The Ayyappa Shrine in the Shri Siiva Vishnu Temple is a blessing to those living all over North America who would like to observe the Ayyappa Vratham and climb the holy 18 steps every year. Devotees who have been to Sabarimala in India but could not continue to go there due their move to North America, consider SSVT Ayyappa Shrine as the “Sabarimala of the West.” Devotees climbing 18 steps at SSVT follow the same rigorous austerities of Ayyappa Vratham.
In Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna has declared “One who does not hate anyone; is friendly and compassionate to all living beings; shares his belongings with others; has no sense of ownership; free from ego; even-minded in both happiness and distress; forgiving; tolerant in all situations; always satisfied; worships me with determination and devotion. Such a person is very dear to me.”
Ayyappa Vratham is a set of spiritual exercises to enable one to begin the journey towards becoming a true devotee. The ultimate purpose of Ayyappa Vratham is self-transformation. The process helps the Sadhaks -seekers of the Devine – to realize that we are part of the divinity. For the benefit of new devotees and the next generation of young devotees, in what follows, we describe the importance, significance, and the benefits of Ayyappa Vratham.
Ayyappa Vratham is a good entry point to the spiritual world, particularly to those who are used to rituals as the basis for devotion. According to the Sanadhana Dharma, followed in India based on the Vedic traditions, man (jeevaatma) seeking the union with God (paramaatma) is the ultimate spiritual purpose of human life. However, there are several margas – pathways-to reach God-Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Gnana Yoga among others. Ayyappa Vratham probably falls under the Bhakti Yoga but uses elements from other yogic pathways as well. Using devotion to bring out the divinity in human is the aim of Ayyappa Vratham. In under-taking the Vratham, we follow several rituals to signify the transformation of human nature to the divine nature.
Before looking at how Ayyappa Vratham helps us to transform ourselves and go towards Godhood, it will be useful to consider basic definition of Godliness. In practical terms, to have the union with God is to say, that we have godly qualities. What are the main characteristics of Godly qualities? God is love and love is God -some will say. God is peaceful – some will say as they seek God to have their own peace. Others will say God is truth and they seek God by seeking truth and or being truthful. God is righteousness yet others will say. In observing Ayyappa Vratham we are expected to show love to everyone as God is in everyone, be peaceful with ourselves and with others, be truthful, follow righteousness and of course non-violence. While opinions vary on how one sees God, everyone will agree that God is more powerful than man is. This is partly because God can control the nature both internal and external, better than man can. External nature is the elements like earth, wind, rain, sun etc. Internal nature of man is the qualities that man is not in full control yet strives, as a spiritual seeker, or a Sadhak to have control over the senses. In observing Ayyappa Vratham we try to have this internal control so we can go towards attaining godly qualities. In essence, Ayyappa Vratham is a “dress rehearsal” for preparing ourselves to be in union with God himself by behaving with Godly qualities.
Human birth is the most important and difficult to attain of all living creatures. To be born as human is in itself a blessing. The desire to reach God using this human form is another blessing bestowed on us by God. With both human form and the desire to go towards Him, we need a marga to reach God. In Vedic philosophy and in Sanadhana Dharma there are many ways to seek union with God. Ayyappa Vratham and the journey to Sabarimala is one of the and perhaps the most practicable currently in this Kali yuga. In order to reach union with God, with any marga, we need observe basic discipline in life. Ayyappa Vratham trains us to follow this discipline.
Guruswami: In Vedic samparadhya, to reach God we need the guidance of Guru. Guru is one who has been there and done that. Guru is one who can show the way to God and can monitor our transformation and correct the mistakes we make. Thus, submission to Guru-swami is the key. Humility and humbleness is a hallmark of a Sathvic person. Ayyappa Vratham teaches us to be in submission to Guru and to fellow devotees. We consider Lord Ayyappa as Guru of all the Guruswamies.
41 Days of Mandala Vratham: Ayyappa Vratham observed for 41 days, which amounts to one mandalam period. This is essential first step to make the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The idea is to follow the discipline continuously for a certain period so that it becomes habit. As they say, discipline on a daily basis forms the good habit; good habit forms the good character and good character determines our destiny. During this Vratham period, we attain basic purity of body, mind and spirit that which is necessary for any devotional effort. Before starting the Vratham, we take permission from parents, seek the guidance of a Guruswami, and ask his permission and take permission from our Kuladeivam, family deity for blessings and protection.
Ayyappa Vratham is initiated with the invocation of God through adornment of the Thulasi mala. Lord Ayyappa is called Manikandan as the King Rajasekara Pandiyan found Him in the forest as a baby with manimala around his neck. Wearing Mudra mala symbolizes beginning of the Vratham. Mudramala reminds the devotee that he is God himself and to others it indicates that the devotee is in Vratham. The Mudra mala is removed when the Vratham is over after 41 days and after the devotee has the dharshan of Lord Ayyappa climbing 18 steps with the irumudikettu on his head.
Black Dhothi or Mundu: During the Vratham, we live like a Sanyasi. Black color denotes non-attachment to worldly things. We are not interested in dressing up. We do not give importance to how we look. Thus, we do not cut hair, shave facial hair nor cut our nails during the 41 days. This is to show that we focus not on ourselves but on God all the time. We take bath twice a day both in the morning and in the evening before the prayers during which we chant 108 namas or sharanams.
Simply put, it is the lifestyle of a sadhu. Sadhus keep their body, mind and soul clean, eat vegetarian food, and refrain from any bodily or mental pleasures and constantly thinking of God. Learning to lead a Sathvic life is a first step to recognize thee devotional path. We do not hurt anyone by word, deed, or thought. Sathsang – Association with like-minded people helps in maintaining Sathvic lifestyle. Ayyappa congregations are a unique platform to associate with other Ayyappans to share the knowledge and experience. We see other devotees as Ayyappan Himself and see God in every creature. This association with other devotees is important for going through the daily tribulations in life as well. In sum, we withdraw ourselves from worldly affairs except for serving God, and other fellow human beings and participate in spiritual activities such as visiting temples, sathsang, prayers, and bhajans. An essential part of Ayyappa Vratham is brahmacharyam. This is to not only keep our body and mind clean, but needed as basic requirement to get away from materialistic world. Brahmacharyam also helps us to conserve and concentrate all our physical energy and translate it into spiritual energy. We treat every woman as our mother during the Vratham.
Namasmaranam or saying “Swami Saranam” is important aspect of Ayyappa Vratham. ‘Swami Saranam’ -Surrendering everything to God – is the moola manthram and maksha manthram of Ayyappa devotees. Some consider chanting ‘Swami Saranam’ as powerful and equivalent to chanting the Vedas. Thinking about God all the time and chanting his name is a sure way to be one with God. In other words, the easiest way to godliness. Yet, in our daily life it is not often that we chant God’s name consciously. The purpose of wearing the Mudra mala is that it often reminds us, if not all the time, that we are to call his name throughour. We say ‘Swami Saranam’ before starting and after ending conversation with anyone. This helps us to remember his name and to see God in others. In fact, whenever our thought distracts us from the thought of God this chant brings us back on the right path. Therefore, Namasmaranam is the way of life when we are in the Ayyappa Vratham. This, of course, needs to continue even when we are not in Vratham since it is like a training on how we should lead our life as a devotee of Ayyappa. Namasangeerthanam is another way to sing his glory. Adding music to chants works in a magical way to remain in our mind and thoughts for days once we sing it or even hear it. Listening to bhajans and keertans of God, as a routine, helps us to always have positive thoughts and to carry on with our day to day life in a pleasant way. By joining a group that sings Bhajans & Keertans, we cultivate regular habit thanking God for all that we have. Ayyappa Bhajans are regularly conducted in devotees homes and temples, the only places, that Ayyappa devotees visit during the Vratham period.
The key objective of Ayyappa Vratham is to reduce and eventually erase desire, attachment to sensory world, yearning to harm or cause ruin to others, anger, jealousy, greed and ego (kama, krotha, mada, maathsarya, lobha, moha) from one’s life. These are considered enemies of a spiritual man. Ayyappa Vratham is also an opportunity to practice moderation. lrumudikettu and journey to Sabarimala: At the end of the 41 days of Vratham period, we prepare irumudi to take it to the temple and dedicate it to Swami. The two bags represent the paavams (sinful deeds) and the punniyams (virtuous deeds) that we have earned with our worldly activities and we surrender it to God and attain freedom from all Karmas good and bad.
By observing daily prayers, in the morning and in the evening, singing the glory of Lord Ayyappa, participation in Sathsang and house pujas, community service through annadhanam, regular visits to the temples, imbibing in the spiritual literature, showing love and compassion to everyone, avoiding six spiritual enemies as mentioned above, Ayyappa Vratham helps us to become true devotees, as declared by Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita.