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The Sabarimala singularity

The Supreme Court is currently hearing oral arguments in Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, in which rules that bar the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala have been called into question. At a purely unreflecting level the case might well appear to us to be an easy one to resolve. To prohibit women from entering a public space, from worshipping in a shrine of their choice, one would think, ought to be anathema to the tenets of a constitutional democracy. But, as a study of the rival contentions made before the five-judge Bench that heard arguments shows us, the religious freedom clauses in the Constitution are possessed of a special complexity, which the court’s own past jurisprudence has turned into a quagmire of contradictions.

Freedom of religion

Generally, the right to freedom of religion of both individuals and groups is recognised as an intrinsic facet of a liberal democracy. The Constitution memorialises these guarantees in Articles 25 and 26. The former recognises a right to freedom of conscience and a right to freely profess, practise, and propagate religion, subject to common community exceptions of public order, morality, and health, and also, crucially, to the guarantee of other fundamental rights. Article 25(2)(b) creates a further exception to the right. It accords to the state a power to make legislation, in the interests of social welfare and reform, throwing open Hindu religious institutions of public character to all classes and sections of Hindus. Article 26, on the other hand, which is also subject to limitations imposed on grounds of public order, morality, and health, accords to every religious denomination the right, among other things, to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes and to manage their own affairs in matters of religion.

Until now, most cases involving a bar of entry into temples have involved a testing of laws made in furtherance of Article 25(2)(b). For example, in Sri Venkataramana Devaru v. State of Mysore (1958), the Supreme Court examined the validity of the Madras Temple Entry Authorisation Act of 1947, which was introduced with a view to removing “the disabilities imposed by custom or usage on certain classes of Hindus against entry into a Hindu temple.” The court upheld the law on the ground that statutes made under clause 2(b) to Article 25 served as broad exceptions to the freedom of religion guaranteed by both Articles 25 and 26.

Conflicting claims

But here, in Indian Young Lawyers Association, the attack is to the converse; it is to Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which states, “Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.”

It is by placing reliance on these rules that the Sabarimala temple prohibits women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the shrine. It claims, through the Travancore Devaswom Board, that its deity, Lord Ayyappa, is a “Naisthik Brahmachari,” and that allowing young women to enter the temple would affect the idol’s “celibacy” and “austerity”. At play, therefore, in the case is a clash between a series of apparently conflicting claims: among others involving the temple’s right to decide for itself how its religious affairs ought to be managed, the rights of a community of devotees who believe that a bar on women’s entry is an essential religious practice, and the rights of those women seeking to assert not only their freedom to unreservedly enter and pray at the shrine, but also their rights to be recognised as equals under the Constitution.

Traditionally, to resolve tensions of this kind, the Supreme Court has relied on a very particular jurisprudence that it has carved for itself to determine what manners of rituals and beliefs deserve special constitutional protection. This doctrine requires the court to define what constitutes, in its own words, an “essential religious practice”. Judging by its reaction to arguments made in Indian Young Lawyers Association, it appears that the Bench sees this canon as integral to how the case ought to now be decided. Indeed, the petitioners have argued that the ban enforced on menstruating women from entering the Sabarimala shrine does not constitute a core foundation of the assumed religious denomination. On the other hand, the Devaswom Board contends that established customs deserve respect, that this particular Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala is a celibate, and that women of menstruating age are, therefore, forbidden from entering the temple.

Deeper inquiry

Were the court to enter into an analysis of these rival claims, by conducting something akin to a trial on whether there exists a tradition as claimed that is essential to the practice of religion, it would be exceeding the remit of its authority, effectively causing it to shoulder dogmatic power over theology. Therefore, what we need is a subtler yet more profound inquiry. Once the court finds that the Sabarimala temple does not represent a separate denomination (this claim is a particularly difficult one for the Dewaswom Board to meet, given that the temple is otherwise open to the public at large), the court must ask itself whether it should yield to the temple’s view on an assumption that there does exist a time-honoured custom prohibiting any women aged between 10 and 50 years from praying at the shrine.

On such a study, the court will undoubtedly notice that most policies of exclusion in India’s history have been defended as being extensions of a prescription of faith, of being rooted in culture and tradition. To defer to an association’s leaders in matters such as these can only, therefore, have the effect of immortalising discrimination. As Madhavi Sunder wrote in a 2002 paper, to side with “advocates of any singular vision of a community… will often have the effect of silencing (indeed, banishing) dissenters and narrowly defining an association. Worse still, law favouring the autonomy of the group over the autonomy of the individual tends to have the harmful effect of favouring the view of the association proffered by the powerful over the views proffered by less powerful members of the group that is, traditionally subordinate members such as women, children, and sexual minorities.”

Indeed, Professor Sunder’s pioneering work on cultural dissent represents a fine starting point in any bid to find a progressive solution to the dispute over temple entry. It’s easy to see the manifold attractions of a general policy of limited judicial intervention in matters of religion. But the court should see this as an opportunity not to rationalise religious practices, but to overturn its existing passé ideas on the subject. Given the inexorable relationship in India between religion and public life, it’s time the court shattered the conventional divides of the public and the private. If the court can look beyond the essential practices doctrine and see this case for what it really is — a denial to women not only of their individual rights to freedom of religion but also of equal access to public space — it can help set the tone for a radical re-reading of the Constitution. This can help the court reimagine its jurisprudence in diverse areas, making a meaningful difference to people’s civil rights across spectrums of caste, class, gender and religion. Ultimately, the Constitution must be seen as representing not a hoary conception of boundaries between the state and the individual, but as a transcendental tool for social revolution.


1) Prohibit

Meaning: Formally forbid (something) by law, rule, or other authority.

Example: “All ivory trafficking between nations is prohibited”

Synonyms: Forbid, Ban  

Antonyms: Permit, Authorize

2) Shrine

Meaning: A place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, marked by a building or other construction.

Example: “The medieval pilgrim route to the shrine of St James”

Synonyms: Holy place, Temple  

3) Anathema

Meaning: A formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine.

Example: “The Pope laid special emphasis on the second of these anathemas”

Synonyms: Curse, Ban  

4) Tenets

Meaning: A principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy.

Example: “The tenets of classical liberalism”

Synonyms: Principle, Belief  

5) Jurisprudence

Meaning: The theory or philosophy of law.

Example: “American jurisprudence”

6) Quagmire

Meaning: An awkward, complex, or hazardous situation.

Example: “A legal quagmire”

Synonyms: Muddle, Predicament  

7) Intrinsic

Meaning: Belonging naturally; essential.

Example: “Access to the arts is intrinsic to a high quality of life”

Synonyms: Inherent, Innate  

Antonyms: Extrinsic, Acquired

8) Facet

Meaning: A particular aspect or feature of something.

Example: “A philosophy that extends to all facets of the business”

Synonyms: Aspect, Feature  

9) Profess

Meaning: Affirm one’s faith in or allegiance to (a religion or set of beliefs).

Example: “A people professing Christianity”

Synonyms: Avow, Confess  

10) Propagate

Meaning: Spread and promote (an idea, theory, etc.) widely.

Example: “The French propagated the idea that the English were drunkards”

Synonyms: Spread, Disseminate  

11) Furtherance

Meaning: The advancement of a scheme or interest.

Example: “The court held that the union’s acts were not in furtherance of a trade dispute”

Synonyms: Promotion, Advancement

Antonyms: Hinderance

12) Upheld

Meaning: Confirm or support (something which has been questioned).

Example: “The court upheld his claim for damages”

Synonyms: Confirm, Endorse

Antonyms: Overturn, Oppose

13) Statutes

Meaning: A written law passed by a legislative body.

Example: “The Act consolidated statutes dealing with non-fatal offences”

Synonyms: Law, Regulation  

14) Reliance

Meaning: Dependence on or trust in someone or something.

Example: “The farmer’s reliance on pesticides”

Synonyms: Dependence, Dependency  

15) Deity

Meaning: A representation of a god or goddess, such as a statue or carving.

Example: “Also on show is a bronze falcon deity”

16) Austerity

Meaning: Difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.

Example: “The country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

17) Apparently

Meaning: As far as one knows or can see.

Example: “The child nodded, apparently content with the promise”

Synonyms: Seemingly, Evidently  

18) Conflicting

Meaning: Incompatible or at variance; contradictory.

Example: “There are conflicting accounts of what occurred”

19) Carved

Meaning: To make something by cutting into especially wood or stone, or to cut into the surface of stone, wood, etc.

Example: This totem pole is carved from/out of a single tree trunk.

20) Doctrine

Meaning: A belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group.

Example: “The doctrine of predestination”

21) Canon

Meaning: A general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged.

Example: “The appointment violated the canons of fair play and equal opportunity”

Synonyms: Principle, Rule

22) Contends

Meaning: Assert something as a position in an argument.

Example: “He contends that the judge was wrong”

Synonyms: Assert, Maintain  

23) Customs

Meaning: A traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.

Example: “The old English custom of dancing round the maypole”

Synonyms: Tradition, Practice  

24) Forbidden

Meaning: Not allowed; banned.

Example: “A list of forbidden books”

Synonyms: Prohibited, Taboo

Antonyms: Permitted, Legal

25) Rival

Meaning: A person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.

Example: “He has no serious rival for the job”

Synonyms: Competitor, Opponent  

Antonyms: Partner, Ally

26) Akin

Meaning: Of similar character.

Example: “Something akin to gratitude overwhelmed her”

Synonyms: Similar, Related

Antonyms: Unlike

27) Remit

Meaning: Cancel or refrain from exacting or inflicting (a debt or punishment).

Example: “The excess of the sentence over 12 months was remitted”

Synonyms: Cancel, Revoke  

28) Dogmatic

Meaning: Inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true.

Example: “She was not tempted to be dogmatic about what she believed”

Synonyms: Opinionated, Assertive  

Antonyms: Tentative, Open-minded

29) Theology

Meaning: The study of the nature of God and religious belief.

Example: “A theology degree”

30) Subtler

Meaning: (Especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe.

Example: “His language expresses rich and subtle meanings”

Synonyms: Fine, Nice  

Antonyms: Crude

31) Profound

Meaning: (Of a person or statement) having or showing great knowledge or insight.

Example: “A profound philosopher”

Synonyms: Wise, Learned  

Antonyms: Superficial, Stupid

32) Exclusion

Meaning: The process of excluding or the state of being excluded.

Example: “He had a hand in my exclusion from the committee”

Synonyms: Barring, Ban  

Antonyms: Acceptance, Inclusion

33) Dissenters (dissent)

Meaning: A strong difference of opinion on a particular subject, especially about an official suggestion or plan or a popular belief.

Example: “When the time came to approve the proposal, there were one or two voices of dissent”  

34) Proffered

Meaning: Hold out or put forward (something) to someone for acceptance.

Example: “She proffered a glass of wine”

Synonyms: Offer, Tender  

Antonyms: Refuse, Withdraw

35) Pioneering

Meaning: Involving new ideas or methods.

Example: “His pioneering work on consciousness”

36) Bid

Meaning: Make an effort or attempt to achieve.

Example: “She’s now bidding to become a top female model”

37) Manifold

Meaning: Many and various.

Example: “The implications of this decision were manifold”

Synonyms: Many, Numerous  

38) Inexorable

Meaning: Impossible to stop or prevent.

Example: “The seemingly inexorable march of new technology”

Synonyms: Relentless, Unstoppable  

39) Shattered

Meaning: Upset (someone) greatly.

Example: “Everyone was shattered by the news”

Synonyms: Devastate, Shock  

Antonyms: Please, Excite

40) Hoary

Meaning: Overused and unoriginal; trite.

Example: “The hoary old adage often used by Fleet Street editors”

Synonyms: Trite, Banal  

Antonyms: Original


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