Is Ayyappa a separate religious denomination

  • By Jayasree Saranathan
  • October 23 2018

In a 4:1 ruling of the Constitution Bench that struck down an age old tradition at Sabarimala temple of Lord Ayyappa, the judges held that Ayyappa devotees do not constitute a separate religious denomination. The only dissenting judge Justice Indu Malhotra held that Ayyappa devotees do form a separate denomination.


This contradictory stance on religious denomination and the interpretation of the same having become vital in deciding the fate of this case, one is at a loss to understand why no thought or debate had gone into knowing what constitutes a religious denomination in the Hindu religion. During the hearing stage, the judges asked how Ayyappa devotees constituted a denomination when there is no specific Ayyappa sect. This question seemed to have been guided by the opinion that Hindu faith has only pre-established denominations with zero scope to have developed new denominations over a period of time.


Even in the United States, 35 denominations were found to be present among the followers of Christianity when a survey was taken as recently as in 2001 by The Graduate Center of City University of New York. This was a great surprise to many, but this shows the internally evolving denominations within a religion even in a modern society. Sai Deepak appearing for one of the respondents rightly pointed out that the denomination must come from within the community, implying that courts cannot decide a denomination.


Evolving Hindu denominations


A popular classification of the denominations within the Hindu community was last established by Adi Sankara which he collectively called as ‘Shanmatha’ – based on six deities namely Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, Surya and Skanda. If this basis is any indication, Ayyappa followers rightfully form a denomination of their own, for their worship methods are uniquely centred on the deity, Ayyappa. 


If we further analyse the Shanmatha concept, we find that two among the six are the children of two of the six deities. As per Hindu tradition, Ganesha and Skanda are the children of Shiva and Shakti. Though all four can be clubbed together as a single family and are found installed together in most temples belonging to any of one of them as the main deity, Sankara had treated them as different denominations for the reason that worship methods and  religious austerities are different from each other and distinct for each of them. On the same basis one can say that Ayyappa constitutes a separate denomination


Before Shanmatha denomination came into being there were eleven denominations in the very country of Kerala, then known as Chera land, where Adi Sankara was born. These eleven denominations are explained in a full chapter in an old Tamil text called “Manimekalai”, that was about a real life story centred around a young girl, Manimekalai, who went on to become a Buddhist monk after listening to the preceptors of the other ten sects. These eleven sects were,


1)      Parinaama

2)      Shaiva

3)      Vaishnava

4)      Brahma

5)      Veda

6)      Ajeevika

7)      Nikanta

8)      Sankhya

9)      Vaisheshika

10) Bhuta (Charvaka)

11) Bauddha


After going through the precepts of these sects, Manimekalai embraced Buddhism finding it more suitable for her. (Article 25 -1 was present at that time, it seems) Of the eleven, only two (Shaiva and Vaishnava) have continued to exist till today and are part of Shanmatha. Two (Ajivika and Buddhism) were rejected by Hinduism later when they started distancing their doctrines from Vedic Thought. Parinaama, Brahma and Veda were absorbed by Shanmatha in various degrees. Sankhya and Vaisheshika are no longer in existence as separate paths. Charvakas always existed. This shows that denominations owe their existence to their followers. Some become redundant with time or are absorbed into others. There is also scope for newer denominations being born. What brings all these denominations under the Hindu Faith is their adherence to Vedas as the basis of their precepts and worship methods.


One must take note that four deities of the Shanmatha (Shakti, Surya, Ganesha and Skanda) were not treated as separate sects or denominations 2000 years ago in the Tamil lands. When they came to be followed by more people with exclusive worship methods, Sankara found it reasonable to accord a separate identity.


Further back in time, six Darshanas were the only denominations in existence. Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta were popular then, of which Sankhya and Vaisheshika continued in Manimekalai period.  They are no longer in vogue today. The concept of religious denomination is thus a continuously evolving feature testifying the vibrancy of a religion.


Is Ayyappa worship of recent origin?


This question is heard on the basis of recent origin of Pandalam dynasty in which was born Ayyappa, now worshiped at Sabarimala. It is true that Ayyappa of Sabarimala was very much a real person who walked on this earth, like Rama or Krishna or Skanda who were also real entities. Hinduism recognises the elevation of real persons as Gods under one condition. There is a written record of this condition in the biography of Alexander by the Greek historian Plutarch.


To a question by Alexander, “How may a man become God?”, the Hindu sage Kalanos (Kalyan) replied, “By doing that which is almost impossible for a man to do.” When a person does things that no other man can do or which are beyond normal human limits, then such a person comes to be regarded as a God. Such persons have been celebrated as Gods by sages with mythical events woven around them. In course of time, they come to be recognised as incarnations of the Ultimate God Himself.


It is in this way Manikantha born in the Pandalam family was recognised as “Shasta”, the child of Shiva and Vishnu (in Mohini form). This is like how Skanda born to Meenakshi of the Pandyan dynasty was deified by the sages with a celestial birth and nursing by 6 star mothers of Krittika, thereby getting him the name Kartikeya. Similar deification found in the legend of Ayyappa born as Manikantha is proof enough that his deification at Sabarimala was a well formed cult devised by some sages of the past for the benefit of people. With worship methods unique for Himself, He does constitute a separate denomination and can be regarded as the 7th matha of the Hindu religion.


In the light of the fact that Manikantha alias Ayyappa was a real figure having given instructions for worship, the Supreme Court’s ruling is certainly a violation of the promise given to him and his oath of celibacy. The tradition set with regard to the entry by women of the post-partum period for the first feeding of their children in five days every month is proof of non-discrimination against them, and at the same time without violating the oath. Without appreciating the finer aspects of maintaining the oath, Justice Nariman commented “What happens to the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa in those 5 days? Is it that the idol vanishes on those days?”

Shasta is an old concept


Ayyappa is known as “Dharma Shasta” – one who delivers Justice or who is an embodiment of Justice. A deity by this name in Tamilised form (Arap peyar Saatthan) is mentioned in verse 395 of Purananuru, an old Tamil text. The name Shasta (Saatthan) was common among the masses in Sangam texts. Worship of Shasta in many places was in existence from Sangam times.


A special feature of Shasta is found in two inscriptions and written by historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri. Shasta is identified as a God of the Cheris (rural region) mentioned along with Surya and Seven Mother Goddesses (inscription no 335 of 1917 and 131 of 1892). The association with seven mothers was not indigenous to Tamil lands but had spread from Indus civilization (there is an Indus seal of seven women) with its later prevalence found in Chalukyan and Hoysala regions thousand years ago. Shasta of Sangam texts was not accompanied with the seven mothers or any associate. This establishes the olden Shasta concept as a single - with additions coming later.  


The location in rural region is repeated in “Mayamatam”, a Vaastu text containing the Vaastu principles purportedly given by Maya. After explaining the iconography of Shasta, the text describes the features of Shasta, the offspring of Mohini (female form of Vishnu) as a celibate and as a married man with two wives. Then it goes on to say that those who seek what is good, must install Shasta in villages. It also says that “Shasta, beloved of the gods, is to be installed in the haunts of lower castes, in the house of courtesans and in forts”.


The association with the downtrodden is a feature found in the astrological text “Prasna Marga” written in 1649 by a Kerala Nambhoothri. It says that those afflicted by Saturn must propitiate Shasta. Saturn also represents undeveloped and dirty regions. As such Saturn identifies Shasta as a village deity. It is a deity of all villagers. Those who have no idea of the village deity worshiped by their ancestors and those who were not initiated into any path of worship in Hinduism are also advised to worship Shasta – particularly of Sabarimala.


Even today scores of devotees going to Sabarimala are disadvantaged classes with no regular practice of religious austerities. The Vrata period is a kind of boon for them to commit themselves to religious austerities which otherwise they may not follow. The devotee is not expected to be well versed in scriptures. What is expected of him is to follow the rules of behaviour. There are other hill-deities too such as Venkateswara, Narasimha and Skanda. The first two come under one denomination and Skanda is another denomination due to varying practices in worship methods. But Sabarimala pilgrimage is different from them.


The Chief Justice refused to accept separate denomination for Ayyappa worshippers on the pretext that people of other faith also worship him. It is true that Ayyappa is worshiped by people from across all the other sects. The worshiper could come from any background, from other Hindu sects such as Shaivism or Vaishnavism or from any other religion. But every one of them must follow the rules of Vrata as applicable to Sabarimala! And that Vrata follows certain tradition of do’s and dont’s. That makes Ayyappa worship unique by itself. This in effect is a valid reason to treat Ayyappa worship a unique religious denomination. We don’t need an Adi Sankara to be born again to tell us this!


First published here


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