Aravind Subramanyam: A sacred quest of a Shasta devotee

“The case against the Sabarimala temple tradition of not permitting women in the reproductive age group from worshipping at the temple was filed by people who had no  idea of where Sabarimala is located  on the map of the country!” says scholar, author and Sabarimala temple activist Shri V. Aravind Subramanyam about the flagrant attempts of Left Liberal secularists and non-believers  to destabilise sacrosanct temple traditions as  discriminatory and misogynistic.

Sabarimala temple, a hillock shrine, nestled amidst the serene sylvan and sublime forests of the Western Ghats was hermetically sealed  from the rest of the country for several centuries. Its isolation and relative inaccessibility, however, also served to protect and preserve several sacrosanct traditions of the temple.

Author of ten books on the Shasta (also known as Hariharaputra, born of the union of Shiva and Vishnu in the form of Mohini) tradition, Shri Aravind Subramanyam, 38, President, Shri Maha Sastru Seva Sangam, Coimbatore, is a  management consultant by profession. However, of late, he concedes that his “passion for Shasta worship has overtaken his profession!”

A regular visitor to the Sabarimala temple since he was four years old, Shri Aravind Subramanyam is the fourth generation in his family to  carry forward the inter-generational legacy of Shasta worship that can be traced  to his great grandfather in the early 1920s.

Passionate about upholding the sanctity and traditions of the ancient Sabarimala Temple,  Shri Aravind’s three major books (in Tamil and later translated into English) connected with the Puranic and historical  aspects of the Sabarimala Temple include his magnum  opus Shri  Maha Shasta Vijayam. Widely known as the ‘go to ‘ person for anything connected with the Sabarimala Temple, his in depth scholarship formed the bedrock of the  Sabarimala Review Petition filed in the Supreme Court by People for Dharma.

A voracious reader since childhood, the first book  on the Shasta tradition that propelled Aravind on the Shasta journey was Kaliyuga Vadaran Ayyappan published in 1950. Yet he  sensed something was “missing.” According to him, although Shasta worship was common in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with 6000 shrines of the deity in both states, there was no comprehensive book that contained stories of Shasta’s other incarnations. Hence,  he resolved to take on the challenging task of seeking and assembling the missing pieces of the story—a  sacred journey that would take him 12 consecutive years of research and two years of writing!

Aravind Subramanyam

The absence of scholarship or spiritual background did not daunt the curious young seeker. His parents were unconditionally supportive of his ardour and aspiration and encouraged him to travel across Tamil nadu and Kerala  as part of his research.  Initially, scholars scoffed at the audacity of a boy to take on such an ambitious undertaking but they  became his most ardent champions when they saw his zeal and determination!

Maha Shasta Vijayam,  a  500-page Purana in Tamil that consists of seven  cantos, 85 Puranic stories of Shasta, more than 100 songs, five sahasranamam (1000 names of Shri Shasta), two trishadi and 11 ashtotaram, provides a panoramic perspective of the Puranic and historical aspects of the Sabarimala Temple and its sacrosanct traditions and practices.

“It is not just a regular book on Ayyappa consisting of well known stories from his life. It  delves into hitherto unknown stories of Shasta, and the traditions and practices associated with Shasta temples,” says Shri Aravind who made an in depth study of ancient palm leaf manuscripts and songs in Tamil (sung only in Kerala but written in Malayalam script) on Shasta, consulted rare manuscripts at the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur, Kanchi Mutt and visited several Shasta temples in the two southern states.

Tracing the sthalpuranam of the Sabarimala Temple, Shri Aravind  refers to the puranic legend narrated in the Bhootanathaupakyanam of Ayyappan being born of the union of Shiva (Shasta) and Mahavishnu in the form of Mohini.  Shri Ayyappan, is one of the eight different incarnations of Shri Shasta, who  incarnated as Shri  Ayyappan to kill the demon Mahishi. The vigraham of Ayyappan or Manikantan in yoga sankalpa or yogic pose was installed in the temple by Shri Parasurama.

However, over the years, several misinterpretations, extrapolations, later day additions,  inaccuracies , hearsay and local legends  have infiltrated into the  sthalapuranic origins of the  Sabarimala temple that do not  align with the sthala purana and chronology. According to Shri Aravind,  it is imperative  for devotees of  Shri Ayyappan  to be able to sift the chaff from the grain; fact from fantasy.

For instance, there is a shrine dedicated to Vavaraswami at Sabarimala, as well as Vavaraswami’s mosque at Erumely, next to a Shri Ayyappan temple, en route to Sabarimala.  According to local legends,  Vavar was a Muslim saint who migrated from Arabia to Bharat with the intention of spreading Islam. Others suggest that he was a warrior who reached the shore of Kerala as a pirate to loot and plunder. During his encounter with Shri Ayyappa, he was defeated. Impressed by the youth’s valour, Vavar became messenger of Shri  Ayyappa and helped him in the wars in the mountainous region. As time passed, Vavar too became an ardent devotee of Ayyappa and came to be known as Vavar swami.

“I was just 12-13 years when I first read about this. Even then, it struck me as historically inaccurate as Islam is just 1400 years old. I verified with my grandfather who clearly told me that it was  a later day addition and   not authenticated in the sthala puranam. I even wrote to the chief tantri (priest) of the Sabarimala temple for an explanation!” recalls Shri Aravind, who also clarifies that Vavar was a Kayankulam pirate who befriended  Kerala Aditya Varman, Prince of the Pandalam Royal Family, the hereditary trustees of  Sabarimala  Temple.

However, several  fake narratives, such as the Vavar legend, have been associated with the  Sabarimala temple including interference and evangelical proselytization of the locals by Christian missionaries and an attempt to de Hinduise and secularise the traditions of the temple  that culminated in  seeking judicial intervention at the Apex Court to lift the ban on entry of women in the 10-50 age group into the  temple.

Over the years, the Sabarimala Temple became increasingly popular with all sections of society, especially those  from the lower social economic strata and the tribals known as malariyar or hill dwellers. Tribals enjoyed considerable  rights over forest produce, they made offerings of forest produce such as honey to the deity and were involved in the protection of the deity and the temple.

According to Shri Aravind, Sabarimala was a forerunner of the Temple Entry Movement and welcomed people  across the spectrum, including those from other faiths,  if they adhered to the prescribed traditions and practices. This, reportedly  irked the Christian missionaries,  who saw this as an obstacle to their predatory proselytization.

In the meanwhile, widespread  conversion agenda  inspired fake Christian narratives such as Sabarimala was originally known as St. Francis Xavier hill! In the 1970s,  a set of crosses planted in nearby Nilakkal  began to gain currency and acceptance that it was done by Saint Thomas! However, it turned out to  have been planted just 12 years back!

A turning point in the history of the sacred shrine was a  fire in the temple on June 14, 1950. The sreekovil (the main shrine) was gutted and the murti of Shri Ayyappa vandalised. The door of the sanctum sanctorum was broken and had 15 tell-tale cut marks that indicated the use of force, the head  of the murti chopped off and the limbs mutilated.

Based on the report of the senior investigating police officer, circumstantial evidence pointed to the involvement of the Christian community in the arson and vandalism.  According to  reports, Christian missionaries in the area sent a person Kodali Swami (Kodali  means axe in Tamil)  who posed as a Hindu Swami, who carried out the arson and vandalism. Soon after, he escaped to Pondicherry, which was then a French territory, to evade arrest.  However, he was later arrested. After his release, he reportedly converted to Christianity and was part of the Christian clergy in a diocese in Kerala.

“The temple was then reconstructed and the new murti consecrated. However, ironically, the incident led to the Sabarimala temple becoming widely known across the country!” says Shri Aravind.

There were other equally  absurd narratives that attempted to de Hinduise and secularise  the Sabarimala temple. For example, speculations that it was originally a  Buddhist or Jain  temple. The Christian narrative took on  a new dimension with the Arthungal Church, a sixteenth century Portuguese church close to the Sabarimala temple, which proclaimed that the church had sprung up in memory of Shri Ayyappa’s Christian friend!

“Temples such as Sabarimala are the jeeva naadi or life line of sanatana dharma. However, with such inter faith narratives, we have  the classic Amar Akbar Antony fable spun  around the Sabarimala temple. Hence, it’s not surprising that over the years, such secularisation of Hindu  dharma  traditions and practices eventually led to the movement for entry of women of all ages into the temple,” says Shri Aravind.

There are several unique traditions in the Sabarimala Temple that have deep spiritual symbolism and significance. The practice of devotees taking the irumudi  or  a travel kit filled with pooja offerings such as coconut shell filled with ghee is symbolic of offering the body (coconut shell) and soul (ghee) before the deity.

“The  sacred pilgrimage is a journey of the jivatma  (individual soul)  offering itself to the paramatma (Supreme soul). The deity here is in yoga peetam or in a yogic pose. It is a temple for moksha or liberation,” says Shri Aravind. He also explains that  it is mandatory for every pilgrim to this sacred shrine to observe the 45-day vrata or mandated rules and regulations (Tripaksha bramhacharyam) as the deity is a  lifelong celibate (Naishtaka brahmachari).

“There is a certain unique chaitanyam or Consciousness in every temple. The chaitanyam in this temple  can disturb the body rhythms by causing the malfunctioning of the seven chakras of the body if the vrata is not observed in letter and spirit. And this is applicable to both men and women,” explains Shri Aravind.

Currently, Shri Aravind has  just finished translating  into English and Tamil 360 of the 720 Sanskrit slokas of the Bhootanatha upakyanam, that deals with the history of the Sabarimala temple.

“This work is part of the Brahmanda Purana . However, these portions are missing in the currently avialble edition of the Brahmanda Purana,” says Shri Aravind, whose Shasta  narratives, woven with the warp and weft of Bhakti and Jnana, is reminiscent of an Upanishadic seeker  on a scared quest.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.