Women of all ages can now enter the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala. The Supreme Court has struck down the centuries-old ban on the entry of women aged 10-50 at the temple—this ban had been given legal sanction under the Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 —as unconstitutional. The five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, a majority judgment held that “exclusion on grounds of biological, physiological features… are discriminatory”. Justice DY Chandrachud stated that one of the reasons forwarded to support the ban, that women who had reached menarche but not menopause were distractions from “celibacy”—expanded liberally in the case of the married male devotees of Ayyappa to mean a spiritual state unsoiled by sexual desire—placed “the burden of man’s celibacy” on women, and that stigmatised and stereotyped the later. Given how the ban militates against the Constitutional guarantee to the right to equality, the SC’s judgment should be seen as welcome.
To be sure, the lone dissenting judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, was of the view that what constitutes “an essential practice in a religion is for the religion to decide. … Constitutional morality in a pluralistic society gives freedom to practice even irrational customs.” Many who have criticised attempts to overturn the ban bank on the various legends of Ayyappa that are proffered as the reason the deity practises “naishtik bramhacharya” or “rigorous celibacy”. The argument is that the law has no business in determining what traditions may stay and what should go. But, had that been the case, India’s dalits would still be barred from entering temples and untouchability would have been far more common. Social modernisation, especially with respect to ending discriminatory traditions, is a goal that all societies must aspire for. To that end, the law catalysing change is desirable.