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Idol worships and rituals that look superfluous from outside have great religious and philosophical significance. The greatness of Hinduism prevails in its rich heritage, traditions and beliefs. This article hopes to demonstrate that "Hinduism has Perfected the Art of Symbolism."
The temple also portrays God in the cosmic form. The statue of Nataraja (dance pose of Lord Siva) is a well known example for the artistic, scientific and philosophical significance of idols. Hundreds of articles and books have been written about the significance of the Nataraja's dance posture. In the PBS show, COSMOS, Professor Carl Sagan asserts that the dance of Nataraja signifies the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic universe (Big-Bang Theory). The dance statue of Nataraja is a symbolic representation of Vedanta. The dwarfish demon crushed under the feet represents the demonic ego, which prevents humans to attain the inherent peace and bliss within. The ego should be crushed to regain the Supreme Bliss! A more complete description is beyond the scope of this article, and is therefore omitted.
Vedanta, the starting premise of Hindu Religion, asserts that Brahman (the abstract God) is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer all in one. Vedanta states that the universal soul, Brahman is eternal and the individual human soul, Atman ultimately unifies with Brahman. Advaita implies the ultimate identity of Brahman (Universal soul) and Jivatman (human soul). Dwaita opposes advaita on almost all points and maintains an ultimate diversity of Brahman and Jivatman. Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality) maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental identity. The Advaita Vedanta is revealed by the sitting and meditating pose of the Ayyappa Deity (replica of the presiding deity of Sabarimalai) in the Sri Siva-Vishnu temple. The temple brochure explains beautifully the symbolism of the sitting posture of Swami Ayyappa. The Lord sits with his thumb and forefinger crossed in a symbol of Chinmudra. The thumb represents the Atman and the forefinger is the Jeeva. There is no gap between the Atman and the Jeeva. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, devotees maintain single-minded concentration and meditation, experiencing the highest spiritual consciousness by the darshan (vision) of Lord Ayyappa.
The Hindu philosophy and logic provide unassailable strength to the concept of the fundamental unity in the worship of a multitude of gods. Hinduism is highly individualistic and Hindus love the freedom to worship their personal choice of an icon to visualize the abstract Brahman. That explains the rapid growth of temples, gods, and rituals across India and beyond. Even illiterate villagers are proud and enthusiastic to elaborate on stories about their temple gods and their significance. Such stories invariably are more adventurous and heroic than "Superman" episodes, but with a divine touch. The temple epitomizes God in a spiritual form and the various parts of his body symbolizes philosophical concepts. It serves as the symbolic link between Human and God, between Material and Spiritual and between Obvious and Ideal. Names of the miscellaneous segments of the temple designate different organs of the human body (garbhagraha (Sanctum Sanctorium) represents the human heart).
The symbolism in Hinduism is analogous to the modern communication methods adopted by the computer industry. They both adjust to the diverse tastes and needs of the world. Only a small segment of the general public look for sophistication and special features. The common folk who are in the majority, demand simple illustrations and practical examples rather than lengthy logic! The computer industry employs creative graphic displays of "icons" to satisfy the general public. Hindu symbolism seems to imply that it does not believe in a one-size-fits-all theory! Artistic temples with idols, heroic stories, and colorful rituals demonstrate this fact. Educated Hindus may grasp a lot more from such symbolism, and unravel philosophical and spiritual truths of Vedanta. Puranic stories create role models by dramatization of legendary events to preserve social ethics (Dharma). An ideal spouse, parent, offspring, or teacher is orchestrated to help the society to conduct its daily duties (nithya karma). Hinduism has perfected the art of symbolism as a powerful media to teach complex philosophical ideas to the common man. The communication values using the puranic stories in Hinduism, resemble the case study procedures in business management institutions.
Where and when this story took place is anybody's guess. Great number of temples in south India were built during the thousand years between 600 and 1600 A.D. Lord Buddha had great influence in the down south, especially part of the present Tamil Nad and Kerala. At the same time, both Siva worship (Shiva Siddhanta) and Vishnu worship (Vaishnavam) were also popular. There are historical evidence for intense rivalry between the Siva and Vishnu worshippers. It is probable that the dramatization of Ayyappa is a compromise between Buddha, Siva and Vishnu worshippers. The name, Dharma Shastha and the prayer song "Swamiye Saranam" are strong indications of the influence of Buddhism in Ayyappa worship. But the Vrath, Pilgrimage and associated rituals symbolizes a blend of Jnana (Advaita) and Bhakti (Dwaita) Paths to Liberation!
On Makara Sankranthi day, millions crowd the hills to get a glimpse of the Divine Jyothi, a brilliant light that raises over the Kantha hill (adjacent to the Sabari Hill). Devotees consider this Jyothi to be a symbol of Lord Ayyappa, the highest spiritual consciousness. Nobody can confirm or deny that this is true. Such divine incidents are always unpredictable and beyond all human imagination!
The forty-one days of Vrath is to force the mind to withdraw from attachments to worldly possessions and to direct it towards the Absolute Truth. The walk by foot through the jungle symbolizes that the path to spirituality requires greater efforts. The coconut represents the human body, the outer shell of the coconut symbolizes ego, and the ghee is the Atman (human soul). Coconuts have three eyes: two eyes represent the intellect and the third eye is the spiritual eye. The idol represents Brahman. The rear compartment of the Irumudi symbolizes 'Praarabdha Karma' (accumulated worldly possessions). The devotee exhausts all the worldly possessions during the journey and reaches the Sannidhanam with the ghee filled coconut. The devotee is reminded that worldly possessions hinder the progress of liberation. The devotee opens the spiritual eye of the coconut, breaks the coconut and pours the ghee (Atman) on to the idol (Brahman). At this time, the devotee has detached the ego and worldly possessions. He or she has developed an attitude of total surrender to the Lord (infinite love for the Lord). The devotee begs Him to grant the total Unity of Atman with the Brahman. This liberation of Atman from Ego and Wordily Possessions is the Message of Vedanta in Symbolic Language. This Symbolism is flawless and complete. What a beautiful demonstration of the Artistic Perfection of Symbolism!
REFERENCES 1. "Essentials of Hinduism", by V. Krishnamurthy, Narosa
publishing House, New Delhi, 1989.
2. "The Gazetteer of India, Volume 1: Country and people." CHAPTER Vlll: Religion by Dr. C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar, Dr.Nalinaksha Dutt, Prof. A.R.Wadia, Prof.M.Mujeeb, Dr.Dharm Pal and Fr. Jerome D'Souza. Delhi, Publications Division, Government of India, 1965.
3. Swami Harshananda "All About Hindu Temples." Book, Sri.Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1991.
4. A Parthasarathy, "The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals." Book, Shailesh Printers, Bombay, 1983.
5. Radhika Sekar. "The Sabarimalai pilgrimage and Ayyappan cult." Book, 1st ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1992
6. Pampa Sangamam 90, "Ayyappa darshanam - A Souvenir" Travancore Devaswom Board, Trivandrum, Kerala, 1991.
7. Vaidyanathan, K. R. (Kunissery Ramakrishnier), "Pilgrimage to Sabari." Book, 1st ed. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978.
8. "Lord Ayyappan; the dharma shasta." Book, 2d ed. Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1966.
Excerpted from an article by Ram Chandran (email@example.com) posted on alt.hindu. Thanks to him for giving me permission (to Giri...)