandala, which is a space for meditation for general public. We have Shaiva, Vaishnava and Saktha agamas which explain the consecration processes of temples.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by someone who has already done a lot of research on this subject:
There is considerable evidence that Lord Ayyappan was once a Buddhist deity, and that Sabarimala was once a Buddhist temple complex. However, it appears that prior to its Buddhist incarnation, the temple was an early Dravidian Saivite centre; therefore it has been a sacred spot of singular merit of at least three or four millennia. Its famed Makara Jyotis (Divine Light) which appears mysteriously in the forest on Makara Sankranti day gave it the name Potalaka.
Astonishingly, it appears that the Dalai Lama’s Palace in Lhasa, the incomparable Potala, is named after Sabarimala! The Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) Avalokitesvara Padmapani, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is, by tradition, reincarnated as the Dalai Lama, was also the one worshipped at Sabarimala.
I am indebted to my cerebral friend Devakumar Sreevijayan (formerly of Austin, Texas and currently of New York City) for almost all of this fascinating research. It is in three texts: the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Hymn to the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara, and the writings of the intrepid Chinese traveller Hsiuen Tsang (Zuen Xang?), that we find the detailed references. Dev found a good deal of information in the book, The Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara by Lokesh Chandra.
But there is ample circumstantial evidence for Kerala’s Buddhist/Jain past. Unlike Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh and Sravanabelagola in Karnataka, they have left no large monuments in Kerala, but it is known that Kodungallur, for example, was a Buddhist centre. Kodungallur, at the time known as Muziris, was a major port; a Buddhist nunnery there became a great Devi temple later, associated with Kannagi, the heroine of the Tamil epic Silappathikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) written by the Chera Prince Ilango Adigal, who lived in what is now Kerala.
The revered Patriarch Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese) from Kodungallur was the originator of the Zen sect (dhyana in Sanskrit, Ch’an in Chinese) — he went to the Shao-Lin monastery in China (420-479 CE), and he took the martial art of kalari payat there for the protection of the unarmed monks, whence the various martial arts of East Asia. According to Chinese legend, Bodhidharma also created the tea plant, by tearing off his eyelids and planting them in the ground: presumably this means he also took the tea plant with him.
The legend of Mahabali — the asura king sent to the underworld by an avatar of Lord Vishnu — also gives clues to the Hindu-Buddhist past: an egalitarian Buddhist rule overthrown by Brahmin-led Upanishadic Hindus. Perhaps there was a period of co-existence, much like the centuries-old peaceful co-existence between the followers of the Buddha and Eswara/Siva in South East Asia. In the great temples of Java and Cambodia, Eswara/Buddha are almost seen as interchangeable.
At Prambanan in Java (the Hindu counterpart to the great Buddhist complex at Borobudur) and at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the images of Siva/Eswara and of the Buddha are sometimes intermixed; apparently there was no great animosity between the worshippers of both. Similarly, one might hope, the transitions from Siva to the Buddha to Ayyappan were relatively peaceful.
The circumstantial evidence for the Buddhist nature of Lord Ayyappan is compelling. For one, the devotees chant: “Swamiye saranam Ayyappa,” so close to the Buddhist mantra: “Buddham saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami.”
Furthermore, the very sitting posture of the Ayyappan deity is suggestive: almost every Buddhist image anywhere, including those sometimes unearthed in the fields of Travancore by farmers, is in sitting position. Whereas practically no other deity in Kerala is in that posture.
Says Lokesh Chandra: ‘The Avatamsaka Sutra describes the earthly paradise of Avalokitesvara: ”Potalaka is on the sea-side in the south, it has woods, it has streams, and tanks”…Buddhabhadra’s (AD 420) rendering of Potala (or Potalaka) is ”Brilliance.” It refers to its etymology: Tamil pottu (potti-) ”to light (as a fire)”…brilliance refers to the makara-jyoti of Sabarimala.’
‘Hsuen Tsang refers to Avalokitesvara on the Potala in the following words, summarised by Waters (1905): ”In the south of the country near the sea was the Mo-lo-ya (Malaya) mountain, with its lofty cliffs and ridges and deep valleys and gullies, on which were sandal, camphor and other trees. To the east of this was Pu-ta-lo-ka (Potalaka) mountain with steep narrow paths over its cliffs and gorges in irregular confusion…” ‘
All of this is still true; Hsuen Tsang’s description could easily be of contemporary Sabarimala. The only difference perhaps is that the forests are no longer so dense. Pilgrims believe that those who ignore the strict penances — abstinence from alcohol, smoking, meat-eating and sex — are in danger of being attacked by wild animals while on their trek. However, there are not too many large animals in these forests any more, as a result of human encroachment.
Lokesh Chandra continues: ‘Hsuen Tsang clearly says that Avalokitesvara at Potala sometimes takes the form of Isvara (Siva) and sometimes that of a Pasupata yogin. In fact, it was Siva who was metamorphosed into Avalokitesvara…The image at Potalaka which was originally Siva, was deemed to be Avalokitesvara when Buddhism became dominant… The Potalaka Lokesvara and the Thousand-armed Avalokitesvara have echoes of Siva and Vishnu, of Hari and Hara.’
‘…Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala… could have been the Potala Lokesvara of Buddhist literature. The makara jyoti of Sabarimala recalls Potala’s “brilliance”… The long, arduous and hazardous trek through areas known to be inhabited by elephants and other wildlife to Sabarimala is spoken of in the pilgrimage to Potala Lokesvara. The Buddhist character of Ayyappa is explicit in his merger with Dharma-sasta. Sasta is a synonym of Lord Buddha.’
Thus, the history of Sabarimala is to some extent a microcosm of the religious history of India. It is interesting that there are connections between Kerala, in the deep South, and Ladakh/Zanskar in the far North, where the last of the Tibetan Buddhists practise their religion unmolested.
Those devout Ayyappan pilgrims in their dark clothes symbolising the abandonment of their egos, who flock to the hill temple in the cool winter months, are thus, in a way, celebrating two of the great religious streams of Mother India: both the Hindu present and the Buddhist past.
Some people may get offended after knowing that Sabarimala was once a Buddhist shrine. But in our culture, only ignorant people have problems with names and forms. Wise people didn’t even hesitate to consider Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. In fact, Dharmasastha is nothing but an union of Shiva as Avalokiteshvara and Vishnu as Buddha! It is very important to note here that Buddha didn’t allow women in his community. So for many centuries, Buddhist monks went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Avalokiteshvara in Sabarimala and young women were not a part of this pilgrimage.
Pothigai hills near Tirunelveli was once a hub of Mahayana Buddhism. It interacted with Shaivism and Saktha traditions and absorbed many deities. While Hindu texts show that sage Agastya learnt Tamil from Lord Shiva, Buddhist text maintain that Agastya learnt Tamil from Avalokiteshvara. Also, one of the forms of Avalokiteshvara is Goddess Chandika who is called as Cundi in Buddhism. Here is the image of Cundi:
(Image source: Wikipedia)
You can compare this form with the Hindu Goddess Chandi:
(Image source: Wikipedia)
It is interesting that Parashurama, who was a devotee of Chandika lived in Pothigai hills too, which I have explained in this answer: Shanmugam P’s answer to What is Tripura Rahasya?. Parashurama is also believed to have constructed the temple in Sabarimala. It is interesting to note that Parshurama is connected to both Chandika (which is a form of Avalokiteshvara in Buddhism) and Sabari Mala. This also gives strength to the theory that Sabari Mala has got something to do with Avalokiteshvara.
The consecration of Avalokiteshvara as Dharma sastha must have happened during the time when Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu sects existed in harmony. Just like there are ignorant people now who fight over petty issues, there must have been people who fought over such differences back then. The myths were created to pacify them.
Pothigai hills are called as Mount Potala in Buddhism. People who wanted to go to pilgrimage to Sabarimala had to go through Pothigai hills since there is a ghat there. The same ghat has been used by the buses now to go to Sabarimala. In Buddhist literature, Pothigai hills and Sabarimala are collectively called as Mount Potala.
Pilgrimage to Potala began in about the 1th century CE although records are very scant. Both of the great Tamil Buddhist epics, the Maṇimegala and the Cilappatikanam mention pilgrims going to Mount Potala. The Mahāyānist poet and philosopher Candragomin went there by ship and is said to have spent his last years on the mountain. He wrote his most famous work, the Śisyaleaka, while there and gave it to some merchants to pass to his disciples in northern India. When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in Nalanda in the 7th century he met a brahmin who had made a vow to worship a statue of Avalokiteśvara which was on the top of Potala, a vow he had been able to fulfill. This statue was believed to be the bodhisattva’s exact likeness. Later, Hiuen Tsiang travelled through south India and although he was unable to visit Potala himself he left this description of it based on what others had told him. “To the east of the Malaya Mountains is Mount Potala. The passes on the mountain are very dangerous, its sides are precipitous and its valleys rugged. On the top of the mountain is a lake, its waters as clear as a mirror. From a grotto preceeds a great river which encircles the mountain twenty times as it flows down to the southern sea. By the side of the lake is a rock palace of the gods. Here Avalokiteśhvara in coming and going takes his abode. Those who strongly desire to see him disregarding their lives and fording the streams, climb the mountain forgetful of its difficulties and dangers. Of those who make the attempt there are very few who reach the summit. But even if those who dwell below the mountain earnestly prey to behold the bodhisattva, he appears to them sometimes as Isvara, sometimes in the form of a yogi, and addresses them with benevolent words and then they obtain their wishes according to their desires.” This description is clearly a blend of fact and fiction, something about Potala that increased as time went by. Gradually the sacred mountain came to be seen as a kind of magical fairy land, a paradise where rare medical herbs and exquisite flowers grew, where mythological animals frolicked and where those blessed enough to be reborn in Avalokiteśhvara’s presence abided in bliss.
So, what happened when Manikanda lived? Manikandan rediscovered a path to Sabari Mala and also went and meditated in the manimandapam. It is only after Manikandan, the pilgrimage to Sabarimala became easier! All devotees today (who go to Sabarimala by following a proper procedure including wearing mala and practicing austerities for a mandala) are going through the same path that Manikandan once rediscovered and went through! Manikandan himself was a devotee of Avalokiteshvara who attained Moksha.
But the issue that has happened today has actually led to something good. It has given reasons for people to explore the real concept behind Sabarimala pilgrimage. It has reminded us about the importance of Sabarimala.
So, should women between the age 10–50 allowed inside the shrine of Sabarimala? We need to ask women what they want to do and we have two options to choose from:
- Since Sabarimala pilgrimage is an unique Sadhana for men that requires staying away from women and since women do not need such Sadhana, the correct reasons should be properly explained in court instead of stating rubbish reasons like ‘It will spoil the Brahmacharya of Ayyappa’. This may cause the court to revise its judgement.
- If women or court really insist that young women should be also allowed, then women should be allowed to go there during a different season with full protection when men are not allowed. So men can practice 41 days of austerities as usual and go to Sabarimala during January; women of age group 10–50 can practice austerities for probably a lesser number of days (for. e.g. one week) and go to Sabarimala during the month of April when the shrine opens for Vishu. Thus, allowing men and women during different seasons can help devotees to resolve the issue without disturbing the spiritual practice that they do. I am pretty sure that Agamas are not very strict and they are liberal enough to make such provisions. Even if people are scared of any negative consequences, I am sure that there should be pariharams done for that! Our agamas are very rich and they certainly have room for many customizations.
It is very important to set our emotions aside and think. Causing violence and chaos in the name of saving a temple or a deity has got nothing to do with spirituality.