Who is Ayyappa, The Hindu God?

Who is Ayyappa, The Hindu God?
Posted on 24-06-2023

Who is Ayyappa, The Hindu God?

Ayyappa, also known as Lord Ayyappa or Sree Ayyappan, is a Hindu deity who is widely revered in the southern states of India, particularly in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. He is considered to be the son of Lord Shiva and the enchantress Mohini, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Ayyappa is known for his unique blend of divine attributes, as he is considered both a celibate deity and a protector of family life. His worship is associated with the famous pilgrimage site of Sabarimala in Kerala, where millions of devotees gather every year.

The origin of the deity Ayyappa is rooted in Hindu mythology. The story goes that the demon Mahishi, who was wreaking havoc in the universe, was blessed with invincibility by Lord Brahma. As a result, she became a threat to the gods and the sages. To counter her, Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini, a beautiful enchantress, and seduced the demon. A union between Mohini and Lord Shiva occurred during this period, and the child born out of this union was Ayyappa. Thus, Ayyappa is considered to be the synthesis of the powers of Shiva and Vishnu.

Ayyappa's birth is celebrated on the Makara Vilakku festival, which falls in the month of January. The main temple dedicated to Ayyappa is the Sabarimala Temple, located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is a significant event for Ayyappa devotees, who observe strict rituals and practices during the journey. The pilgrimage involves a rigorous 41-day vratham (a period of austerity) in which devotees maintain strict celibacy, practice self-discipline, and observe vegetarianism. The pilgrimage culminates in the ascent of the 18 holy steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala Temple.

One of the distinctive aspects of Ayyappa worship is the inclusion of women of menstruating age, known as the "ban on women of reproductive age." Until recently, women between the ages of 10 and 50 were not allowed to enter the Sabarimala Temple. This practice was based on the belief that Ayyappa is a naishtika brahmachari, a perpetual celibate, and the presence of women of reproductive age would disturb his meditative state. However, this practice faced legal challenges, and in 2018, the Supreme Court of India lifted the ban, allowing women of all ages to enter the temple. This decision sparked controversy and divided opinions among devotees.

Ayyappa is depicted as a young, handsome deity with a peaceful countenance. He is usually depicted wearing a beaded chain (mala) made of rudraksha beads, a bell, and carrying a bow and arrow. The bow represents the human ego, which needs to be controlled, and the arrow symbolizes the human mind, which needs to be focused and directed towards righteousness. Ayyappa is also associated with the tiger and is sometimes shown riding a tiger or accompanied by tigers. The tiger represents the untamed passions and instincts that Ayyappa helps his devotees overcome.

Devotees of Ayyappa believe that he is a divine guide who helps them navigate through the challenges and difficulties of life. They seek his blessings for protection, prosperity, and spiritual growth. Ayyappa is particularly revered by those who value the virtues of celibacy, self-discipline, and devotion. His worship is seen as a path to attain self-realization and liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death.

The Sabarimala pilgrimage is not only a physical journey but also a spiritual one. Devotees undertake this arduous journey with the aim of cleansing themselves of impurities, both physical and mental, and seeking Ayyappa's grace. The pilgrims follow a strict code of conduct and observe various rituals along the way. The pilgrimage begins with the wearing of the sacred bead chain (mala) and observing the vratham, which includes daily prayers, abstinence from non-vegetarian food, alcohol, tobacco, and other worldly pleasures.

The highlight of the Sabarimala pilgrimage is the ascent of the 18 holy steps known as the Pathinettam Padi. These steps are considered sacred and devotees climb them with devotion and reverence. Each step symbolizes a specific virtue or quality that devotees need to cultivate on their spiritual journey. These qualities include faith, perseverance, humility, truthfulness, and self-control. Climbing the 18 steps is seen as a metaphor for transcending the 18 obstacles or impurities that hinder spiritual progress.

Ayyappa devotees often chant his mantra, "Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa," which means "Oh Lord Ayyappa, I seek refuge in you." This mantra is repeated during the pilgrimage and in daily prayers to invoke Ayyappa's presence and seek his blessings. The chanting of the mantra is believed to create a spiritual connection with the deity and purify the mind.

Apart from the Sabarimala Temple, there are numerous other temples dedicated to Ayyappa across southern India. Each temple has its own unique customs and traditions associated with the worship of Ayyappa. The deity is also worshipped in various forms, such as Dharma Sastha or Hariharaputra (son of Vishnu and Shiva). Ayyappa is often depicted alongside his consorts, Poorna and Pushkala, who represent abundance and fulfillment.

The popularity of Ayyappa worship has extended beyond the boundaries of southern India. His devotees can be found in different parts of the country and even abroad. The Sabarimala pilgrimage attracts people from various backgrounds and is known for its inclusivity, as devotees from different castes, religions, and social statuses participate in the pilgrimage.

In recent years, the Sabarimala Temple has been at the center of legal and social controversies. The entry of women of reproductive age into the temple, as mentioned earlier, has been a topic of debate. The issue raised questions about religious traditions, gender equality, and the balance between freedom of religion and social progress. The Supreme Court's verdict allowing women's entry sparked protests from traditionalists and led to significant discussions about the evolving nature of religious practices in contemporary society.

Ayyappa is a revered Hindu deity who embodies the qualities of celibacy, self-discipline, and devotion. His worship, centered around the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, is characterized by a rigorous pilgrimage that involves strict observance of rituals and a period of austerity. Ayyappa's popularity extends beyond the southern states of India, and his devotees seek his blessings for protection, prosperity, and spiritual growth. The worship of Ayyappa is deeply intertwined with Hindu mythology, and his unique blend of divine attributes, as the son of Shiva and Mohini, makes him a fascinating and beloved deity in the Hindu pantheon.

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