Ayyappan and A History of Desire in India

How can revisiting the various age-old legends about Ayyappan nuance the debate on women’s entry to Sabarimala in contemporary Kerala? The following is an excerpt from the chapter, ‘Ayyappan’, of Madhavi Menon’s book, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2018).

Madhavi Menon

Apparently once his shrine was built on Sabarimala—some date this to the 11th century, some say it is later—Ayyappan entered the sanctum sanctorum and promptly disappeared. The common belief is that he ascended to heaven, where he went to take his rightful place alongside the other gods, leaving behind a token that could be worshipped in his stead. Soon he became such a powerful god that he replaced Brahma as the Creator of the world. With his two fathers occupying the other pre-eminent positions as the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva), this arrangement must have appeared to some of the gods as a family dynasty ruling the heavens. So even as Ayyappan ascended to the heights of power, envy started brewing among the gods. The reason for this, we are told in a popular Kannada song about Ayyappan, was not so much the power amassed by the god as what he planned to do with it. In this song, Ayyappan proposes with his power to put an end to the power of the gods. Perhaps predictably, the gods decide to mount a rebellion against him. The startling idea that Ayyappan wanted to put into practice was that henceforth, human beings would not die. This was a decree not only about death, but also about birth. After all, as Ruth Vanita has pointed out in Same-Sex Love in India, the reason why goddesses in the Hindu pantheon do not give birth to children is because reproduction sets the stage for the replacement of the self. Reproductive sex is closely related to the idea of the imminent death of the self; having children produces one’s own replacements. If we reverse this train of thought, then it becomes apparent that if birth is meant to ward off death, then the promise of no death would in turn ward off birth. The order of the world as we know it would change were we to get rid of both death and birth.

But having children is also the basis of heterosexuality. Or rather, the biologically deterministic argument goes that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ because a man and a woman can produce children through their sexual union. Quite apart from the fact that such sex is described in terms of necessity rather than pleasure, one could also point out that reproduction actually finds no place in relation to sexual pleasure in either ancient Hindu or medieval Islamic texts. The injunction to reproduce, for instance, does not exist in the Kamasutra’s treatise on erotics, which specifically uncouples desire from reproduction. Several medieval Sufi mystics refused to have children because for them the prescribed path was an ecstatic union with god, not a biological reproduction of the self. The emphasis on sex for the sake of reproduction exists in the Bible, which enjoins us to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ but it does not occur in the Vedic marriage rituals, for example, which do not mention procreation even once. Ayyappan’s plan, then, tapped into a deep vein of religious and spiritual mysticism in India, while being utterly distant from our current obsession with biological reproduction. Hitting heterosexuality where it hurts the most, the god proposed doing away with both death and birth. This is an idea that seems shocking now, especially in the Indian context in which the injunction to have children is almost a sacred mantra. We now have blessings that extol a woman to be the mother of a hundred sons, but that blessing certainly does not come from Ayyappan.

But why were the gods alarmed by this plan? After all, they had already been given the nectar of immortality by Vishnu/Mohini and were themselves immortal. Why then were they upset by Ayyappan’s desire that human beings should not die? This is where the Hindu gods again begin to resemble their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts. Tales about these gods paint them in utterly human colours: they are as riven by jealousy, violence and love as we are. Clearly, they feared competition from the newly immortal humans. But also, the gods were alarmed by Ayyappan’s idea that there should be no more death and no more birth because they feared a significant reduction in the number of offerings made to them. After all, the desire to stave off death—with all the attendant warding off of disease—and the desire to reproduce in order metaphorically to stave off death, account for a large portion of the sacrifices made to the gods. Eager to protect their jurisdiction and influence, the gods employed Narada, the heavenly trouble-maker, to find a way of stopping Ayyappan in his tracks, to prevent him from preventing death and birth.

According to the Kannada legend, this was how Ayyappan left heaven and came back down to earth. On the instigation of the other gods, Narada approached Ayyappan and, during the course of conversation, posed a seemingly innocuous question to him. How, Narada asked, was Ayyappan related to Shiva’s wife, Parvati, and to Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi? After all, Shiva was Ayyappan’s father and Vishnu was his mother, so what relation did he bear to his father’s wife and his mother’s wife? Ayyappan was so perplexed by this query that he left Brahma’s throne and withdrew into the forest to ponder the question. He remains there to this day. Atop a hill named Sabarimala.

This is the reason why Sabarimala is considered to be actually rather than just metaphorically sacred. Ayyappan is there: he came there from heaven while pondering Narada’s question, and continues to live there. And Narada’s question, we presume, is unanswerable, which is why Ayyappan is still pondering it. How is the wife of his mother related to him? And, perhaps the easier one, how is he related to the wife of his father? One presumes that the response to the latter question is that Parvati, by virtue of being his father’s wife but not his mother, is his step-mother. But what of Lakshmi, the wife of his mother? What relationship can he draw for himself to the wife of his mother who is also a man and a god? For one thing, the Mohini and Lakshmi relationship populates the landscape of divine desire with a female-female couple that vies for attention with the male-male couple of Vishnu and Shiva. Ayyappan is the son of one of these women who is married to another, but he is not directly related to Lakshmi at all. The question posed by Narada, then, is unanswerable because it cannot be comprehended within the bounds of the categories of relationality that we commonly inhabit. Ayyappan’s relation to Lakshmi is as the son of Lakshmi’s female lover who is interchangeably male and female. How does one describe this relation? He ponders a puzzle, not knowing that it has been invented with the express purpose of thwarting his plan to reorganize the world wholesale.

Indeed, curiosity is crucial to the legends about Ayyappan because he is the counter-intuitive god: rather than encouraging belief, he embodies scepticism as his birthright. After all, which other god has been born of the union of two men? And which other god has wanted to stop death and birth? Both these ideas bear thinking about a little further. To be born of the physical union of two males is to interrupt the line that links sex with gender and reproduction. This seems to be the foundation upon which Ayyappan’s thought is based. Having dispensed with heterosexuality even at the moment of his birth, Ayyappan is not initiated into the belief that differences between men and women should be arranged around the central idea of reproduction. If reproduction can take place between two men, or between one man and another man in drag as a woman, then our system of sex and gender can be slanted differently from its current organization; we can be freed from the need to enforce the distinction between the sexes in order to ensure reproduction. We already live in an age when men and women do not need to have sex with one another in order to reproduce—we have artificial insemination, surrogate mothers, egg donors, and IVF. In his questioning of the link between heterosexuality and reproduction, then, Ayyappan seems to have been far ahead of his time. He opposed the idea that reproduction is the fulfilment and pinnacle of (hetero)sexual life.

Indeed, Ayyappan’s plan of getting rid of death marks a radical chapter in the history of desire. If children are symbols, not of our immortality but precisely of our mortality, then getting rid of death also frees us from the need to create conduits of immortality. Ayyappan refuses to get married to a woman by insisting on his celibacy. Not only does he not have any children of his own, but he also actively spurns hetero-sex and insists upon celibacy for his devotees. His intense closeness with Vavar is celebrated even today. He leaves heaven because he cannot make sense of the categories of sexual relations within which we live. How are you related to your mother’s wife, Narada asks Ayyappan? This is a question he cannot answer because his mother is also sometimes a father. In inhabiting this state of expanded sexual possibilities, Ayyappan can best be described as the god of non-reproductive and non-normative desire.

As the son of two men and the boon companion of Vavar, Ayyappan is comfortable in an all-male world. He is one of the only Hindu gods in India whose temple is open to everyone regardless of caste, religion and belief. The only restriction is on women, and more accurately, on women who are reproductive; they are not allowed to ascend to the shrine through the golden 18 steps for as long as they are menstruating. This is, no doubt, a sexist practice. But why do we assume that it is a heterosexist one? In other words, why is the ban on women enforced in the name of protecting the god from heterosexual advances? Given what we know about the all-male world in which Ayyappan is born and lives, might the lack of women point to a reordering of desiring relations? Women and men cannot mingle in his shrine, not because the fear is that Ayyappan will be tempted by women, but because the god does not preside over gendered reproduction. My initial verdict of sexism is more complicated now that I consider this restriction from the perspective of the history of desire. Ayyappan in his headquarters in Sabarimala presides over the possibility of an all-male community removed from the pressures of death and heterosexuality. This community lives out, for a few days each year, the fantasy of what it might mean for separate sexes to live separately. Men mingle with one another without fear of pregnancy. And, left to their own devices, women develop intimate bonds, like the one between Mohini and Lakshmi.

About the Author:  Madhavi Menon is Professor of English and Director, Centre for Studies in Gender & Sexuality at Ashoka University. She works at the intersection of identity, desire, politics, and literature. Her book, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India puts into conversation the major ideas of queer theory with the history of ideas in India. She can be contacted at menon@ashoka.edu.in.

Note: Excerpted in part and lightly edited for coherence with permission from the author and the publisher (https://www.speakingtigerbooks.com/).

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