The savarna paradox of the Sabarimala story

J Devika | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Us and them: Members of a Nair caste organisation march in Palakkad, Kerala, last year to protest against the entry of women of menstruating age at the Sabarimala shrine. - K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

The gender issues that surround the controversy on the temple have their roots in caste discrimination

In the last months of 2018 we saw sections of women conduct aggressive street protests in Kerala, claiming to defend a temple aachaaram — ritualised practice that is said to be anchored in ‘tradition’.

This was ostensibly worked to protect a celibate god, Ayyappa, from women of menstruating age. Savarna women of an older generation who had broken moulds to secure citizenship and a voice for themselves — for instance, writer and educationist M Leelavathi — were aghast at the response of these younger women. Perhaps that was not surprising, for Leelavathi probably remembered vividly the immense barrier of aachaaram that her generation had to defy in order to gain visibility and voice. In contrast, the women on the streets claiming to be “mere devotees” and not the least political, were used to aacharam that had, by now, been shrunk to fit their homes. They spoke for purity and brahminical authority and equated it with the “defence of Hinduism”. These protesters were often highly educated professionals with independent incomes and lives.

Sometimes an anthropological distance is the only way one can survive the vertigo that the naked display of public aggression provokes. I told myself: Yet another paradox in this land of development paradoxes. For, the celebrated Kerala Model of the 1970s rested on a paradox — that of high social development despite poor economic development. Then came the gender paradox of Kerala — of the persistence of very high levels of patriarchal oppression despite high levels of education, lower birth rate and better health status among women. Here was a third savarna paradox — women with high access to social and political citizenship agitating against their own civil rights, claiming that temples are not public places. Most of them would agree that the state needed to intervene everywhere to secure gender equality — at home, at work, in public places — except in temples.

The key to understanding this, I think, is in the history of aachaaram in 20th-century Kerala and its role as the core around which a new upper-caste Hindu imagination condensed during that time. By the early 20th century, pre-modern ritualised routine practices that defined upper-caste lives were challenged by the standards of modern knowledge and the democratisation of society. Such practices of the upper-caste elites were subjected to scrutiny and revision according to Victorian-neo-brahminical standards, and confined to temples and savarna homes. Indeed, it was this that came to be marked as community reform among the Nairs and the brahmins. The contrast between what came to be perceived as the “true core” of upper-caste Hindu culture and the anti-brahminical ritual practices devised by Sreenarayana Guru in his effort to reimagine a Hindu community beyond caste is stark.

The new reformed savarna streedharmam included the responsibility to preserve faith in God and piety at home. Women’s domestic responsibilities thus included managing temple worship and offerings at regular times of the year, daily rituals, and observing the menstrual taboo. Investigating the ambivalent freedom of educated women in Kerala, sociologist Shoba Arun remarks, drawing from the ideas of French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, that their lives here are a tightrope walk that balances “female capital” and “feminine capital”. The former refers to the capabilities and benefits from citizenship secured through public action and social development. The latter is about beliefs, practice and skill in performance of rituals, which women must acquire in order to be ‘good’. The adherence to or performance of aachaaram is also the key manner in which they express their symbolic difference from — and superiority to — other castes.

It is no surprise that the Nair Service Society, the caste organisation of the Nairs (who form a prominent part of the neo-savarna community), gained the most out of the upsurge of aachaaravaadi women. It was indeed like the anti-communist ‘Liberation Struggle’ of June 1959 — exactly 60 years ago — in which Syrian Christian women flooded the streets claiming that “Christianity was in danger” and the gains went not to all Christians but the elite among them. And like the anti-Mandal women, whose lament about the ‘nation’ suffering from falling professional standards because of reservations, who secured gains for the upper-caste men. What we saw then was the defenders of caste privilege using the “Hindus in danger” as a dog whistle to keep the Savarkarites in the RSS at bay and keep the Kerala savarna going. I don’t know whether I should lament or rejoice.


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on July 05, 2019
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