Sabarimala temple controversy arising from self-confessional trespass of the sanctum sancto-rum by Smt Jayamala, a Kannada actress cum devotee of Lord Ayyappa whose idol she claimed to have touched when she was 27 only, has raised several curious questions in the minds of believers and non-believers.
First, Lord Ayyappa, born out of the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in form of Mohini (lady enchantress), was a brahmachari (celibate). Doesn'tthe above discrimination against women establish that the Hindu religion was chauvinistic or male-dominated? Before I address the above questions, let me narrate an anecdote. Once a spiritual master directed his disciple to present him with the worst thing in the world as his Dakshina (dues for teaching). The disciple offered a stone but the master refused to accept it saying that the stone had many utilities and, therefore, couldn'tbe the worst thing. The student then offered cow dung which too was refused on grounds of its utility as manure and fuel apart from its symbolic purity. When even human excreta was declined on the ground that it was only residuary of the best food in the world, the hopeless disciple perceived the truth that nothing in this world was bad or impure, save his mind that was attuned to discriminate men and objects. Therefore, his mind alone qualified as the worst thing which he offered and the master readily accepted it.
What the student in our anecdote learnt after successive rebuff was the Vedantic truth that Brahman is the core as also the sum total of all existence, quantitative and qualitative. Precisely because of this, Hindu philosophy does not distinguish man from woman, human from animal or other species inasmuch as such distinctions exist only in the phenomenal world that is impermanent and hence unreal, and not in the noumenal world.
The worship of gods or goddesses is a ritual in the phenomenal world, without any inherent contradiction between the ritualistic religion for commoners and its underlying philosophy for the spiritual. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna in a state of Brahman-consciousness, ascribes the creativity or evolution of this phenomenal world to the mingling of his lower prakriti (creative energy), divided eight-fold into earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and ego, with his higher prakriti or the souls (verses 4-5, chapter 7). By further declaring that the desired result from the worship of any deity is dispensed by Him alone (verse 22, chapter 7) he dismantled the line of demarcation to a blessed devotee between humanised deities and the Brahman.
Curiously, however, Vedantic philosophy assigned femininity to prakriti, also described as para shakti (supreme energy) and maya (illusion), and placed it above purusha (souls) in the phenomenal world, being the governing force that drives the latter. Does the ritualistic religion of the Hindus send a contrary message?
Given the fact that all deities were either human or humanised, it is only logical that human qualities would be assigned to them. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa was a brahmachari and, therefore, his prime mission was to get rid of all material desires including the desire for sex, considered as the most difficult one to conquer. This explains why the priests have banned the entry of young women to the temple precincts so that the soul of Lord Ayyappa in the deity is not distracted by their presence. The question whether the soul of Lord Ayyappa is truly residing in the deity or whether the Lord still needs to remain detached from his female devotees are irrelevant in a matter of faith.
Lord Ayyappa'ssupposed defilement by the touch of a young woman, by no stretch of imagination, smacks of impurity of the latter. Given our premise that all our gods and goddesses were born of women, it would not stand to logic to treat women as impure and their offspring as pure. Surely purity cannot originate from impurity just as knowledge cannot be born out of ignorance.
That Hindu religion is not male-dominated is evident from the following facts. Majority of Hindu gods had a goddess consort. The two biggest festivals in India are connected with the worship of goddesses Durga (Navaratri and Dassera), and Lakshmi (Diwali). Saraswati, the goddess of learning is worshipped by learners. During the Vedic period there was no restriction on women to study the Vedas. Of the sages associated with revelation of the Vedas, 21 were women. The Hindus consider the earth and their country as mother.
We often refer to Manu'sinjunction for a woman'sdependence on her father in childhood, husband in youth and son in old age in support of the contrary proposition. When viewed in the context of his other observations, such as ?Where women are honoured there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured no sacred rite yields rewards? (Manu Smriti III. 56), it is evident that his mandate on women'sdependence had a protection angle.
The final verdict on the equality of sex comes from the Rig Veda itself, which states, ?The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore, both should join and take equal parts in all works, religious and secular.? (Book 5, hymn 61, verse 8). This is precisely the reason why Swami Vivekananda found Aryan ideals of woman as superior to the Semitic one that considered the presence of woman as dangerous to devotion (p 229, vol. 5, Complete Works).
The above philosophical stance notwithstanding, it is undeniable that women'sstatus was relegated in course of time, first under the influence of Buddhism, being a religion of monastic order, and thereafter under foreign rule when women were understandably interned and denied certain rights and liberties, not only for their own protection but for preservation of the Hindu civilisation as such. In independent India the restoration of the status quo ante is not only necessary but inevitable.