The Ayyappa Shrine in the Shri Siva 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 Bhagawat Gita, Lord Krishna declared: "The one who loves everyone, treats both pleasure and pain with equanimity, is friendly to all beings, compassionate, ego-less, patient, always contended, self-controlled, determined, and who dedicates his mind and intellect to me is dear to me and is my true devotee.”
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 Divine - 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. And yet others will say that God is righteousness. 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 surrendering his thoughts, words, and deeds and leading an austere life. In other words, cleansing oneself of all impurities.
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,and perhaps, the most realistic way to reach him in this Kali yuga. In order to reach union with God, through any marga, we need to 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 guide us, monitor our transformation and correct the mistakes we make on the way to attaining union with God . 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 amounts to one mandalam period. This is the most 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 good character and good character determines our destiny. During this Vratham period, we attain basic purity of body, mind and spirit 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, the devotee lives like a Sanyasi and adorns black clothes as the color black denotes detachment from worldly things. There is no desire for dressing up.They do not cut hair, shave facial hair nor cut nails during the 41 days. The effort is made towards keeping oneself clean. Hence, they take bath twice a day both in the morning and in the evening before the prayers during which the devotees chant 108 namas or sharanams.
Simply put it is 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 think of God. Learning to lead a Sathvic life is a first step to recognize the devotional path. We do not hurt anyone by word, deed, or thought. Sathsang - Association with godly people helps in maintaining Sathvic lifestyle. Ayyappa congregations are a unique opportunity to associate with other Ayyappans who are also in Vratham and share the knowledge and experience. Devotees see each other as Ayyappan himself and see God in every other creature. This association with other devotees is important for going through the daily tribulations in life as well. In sum, they withdraw themselves from worldly affairs except for serving God and their fellow human beings and paticipate in spiritual activities like satsangh, 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 way from materialistic world. Brahmacharyam also helps us to conserve and concentrate all our physical energy and translate it to 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 moksha manthram of Ayyappa devotees. Some consider saying Swami Saranam is so powerful that it is equivalent to chanting Veda. Thinking about God all the time and chanting his name is a sure way towards God. It is also recommended as the easiest way to godliness. Yet in our daily life it is not often that we chant God’s name consciously. When devotees wear Mudra mala, they are often reminded if not all the time that they are to call his name all the time. They say "Swami Saranam" before starting and ending a conversation with anyone. This is another way to remember his name and at the same time to see God in others. In fact, they say Swami Saranam whenever their thought takes them away from the thought of God or when a distraction comes in the way or when they make a mistake during the Vratham. This is not only to ask forgiveness but also to remember God all the time. Therefore, Namasmaranam is the way of life when the devotees are in the Ayyappa Vratham. This, indeed, needs to continue forever by all of us even when we are not in Vratham as Vratham is only a rehearsal period for how we should actually lead our life as a devotee of Ayyappa. Namasangeerthanam is another way to chant God's name and remember God by singing his glory. Music has a tendency to to be etchedin our minds for days after we hear it. Hence, we should hear lots of bhajans, and songs that praise God so that they will always keep ringing in our heads and are better than any other meaningless music. By joining a group that sings Bhajans, we cultivate a habit of regular praying. Ayyappa Bhajans are regularly conducted in devotees homes and temples, which are the only places Ayyappa devotees, visit during the Vratham period.
Practice of reduction and eventual removal of kama, krotha, mada, maathsarya, lobha, moha is another key objective of Ayyappa Vratham. These are considered enemies of a spiritual man. Ayyappa Vratham is also an opportunity to practice moderation. Removal of desire, attachment to sensory world, yearning to harm or cause ruin to others, jealousy, and ego is the path to liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Ayyappa Vratham helps in avoiding these six obstacles.
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 and the punniyams each we have earned with our worldly activities and we surrender it to God and attain freedom from all Karmas good and bad.
As Lord Krishna declared in Bhagawat Gita and believed by ancient hindu sages, periodic fasts or vrathams purify the human mind and body. By adhering to an austere way of life observing tapas, observing daily prayers (in the morning and evening), participating in Sathsang and house pujas, doing community service through annadhanam, visiting temples regularly, imbibing in the spiritual literature, showing love and compassion to everyone and avoiding the six spiritual enemies as mentioned above, man trascends his earthly limitations and changes for the better.