New Delhi: A three-judge bench of Justices Dipak Misra, V. Gopala Gowda and Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court on Monday strongly denounced the religious custom barring the entry of women.
The bench said it will strike a balance between the right to equality and right to religious freedom under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion to every individual.
Senior counsel K.K. Venugopal, appearing for the Devaswom Board, said for several centuries traditionally it had been a practice in the temple located in a forest area to restrict the entry of women in the 10-50 age group as the deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a “Naisthik brahmachari” celibate.
He said male devotees take a vow of celibacy for 42 days, avoid smoking and liquor and walk barefoot through the jungles to perform pooja. Justice Misra asked the counsel: “Is it (ban) so intricately fundamental for religion as envisaged by the Constitution? Is spirituality singularly in the domain of men and women? Are women incapable of attaining spirituality?”
Senior counsel K.K.. Venugopal argued the tradition has been continuing for centuries and there were several books and research works to support such beliefs. He said that this practice was not discrimination against women.
Senior counsel K. Parasaran, appearing for Nair Society, one of the intervenors, said Sabaraimala was a unique temple where besides Hindus, Christians, Muslims and even foreigners were allowed entry. But as per custom and long tradition, women between 10 and 50 were not allowed as the manifestation of God in this temple was celibate.
He said not only the perceptions of worshippers but what was being worshipped was also important. If a devotee felt he was not worshipping the idol of a brahmachari, he may not go to that temple. In all other Ayyappa temples in Kerala, women are allowed entry without discrimination.
The concept is that the presence of women between 10 and 50 will disturb the penance of Lord Ayyappa. At this juncture, Justice Misra told the counsel: “To accept your argument we must constitutionally reconcile that such a prohibition is permissible. What we are saying is can you deny a class of people within a class on biological reasons, and thereby infringe my (women) right to practice religion,
which includes the right to enter temples.”
Senior counsel Ravi Prakash Gupa, appearing for the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, strongly opposed the ban. He recalled the recent Bombay high court order that allowed the entry of women into the Shani temple, that ended a 400-year tradition, and said judicial intervention was required here too. The arguments will continue on Wednesday.