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Sabarimala Makar Jyothi: Man Made ‘Divinity’
01/28/2011
By Ram Puniyani

One has heard that faith can move the mountains, but this year a mountain could not stand the weight of faith. Tragically on 14th Jan, 2011, a hillock where thousands of devotees had congregated to have a glimpse of Makar Jyothi, due to the melee of the devotees, the hillock crumbled resulting in the stampede and death of 102 people. Makar Jyothi is supposed to be the divine light, appearing in the sky to pay tribute to lord Ayyapa. Similarly at the same place 52 people died in 1998 on the same date.
 
This raises multiple questions. It goes without saying that the government has to ensure that the civic arrangements have to be perfected even in the matters related to faith. Be it Kumbh mela or Haj, while the government should not interfere in the people’s choices, the civic arrangements can not just be left to the bodies managing these events. There is a small problem here, some managements are very rigid and one recalls that at Sabrimala, few years ago the temple authorities refused to let a woman IAS officer, who was supposed to ensure that arrangements are in place, was refused entry to the temple on the ground that women of menstruating age group (15-45) are not permitted to enter the temple as lord Ayyappa is a bachelor!
 
Sabrimala congregation of the 14th April is the second biggest religious congregation in the country. While there are various diverse interpretation of the history of Sabrimala shrine and lord Ayyapa, one thing is very clear and that is the devotees also pay the homage to Waver, a Muslim. He is addressed as Waver Swami by the pilgrims. The Hindus believe that they must first visit this Waver mosque.
 
Some dimensions of Sabrimala episode are very shocking to say the least. The divine light is supposed to be the Aarti, devotional ritual with a lamp and song, offered by Sages to lord Ayyappa. As such the reality is that the light is due to the huge chunks of camphor placed in urns which are burnt by the state electricity board officials on that day. Earlier Adivasis used to create fire as a devotion to the Lord. Many decades earlier the Adivasi ritual was going in to oblivion. This ritual has been taken over by the Temple trust, Ayyappa Devaswam, and through the state complicity burning of camphor was started at good distance from the temple. It was propagated that it is a divine light and different stories started being associated with the light. Gradually it was popularized that watching the divine light is a good omen, for which thousands and later lakhs of pilgrims started making a beeline for the area. To have the vantage point of view the people started congregating on the hill, which is crowded to the hilt. This also brought in good amount of money as the offering to the temple trust.
 
The government cannot be excused in any way for the lapse in the arrangement and being part of camphor burning to create ‘divine light’. The temple trust can neither be excused for continuing this fraud, nor for interfering in the Government work, when it makes the rule that Government female officials cannot enter the precincts of this place for making the arrangements. With such massive loss of lives, the responsibility of the tragedy should be squarely placed on the heads of the authorities concerned. One is shocked to know that the minister in charge of temple affairs in Kerala has been aware of this fact but has not done anything to stop the man-made light being propagated off as the divine light inviting the hoards of pilgrims from all over. The Devaswom Minister G Sudhakaran openly said a couple of years ago that “"I was present on the Makaravillukku day at the Sabarimala last season. I saw the celestial star and it is at that very time that Makaravilakku is lighted. There is no doubt about it that it is lighted by the men.''  
 
This also raises larger questions about the acts of our authorities, including the religious trusts. While one respects the faith of devotees, what does one do if one knows clearly that the particular event is man made and is being passed off as a divine happening. Our Constitution instructs us to promote the rational thought and scientific temper. In Kerala various groups working for rational thought have been struggling to bring to light the truth behind this phenomenon. They have been campaigning to stop it, but to no avail. Faith often can be a big support system for society but one has also to know the difference between faith and blind faith. If we know the rational explanation about a phenomenon, should we sit over it or make it public. One also recalls that faith was constructed around the scientific phenomenon of ‘capillary action’ to spread the rumor that lord Ganesha idol is drinking milk! And tons of milk went down the drain, with some top politicians endorsing the phenomenon, violating the basic norm of Indian Constitution.
 
The most difficult part of explaining matters of faith and opposing blind faith is the fact that faith is associated with religion and so a Benny Hinn will go on to give religious veneer to the well understood psychological phenomenon of hypnosis or hypnotherapy. Most of those struggling for social transformation for better society, better rights for deprived have opposed the blind faith and bypassed faith based understanding. Starting form Charvak of Lokayat tradition, to lord Gautam Buddha, to the saints like Kabir, Tukaram to Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar all called for promotion of rational thought in their own way. Gandhi while recognizing the state of people in the society talked in the language of religion but kept the faith based rituals miles away. Nehru was most forthright in his opposition to the misuse of faith and talked for promotion of scientific temper, something which is not much in vogue in current times. Currently, misuse of faith is the order of the day. Nehru’s emphasis on scientific temper and his opposition to blind faith has been a major pillar for growth of Modern India. One must see the complex situation prevailing today where we need to respect the people with all their frailties and still try to also put forth the rational view of things in an honest way.