Ayyavazhi is a genotheistic religion that originated in South India.
Genotheism is the worship of a single supreme god among many other gods and deities. The word “ayya” in Tamil means “master” or “father”, and “vazhi” means “way”. Officially, the Ayyavazhi religion is considered a Hindu denomination.
The main holy scriptures of the doctrine are Akilattirattu Ammanai and Arul Nool. The religion is based upon the life and preachings of Ayya Vaikundar, also known as Siva Narayana or Vaikunda Swamy, the first and primary Purna avatar in Eka-Paran.
In the 19th century, this religious denomination attracted universal attention, but at that time, it was considered to be a Hindu sect. Adepts’ activity provoked reforms and a revolution within the Travancore and Tamil societies.
The majority of the believers live in the south of India – Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The exact number of adherents is unknown as Ayyavazhi followers were recorded as Hindu during the census.
Ayyavazhi attracted the attention of people who gathered to worship Vaikundar in Poovandantoppe (about 1809 — 1851). Gradually, the participants united to form an independent group, Ayyavazhi. During the first century of its existence, the movement significantly expanded.
By the mid-19th century, Ayyavazhi became clearly recognisable, and the number of adherents increased manyfold. Swamithope became the movement’s religious centre in the 19th century. Five of Vaikundar’s disciples and later their descendants preached countrywide.
Ayyavazhi adherents published their first work, Arul Nul, in 1927 and in 1933 another was published – Akilam.
At present, Bala Prajapathi Adikalar, an ancestor of the Payan dynasty, is Ayyavazhi’s head.
Ayyvazhi adherents revere five holy places (pathi) and go on pilgrimages to them. These are –
This list does not include the Vakaippathi, Vaikunda Pathi and Avatara Pathi locations which are also revered.
The lotus is the symbol of this religion.
The main Ayyavazhi teaching is written in Akilattirattu Ammanai and the secondary teachings in Arul Nool. These are both sociological, devoted to the struggle for equal rights against discrimination, and mystical, devoted to divine knowledge. To strengthen their closeness and devotion to God, believers have to call him Ayya (father).
There is a notion of an oversoul or higher soul – Ekam. The world appeared from Ekam, the human soul needs to banish its egotism to become united with Ekam.
Ayyavazhi disapproves of the caste system, inequality, and discrimination. In the past this faith system has promoted reforms in the south of India and the casts are mixed within the movement.
Patis and Nizhal Tangal were founded by believers and are centres of worship and religious training.
Nitam is Ayyavazhi’s main virtue. This shows a human’s life in harmony with nature and teaches him/her to live according to God’s laws from a young age. A society observing Nitam is under the protection of nature and God. The ethical code of the movement calls for fighting evil using love, patience, and peace. Nitam calls for the respectful treatment of women, parents, and other seniors and the value of honesty. Women are expected to respect their husbands and take care of them.
Ayyavazhi theology has some distinctive features. The central notions are Ekam and Unity and they form everything around. In Ayyavazhi theology, God is eternal, sexless and exists beyond time and space.
Ayyavazhi followers organise two annual festivals.
Ayya Vaikunda Avataram is held on the twentieth day of the Masi month (February-March), when a procession of believers journey from Nagercoil to Swamithope.
The second festival is Tiru Edu-Vasippu, where readings of sacred scriptures lasts for three, five, ten or seventeen days, depending upon where it is held.
Ayyavazhi rituals have different meanings. From the sociological point of view, they were aimed at helping to overcome injustice of the caste system and to encourage those who became victims of discrimination. From the religious point of view, rituals helped people to heal from different diseases and achieve a higher goal to reach Dharma Yukam (the state of absolute bliss).
Hinduism and Ayyavazhi are closely connected. The difference between them starts at the Kaliyukams onset. It is written in the Akilama that from the beginning of Kaliyukam, the virtues of the Hindu gods were destroyed. Kalyan represented a part of the initial worldly manifestation that spread maya (illusion) to scriptures and Devas. Because of the appearance of Kalyan, all previously existing sacred writings lost their meaning and strength and only the Akilam remained.
A conflict arose because Siva, without consulting Vishnu, created Kalyan. That is why Vishnu refused to fight Kalyan. Siva and Brahma consequently gave their strength to Vishnu.
Vaikundar, having accepted Ekam’s strength, was born from the union of Vishnu and Lakhsmi. Vishnu (as well as Siva and Brahma) gave all his forces to Vaikundar, who consequently became the supreme god.
According to the Akilam, Hindu sacred writings and their philosophy lost their purity and were destroyed, while Dharma was readjusted for the sake of Akilam and Vaikundar.
Ayyavazhi followers call their religion ‘God’s Ways’. They believe that their teaching came to replace outdated teachings, but, at the same time, they consider Ayyavazhi a summation of different types of religious knowledge. They believe that Vaikundar is the embodiment of all deities, but conversely they understand that the old tradition was destroyed with his appearance.
Ayyavazhi is considered a movement that promoted reforms. Due to its activity in the 19th century, there were many social changes in the Tamil and Kerala communities.