The modern interpretation of the brahmacharya practice at Sabarimala has obfuscated the truth and made it all about gender equality.
Sweta was part of the financial and equity research industry. She is deeply inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. From a silent follower/observer of Hindu rituals and traditions, she is now on a quest to get a deeper understanding of Sanatan Dharma and her Indic roots. Currently studying & researching domains of Indology, religion, philosophy, history, politics.
There are currently two viewpoints on the Sabarimala temple issue. The traditionalist approach respects the deity’s Naishtika Brahmachari avatar and would, therefore, stick to the rules set by the deity. The modernist approach is focused on equal rights. The dissenting judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, pointed out the inalienable rights of the male practitioners that are being ignored under the garb of right to equality. The following is a modest attempt to understand the pilgrimage from a pilgrim’s perspective with the aid of Hindu philosophy as its customs and traditions are expressions of the various darshanas or schools of philosophy.
The ultimate goal of Hinduism is the liberation of the soul. Ancient yogis stated that men cannot be religious solely on the basis of ancient experiences of past gurus but have to get the same perceptions themselves. Patanjali’s Yoga philosophy is one of the methods to help realise such a state. It lays down a practical eight-limbed approach to achieve the same. The Yama (moral restraints) and Niyama (observance) of Patanjali yoga are its foundation. They provide the ethical discipline that a devotee has to practice in order to advance in his or her spiritual journey. The table below depicts how the 41-days Vratham at Sabarimala is an exemplification of Yama and Niyama.
|Yama (the don’ts)||Sabarimala Ritual|
|Ahimsa (non-violence)||A devotee should not indulge in violence and arguments; should display non-hatred|
|Satya (truth)||A devotee should not lie|
|Brahmacharya (celibacy)||Strict celibacy is to be followed|
|Asteya (no stealing)|
|Aparigraha (non-acceptance of gifts)|
|Niyama (the dos)||Sabarimala Ritual|
|Shaucha (internal and external cleansing)||Devotee should take bath twice a day, purifying thoughts by refraining from movies and entertainment that invoke sensual pleasure and engaging in devotion and prayers|
|Santosha (contentment)||Modest way of life like cleaning temples, attending to poor and sick, etc.|
|Swadhyaya (study of scriptures/chanting of hymns)||Listening to spiritual lectures, self-introspection|
|Tapas (austerity)||Consuming only sattvic food, forbidden from having meat, intoxicants like alcoholic beverages, drugs and betel leaves, and smoking, no shaving, not sleeping on bed and some even avoid footwear|
|Ishvara Pranidhana (Worship of God)||Singing songs of Lord Ayyappa, chanting his name at least 108 times daily, visiting nearby temple, etc|
In all the of above practices mentioned, Brahmacharya is of paramount importance and is the prerequisite condition for self-realisation. In fact, the rest of the practices help aid in maintaining Brahmacharya.
To understand this further, let's begin by understanding the meaning of Brahmacharya – it literally means acharan or conduct that leads to the realisation of Brahman or one’s self. It is a means to move away from plain body consciousness to a deeper spiritual awareness. Swami Vivekananda explains that the Indian interpretation of Brahmacharya is different from the western concept of celibacy. While the latter refers to a state of being unmarried and sexual abstinence, the Indian concept goes much further wherein it means chastity in thoughts, words and deed. One has to exercise control over all sense organs which could possibly excite them and to bring about self-mastery — purity of food, purity of company, purity of reading, nobility of thoughts, having self-restraint.
Hence during the vratham period, the male devotees refrain from movies and other forms of entertainment, do not indulge in violence and arguments and practice celibacy. They instead devote their minds to sattvic thoughts, eat sattvic foods and practice sattvic activities like chanting and meditating on Lord Ayyappa, visiting temples, and serving the poor. The male pilgrims of Sabarimala are making an effort to empty their minds of sensual thoughts and filling it with those of a purifying nature. The Sabarimala rituals mentioned above, along with the image of Lord Ayyappa, help in disciplining their minds to maintain chastity.
Importance of celibacy
Brahmacharya is particularly important in spiritual pursuits and its importance has been emphasised in our literature including Raja Yoga, Jnana yoga, Advaita. Also, in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter VI, Sloka 14, it is very clearly stated that the vow of Brahmacharya is necessary for meditation.
In different religious orders too, celibacy is stressed. In Islam, strict continence is required on the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is required for the Hebrew congregation during the theophany at Sinai and before entering the temple. In Christianity, continence is required as a preparation for both baptism and Eucharist.
Why is Brahmacharya important and what does it strive to achieve?
According to Tantric philosophy, years of practising Brahmacharya is said to produce Ojas. It is derived from the verbal root “vaj” meaning “to be strong” and denotes strength or vitality. According to ancient Indic medicine, Ojas is the quintessence of the somatic constituents (dhatu) formed out of food. It is the source of the body’s metabolic energy, the Jathara Agni. The Kama Agni (Fire of Lust) destroys Ojas. It is inflamed not only by sexual acts but also by thoughts and fantasies. This heats up the mind and brain, which in turn causes excessive physical heat. This excess heat in the body, according to Ayurveda, leads to constipation, the roots of most diseases. Also, it affects mental digestion or the ability to conceive and perceive things.
Ojas can be further understood through the lens of western psychology. It has a concept called sublimation wherein if the sexual impulse is disallowed to express itself in sexual terms and instead redirected, for instance, on the creation of a work of art, then that sexual energy is channelised towards creative energy. Sublimation is different from suppression. Unlike suppression, it represents the transformation or channelisation of the energy towards a positive and dynamic outcome. Conserving energy and transmuting it into a force for self-realisation, the goal of human existence in the Hindu religion is a central tenet of Brahmacharya.
As per our scriptures:
"Ayustejo Balam Veeryam Prajna Sreescha Yashastatha
Punyamcha Sat-Priyatvamcha Vardhate Brahmacharyaya"
By the practice of Brahmacharya, longevity, glory, strength, vigour, knowledge, wealth, undying fame, virtues and devotion to the truth increase.
Sabarimala – a spiritual space for male pilgrims
Having established Brahmacharya as an essential component for spiritual aspirants and its corresponding benefits, Sabarimala provides that space for male pilgrims to go deeper in God-consciousness. The shastras have laid down the rules for this pilgrimage and in order to fully realise the fruits of one's sadhana, it is best to stick by the rules of the deity.
The Sabarimala pilgrimage is about a male devotee’s journey from a Yogic point of view to an Advaitic awareness which is the highest level of consciousness. Their journey is guided by the inscription “Tat tvam asi’ - an inscription found on the entrance of Sabarimala in Devanagri script.
The Patanjali Yoga philosophy is about the withdrawal of senses from the samsara and hence Yama and Niyama are essential components. The Advaitic philosophy goes a step further. It indicates desire as the root cause – the belief that I need an external object or experience to complete me. But the underlying belief in Vedanta is I am complete and therefore need not seek some kind of outer experience to feel complete. If people’s state of mind is dependent on something apart from themselves, they would always feel that vacuum. But, as one goes deeper in their spiritual journey, the knowledge that the same bliss can be achieved by contemplating on the self, liberates them. Thus, the need for experiential happiness is nullified and celibacy is an expression of this nullification. The devotees of Sabarimala mostly start from the Patanjali yogic perspective of working on their will power and they aspire to resonate with Shankaracharya’s Advaitic teachings with greater spiritual awareness.
The atmosphere in the temple supports this journey, with one of the diktats being not having any women of a certain age group around them. There are also Kanni Swamis among the male devotees who are neo-aspirants in this path. As stated earlier, Brahmacharya in the Indian context means chastity in thoughts, words and deed. The male devotees and especially the Kanni Swamis would be vulnerable to the sense of sight, vasanas could emanate. The stress is not only on physical Brahmacharya but more so on mental Brahmacharya. The popular folklore that Lord Ayyappa will maintain his celibacy as long as Kanni Swamis continue to come to Sabarimala is a simplistic way of conveying the same message.
Lord Ayyappa is a Naishtika Brahmachari and being a deity, probably won’t be affected by the presence of women as argued by the modernists. Devotees, on the other hand, need to rely on their will power. Some believe that as they haven’t yet reached the state of a Siddha, the sight and proximity of women could be a distraction. So, this pilgrimage is about focusing on the process of reaching that epitome of celibacy. Such instances are founded in other traditions as well. For example, the Greek monastic Islands where no female human or even female animal has stepped for 1000 years. This is an intuitive understanding common across cultures.
The whole point of this exercise is to enable the devotees to not be a slave to their desires. Even a common vrata requires us to stay away from certain kinds of food or actions to purify ourselves, the vratham for Sabarimala if magnified to a much greater extent, would give us corresponding benefits and a deeper understanding. In a world full of sensual stimuli, Brahmacharya demands the highest level of patience, persistence and perseverance.
Further, there is a concept called desha meaning 'place' in Hindu philosophy. There are specific places where one can practice spirituality as per the path chosen. One needs a quieter place to enable the silence within where their senses can be turned inwards. But the ultimate objective of meditation is to able to cut out the external noise and cultivate inner silence even in the midst of all the distractions. But the neophyte can't achieve that and hence Sabarimala is the desha for the male devotee practising Brahmacharya.
When concepts like red tents come up, we uphold and praise them. We understand that menstruating women in society need that space to better understand womanhood, especially young girls. Sabarimala is no different. It’s a specifically designed space for spiritually inclined male devotees who wish to practise Brahmacharya as a means to self-realisation. It is a place where celibacy is celebrated. The energy and vibrations of the place are built by men from different castes and creeds sharing the unique experience of their vow. Women in society will also benefit when men go on these journeys. We would fail as a society if we solely look at it from a modernist perspective.
The hard-hitting lesson
Cases like Sabarimala point to a need for practitioners of Sanatana Dharma to understand the nuances behind various traditions, rituals, festivals, practices, etc. The Indian education system fails to provide that, hence we have to go that extra mile to understand it as well as own it. Or else, due to our sheer ignorance and laziness, our own traditions will be used to humiliate and shame us. Today, Sabarimala is a case in point, but there could be many such instances in the future. We need to be able to scrutinise and understand it in-depth and if we cannot see the greater good, then do away with it. But Sabarimala from a darshana perspective, a tantric philosophical perspective, is for the greater good of the society and hence the practice should be preserved.