Why the Sabarimala verdict is an act of social engineering
Traditional Hindu laws have yielded way to gender equality in matters of inheritance and society has accepted it without fuss.
Changes in religious practice are an ongoing process. Most Hindu shrines, especially those associated with the Shakta traditions, have over the decades abandoned animal sacrifice. In many temples, it is no longer considered obligatory to have worship conducted by Brahmin priests. There are instances— admittedly few— of women priests conducting Hindu marriages.
Apart from rituals, the changes have embraced religious custom. Backed by legislation, Hindu temples no longer have caste restrictions on entry and worship. The Supreme Court has mooted a proposal to even allow the entry of non-Hindus to the Jagannath temple in Puri. Traditional Hindu laws have yielded way to gender equality in matters of inheritance and society has accepted it without fuss. Indeed, traditional discriminatory practices — while still not totally eradicated — are on the retreat in Hindu society.
Thanks to the convergence between everyday religion and the media, the lived Hindu religion is evolving very rapidly. With greater prosperity, traditional pilgrimages have been embellished by organised tourism. A combination of Bollywood and media has seen localised customs such as Karva Chauth and fasting on Tuesdays acquire a pan-Indian character. The Santoshi Ma cult was entirely a celluloid creation. Ganesh has emerged as a national deity, with an appeal cutting across class and geography. In eastern India, community Durga Pujas have become more widespread and certainly more opulent. Although the maha aartis that were fleetingly witnessed in Mumbai in the wake of the 1992-93 riots haven’t caught on, today’s Hinduism is definitely more communitarian, more participative and definitely less inclined to exclude people on grounds of theological or other schisms. In the modern temples that have mushroomed in urban India, worship of Krishna, Shiva and other deities is conducted side by side and harmoniously, often by the same set of priests. At the onset of the 20th century, this would have been unimaginable.
It is important to remember that most of the socio-religious changes in the Hindu communities aren’t only due to legislation. Certainly, changes in the law played an important role in edging out child marriage, according inheritance rights to women and regulating the terms of marriage and divorce. But these are issues that any modern state has an obligation to regulate. Apart from the legal strictures against caste-based oppression and the rights of all castes to worship in temples, the shifts in the religious life of Hindus have seamlessly evolved. Urbanisation, the emergence of a diaspora, filmi culture and even Hindutva have contributed to the shifts. While some may lament that the changes have played havoc with the more devotional facets of the Hindu inheritance— partly compensated by the appeal of modern spiritual gurus— none can deny that the reformation of popular Hinduism was mostly internally generated. There was no overriding state and no overriding pope to steer the course of a way of life.
For the Supreme Court, the Sabarimala case was a test of “constitutional morality” and the majority judgment concluded that the exclusion of women between the ages of 12 and 50 violated the equality principles of Articles 14, 15 and 17. At the same time, the Court, by not addressing the issue of whether this exclusion was “essential religious practice”, in effect concluded that it was a mere embellishment. The Court applied the test of rationality and implicitly concluded that Swami Ayyappa’s vow of permanent celibacy was too abstruse to compromise absolute principles of the Constitution. That the deity’s seclusion from fertile women was an integral part of the Ayyappa tradition and unreservedly accepted by devotees— including women— was disregarded. Instead, primacy was attached to academic objections by non-devotees.
The judgment was an act of social engineering and based on the belief that faith and custom must correspond to the diktats of modernity. It has mechanically directed radical change on a Hindu culture that is both eternal and constantly adaptive. Quite unwittingly, the Supreme Court may have set the stage for a hardening of attitudes.