In January every year, devotees throng the Sabarimala temple situated in the Sahayadri ranges in Kerala, to participate in the renowned Mandala Puja conducted during Makara Sankaranti. The deity worshipped here, Lord Ayyappa, is believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu and is also known as Sastha and Harihara Sutha. The basic concept of incarnation is that God descends in order to let man ascend.
The name Ayyappa or universal father is a corrupted form of the Sanskrit Aryabha, standing for nobility and effulgence. Sastha means a stern upholder of righteousness, one who punishes the wicked and protects the virtuous. The term Harihara Sutha is derived from a legendary story about how Lord Vishnu took the form of a bewitching enchantress and enticed Lord Siva who submitted to ‘her’ charm. The result of their union is Harihara Sutha. Mythology apart, the etymological significance of Harihara is ‘‘One who with rays of knowledge, Haribhi, dispels the darkness of ignorance or Horanthi. Harihara also symbolise Pravrithi and Nivritti — action and actionlessness (which is knowledge) respectively — the twin planks of Sanathana Dharma, the ‘‘immortal code of conduct’’.
The Sabarimala temple attracts large crowds during the Mandala worship in January for several reasons: It is an affordable spiritual ‘retreat’, and is a refreshing change from one’s mechanical daily routine. It is also an opportunity to observe rigidly an abstemious vow for 41 days, something one is unlikely to do in the normal flow of life. The vow enjoins one to observe absolute physical cleanliness and maintain transparent mental purity. During this period, devotees abstain from sexual activity, and from consuming meat, tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
The very first step in the penance is to wear a garland of Tulsi leaves or Rudraksha, and thereafter, throughout the 41 days, a life of plain living and high devotion is adopted. The pilgrim is initiated into this ritual by being garlanded by another Ayyappa devotee. He bathes daily in the morning, visits the temple, cooks his own food and looks at every other devotee as an ‘Ayyappa’ with an equal mindedness crossing all barriers of caste, community, social status, or cultural background. He cultivates mental purity by consciously overcoming negative traits like anger, jealousy, pride, or injury to another, in thought, word or deed. He endeavours to the best of his ability to be truthful, humble, content and focuses his mind on Lord Ayyappa through silent contemplation or organised Satsanghs and group singing of devotional songs. He assiduously practises brahmacharya or celibacy.
During the trek to the hill temple, the pilgrim carries a cloth bundle with two compartments, one for items of worship — coconut, ghee, camphor and scented sticks, and the other for articles necessary for sustenance — rice and other provisions. While trekking, the pilgrim addresses every other devotee as ‘Ayyappa’, to underscore the fact that all are equal in the eyes of God. Every being carries the hallmark of divinity in the inner-most recess of his heart. Finally at the sanctum sanctorum, against the backdrop of hills, rivers and forests, the ocean of humanity surges forth in continuous waves — but with military discipline — and devotees chorus in unison, ‘‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’’. Mounds of burning camphor give rise to clouds of fragrant smoke visible for miles. Ghee offerings cascade over the idol, guided by the presiding priest. In all, the entire scene of worship symbolises the basic truth that the elements constituting the cosmos Brahmanda — earth, fire, water, air and ether — and the individual are self-same. It drives home the fundamental truth of Advaita philosophy that man the microcosm and Brahman the macrocosm are not different. When the sky is rent with the sound of God’s name, it echoes the Nada Brahman, the sound that is a manifestation of Brahman.
When the devotee sees ghee flow over the idol, he is reminded of Sankaracharya’s exhortation about one’s thought flow while contemplating on God. It should be smooth, continuous, noiseless and silent like the flow of ghee. Says Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘‘He who sees Me everywhere (and in everything) and everything in Me — such a person is not lost to Me, nor am I lost to him’’ (VI.30). Supremely satisfied on fulfilling his vows, the devotee makes yet another vow to come back. The Sabarimala pilgrimage is a highly rewarding individual spiritual experience; it is a fine way of getting away from the daily grind and experience a wonderful feeling of rejuvenation and realisation through the grace of Lord Ayyappa.
Published in TimesOfIndia