Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Blaise Pascal.
The vexed question of whether women of a certain age group should be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of the Sabarimala temple and pay obeisance to the resident shrine, Lord Ayyappa, has been exercising the minds of men, women, government officials and judicial beaks for quite a while now. The latter two categories, of course, will also necessarily be classified under men or women. The judiciary pronounced initially in favour of women being allowed to enter the temple, but the verdict’s acceptance by the temple authorities as well as dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists of both sexes, is conspicuous by its absence. On the contrary, battle lines have been clearly drawn, and ardent devotees have boldly announced that any attempt by women to enter the temple premises will have to be, literally, over their dead bodies. Footage on our television screens showing a man chasing a woman outside the temple premises, spraying chilli powder made for abhorrent viewing.
It must be said that the highest law of the land, having given its verdict, has been strangely muted in its advocacy of the ruling being implemented pronto. They have been sitting on the fence, stating that it is not for them to get involved in the actual carrying out of the judgment. That the matter is now under a review petition and referred to a larger bench means the matter continues to hang in the balance. Doubtless a sensitive issue, the buck has now been passed by the gavel wielding wise men. I believe in the old Biblical dictum of ‘let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.’ Where will we common folk go if the courts start prevaricating and let ‘“I dare not” wait upon “I would”, like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’
Which is why I was somewhat discomfited when one of India’s most popular, polyglot singers in the film playback and devotional segments, Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, known simply as Yesudas to his legion of fans, elected to hold forth on the powder keg issue of women’s access to the Sabarimala temple. Now, let me state outright that I yield to no one in my admiration for Yesudas’ mellifluous singing and dulcet tones. Some of his film songs have indelibly imprinted themselves in the annals of Indian film music. If not quite rubbing shoulders with Mohd. Rafi and Kishore Kumar, certainly pretty close to doing so. His devotional songs, particularly in his native tongue of Malayalam and other Indian languages, have sold in their millions worldwide. Apparently he has recorded well over 80,000 songs. That’s a lot of songs during a blazing career spanning over five decades. Yesudas certainly does not have to sing for his supper. He is also a Carnatic musician of some standing, but I will reserve my judgment on where he stands in the pantheon of stalwarts in this art form.
That said, where does my discomfiture spring from? It has to do with a recent newspaper report in which Yesudas gave it as his considered opinion that women devotees entering Sabarimala will ‘distract’ the devout males who throng in their millions for a darshan. Apparently during their period of worship, they are required to remain both abstemious as well as self-abnegating from any physical relationship with the opposite sex. Which is not to suggest that same sex dalliance is kosher, but you get my drift. Before I critique Yesudas’ stated position, it should be emphasised that the man with the golden voice, though belonging nominally to the Christian faith, has had no problem in embracing a plethora of religions during the course of his hugely successful musical journey. This theological multiplicity is an ambiguity he has lived quite comfortably with. More importantly, his army of fans have accepted his versatile position wholeheartedly, and one must doff one’s hat to his singular status in India’s music world because of this. Some cynics might scoff that this is nothing more than a brilliant marketing gimmick, taking advantage of his musical ability, to gain pan India recognition. That, however, would be uncharitable to a musician who has won the hearts of millions purely through his variegated attributes as a singer.
However, I must express my reservation at Yesudas’ ingenuous statements on the Sabarimala issue. To bolster his contention that women visiting the Sabarimala shrine will distract male devotees from their undivided obeisance to the deity, he goes on to say, ‘If a beautiful girl goes to Sabarimala with the kind of attire they wear today, Lord Ayyappa will not even open his eyes and see. But other Ayyappas (devotees) will see (the women) and it is not good. Their intention would change. That is why we tell them (the women) not to go. There are other temples and they can go there.’ He concludes by saying that times have changed from the days when a man would not even glance at his wife during the 41 day vratham (abstinence)period before visiting the shrine – rounding off with an earnest plea to women devotees, ‘Please don’t tempt Ayyappa’s devotees.’
I find Yesudas’ statements completely out of whack at so many levels. The naivety is incomprehensible. If it is his contention that men will be distracted by women during their prayers at Sabarimala, why should it be all right for the women to go to other temples? Will there be no men to disturb women’s peace of mind there? I am aware that there are a handful of temples in the country that allow entry only for women, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, before Yesudas provided his piercing insights on the subject, the temple authorities’ view was that the godhead Ayyappa will himself be disturbed and they will not countenance such an awful eventuality while prayers are being offered! Excuse me? There is also something quite misogynistic about these arguments. Women are being portrayed as sultry temptresses driving the men to distraction, whereas there is no suggestion that women can be equally put out if they are so inclined, by ubiquitous bare-chested men in places of worship. If the inference is that women have greater self-control over their emotions, I am happy to go along with that view, for the simple reason that that is verifiably true. And pray, what is this business about ‘with the kind of attire they wear?’ As far as I can tell, women who visit temples are nearly always attired properly in keeping with our best traditions of modesty and appropriateness. In the unlikely event that a young lady is misguided enough to visit a temple in a mini skirt, tight jeans or a skimpy dress, I am sure she will be quietly asked to go home and return after changing into something more suitable. The assumption is galling, leave alone the conclusions being drawn on that basis. Other issues to do with women being ‘out of doors’ (read periods) and so on, I do not wish to touch upon as it is not strictly relevant to the primary thrust of this discussion.
Over the centuries traditions across the world, including our Hindu forms of worship, the restrictions and control lines imposed, have seen many fluctuations in keeping with changing mores and times. Tonsured widows being a prime example, leave alone the barbaric practice of suttee. Which is why a democratic country like India proudly boasts of an enlightened citizenry and a robust judicial system to help us manage these vicissitudes. However, fat lot of good having a robust judiciary does if implementation on sensitive issues such as the one under discussion becomes unimplementable. The matter is fraught enough without all and sundry, including the Yesudases of the world giving free rein to their gauche opinions and the media only too happy to lap them up and add their own spicy twist.
I can think of no better way to conclude this reflection than to quote cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, ‘Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.’