Indian courts take on ‘backward’ Hindu traditions

But critics say the judiciary is simply out of touch with grass roots religious practices in various parts of the country.

Hindu worshippers queue during a pilgrimage at the Sabarimala temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala on December 1, 2015. Hareesh Kumar A S/AP Photo
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NEW DELHI // Fifty million pilgrims visit a Hindu temple in the south Indian town of Sabarimala each year, but none of them are teenage girls or women aged below 50.

The Hindu deity Ayappa is believed to sit in meditation there, having vanquished a demoness in battle. As long as he is at Sabarimala, the myth goes, he is sworn to celibacy. So the temple bars girls over 12 and women under over 50 to keep him from straying.

This centuries-old restriction is now under scrutiny by India’s supreme court. A special three-judge bench began expediting hearings last month on a petition filed nearly a decade ago by women members of the Indian Young Lawyers Association (IYLA).

The quick pace of proceedings suggests that a verdict may be imminent. On Monday, the head of the bench appeared to hint at the court’s thinking.

“Unless you have a constitutional right to prohibit women entry, you cannot prevent them from worshipping at the shrine,” justice Dipak Misra said.

He challenged the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, to prove that women had not prayed at the temple at any point in the past. “On what basis are you prohibiting women entry? What is your logic?”

The temple board argues that every Hindu shrine has a mode of worship specific to it and to its particular deity, and that the Sabarimala temple is predicated on Ayyappa’s celibacy.

“It is not a gender issue but the tradition of each shrine,” said Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the president of the board.

The Sabarimala case is one of several over the past year in which the judiciary has been asked to overturn traditional practices considered backward in the modern age.

On Wednesday, the supreme court refused to overturn its 2014 ban on jallikattu, a bull-wrestling event associated with the Hindu harvest festival of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, which fell on Friday.

The court had observed that the sport caused “considerable pain and distress to the bulls”.

In December, the court permitted temples to appoint priests as per the ancient Agama texts, which set down rules by which temples are to be built and run, and specify the knowledge that priests must possess. The court noted, however, that such appointments should not be based on caste. Traditionally, temple priests have been drawn from the Brahmin caste, the highest in the Hindu hierarchy.

Last August, the supreme court overturned a ban imposed by a lower court on Santhara, a ritual suicide act practised by members of the Jain religion.

“It’s difficult to say if there are just more such cases coming up before the court now, or whether the media is reporting them in greater detail,” said V Sivakumar, a Chennai-based lawyer.

In a country as deeply religious as India, these cases have inevitably drawn controversy.

Naushad Ahmed Khan, president of the IYLA, said he has received death threats because of the Sabarimala petition.

“I’ve received more than 700 telephone calls, including some calls from international [numbers], since Wednesday,” Mr Khan said.

Mr Sivakumar said India’s constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and held the state back from interfering with religious practices, except where such practices clashed with the rights of citizens or other fundamental freedoms.

“Normally the court does not interfere in age-old customs or what it calls ‘essential religious practices’,” Mr Sivakumar said.

The philosophical debates in these cases revolve around such distinctions. The court decided, for instance, that jallikattu is not “essential” to the festival of Pongal.

“Pongal will happen even without jallikattu,” justice Misra said on Wednesday.

In the case of Sabarimala, the court will decide whether the restrictions on women violate the gender equality guaranteed under the constitution. Mr Sivakumar said justice Misra’s remarks were made at an intermediary stage of the case.

“The court may well end up upholding the ban,” he said. “We may be reading too much into some ‘thinking out aloud’ by the bench.”

But critics maintain that the judiciary is simply out of touch with grass roots religious practices in various parts of the country.

“They don’t understand how important jallikattu is here in this part of the country,” said Balakumar Somu, a software engineer and a jallikattu enthusiast in Coimbatore.

“They don’t know the agrarian culture that produced a sport like this, and they don’t know that these practices hold rural Tamil Nadu together.”