A Critique of the Book, “Women and Sabarimala: The Science Behind The Restrictions”

Pratyusha V V

The setting is a cute little book café in Bangalore. Servers are making the rounds offering tea and coffee. Twenty minutes pass, the audience settles down and the speakers take stage. The launch of Sinu Joseph’s “Women and Sabarimala: The Science Behind The Restrictions” is now underway.

It is an intimidating proposition to be an anti-caste, atheist, queer, feminist woman in a room where practicing savarna Hindus make up the majority. And amid this crowd, to know that the next hour will be about the Sabrimala issue isn’t exactly comforting.

Post a month of its release the book was ranked #2 on Kindle and #10 on Amazon among books on Hinduism. Those that pick up the book to quell the intrigue will feel everything from curiosity to fatigue to utter disbelief.

Here’s a quick lowdown:

Sabarimala is a popular temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. It is considered a moksha-dhaam for mena place to attain freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. In preparation for their visit to the temple, male devotees are required to practice strict celibacy and several rituals for 41 days. We mention only male devotees because the temple had long placed a ban on womxn of menstruating age from entering the temple. But that was until the Supreme Court revoked this ban in 2018.

Predictably, the judgement has and continues to be be a matter of much debate. The last hearing was slated to happen on 16th March which was deferred as the government laid down a nationwide lockdown.

Considering the expectation that new dates for the court hearing will be announced in the next few weeks to come, now is as good time as any to unpack a book about the issue!

Menstrual educator Sinu Joseph spent 9+ years interacting with several thousand adolescent girls and womxn pan India and realised that the restrictions placed on a menstruating body are strikingly similar across the country. And her quest to find the ‘true’ reasons behind these restrictions has culminated in her new book titled, ‘Women and Sabarimala — The Science Behind The Restrictions’.

She argues that much has been said about how womxn of menstruating age are equal to men and should have an equal right to enter the Sabarimala temple if they wish to. But the true reasons for these restrictions to be in place haven’t got enough attention.

Before going ahead, here’s a couple of things we need to remember:

  1. The author regards and communicates their perceived understanding of Hindu traditions to be highly logical, scientific and ahead of the western body of knowledge.
  2. Based on her study of traditional texts and her own experiences, she concludes that the ban on allowing womxn into the Sabarimala temple should be upheld for their own good.

So what is the argument?

Relying heavily on her own experiences, the author writes that each temple can alter the physiology of the visitor in a certain way, based on how it is constructed. If one is attuned to recognizing these subtle changes in the body that a temple affects, she is confident that they would concur with her.

To engage with the rest of her argument, you, dear reader, have to assume that this premise is the absolute truth.

She continues her argument like so: Sabarimala is a moksha dham. It is meant to aid a devotee’s renunciation of material pleasures and ascent towards moksha. However, an active reproductive system implies the possibility of childbirth or the want of a child — a material desire.

The 41- days that a male devotee is required to stay celibate (no engagement in sex or masturbation) is to help him rise above this material want by containing his sperm, or as the author puts it, ‘the human seed’, inside his body.

As long as this ejection of the ‘human seed’ is occurring, she proposes that there is conflict between the material desire of childbirth and the greater spiritual desire of moksha. This is where menstruation becomes an issue. As a natural, involuntary phenomenon, the ovum is ejected out of the body along with the endometrial lining in what we call a period. The containment of the ‘human seed’ is not voluntary for womxn. So as per author’s argument, as long as menstruation occurs, there is conflict of the material and the greater spiritual and that is the real reason menstruators are advised not to enter the shrine.

She goes on to say that if a menstruator interferes with this desired order of nature, by entering the temple, the body would alter release of hormones like testosterone leading to stoppage or irregularities in menstruation and even complications like PCOS, endometriosis or retrograde menstruation.

According to the agama shastras, that the author cites several times in her book, each temple is designed to energise a specific chakra. By extension, each temple can have a specific impact on the body, and even a different impact on the male and female body. To support her argument she explains feeling throbbing sensations, faster heartbeats and an altered menstrual cycle when describing her visits to various temples.

Where is she problematic?

  1. A maze of difficult words:

The author takes up half the book to explain the chakra system of studying the human body in great detail. Sometimes, too much detail. She perplexes her reader with convoluted sentences and an overdose of Sanskrit jargon. She even uses a word like ‘kundalini’ several times, over several pages, before actually explaining what it means, often leaving her reader, disoriented.

2. The Brahmin Privilege:

The writer makes little effort to conceal her Brahminical lens. In fact, it seems almost, like she is oblivious to it. There is unabashed normalisation of the fact that most religious and traditional knowledge is limited to Brahmins/Pandits. If it weren’t so tone deaf, it would even be funny how, at the launch event, she justified her point of view that there is no shame surrounding menstruation by giving the example of tribal communities where no exclusionary practices exist; without mentioning the fact that this feature of tribal communities is almost certainly due to the non-percolation of Brahminism, , if indeed Sinu’s claim is representative of all tribal communities.

3. Everything looks pretty from atop the Moral High Horse:

The book suffers a sore disconnect from the ground reality and even seems judgemental of anyone whose end goal isn’t to become a Yogi. By the end of the book, one still has no idea how her argument would play out in the life of a person who sustains a household with minimum wage and would not be able to ‘renounce material pleasures’ to start on the path of moksha! Her narration seems altruistic to the point of feeling void.

4. Erasure of womxn’s agency:

At the fundamental level, the internalised patriarchy is obvious in the fact that author exclusively cites books and writings written by men to substantiate her arguments about a phenomenon experienced by womxn.

In her core argument that menstruation presents a conflict between the material want of a child and the spiritual want of moksha, she completely erases a menstruator’s agency in deciding if they want to bear a child and reduces them to a biological phenomenon which may not even be representative of their true wish not to bear a child.

Let’s look at a couple of quotes from the book that make this erasure more obvious:

“Shat Chakrra Nirupana says, that a person who mediates on Isvara here, becomes the foremost of yogis, wisest among the wise, full of noble deeds and dearest to women. At the same time, he has complete control over his senses and his thoughts are intensely concentrated on brahman.”

The fact that she quotes the Shat Chakra Nirupana without critique implies that she concurs with its statement. And in doing so, she takes the popular argument ‘male devotees will lose focus on God and lust after womxn’ and converts it to ‘it is the women that lust after the Brahmacharis who are actually above all desire’.

…(post-menopausal) “Women who decide to become Ayyappa Devotees and go to Sabarimala can only be initiated by their husbands. Not even a Guru is allowed to initiate them. This tradition is there to ensure that the husband understands that his wife will no longer be devoted to him or the family but rather to Lord Ayyappa, and grants her wish to go on that path”

She offers no critique of the fact that wives don’t have to be devoted to their husbands or that they don’t need their husbands to grant their wishes. She assumes that all women would choose to marry, furthermore choose to marry a man, all husbands would be alive and the husbands are at an authority position to command devotion and grant wishes.

At the book launch, to substantiate her claim that menstruation isn’t a matter of shame in society, she shared how the wonderful tradition of celebrating menarche that is still common in South India, was lost in the north due to Muslim invaders. However, she didn’t acknowledge that the celebration is tied to the fertility of the adolescent and her readiness to be married off rather than her own body. India is home to 33% of the 720 million women worldwide who were married before the age of 18 years, with correlations proven with early onset of menarche and lower education.

It is this ignorant language of the author’s, as a menstrual educator, menstruator and woman, that does a huge disservice to the efforts of several womxn’s rights based advocates, Constitutional rights and party to Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that are trying to empower womxn and remind them that their worth doesn’t have to be tied to a man, amongst other things.

5. Heteronormativity and Trans-Erasure:

Funnily enough in a book about a Lord who is considered the child of Vishnu (when he was disguised as Mohini), Shiva and Shakti — it is assumed that only a cis heterosexual relationship would exist between two people of the opposite gender. It is disappointing that author uses sex and gender interchangeably and makes no mention of trans folx, same sex relationships or aromantic and/or asexual folx.

6. Religious determinism on Health:

The premise that energies, structures, deities have on bodies and in turn on health is pseudoscience. The author gives a causal route to hormonal imbalances if one were to violate religious values/norms. This not only is reductionist/trivialising of the experiences of those that live with varied menstrual/hormonal disorders but adds flame to guilt/shame that some might feel in flouting religious rules, and make believe health issues as a punishment/sin.

What does all this mean?

At the beginning of the book launch event, Sinu Joseph stated a simple truth: “Whether we’re for the ban or against it, it’s most likely that we’ve already made up our minds about where we stand on this issue before the event has started.”

She’s right.

When one reads the book, it becomes clear that this has been written to appease people who already agree with her side of the argument.

This is the kind of book that conservative, upper caste parents/relatives of young menstruators would use to justify pseudo-science and exclusionary practices by attaching a moral-religious-health-reproductive value to menstruation and implying that anyone who isn’t in agreement is just too naïve to fathom such wisdom.

She seems to have garnered enough support that the author distributed copies of her book to Supreme Court lawyers even before its official release. She hopes to present a seminar to them about her theory, for them to use as an argument in the court of law!

What’s in this for you?

It’s important to engage and problematize conservative narratives to understand the depth and nature of what we’re faced with. This piece is intended purely to serve that purpose.

Take away from it what you will, but it is undeniable that when respected/popular influencers take conservative stands like these, it becomes a lot easier to make conservatism majoritarian. Are we sure we want to let that happen?