The Lede
Fantasy in the Times of Sabarimala

Fantasy in the Times of Sabarimala

Jaya Sharma

The violent passion with which Lord Ayyappa’s celibacy is being defended in the land of ‘development’ and ‘scientific temper’, not least by women whose interest the Supreme Court seeks to protect, can be understood by looking through the lens of fantasy

#HowCanItBe that so much of Kerala, the model achiever of literacy, women’s participation and development, is immune to facts and reason today?

#HowCanItBe that the scientific temper promoted by the CPI(M) seems helpless against the passion to protect Lord Ayyappa’s celibacy?

#HowCanItBe that lakhs of women on the streets and online are so fiercely against the pro-women Supreme Court judgment?

#MightItBe that facts are not cutting much ice because they are competing with fantasies?

#MightItBe that self-interest is not always the principle on which we operate?

#MightItBe that the temper promoted by the CPI(M) was not so scientific to begin with?

I’ll begin with the last question. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has religiously and consistently made efforts to build a scientific temper in the people of Kerala over decades. In this, it has performed the seemingly impossible. “A local leader, very likely a tailor or a small farmer, starts his speech by talking about Poland, Czechoslovakia or Russia at events like the Rashtriya Vishidhikaran Yogam”, shared Mathew Joseph*, a senior journalist to whom I owe much of the understanding I share here. Joseph went for his first such programme with his father at age four. Local, national and international issues are explained across villages, towns and cities in Kerala at events like these, he explained. And yet, during my research on CPI(M) for the book on ‘Sex, Love and Indian Politics’ that I am writing, what struck me more than the power of rational, ideological arguments was the power of visceral passion evoked by martyrdom and violence.

The tradition of martyrdom in Kerala seemed to begin with the struggle against the British and continued into the class struggle—captured by the revolutionary song ‘Ballikudeerangale’, performed even today at every CPI(M) event across the state—with martyrdom now a living tradition in the party’s battle against the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Martyrs include even “living martyrs” who have survived attacks by RSS. The violence involved allows for the erotic charge of evoking a higher law, breaking and going beyond the law of the land. It provides continuity with the violent revolutionary justice that the CPI(M) could no longer perform after it entered parliamentary democracy. When it formed the government in power, the CPI(M) is in fact the administrator of the law of the land. The violence that continues to be performed by the local cadre allows for continuity with the past. Martyrdom too provides a critical continuity. Critical because, if we could place the CPI(M) on the psychoanalyst’s couch, we may be able to see significant ruptures in the psychic life of the party. Both the rupture at the moment of entry into parliamentary democracy, and the rupture caused by the fall of the Soviet Union accompanied by capitalism turning from foe to friend. Traversing such ruptures demands the fantasy of continuity offered by martyrdom and violence.

Moving from the CPI(M) to the RSS, might there be a fantasy of continuity at play in the battle to protect “our” long standing “tradition” of Sabrimala. Switching from the frame of fantasy to the frame of rationality, a quick look at the facts at hand.

*For centuries, the Sabarimala temple was a place of worship of the tribal Mala Arayans.

*Through the 1900s, there was a systematic process of upper caste Hindu-fication by the Dewaswom Temple Board.

*The invention of traditions included the use of Tantra to convert deities into brahmanical gods and practices in a context in Kerala that scholar Roopesh calls templeisation.

*It was only in 1965 that menstruating women were disallowed to enter the temple, “under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965”

#MightItBe that these facts are powerless in the face of the need of the collective psyche for continuity with the past?

Perhaps the specificities of the tradition itself also lend themselves well to a fantasy of continuity. It was the continuity between Shiva and Vishnu that gave birth to Ayyappa, the continuity between the mass of men, all wearing black, all observing the same rituals, who move together towards the hill. There is also the continuity between the male devotees and Lord Ayyappa, so much so that the devotees are also called Ayyappa. There are different ways in which this continuity between men has been perceived. While most have condemned it as hyper masculine, the academic Madhavi Menon offers a powerful view that the male bonding is not anti-women.

There is also the fantasy of persecution. The Hindu past that was ruptured by the need to accommodate Christians and Muslims. One had to be good. One had to obey the diktat of Left/liberal/secularism. One had to swallow discrimination. But no more! It’s time to throw off the yoke. It’s time to defy. Let the police and the law try all it can. Even the Supreme Court, even the Constitution cannot control us! That’s how powerful the RSS is, that’s how powerful Hindutva is, that’s how powerful we are.

In the rejection of the mighty legal and justice system, a higher law is being evoked—the RSS and it’s ideology. The frame of the psyche can perhaps help connect with the power of being able to break free of the limits placed by the law of the land. From infancy to where we are now, we have to struggle with a never-ending series of “No”. There is no shortage of experiences in our personal lives that hold the power of “No”, from parents, colleagues, lovers, social norms, laws of the land. But what when a source of authority, a powerful big Other tells us to break the rules, gives us permission to do that which is otherwise prohibited.

The collective psyche too rejoices in it’s rejection of the law of the land and in it’s surrender to a higher authority which gives permission for us to do that which is otherwise prohibited. So they go out there and rough up women and minorities, vandalise offices, issue death threats, spread blatant lies—all with the blessings and praise of the higher law. #ProhibitionAndPermission.

This is not unlike the evoking of the higher law of the Party and ideology by the local cadre of the CPI(M) in the performance of violence vis-a-vis the RSS. However, in the Sabrimala moment there is an important difference. Joseph pointed out that while the RSS rejects the law of the land in the performance of violence, the CPI(M) this time is squarely upholding it. CPI(M) is unable to offer the joy of flouting the law.

Not only is the RSS able to offer the erotic charge of violence, it also offers the fantasy that someone is stealing our joy, specifically, the fantasy that we Hindus have had to suffer at the hands of Christians and Muslims. It provides in this the never-ending deliciousness of occupying the victim position. Why are we being discriminated against, when others can enjoy their tradition (and keep women out). Matters become much worse, or better, when Muslim women try to climb the hill. #MightItBe that the psyche needs to believe that someone is stealing our joy. That is our (only?) route to enjoyment.

It would be dangerous to believe that this sense that someone is stealing our joy is only what evil leaders make us feel. Leaders do have a big role to play in fanning such feelings. However it’s important to consider the role of the psyche here, in particular a sense of lack that might be at play.

Once again, evoking the feminist mantra of personal is political and turning to our own sexual and romantic lives, might help. Have you ever experienced in yourself or in your lovers’ a sense of never-enough-ness, that no matter what you or the other does, no matter how much you or the other does, it is never-enough? Might this kind of a sense of lack also be at play in politics, feeding the feeling that someone is stealing our joy, a repetitive, addictive feeling so strong perhaps because fantasy has a role to play. The shades could differ – a fantasy of persecution, discrimination or unfairness, but the fantasy of someone stealing our joy is a never-ending one. This is a lack can never be filled. Thomas Blom Hansen, an academic who has undertaken intensive research on Hindu Nationalism writes in his book The Saffron Wave that, “The search for fullness as Hindus, the overcoming of the “lack” of being a full community” is a continuous process “ultimately impossible ever to realise”. Hansen here is building on the thinking of Slovenian Lacanian thinker Slavoj Zizek according to whom a nation or community’s enjoyment “can ultimately only be expressed through the narrative of its loss and impossibility, ascribing to the “other” (nation, group, community) an excessive enjoyment, which “steals our enjoyment” and prevents a community from fully enjoying its particular way of life.”

The antidote to the fantasy of our joy having been stolen from us, is the fantasy that wrong can righted. We can be proud to be Hindu at last! Now we will show them! No matter what the Supreme Court says, no matter what the Constitution says, no one can stop us from protecting our God!

In the face of fantasies of someone stealing our joy, can we be bewildered when facts don’t cut much ice, when fake new flies fast? #MightItBe that the way to engage with fake news, is not only to bash it with facts, but to examine what fantasies might be at play.

One such fake news was that Bindu, the Dalit schoolteacher who managed to climb the hill the second time around, was a Maoist and Christian activist who was going to defile the temple. Perhaps the fantasy being evoked is that of the enemy who steals our joy. The enemy’s identity being interchangeable is significant. This is how strong the need to experience the enemy is. The form might change, as long as the role played for our psyche is satisfied.

About Sivadasan, a man said to have been killed by police, the dates of the alleged police crackdown do not match the day he left his home, and reports found that he died because of a fall from a height. These and numerous other such fake news seem to indicate a desperate desire for a martyr.

Given such a wild play of fantasy, can we be surprised that so many women are not acting in their self-interest. With fantasies of persecution topped with the fantasy of being able to protect the protector God himself at play, women recognising their self-interest in the form of women’s right to enter the temple, may not stand a chance. Might we feel less bewilderment if we question the assumption that we always act, or should act, in our self-interest. The assumption, located in a framework of rationality, dissolves when we put on the frame of fantasy. Might it be that what appears to be only false unconsciousness, is in large measure, the play of the unconscious?

While grappling with bewilderment, it might help to recall that Lord Ayyappa has much about him that is counter intuitive. The scholar Madhavi Menon, in her book Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India describes Lord Ayyappa as “counter intuitive”, for a host of reasons. He is the son of two men – Shiva and Vishnu (in the female form Mohini). He is a God who wanted to banish not just death but also birth (doing away with the need for continuity through progeny in one fell swoop). He is a God who retired to the hills of Sabarimala to ponder Narada Muni’s question—what was his relationship to Shiva and Vishnu’s wives.

The psyche, I believe, needs to be an essential dimension in this and in any other political analysis. It is not an either/or situation. The psyche needs to be added to the many important economic, social, cultural, historical tools at hand. Other than helping us feel bewildered, the frame of fantasy also offers hope. As with sex and love, in politics too, fantasies can compel us, but they also have a way of simply going away. Also, not all individuals and communities get off on the fantasies currently on offer, certainly not the women who formed the wall or the Dalit organisations and intellectuals that are supporting the Supreme Court judgment. Beyond Kerala, #MightItBe that the play of fantasy in politics can mean falling out of love with leaders and parties whose fantasies of continuity and stolen joy are stealing away our rights?

*Name changed

Jaya Sharma is a feminist, queer activist and writer based in New Delhi. She is currently writing a book ‘Fantasy Frames: Sex, Love and Indian Politics’, to be published later this year by Penguin Random House. She can be contacted at