The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion of 4: 1, lifted the centuries-old practice of prohibiting women from the age of menarche to menopause to enter the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala.
The legend has it that the temple deity Ayyappa followed celibacy all through his life. Therefore, women devotees of menstruating age are considered “impure” by supporters of the ban and are prohibited from entering the temple, on the pretext that they would disturb the celibacy of the deity.
On one side we pray to goddesses; on the other, women of a certain age are considered ‘impure’. This dualistic approach is nothing but patriarchy practiced in religion.
Exclusion on grounds of biological and physiological features like menstruation was therefore unconstitutional as it is violative of the right to equality and dignity of women.
Hence, Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act of 1965, which mandates the prohibition in Sabarimala temple, ultra vires the Constitution. The Rule violated the fundamental right of a Hindu woman to offer worship at a place of her choice. Right to worship is equally available to men and women.
Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman judge on the Constitution Bench, dissented from the majority opinion. She held that the determination of what constituted an essential practice in a religion should not be decided by judges on the basis of their personal viewpoints.
She held that essentiality of a religious practice or custom had to be decided within the religion. It was a matter of personal faith. Constitutional morality in a pluralistic society gave freedom to practice even irrational or illogical customs and usages.
Harmonization of fundamental rights with religion included providing freedom for diverse sects to practice their customs and beliefs. Therefore, the Judge held that there were strong, plausible reasons to show that Ayyappa devotees had attributes of a religious denomination.
They have distinct names, properties. Besides, the Sabarimala temple was not funded out of the Consolidated Fund.
The significance of the verdict:
The Supreme Court’s ruling establishes the legal principle that individual freedom prevails over purported group rights, even in matters of religion. Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious denomination and that the prohibition on women is not an essential part of Hindu religion.
Beyond the legality of the practice, the court has also sought to grapple with the stigmatization of women devotees based on a medieval view of menstruation as symbolizing impurity and pollution.
The decision reaffirms the Constitution’s transformative character and derives strength from the centrality it accords to fundamental rights.
Devotion cannot be subjected to the stereotypes of gender. Stigma built around traditional notions of impurity has no place in the constitutional order, and exclusion based on the notion of impurity is a form of untouchability.
Any rule based on segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is indefensible and unconstitutional.