While some political parties and Hindu groups are opposing the Supreme Court’s judgement last week allowing menstruating women to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, a group of Hindu women priests are hoping it will help bust the “myth of menstrual impurity”.
Five priests of the Ekalavya Ashram, which has branches in Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad districts, said menstruation is not a taboo and it has never impeded them in carrying out their priestly duties.
Set up in 1988 by a mendicant named Ashwathi Thirunal, the ashram promotes Dravida Yoga, “the most ancient form of yoga”, alongside religious harmony and equal status for women. To achieve the last of these objectives, Thirunal encourages women to become priests. By 1993, he had entered five women into priesthood after five years of rigorous training. Today, Aswathy Radha, Ashwathy Sudha and Ashwathy Lakshmi each run a branch of the ashram. Ashwathy Chithra and Ashwathy Sheela jointly manage another branch.
The ashram has never prevented menstruating women from praying inside the sanctum sanctorum of any of its temples. “Many women come here during their monthly periods,” said Radha, 48. “We never barred from coming here.”
Radha herself prays inside the temple when menstruating, although she abstains from her priestly work. “It is no sin to offer puja at the time of menstruation,” she explained. “I abstain voluntarily as I can’t concentrate on the task. Instead I pray inside the temple.”
She could never understand why menstruating women had been barred from the Sabarimala temple, Radha added, contending that menstruation “isn’t an issue for devotees who offer themselves to God”.
While Sudha, 57, has never conducted her priestly duties during her periods so far because she “becomes restless”, Lakshmi, 50, has been held back by “the emotional imbalance”. “So it is a personal decision,” she said.
The sentiment was echoed by their spiritual leader. “Who said menstrual blood is impure?” Thirunal, 62, asked. “It is a Brahminical concept that can be seen only in Manu Smriti. Hindu religion never termed menstruation as a taboo. We do not bar our women priests from offering puja during the monthly periods but they normally abstain from such duties because of bodily constraints. No one will stop them if they are willing to lead puja during their periods.”
‘I’ll visit Sabarimala soon’
In its judgement, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Sabarimala temple cannot discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into a public place of worship. “The country has not accepted women as partners in seeking divinity,” it reads. “Subversion of women on biological factors cannot be given legitimacy. Certain dogmas have resulted in incongruity between doctrine and practice.”
The Sabarimala shrine, set atop a hill in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district, attracts lakhs of pilgrims during Mandala Kalam, a 41-day period starting on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrishchikam. The shrine is also open during the first five days of each Malayalam month.
The verdict has invited opposition from political and religious groups. On Monday, the Congress demanded that the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the shrine, file a review petition in the Supreme Court, while the Bharatiya Janata Party asked the state government to bring an ordinance to overturn the verdict.
The erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, which has traditionally overseen the conduct of the rituals at Sabarimala, has already declared that it will file a review petition.
The Ekalavya Ashram struck a different note. Radha noted that the judgement will allow women devotees to visit the shrine when they are in their prime and healthy. “It will reduce their dependence on others to perform the pilgrimage,” she added. “I will definitely visit Sabarimala soon.”
Sudha and Lakshmi, on the other hand, plan to wait out the busy pilgrimage season. “We will go only after this season is over,” they said. “But it will remain on our wish list.”
The views of the women priests are in line with their guru’s teachings, said Thirunal. “I taught them, with evidence, that neither menstrual blood nor a menstruating woman is impure,” he explained. “It boosted their confidence and they learnt to conduct puja really fast.”
Before becoming a mendicant, Thirunal was known as Sasikumar and he worked as an assistant to Malayalam film directors in the 1970s. He changed his name to Swamy Ashwathy Thirunal in 1988 after setting up the ashram in Thiruvananthapuram. “I trained the women to become Sanyasinis,” he said. “They began with yoga training and over the next five years they learnt the nuances of performing puja. These five priests can now train more women priests.”