Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sabari's Lesson For Sabarimala

The temple of the bachelor-god Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala has courted controversy recently, but the issue is a longstanding one, and not something unique to Sabarimala either.

[Sabarimala means Sabari's hill. The word 'mala' is a Dravidian one that means mountain or hill. It is not to be confused with the Sanskrit word 'maala' meaning garland.]

The basic issue is that orthodox Hinduism considers menstruating women to be ritually unclean, and therefore they are not permitted to perform religious rites or visit temples when they have their periods. The Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala goes even further in its restrictions. No female between the ages of puberty and menopause is permitted to visit the temple. In other words, the very capability for menstruation is a disqualification for entry.

In our modern world increasingly informed by egalitarian feminist sentiment, it's only a matter of time before such restrictions begin to be challenged, and a chance remark by a temple priest (perhaps quoted out of context) has ignited a furore.

In the social media age, the appropriate hashtag #HappyToBleed has begun to trend. This campaign is to challenge menstrual taboos in general, not just to seek entry for women into the Sabarimala temple.

In the face of such opposition, the head priest at the Ayyappa temple has dug in his heels and stated the bleeding obvious, that he will safeguard the "purity" of the temple even if he has to resign.

However, it's time to ask some fundamental questions.

One does not need to ask the most fundamental question, i.e., why do people feel the need to worship or go to a temple in the first place? Let us accept that that's a bridge too far for many.

If we accept that people have a need for religious expression, then the next question would be whether it is fair to prevent some from exercising that right merely because of some aspect of nature that they cannot control. If a divine Being created human beings, with all of our bodily functions, why would that Being find these functions suddenly objectionable when these humans try to offer worship?

Indeed, there is evidence in Hindu scripture itself that the divine is not so pedantic.

In the Ramayana, the exiled prince Rama (believed to be an avatar of the god Vishnu), came upon an old woman called Sabari (also spelt Shabari) during his wanderings. Sabari offered him some fruits that she had collected, but she only wanted him to eat the sweetest ones. So she bit into each fruit first to taste it, threw away those that weren't sweet, and only offered Rama the ones that were. Rama's brother Lakshmana was horrified, because of the cultural taboo relating to another's saliva. But the divine Rama looked beyond matters of hygiene to recognise the devotion and love of the old woman. He accepted and ate the nominally defiled fruits without a murmur.

Rama accepting fruits from Shabari that she had tasted first.
Moral: God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids.

The lesson from the parable of Sabari is clear. God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids. If the custodians of Hindu temples everywhere (including the temple at the hill ironically named after the old woman) learn that lesson, the practice of the religion would align better with its spirit.
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