There is historical evidence for intense rivalry between the Siva and Vishnu worshipers and also between Siva and Jain worshipers. The dramatization of Ayyappa is a typical Puranic story. However, the associated rituals reflect the strong influence of the traditions from Shivam, Vaishnavam, Buddhism and Jainism. The name, Dharma Shastha and the prayer song “Swamiye Saranam” strongly indicate the influence of Buddhism in Ayyappa worship. The Vrath and strict code of conduct including the dietary restrictions (Vegetarian) can possibly due to the influence of Jainism in the deep south.Sabari Mala Pilgrimage The seeker undertakes the pilgrimage to liberate the human soul from the worldly possessions with great determination, devotion and dedication. During the journey to Sabari Hills the devotees recite “Swamye Saranam; Ayyappa Saranam” (Thou protect me and I surrender). The minds of the devotees are filled with the thought of Ayyappa and devotees call and recognize each other by the name of Ayyappa! Everyone seems to dress alike, look alike, talk alike and think alike! Every devotee becomes a Karma Yogi, Jnana Yogi and also a Bhakti Yogi! The only Karma (action) left for the Devotee is to reach the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Sabari Hill Ayyappa. The Devotee has the wisdom to dissolve the identity of Jeeva (Ego) by filling up the mind with the name and form of Ayyappa. The Devotee purifies the mind through total dedication and surrender to Swami Ayyappa. The perfect culmination of Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yogas is visible and the devotees don’t care which of the three is dominant over the other two. Their level of experience has already gone beyond intellectual perception and limitation. Suddenly all plurality starts dissolve and the ego starts melt like the butter on the frying pan. Devotees experience the taste of Bliss and all of them merge to become ONE. What they see, hear, touch, smell and taste is Ayyappa and only Ayyappa. All their desires totally merged into only one desire to reach and surrender to Ayyappa. The sound of “Swamiye Saranam! Ayyappa Saranam!” fills the air giving the feeling their journey is eternal and they have the great determination to find and merge with the Truth. When the human perception reaches the higher levels beyond the physical limitation, inner peace emerges with the protection by the recitation sound of Ayyappa. The devotees of the land of Sri. Sankara are able to realize perfect harmony between the Karma (body), Jnana (mind) and Bhakti (spirit). The Sabari Hills becomes a Concert Hall filled with the musical haromony of Karma, Jnana and Bhakti. The performers, the performance, and listeners become unified and experience the taste of Bliss. During this eternal journey, on the night before the Makara Sankranthi day (Middle of Januray – Full Moon Day) hundreds of thousands of those pilgrims go to foot of the Sabari 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 eternal Brahman in the form of Lord Ayyappa, the highest spiritual consciousness. Nobody can either confirm or deny that this is true and such Divine incidents are unexplainable and are beyond human perception! The Makarasankaranthi is an auspicious day correspond to the time period when sun passes the winter solstice (one of the two points on the ecliptic at which its distance from the celestial equator is greatest and which is reached by the sun each year). The pilgrims visiting on this occasion undertake strict and rigorous preparations. They start with a ‘Vrath’ (pledge for religious observance) lasting for forty-one days, starting from the middle of November. All wear black or saffron clothes and thulasi beads, and strictly observe their daily rituals. The devotees observe austerities and self-control on those days. They eat pious vegetarian food, drink non-alcoholic beverages, and pray Swamiye Saranam. Before starting the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills, each devotee prepares an Irumudi (A bag with two separate compartments, and with two knots) for the long and strenuous journey through jungles. The front compartment contains the ghee-filled coconut and the other one includes food and personal belongings. The devotee walks by foot all the eight miles from the shore of the Pampa river to Swami Sannidhanam (the open hall in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum), crosses the eighteen steps and pours the ghee over the idol of the Lord. The Eighteen Steps to the Path of Liberation:The eighteen steps of the temple Sanctorum represent the necessary Spiritual Sadhana to go Beyond human perception. In an earlier posting to answer a question from Sri. Greg Goode, Sri. Sadananda gave an interesting interpretation to the significance of “Eighteen.” This is the symbolic path of the Realization of Truth and potentially, there are infinite explanations. The eighteen chapters of Gita appear to be the most pertinent explanation of the eighteen steps of Sabari Hill Temple. While crossing each of the eighteen steps to the Ayyappa Swami Sannidhanam, the Seeker expresses great determination to relinquish the sensual perceptions one by one. The necessary Sadhana to prepare the mind, body and intellect to remove the sensory perceptions are beautifully described in the eighteen chapters of Bhagavad Gita. The crossing of the eighteen steps symbolic completion of Sadhanas stated in the eighteen chapters of Gita. Chapter 1 : The Seeker’s status of mind – Confusion, Fear and Misery – Seeks help from Guru.(Arjun is the seeker and Lord Krishna is the Guru to get him out of the misery) Chapter 2: Seeker asks the Guru to explain the Truth of Human Life (sThitaPrajnA Yagna – Conversation between Arjun and Sri. Krishna) Chapter 3: Guru explains the path of Karma Yoga. Chapter 4: Seeker learns the principles behind the Sanyasa Yoga. Chapter 5: Seeker understands the importance of renunciation of selfish desires. Chapter 6: Seeker learns the Sadhana of Meditation to control the mind. Chapter 7: Guru teaches the Seeker the ways and means of living without desires. Chapter 8: Guru illustrates the importance of restraining the nine-gated city of human body. Chapter 9: Seeker learns to diverts the attention away from the ego-centered consciousness to the Divine Plane. (Yoga Sadhana of Sovereign Mystery or Devotion). Chapter 10: Guru teaches the Buddhi Yoga Sadhana to control the Mind and the senses. Chapter 11: Seeker understands the essence of Bhakti Yoga Sadhana and direct complete attention to God while carrying out the duties. Chapter 12: Seeker learns to Devote and Contemplate and gets the qualities of a True Devotee. Chapter 13: Guru describes the qualities of a True Jnanai with Total Wisdom. Chapter 14: Seeker learns the Sadhana of Perfection and the qualities of a Perfect Yogi. Chapter 15: Guru teaches the Yoga of Supreme Person to the Seeker. Chapter 16: Seeker learns to acquire the True Human Nature with the presence of Divinity. Chapter 17: Guru teaches the fundamentals of the Yoga of the Threefold Division of Faith. Chapter 18: Seeker regains the memory and renounces the egocentric desires. It is possible to explain the connection between the eighteen chapters of Gita and the eighteen steps of the Ayyappa temple. The devotees of Sri Ayyappa believe that the Gita verse 66 in Chapter 18 is a direct reference to Dharma Shasta. Dharma Shasta establishes the Dharma and the entire Gita describes the importance of human Dharma and the only way to abaondon the Dharma is surrendering to the Lord. Sarvadharman Parityajya Mamekam Saranam Vraja; Aham Twaam Sarve Papebhyo Mokshayishayami Ma Sucha (Abandon Worldly Dharmas and Surrender to Me; I Shall Rescue You From Sins and Sorrows). This verse is commonly present in all Ayyappa temples and the devotees treat this verse as a direct commandment from Dharma Shasta. First line of the verse asks the devotee to abandon worldly Dharmas. Dharmas refer to rules, standards and laws imposed by society to guide material life. The root cause of material life is desires. Sorrows, Sins and Attachments are illusions of lower ignorant consciousness of mind. Dharmas in essence are the barriers of our liberation from Sorrows and Sins. In the second line, the Lord orders the devotee: “Surrender unto Me, I Will Rescue You From Sins and Sorrows and Help you to reach the Highest Spiritual Consciousness. Divine life is Real, Eternal and free from illusions of Sins and Sorrows! Liberation is impossible without Total Surrender to His feet. He only can release us from the worldly ties. The Lord promises to shower His Grace to liberate and ultimately to realize Brahman. Dharma Shastha has established this Eternal Dharma of realizing the Highest Spiritual Consciousness.Symbolic Unification of Atman and Brahman The devotee is reminded eighteen times that worldly possessions hinder the progress of liberation and finally reaches the sanctum Sanctorum of Ayyappa Swami. The forty-one days of Vrath is to force the mind to withdraw from attachments to worldly possessions and to direct it toward 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 Meditating Yogic posture of Sri Ayyappa represents the Brahman. The rear compartment of the Irumudi symbolizes ‘Praarabdha Karma’ (accumulated worldly possessions). The devotee exhausts all the worldly possessions during the journey. The devotee opens the spiritual eye of the coconut, breaks the coconut and pours the ghee (Atman) onto 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 with the Lord. 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 in the great land of Sankara! Conclusion One of the main objectives of this article is to illustrate the hidden treasures underneath the Hindu rituals, customs and traditions. If we take time and efforts to understand the spirit behind those beliefs and traditions it is possible to appreciate and understand the philosophical significance. The devotees with great faith have neither questions nor they seek explanations. Those who question the customs, beliefs and traditions have the responsibility to take time to look and contemplate for the answers. When a westerner wants to know the connection between the scriptures, philosophies, customs, beliefs and traditions, we should also take time to explain to clear their doubts. Such explanations with contemplation can clear our doubts and doubts of our energetic and enthusiastic children who were born and live outside India. This moral responsibility was visualized by the sages and Seers of the Upanishads and they have provided the answers to almost all questions related to human life. The land of Sankara practices mystic festivals, pilgrimages and rituals to explain the Vedantic Philosophy of Human Life to the common folks of rural India. Sankara understood the unity from such diversities and Sankara’s Advaita represents this total integration of thoughts, beliefs, customs and traditions. This integration is the purest form of human experience and it can neither be explained nor could be understood !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.RamakrishnaMath, Mylapore, Madras, 1991. 4. A Parthasarathy, “The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals.” Book, Shailesh Printers, Bombay, 1983. 5. Pampa Sangamam 90, “Ayyappa darshanam – A Souvenir”Travancore Devaswom Board, Trivandrum, Kerala, 1991. 6. Vaidyanathan, K. R. “Pilgrimage to Sabari.” Book, 1st ed. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978. 7. “Lord Ayyappan; the Dharma Shasta.” Book, 2d ed. Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1966.