An Evolving Cultural Flow ( 12 )

19/12/2011 History of Lord Ayyappa

Several concepts like Dharma, mystic symbols like the supreme symbol (\), etc., are common to Hinduism and Buddhism. Likewise, several customs and rituals are also naturally common to both the religions. The ancient Hindu temples were not only centres of devotion, but they also patronized the traditional sciences like Ayurveda, astrology, philosophy, literature and even martial arts. Some of the temples might have eventually become Buddhist centres of worship and many of the prevailing customs, etc., might have become part of the Buddhist mode of worship. And later, when Buddhism declined, the old rituals along with the newly evolved ones might have naturally continued as a part of Hinduism. Thus, despite some changes in the approach there occurred a cultural continuity. Without realizing these important and basic facts, some scholars give us the impression that there occurred abrupt breaks in culture during these phases. There has always been cultural reformations. In fact, it has been always a unified and progressive cultural flow, its spirit ever willing to embrace greater dimensions, renew itself and expand.

This character of Indian culture is well highlighted in the following words of the great Indian scientist Dr.Jagdish Chandra Bose: “By a continuous living tradition of rejuvenescence this land has readjusted itself through unnumbered transformations”. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru describes this spirit thus: “The essential basis of Indian thought for ages past, though not its later manifestations, fits in with the scientific temper and approach, as well as with internationalism. It is based on a fearless search of truth, on the solidarity of man, even on the divinity of everything living, and on the free and co-operative development of the individual and the species, ever to greater freedom and highest stages of human growth.”

In the remote Dravidian civilization, which had a broad philosophical outlook of a Yogic nature, the Supreme Power was referred to as Ayyan and the Power was worshipped in its diverse aspects and manifestations. The name ‘Ayyappan’ might have been derived from a combination of a Tamil word Ayyan, and a Malayalam word Appan, which signifies a father figure. From ancient past ‘Ayyappan’ was a common name prevailing among the people of Dravidian origin, especially in Kerala region. However, the Namboothiri Brahmins, who were supposed to have come from the North, do not generally bear this name. There were no caste differences in ancient times in South India, and even after the society was organised on caste basis, the name ‘Ayyappan’ continued to prevail among all sections of Dravidian origin, irrespective of the caste differences. The king of Pandalam, who picked the child from the banks of Pampa, also, following this tradition, named the child as ‘Ayyappan’.

According to the Yogic perception of the evolved sages anywhere in the world, the whole humanity is one family; and this idea is given prime importance in the ancient Vedic vision: “Vasudhaiva kudumbakam” – the whole world is one family. From time immemorial, India had a tradition of giving birth to great ones who explored into the mysteries of Nature and discovered the unifying truths about man and Nature. Their deep spiritual knowledge bestowed India with a broad universal vision, which is reflected in the Rig Vedic saying: “Let noble thoughts come from every side”.

With this as the dominant characteristic, despite occasional narrowing of the thought patterns and the consequent restrictions, the spirit of the culture always broke such limitations and continued to evolve imbibing noble ideas from everywhere. Ayyappa concept reflects this spirit of constant evolution and expansion.

Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva were worshipped as two important facets of Brahman, the Supreme Reality. Eventually two dominant sections came into being as Shaivites and Vaishnavites , worshipping Shiva and Vishnu respectively. In course of time, the deeper spiritual significance of their oneness was lost and people began to quarrel arguing about the supremacy of Vishnu and Shiva, forgetting that the Deities signify spiritual powers, and devotion to them was intended to activate the spiritual dimensions of man. It is this state of corruption that ‘Sreemad Devee Bhaagavatham’ , the great Epic on Divine Mother, deplores thus: “Those who forget the oneness of Siva and Vishnu are sinners.” The concept of Sri Sankara-Naaraayana was evolved to emphasize their spiritual oneness. In Kerala, Dharma Sastha became a glorious symbol of such integration of the two Deities. Along with that, the ancient South Indian concept of the supreme Deity ‘Ayyan’ was also added to it by identifying Ayyappa with Dharma Sastha. The caste system with its discriminative stance never had any place in the Dharma Sastha temple of Sabarimala. The reformatory ideas brought by Buddhism into Indian culture were also suitably adopted by the Ayyappa concept. Its spiritual broadness even went beyond to include in its fold the religious systems that came from abroad as Islam and Christianity. Vaavar, a Muslim, is worshipped as a lieutenant of Lord Ayyappa and a Muslim priest distributes sacred ash to the pilgrims in front of the Dharma Sastha temple. In Alapuzha district there is also a Christian church known as Arthungal church of Veluthachan associated with the lore of Ayyappa.

The Advaithic view does not consider the Supreme Reality, Brahman, to be a Super Man. Yet, as Reality is all Freedom and with unlimited potentials, there is nothing irrational in considering It as the Supreme Personality – Purushothama. Brahman has no restriction in assuming the characteristics of Iswara (God) or Gods, whom one can choose to worship. It is assured in the Bhagavad-Gita that the Supreme Reality assumes the very characteristics of the Deities one worships and guides him in his spiritual unfoldment. What is required is an open mind which is free from religious fanaticism and has the sincere yearning for Truth. In Hinduism, there is thus unrestrained freedom for spiritual practise according to the psychological aptitude of the seeker. One has the freedom to seek and experience Reality attributing to it a personality or considering it as an impersonal Wholeness. According to the Advaithic view, Reality is at once Personal and Impersonal, with form and without form. To what extent a spiritual seeker is able to give universality to his approach, to that extent he would experience the expanding freedom in his own being.

Lord Ayyappa, in concept and worship, symbolizes the marvellous potential of Indian culture to maintain this spirit of Divine Universality, despite the tumultuous vagaries of history. It is not the mythology, history or the different religious approaches that matter here. Let us leave them for scholars for their debate. What is of supreme importance to us is the universal concept of Divinity, the guiding disciplines that enable man to have a greater communion with the Divinity within and the vibrant Spiritual Power that draws millions giving them solace and reassurance and imparts a meaning to their life.

( To be continued )

Related Articles