On the peak of Sabari Hill at the southern tip of the Sahyadri range stretching southward into Kerala, there is an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappan who is popularly known as Sabari Mala Lord Sastha. This temple can be reached only by foot through the jungle, which is infested with wild animals. Thousands of pilgrims reach this shrine trekking through the jungle paths.
Lord Sastha is the son of Lord Lord Shiva and Mohini. Mohini is the enchanting form of a maiden taken by Lord Lord Vishnu. Lord Sastha is reputed as a very powerful deity. He is considered to be a protector of the weak. He is said to have saved mankind from physical and mental sickness and endowed them with spiritual knowledge.
The scriptures have always represented a constant strife between the gods and the demons. In the Lord Vishnu Purana, the gods and demons decided to sink their differences temporarily. They came to a mutual understanding
to make a combined effort to churn the milky ocean and draw the nectar (amrutam) from it. They chose the Manthara mountain to serve as the churner and Vasuki the mighty serpent as a rope for the purpose of churning. The gods and demons stood on opposite sides' and started the great churning of the milky ocean.
The churning first produced a deadly poison called Halahala which started spreading everywhere. Living beings panicked and ran for protection to Lord Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva, in His divine compassion for them, took the poison in his palm and not knowing what to do with it, decided to swallow it himself. When Lord Shiva put it into his mouth and was about to swallow it, his consort Uma clutched his neck and stopped the poison from descending any further. The poison spread through the neck staining it blue. Henceforth he was Neelakantha, the 'blue-necked'.
The churning went on and several beautiful and powerful things issued from the ocean. They were all distributed and the gods and the demons persisted with their churning until at last the nectar was produced. But as soon as the nectar appeared, the demons snatched and ran away with it.
The gods prayed to Lord Lord Vishnu to retrieve their loss. Lord Vishnu answered the prayers and agreed - to bring back the nectar to them. Meanwhile, the demons quarreled among themselves. They could not decide as to who should distribute the nectar and, the quantity each should get. In such a state of confusion, Lord Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of an enchanting maiden, 'Mohini'. Fascinated Mohini the demons stood gazing at her beauty. Having attracted them thus, Mohini offered to distribute the nectar justly between the gods and the demons. The demons accepted her offer. Lord Vishnu made the gods and demons sit in different rows and started the distribution with the gods. By the time the last god had been served the nectar would have run out. One of the demons perceiving this trick left his row and sat among the gods. He got his share and put it in his mouth, but before it could reach his stomach Mohini realised her mistake and Lord Vishnu's discus cut off the demon's head, which however had become immortal the nectar having passed through it.
On a later occasion Lord Shiva wished to see that enchanting form of Mohini which had tricked the demons. He was warned that the delusory form was irresistible. Lord Shiva, proud of his power of austerity insisted on seeing Mohini. But lust is the last weakness to leave one's bosom, and when Lord Vishnu took on Mohini's form Lord Shiva was overcome by her charms and his asceticism gave way. Out of the sexual union of Lord Shiva and Mohini was born the divine child, Lord Sastha.
This story also has a mystic significance. It explains how man purifies his inner personality and reaches the state of immortality. Mrutam means death and a-mrutam means deathlessness. - Deathless again means changeless. That is the state which man reaches on realization of his godhood.
The milky ocean represents the pure sattwic mind. The gods represent the higher nature of man, the demons his lower nature. There is a constant conflict between the demands of the lower nature and the aspirations of the higher. When this conflict is resolved man seeks his supreme Self within. The serpent represents his ego and the mountain his vast experiences (karma) in the world. He makes use of these two-his ego and his experiences-to draw the nectar of Atman out of his sattwic mind. The mind is first to be purified of its desires. The pure mind is then directed through the processes of assertion and negation which is the churning. The seeker asserts the supreme Self. He negates his body, mind and intellect.
He directs his mind to repeat "I am Atman, not the body," "I am Atman, not the mind", "I am Atman, not the intellect". When the mind keeps repeating the thought of Atman it gets attached to it. Attachment arises out of repetition of thoughts. As man evolves further in his spiritual path he acquires great powers in the world. These are represented by the attractive objects that arose out of the churning. Thus if the seeker continues in his spiritual pursuit he reaches the final state of self-realisation, the bliss of godhood, the amrut.
The negative tendencies in man trade even on the spiritual treasures gained by him. Man makes use of his newly-acquired spiritual powers for low, self-aggrandising purposes. Such men fall an easy prey to the enchanting objects of the world. They are blind to their spiritual beauty. Enchanted by the senses they lose whatever wealth they have gained as the demons enchanted by Mohini lost their nectar.
Lord Sastha is also known as Harihara putra meaning the son of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Siva). Being the son of Siva and Vishnu, Sastha has the powers of both his parents. He destroys all negative tendencies through the power of destruction gained through his father. He maintains the thought of the supreme through the power of maintenance of his mother. The devotees of Sastha invoke these two qualities. Thus invoking the grace of Sastha, the seeker purifies his mind and directs it to a single-pointed meditation and realisation of the supreme.
Another name of Lord Sastha is Ayyappan. The Ayyappan temple in the Sabari Hill, Kerala, is one of the most popular pilgrim centres in South India. Devotees from all over the country belonging to all creeds and classes visit this sacred shrine. Unlike other temples, the pilgrims visiting this temple have very strict and rigorous preparations to go through before reaching the divine altar. The usual custom is to observe strict austerities and self-control for forty-one days preceding the visit to the temple. By such tapas (austerities) the mind is made to withdraw its attachments to the world and slowly direct it to the thought of the Reality-Ayyappa Swami Saranam. During this period of austerity, the devotee is allowed to wear only black or saffron clothes and a mala (rosary) and strictly observe the daily rituals. The black or saffron clothes are meant to convey the pilgrim's mental resignation from the world. Black indicates darkness. The world is dark to him. The saffron colour represents fire. This indicates that his body is burnt or dead to this world. Thus with his symbolic attire the pilgrim withdraws from his mental preoccupation with the world. With such a prepared mind he cries 'Swami Saranam- the Lord is my protector' all along the way to the shrine.
The way to the temple is through jungles and the pilgrimage is undertaken by foot. The idea is to further develop the concentration of the mind which has already been prepared by strict austerities. All along the ascent to the shrine, the devotee tries to maintain the one thought of the Lord in his multiple experiences. When such single pointed concentration and meditation is maintained, the Truth reveals Itself to the seeker, which is symbolised by the darshan (vision) of the Lord in the temple.