The row that has erupted over women’s entry into Kerala’s Sabarimala temple has provoked a range of responses. While Hindutva groups are positing it as a matter of the state’s interference in religious matters, the consensus on the Left is that it is a welcome move to “liberalise” a traditional Hindu shrine. This binary, however, strips the issue of its nuance and historicity. The Supreme Court’s decision removing the temple’s restriction on the entry of women of menstruating age should be understood in the context of the social churn in Kerala, and India generally.

Much like the Lingayat issue in Karnataka, the Sabarimala controversy frames a question that is fundamental to understanding India’s identity-based assertions and politics: who is a Hindu and what exactly is Hinduism?

It is only because we accept a particular definition of “Hindu” that we understand the contemporary Indian society as being divided primarily between the Hindu majority and the religious minorities such as Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

Anti-caste scholarship has long challenged the idea of Hinduism as a pan-Indian identity, seeing it as a process of appropriation and misrepresentation of history, perpetrated through the census and the crushing Brahmin control over historiography.

In this context, the Sangh Parivar and its allies may be expected to try and appropriate all cultures in South Asia as Hindu. Often, though, the Parivar’s leftist and liberal opponents do part of its work by either asserting that Hinduism is pluralistic or that Hinduism – again, as a whole – is bad or pernicious.

So long as postulations are made using “Hinduism” as the base category, it will only strengthen a worldview that delegitimises the thousands of religions which actually exist in India.

Appropriated and Brahminised

Sabarimala sits near Pathanamthitta district’s border with Idukki, a picturesque hilly region that is home to the second highest population of Scheduled Tribes in Kerala. The temple’s presiding deity, Ayyappa, is widely worshipped by many of the tribal groups in the Western Ghats and the Nilgiris. There are numerous references to Ayyappa as being connected to the region’s sacred groves, which is not surprising given Sabarimala’s location. Ayyappa is also known as Shasta, Dharmashasta and Ayyanar – all deities worshipped among working caste and indigenous settlements across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. These village deities are part of a pantheon of gods connected to nature that is markedly distinct from the Vedic value system. Of course, women worship in almost all these Ayyanar and Shasta shrines. Indeed, the town of Chengannur, a mere 80 km from the “Hindu shrine” of Sabarimala, celebrates a festival of menstruation in honour of the local goddess Bhagavathy.

Although there is some evidence to posit that Sabarimala may have Buddhist connections, it is almost certain that its creation is tied to the indigenous Mala Araya community, with the Ayyappa deity being one of their Mala Daivangal, or hill gods. Interestingly, the community is among those seeking to file a review petition against the Sabarimala verdict. However, they are also demanding the right to perform rituals in the temple as they did before being debarred by the state’s Travancore Devaswom Board, which has run Sabarimala since 1950.

Indeed, when the state took control of the temple in 1950, its Brahminic appropriation, which had started in 1902, was complete as the Namboodiri Brahmins and the Devaswom Board barred the indigenous caretakers from conducting rituals.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of the ban on women’s entry must, therefore, be seen as a step towards bringing back the original, pre-Vedic value system that governed this place of worship, not a vindication of the Indian state, which has often been a party to such appropriation and promotion of Brahmin hegemony over native religion.

As the Mala Araya activist PK Sajeev has noted, the true struggle at Sabarimala is about undoing the “Brahminisation of an Adivasi deity”. Thus, overturning the chief priest’s diktat and insisting on women’s entry into the temple is not a victory of state liberalism but of the politics of de-Brahminisation as practised by Ayyankali, Narayana Guru and Periyar.

Temples of ‘New India’

Sabarimala represents a wider phenomenon: a shrine, created and protected for centuries by indigenous people, is slowly usurped, reimagined as part of the Vedic corpus and, often with the Indian state’s help, transformed into a “Hindu pilgrimage spot”, which people from across the country are then encouraged to visit to justify the mythology created around it.

This is true of the Tirupati shrine. It is believed to have been a place of worship for Andhra Pradesh’s Chenchu tribe before being appropriated. Similar histories can be told of the Talacauvery temple in Kodagu, the Talupulamma shrine in East Godavari and the Baba Budangiri temple in Chikmagalur, among others. Through a combination of capital infusion (Sabarimala’s roof is plated in solid gold, gifted by Vijay Mallya) and the commercialisation of the deity’s darshan, these temples have been annexed by a pan-Indian group of elites, builders, business tycoons and Bollywood stars. It is thus that the all-consuming force of upper caste appropriation has been erasing the legacy of the subcontinent’s indigenous, Shramanic, non-Vedic and Buddhist past.

The Indian state has been complicit, if not active, in reinforcing a single, immutable idea of India that is tied to the conjured-up concept of Hinduism. We must ask why there are no Sabarimalas in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Bhutan that are actively promoted by the Hindu Right as essential pilgrimage spots? It is simply because Hinduism has always been a geopolitical project of appropriation. Thus, outside of its homeland in the Gangetic plain, it can only exercise its power to rewrite history within the geographical limits of the country that still reinforces the word “Hindu” as a category. Its claim on spaces such as Sabarimala and Tirupati will fall apart if more effort is taken to promote the eclectic histories of these shrines – Ayyappa’s friend Vavar was a Muslim whose mosque in Erumeli town is considered an integral stop on the pilgrimage’s original route, while Lord Venkateshwara’s famous consort Bibi Nancharamma was Muslim as well.

It is tempting for liberals to see the Supreme Court and Kerala’s “progressive” rulers, with their temple entry proclamations, as the forces bringing democracy to unruly, superstitious masses. The truth is they are the very forces that enable such practices until movements on the ground force them to intervene. BR Ambedkar once said the history of India is the story of the battle between Brahminism and Buddhism. In this spirit, the need of the hour is for more history and culture to be de-Brahminised – reconstructed from below – by the excluded majority.

Pranav Kuttaiah is a research associate working on identity and politics at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.