Sabarimala has been gaining world-wide attention and the number of pilgrims visiting this holy place is increasing phenomenally every year. The fundamental question is; why this small temple in a remote forest terrain attracts millions and millions of people from different parts of the world? What is so special about the temple and its deity to attract so many people? Why so many Ayyappa temples were built and many more are springing up in different parts of the world year after year? The faithful will reason it to the divine power of Lord Ayyappa; the athiest might cling to a logical explanation, which is anything but spiritual as the reason. But whatever be the argument in favour or against, it is a fact that the Ayyappa cult is attracting more and more followers to it in recent times. It is the aim of this article to find some logical answers to the above questions invoking both rationale and spirituality.
A careful study of the stories on the birth of Lord Ayyappa and His human sojourn as the son of the king of Pandalam in Kerala would suggest that many myths and historical facts are intermingled. The birth of Dharma Sastha as the son of Lord Vishnu (Hari) and Lord Shiva (Hara) and His later incarnation as Lord Ayyappa are probably the mythological component of the story, whereas depiction of Ayyappa as the foster son of the king of Pandalam may have some historical elements in it. This is so because the kingdom of Pandalam existed from around 900AD. There are different stories about the birth of Ayyappa. It is but natural that stories written on such a subject contain elements of facts, fiction, symbolism, faith, philosophy etc. Belief is above logic and hence a believer need not have to worry about all these aspects for worship of their deity. The purpose of this article is only to find some logical reasons for the growing popularity of the Ayyappa cult and hence the author is guided more on the logical directions of Ayyappa worship than on the legends around the deity. The author has no interest on an analysis on the facts and fictions of the stories on Ayyappa, as it’s a matter of faith and not a subject matter for dissection and analysis.
It is a recorded history that two very powerful religious cults of Aryan origin, Vaishnavism (Vishnu worship) and Shaivism (Siva worship), were active during the period 600AD-1600AD in south India and the cults co-existed with the native Dravidians and their religious faiths. Lord Ayyappa was said to have had His human sojourn at Pandalam during the middle of this period. Vaishnavites and Shivites harboured intense rivalry between them and this probably directed the society to think of a God acceptable to both the warring groups and also the native Dravidians for their harmonious co-existence. It is interesting to note that the story of Ayyappa took place during the modern period of the development of Hinduism (250 AD - 1700 AD), when various forms of Gods and Goddesses were born to human imagination and innumerable temples were built to worship them. As God is absolute and infinite, it was possible to present Him in any form. Dravidians constituted a significant population of the then south India and they were worshipping ‘Ayyanar’ as their venerated God. They held the deity in high esteem as the guardian of their villages. It is said that ‘Ayyanar’ is another name of Lord Shastha. There are also stories abound suggesting similarity of Vettakkorumakan and Ayyappa and as the name implies, Vettakkorumakan must be one who had prowess in hunting and one who probably belonged to a lower caste of those times. Whatever be the caste connection of Ayyappa cult, it is a fact that majority of Ayyappa worshippers today are people of Dravidian origin and those who belonged to the lower strata of the caste system, suggesting thereby a strong bond between Lord Ayyappa and the Dravidian population of south India. It is possible that elements of Ayyanaar and Vettakkorumakan and hence a Dravidian God were ingrained in the concept of the new God along with those of the Gods of Vaishnavism and Shaivism and Lord Ayyappa was thus born. It is also a known fact that Buddhism and Jainism had strong influence in the then south India. Budhism condemned the caste system and preached non-violence. The terms ‘Dharma Sastha’ and ‘Swamiye Saranam’ and the ‘caste no-bar’ approach of Ayyappa cult could possibly indicate a strong influence of Buddhism in the Ayyappa worship. The prescribed austerities including the dietary restrictions (vegetarian) during the vratham period for Ayyappa worship may possibly be indicative of the influence of Jainism on the Ayyappa worship. The stories of association of Ayyappa with Vavar, a Muslim and Kochuthomman, a Christian, could probably be a noble attempt to ingrain the element of religious tolerance in the Ayyappa cult. Hence a rational analysis on the Ayyappa cult based on the facts, fictions, mythology, history, social circumstances and the history of its development in the past thousand years or so might suggest that Lord Ayyappa is a noble concept, a God, who personifies the human aspirations for evolution in the social, material and spiritual planes of life. Lord Ayyappa is thus a Universal God, who commands respect of a wider class of population. In a world being torn apart on the lines of religion, cast, creed and race, it is but natural that more and more people are attracted to this universal deity for peace and happiness. The word ‘Ayyappa’ is derived in Malayalam from the words ‘Ayya’ meaning ‘great man’ and ‘Appa’ meaning father in Tamil. Ayya is respected and Appa, loved. Most of the devotees, especially those from the poor and the weaker sections of the society do consider Lord Ayyappa as a father figure, who symbolizes their hopes and aspirations.
Ayyappa worship has an equally important spiritual side to it. The supreme philosophy of Hindu religion, Advaita, is manifested in letter and spirit in the Ayyappa worship. Advaita philosophy exhorts that God and the devotee are not two separate entities, but is the one and the same. Further, a true Hindu should be able to see anything, living and non-living, as manifestations of God and nothing else. This state of mind makes him to respect anything and everything and thus help in his harmonious co-existence with the mother-nature and the material world around him. It can be seen that the austerities and rituals prescribed for the Sabarimala pilgrimage are essentially meant for cultivating this vision of equality. After wearing the rosary bead maala at the beginning of the forty one days vrath period, a true devotee is expected to see only ‘swami’ (the lord) and nothing else around him. So, a devotee addresses everyone else as ‘swami’. Even a small child should be addressed as swami only. The vrath period lasting forty one days and other rituals prescribed for Sabarimala pilgrimage are essentially meant to condition the devotee to this state of mind. Such a conditioning of the mind is expected to help the devotee to control his mind and transcend, at least during the vrath period, man-made limitations like caste, colour, religion, creed, socio-economic distinctions, nationality etc.. The purpose of man’s spiritual striving is to evolve from the conditioned state of existence by raising the level of consciousness to its unconditioned and infinite freedom. Sabarimala pilgrimage is structured to achieve this spiritual realization of the oneness with Him - the crux of Hindu philosophy.
A close look at the different rituals and traditions associated with ‘Sabarimala pilgrimage’ makes sense of the above theory. After wearing the rosary or Tulsi beaded maala, the devotee is supposed to concentrate only on God and every act of him should be in such a way that, it distracts him from the material world around and attracts him towards God, the Absolute Truth. The vrath helps to practice self-control. The strict dietary restrictions, participation in devotional and spiritual matters, satsung, practice of celibacy, kind-hearted and respectful approach to anything and everything - all these help him to gradually evolve and cultivate the sense of equality. The ‘Sabarimala yatra’ at the end of the vratham period further reinforces the spirit of equality and many more positive qualities in one. All the pilgrims, irrespective of the class or creed which they belong to, should strictly go by the advice and command of the Guruswamy during the pilgrimage. They wear similar dresses, cook their own food and sleep on the floor forgetting their identities and status in the material world. They continuously chant the name of Ayyappa to derive the much-needed energy to trek the steep terrain of the hillock. Finally, much exhausted, they reach in front of the pathinettampadi - the symbolic and holy 18 steps standing between the devotee and the Lord, with the irumudi on head. The devotee has to climb these 18 steps to have the darshan of the Lord. These 18 holy steps are said to represent 18 chapters of Bhagavat Gita, or 18 puranas or the panchendriyas, ashtaraagas, thrigunas, vidya and avidya. Whatever be the symbolism associated with these 18 steps, the message is quite clear; a devout bhaktha should exercise absolute control over his self and the different levels of vaasanas (desires) before he could see and merge with God. One who has absolute control over his desires and thought processes is in the highest state of human evolution and hence is comparable to the Supreme Reality itself. The beautiful mahavakya from Chandogya Upanishad, TATVAMASI - Tat Tvam Asi (You Are That) displayed prominently at the entrance of the shrine, means this. The process of self- realization is completed with the ‘neyyabhishekam’, in which the ghee filled in the coconut (neythenga), is poured on the Ayyappa idol. The ghee, symbolic jeeva, merges with the Lord and the outer part of the coconut (symbolic shareeram) is subsequently burnt in the holy fire. So the devotee is now the God itself - Thatvamasi. A river is said to exist as long as it has an identity of its own, but once merged with the sea its identity is lost and thereafter only sea exists. The philosophy of the Upanishad mantra sounds similar.
So, a symbolic travel to self-realization can be seen in the ‘Sabarimala yatra’. It’s a journey in search of one’s self. Man- made limitations are there on one side, inherent vasanas are there on the other side. The God or the atma in us is masked by the mist of ignorance. The traditions and rituals associated with Sabarimala yatra help us to penetrate this mist, the trekking makes one’s resolve to achieve the higher level of consciousness firmer, and the symbolic pathinettampadi further purifies one’s mind so that he attains absolute purity of his self. The less knowledgeable go to Sabarimala to see their God, Lord Ayyappa, the savior for His blessings. The more evolved ones climb the holy hillock to refine them further spiritually.
So, the Sabarimala pilgrimage is of significance to all-to the initiated and uninitiated, the believer and non-believer, the rich and poor, the learned and the illiterate. All are equal before God. There is no other religious cult or concept of God, which makes this spiritual concept so clear. Ayyappa cult is the most simplified and elegant form of Hinduism made practical and acceptable to all. No wonder Lord Ayyappa and his holy shrines around the globe are attracting millions and millions year after year.