By Swami Harshananda
Śāstā literally means ‘one who commands’.
The genius has the peculiar virtue of reconciling the irreconcilables. At a time when the Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas were at loggerheads, the story in the Bhāgavata of Siva being enraptured by the voluptuous beauty of Viṣṇu as Mohinī, the enchantress, must be very common. By taking it to the logical conclusion it produced the wonderful deity Hariharaputra or Śāstā, more commonly known as ‘Ayyappan’. Whatever he might have been in the beginning, he was certainly not a compromise candidate tolerated by both the groups, but Supreme God Himself, highly venerated by both.
Mythological accounts have a different story. After the death of Mahiṣāsura by goddess Durgā, his spouse Mahiṣi performed severe austerities to please Brahmā. She succeeded in getting the boon that she could not be killed by Siva or Viṣṇu. This new found strength of Mahiṣī posed a formidable challenge to the gods and the world. Siva and Viṣṇu, who could not singly vanquish her, hit upon the plan of coming together as parents to create her destroyer. The child thus created was found by King Rājaśekhara of Panthalam in Kerala who named it as Maṇikaṇṭhan and brought it up as his own son, since he had no offspring.
When Maṇikaṇṭhan was twelve years old, he killed Mahiṣī and brought leopardesses to his father’s palace since their milk was needed to cure the ‘headache’ of the queen. Meanwhile, the secret of Maṇikaṇṭhan being God Himself, had been revealed to the king. Adored by the king, Maṇikaṇṭhan disappeared after instructing him to build a temple at the place where his arrow would land. That was the summit of the hill Śabarīmalai. The temple is said to have been built by Viśvakarma and the image inside this temple was prepared and installed by Paraśurāma. The place attracts millions of pilgrims even now.
Śāstā as Buddha
The word ‘Śāstā’ means one who controls and rules over the whole world. Mahāśāstā and Dharmaśāstā are the other names by which the deity is known. ‘Śāstā’ is one of the names of Buddha. The deity is said to ride on a white elephant called Yogi. He is also described as the protector of Dharma. Hence some scholars opine that Dharma-Śāstā may be Buddha absorbed into the pantheon by the South Indian devotees. The image of Sāstā has four arms, three eyes and a peaceful countenance. He is seated in Padmāsana posture. Two hands carry the sword and shield and the other two exhibit the Abhaya and Varada Mudrās.
According to another version, the image should have only two hands and two eyes, and should be seated with the legs folded. It should be bedecked with ornaments and have the Yajñopavīta. A crooked stick, fruits and tender leaves of plants are sometimes shown in his hands. A Vajradaṇḍa is also shown occasionally. Images in the standing posture are also seen to exist rarely. The ritual pilgrimage to the shrine of Śrī Ayyappan at Śabarīmalai is considered to be extremely auspicious and meritorious. The pilgrimage has to be preceded by forty-one days of austerity during which period strict celibacy is to be observed. There are restrictions over food, speech and sleep.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore