SRI AYYAPPA SWAMI
Lord Ayyappa's fame has spread far and wide in the last few decades. The shrine of Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala attracts devotees from all corners of the land at all times of the year. In Tamil Nadu, earlier it was common to erect a statue of Ayyanar in most villages near the boundary at the entrance. Ayyanar was there to protect everyone in the village at any time from any type of calamity. It was even believed that Ayyanar rode on his horse round the village every night to keep a watch and that a sincere devotee could even hear the sound of the horse's hoofs. This Ayyanar is the same deity as Ayyappa of Sabarimala, whose shrines can now be seen in many towns and cities across India, specially in places where Malayalis and Tamilians reside.
Ayyappa (literally meaning lord and father) is Hariharaputra, son of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Siva); he is also known as Sastha, the ruler. As per Puranic stories, during the churning of Ocean of Milk, Vishnu assumed the enchanting form of Mohini in order to seduce the Asuras, who had laid their hands on the pot of Amrita, the nectar of immortality. Attracted by Mohini's beauty, Asuras handed the pot of nectar to her. She then stealthily served the nectar to Devas. Siva saw Mohini later; the manifestation of light born of the union of the jyotis of Siva and Mohini is Hariharaputra. He thus stands for the Ultimate Reality, the fusion of the Gnana of Siva and the compassion of Vishnu. He blesses his sincere devotees with the bliss of Supreme Gnana that liberates them from the cycle of samsara (births and deaths); he also bestows on them fulfilment of all immediate desires like relief from difficulties, getting progeny, wealth etc.
There are innumerable legends associated with Ayyappa. The most popular one is his appearance as the son of King Rajasekhara Pandian of Pandalam in Kerala. The childless king saw a baby in the forest and adopted him as his son. He named him Manikantan, as he noticed a gemstone (bell?) in the neck of the baby. The child's superhuman powers were soon evident. His divinity came to the fore when, in his Gurukulam sojourn, he restored the vision and speech of his Guru's blind and dumb son by way of Guru-dakshina. He is also credited to have protected the king and the kingdom from enemies. The queen delivered a male child after some time. A wily minister of the king colluded with the queen to attempt elimination of Manikantan from the scene to enable the queen's child to claim succession to the throne. They hatched a plot. The queen feigned to suffer from an incurable headache. A doctor, nominated by the minister, strangely recommended tigress' milk as cure. Manikantan managed to sway the king to permit him to go to the forest alone to fetch tigress' milk. Legend has it that he came back riding a tiger, who was none other than Indra, accompanied by male tigers, who were Devas in disguise and tigresses, who were really females of Devas. Manikantan was 12 years old at that time. The king saw through the conspiracy of his queen and the minister. He remembered the prophecy of a mendicant in Manikantan's early years that his son's extraordinary powers would come to light when he would turn twelve. He realised the divinity of his son and developed dispassion; he was granted Supreme Gnana by Manikantan (Sastha). Recognising that the time had come for him to part with his son, the king wished to build a temple for Ayyappa. Manikantan guided him to choose Sabarimala and agreed that from there, he would bless the devotees, who would observe 41 days' regulations (vratam) strictly and come to Sabarimala for darshan. The deity at the Sabarimala shrine is said to have been prepared and installed by Lord Parasurama himself.
As Hariharaputra, his many exploits for protecting the weak are also recounted in Puranas. According to Skanda Purana, during the Asura king Surapadma's rule, once Devendra had to live in hiding with his wife Indrani in Sirkali in Tamil Nadu. When the time came for Indra to leave for Meru Mountain to meet Siva and seek relief from the terror of Surapadma, he sought the help of Sastha to protect Indrani at Sirkali in his absence. Ajamukhi, the sister of Surapadma, came soon thereafter to Sirkali. Noticing the enchanting beauty of Indrani, she sought to take her by force to Surapadma. It was Sastha's aide Mahakala who came on the scene, fought, disfigured and drove away Ajamukhi and thus protected Indrani.
In another Puranic story, Mahishasura was killed by Durga. In a spirit of revenge, his sister Mahishi sought and obtained a strange boon that she could be vanquished only by the offspring of Siva and Vishnu. When Devas, who suffered in her tyrannical rule, pleaded with Siva for protection, Siva enabled Sastha's manifestation. Sastha fought and killed Mahishi and restored rule of dharma in all worlds.
Shrine at Sabarimala
Sabarimala in Kerala is the most famous Ayyappa shrine visited by over 40 million devotees every year, making it one of the most popular pilgrim centres in the world. Pilgrims from around the country brave the dense forests, steep hills and inclement weather to seek the blessings of Ayyappa, seated about 3000 feet above sea level, specially in the middle of January on Makara Sankranti or Pongal day, when the Lord himself is said to descend in the form of light. Two days before the auspicious Sankranthi day, the special jewellery of the Lord ('Tiruvabaranam') is taken on foot from the Royal Palace at Pandalam by a special emissary of the kingdom, after Pooja with all pomp, devotion and reverence. The rituals connected with the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, situated on the banks of Pampa river, have grown and been systematised over the years. They are generally the re-enactment of what Manikantan, the lad of twelve, had done during his visit to the forest for procuring tigress' milk. The pilgrims are under the care of a senior experienced worshipper called 'Guruswamy'. At the start of the 'vratam' period of 41 days they wear a garland of Rudraksha or Tulasi having a 'mudra' (pendant) of Ayyappa. During this 'vratam' period, they generally wear coloured (black/ blue/ saffron) dress, eat satvik vegetarian food, observe strict celibacy and austerity and perform Poojas and bhajans. The discipline is believed to be essential in being able to undertake the arduous journey to the shrine and obtain the blessings of the Lord. The pilgrims travel barefoot in groups and trek over difficult mountainous terrain carrying 'Irumudi' – a bag in two sections, one with a coconut containing ghee and other offerings to the Lord, and the other, personal foodstuff. The three-eyed coconut reminds one of Siva; the ghee comes from milk, the nutritious food that protects the body, which is associated with Vishnu. The coconut thus reminds one of both Siva and Vishnu. Further the white inside of the coconut is indicative of purity of the mind, whereas the ghee signifies bhakti, which should fill the mind. Ghee is filled in the coconut at the start of the pilgrimage to the chanting of Sastha's Moolamantra. Manikantan is said to have taken such a coconut with him during his trip to the forest. There are many places en route, associated with the legend of Manikantan's journey. The devotees take holy bath in many streams and the famed river Pampa. They keep chanting the mantra 'Swamiye... Saranam Ayyappa' (Lord Ayyappa, I seek refuge in you) loudly throughout the journey. 'Saranam' is the fundamental feature of all Ayyappa songs. The pilgrims also greet each other with 'Swami Saranam'. The idea is that every pilgrim is so much immersed in to the Lord that he sees all devotees and indeed all creation as manifestation of Ayyappa. The first major halt in the journey is at Erumeli, where the devotee observes a special ritual of 'Pettaitullal', in which he wears coloured powder on his body and dances his way to the flagstaff of the Sastha temple here. He then proceeds to Vavar hill, which reminds one of Manikantan's friendship with a Muslim named Vavar! He then worships at 'Kalaikatti', which is the place where Siva tied his vehicle bull, when he came to witness the dance of Sastha over Mahishi's body. After some more rituals at intermediate points, he finally reaches the main shrine at Sabarimala. Darshan of the deity here is attained after climbing 18 steps. Ayyappa is seated on Srichakra with the feet folded at an angle and tied in a 'yoga pattam' pose. The right hand shows 'Chinmudra' and the left signifies to us to surrender at his lotus feet. The eyes are welcoming and compassionate. The atmosphere inspires devotion.
Ayyappa the Jyoti
'Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya' – 'Lead me from darkness to Light' - runs a common Vedic prayer. Lord Ayyappa is the Jyoti visible to the naked human eyes on the pinnacle of the famed Sabari hills on the Makara Sankranthi day every year. Thus Ayyappa is associated in the minds of one and all with Light. This Jyoti from above descends and takes the form of a Vigraha on earth for us to offer our daily worship. When light appears, darkness takes to heels without our having to make any extra effort. The darkness in mind, accumulated over ages through crores of samskaras in many different births, is in fact a dark screen enveloping a perpetually burning light source, viz. Atma. Hence when Ayyappa's kataksha (sidelong glance) of Light falls on us, the cover of darkness melts in a jiffy, burning away in the process all our past karmas and blessing us with the right intellect so that our efforts, aimed at happiness here and Liberation hereafter, bear fruit. The inner Light, already present, stands unveiled.
There are 18 steps between him and us. These are the five karmendriyas (hands, feet, tongue and organs of generation and excretion), five gnanendriyas (eyes, ears, tongue, nose and the body), five Pranas (Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana and Samana) and three internal instruments (mind including chitta, intellect and Ahamkara). Unless all these 18 tools are employed favourably with the right intent, the desired fruit cannot be attained. Worship should therefore be offered at the feet of Ayyappa for His continuous Grace for the 18 instruments to be directed in the right manner and the Light to descend in our heart, dispelling the dark cover. There are many names in the Ayyappa Sahasranamam, pointing to Light – Mahatejas, Aharpati, Suryatejas, Sajyotis, Bhanuman, Tejas, Tejorasi, Tejasam Pati, Mahabhasa, Bhanutejas, Sasibhasa, Vibhavasa, Ushastejas, Uduprabha, Rajatadribhasa, Timiraghna, Mihirabha, Rajani-dhvamsi-sannibha, Aryamabhasa, Grishmasurya-samaprabha, Jataveda-prabhakara, Rakendu-dyuti-sampanna etc. As we chant the names with sincere prayer, Light will enter into our being.
Poorna and Pushkala
Like Ganapathi and Hanuman, Ayyappa is generally worshipped as a bachelor deity. As we have seen above, Manikantan appeared as the son of Rajasekara Pandian and departed from earth at the age of twelve, when he was a bachelor. Hence the deity of Ayyappa installed in Sabarimala is that of a bachelor god. However, just as Ganapathi is worshipped occasionally along with his consorts Siddhi and Buddhi, Hariharaputra is also adored with his two consorts named Poorna and Pushkala in many temples. There are legends alluding to the Lord in his avatara on earth marrying the daughters of two kings, who were beholden to him. It must however be remembered that as in the case of all goddesses, it is the Shakti of Lord Ayyappa, who is worshipped as his consort or goddess. Shakti and Shaktiman are inseparable like Sun and shine, Fire and heat, flower and fragrance. It is the ever-present power of God, which is worshipped in the female form. This truth is emphasised repeatedly in many places in our religious literature. This is in fact the truth we cherish when we celebrate the marriages of gods like Radha with Krishna, Sita with Rama, Meenakshi with Sundareswara, Ganapathi with Siddhi and Buddhi, Vali and Devasena with Subrahmanya and also Ayyappa with Poorna and Pushkala. The significance of Poorna and Pushkala runs very deep. Poorna is that power of the Lord which refers to his being alone, complete, total, all-pervasive with nothing extraneous to the Lord and hence with no want unfulfilled. Pushkala signifies plenty, fullness and prosperity. Poorna is the Supreme state of knowledge of Atman with nothing to be known. Feeling of Pushkala, i.e. magnificence or prosperity is not adequate in comparison with Poorna. Hence Pushkala can be considered as an auspicious step in the path of attainment of Poorna. In other words, Pushkala can be equated with mundane prosperity connected with one's sojourn on this earth, tempered with spirituality and Poorna is the ultimate state beyond to be attained here or hereafter.
Sastha Preethi, widely conducted in November-January period in many places, is an occasion for us to offer our sincere prayer to the Lord. This Pooja generally includes Ganapathi Homam, Rudrabhishekam, Laksharchana (offering of flowers in a lamp while chanting the thousand names of Ayyappa by a hundred persons in one or more batches), Bhajan, Annadanam etc. The repertoire of Bhajan songs in different languages and the expert groups of singers have grown over the years. The bhajans and Namavalis help the devotees to nurture their devotion prior to undertaking the journey and, while trekking to and from Sabarimala, to draw the necessary inspiration to enjoy the difficult journey and focus on Ayyappa and his exploits.
Ayyappa Gayatri mantra is as follows:
भूतनाथाय विद्महे भवपुत्राय धीमहि
तन्नः शास्ता प्रचोदयात् ॥
"We are aware of Bhutanatha, the Lord of all creation; we meditate on the son of Bhava (Siva); may that Sasta inspire us (to attain the Supreme Reality)".
The 'Namaskara' slokas start with
लोकवीरं महापूज्यं सर्वरक्षाकरं विभुम् ।
पार्वतीहृदयानन्दं शास्तारं प्रणमाम्यहम् ॥
"I prostrate to Sastha, who is the most valorous in all worlds; worshipped by all; who protects all; who is all-pervasive and who delights the heart of Parvathi."
'Harivarasanam' is a celebrated devotional song chanted just before closing the temple doors at Sabarimala every night. It is written in eight stanzas, called 'Ashtakam'. It was written by Kambakudi Kulathur Srinivasa Iyer, a guruswami, in 1947.
The first stanza runs as follows:
हरिवरासनं (स्वामि) विश्वमोहनं
हरिदधीश्वरं (स्वामि) आराध्यपादुकम् ।
अरिविमर्दनं (स्वामि) नित्यनर्तनं
हरिहरात्मजं (स्वामि) देवमाश्रये ॥
शरणमय्यप्पा स्वामि शरणमय्यप्पा
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"Repository of Hari's boons; Enchanter of the universe,