By M. Raghu Ram
The unique idol of Lord Venkateswara in Tirumala, the most popular and bounteous pilgrimage center in the country, is believed to be the first image of any god or goddess that manifested spontaneously and is the source of Archa or idol worship so common in India today
The rich imagination of Brahmanical literature describes him as the Lord of numerous universes: the root of the phenomena of Creation, Life, Living, Events, Change et al as the Preserver of the Hindu Trinity. Sri Venkateswara Swami, or Tirupati Balaji, is the presiding deity of the famous and bounteous Tirumala temple.
Over the millennia, the Tirumala temple, near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, has continued to draw countless devotees who contribute billions of rupees to its kitty. Its mind-boggling reserves of pure gold, if unloaded, can crush the world bullion market. Even the Vatican and Mecca cannot match the temple’s popularity nor can the new pilgrimage destinations of India, such as Sabarimalai, Vaishno Devi, and Shirdi.
Pilgrims come for fleeting glimpses of the fascinating life-size idol of Balaji, after inching in long queues for hours and days. Many undertake the pilgrimage asking for favors to mark various transitions in life or simply to offer their hair, tiny silver or gold bits or images of the deity. The shrine is an integral part of life and culture especially in the three southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.
The devotees, however, cut across all barriers of region or religion. For the Dutch Peter who recently converted to Vedic Hinduism through the TM (transmediation) route, the deity represents pure consciousness. The miracle of survival amidst recurring destitution and godsent jobs to the family of Fathima, a Muslim devotee, is a moving story. Dr. Loy Camoens, a devout Latin Catholic and a physician in New Citi Hospital, Secunderabad, India, requests for the laddu prasad or offerings, from Tirupati and accepts it reverentially. A Jain woman in New Delhi, India, pines for this deity. They are all moved by a spontaneous feeling and urge.
Some leftists, known staunch atheists, have also been drawn to Balaji. The moving force for Sri, an acclaimed Indian poet and Telugu revolutionary, was the maddening jealousy of his fellow litterateurs. Communist leader late C. Rajeswara Rao’s red salute to the deity some years ago had also sparked a controversy.
Venkateswara is not a name but a title. Vem-kata means one who cuts or washes away one’s sins.
The unique idol in Tirumala is a riddle to unravel. Everything begins and ends or is reduced to sunyam (nothingness) before him, while the infinite world pens to the sincere seeker with an infinitesimal offering. This is because spiritual wealth through devotion is the basis of life and action in theism.
There are millions of gods in Hinduism but there is ultimately only one God. All God’s attributes are to be found in Vishnu, in yoganidra (yogic sleep) or Sri Ranganathaswami (Lord of the creation) who chose to descend on the earth as Yoga Murti (idol), Balaji. Thus, Balaji is not an avatar of Vishnu but Vishnu himself.
The deity also represents the God of Justice, according to V.G. Pragasam, Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court of India. He is blindfolded by the Namam or forehead mark; the scales of justice are his two wives on either side of his chest with the sword of justice hanging in between. With his slim and black figure, the deity is said to represent Shani (Saturn). He subjects one to the trying period of Shanidasa and metes out the package of rewards and punishments in the material and spiritual spheres.
Interestingly, the image in the temple is most unlike the portrait in the ubiquitous pictures, admits M. Srinivasa Bhattacharyulu, an adviser to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), which manages the affairs of the temple. In the portraits, the deity’s chubbiness, facial appearance, and sword visibly dangling below his chest are all misleading. The Dhruva Beram (the standing idol of the deity) has a Srivatsa mark in the middle of the chest instead of the left breast which encloses a half-inch Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth and the divine consort of Lord Vishnu) sculpture.
When installed and consecrated in a temple, any form of Vishnu is said to create peace, nourishment, and happiness for devotees. Balaji is one of the eight Swayam Vyakta Sthalas (spontaneous image locations) in India and Nepal, Bhattacharyulu elaborates.
There is a controversy about the deity representing Shakti ( divine consort of Lord Shiva as well as Goddess representing female power) and Shiva as some rituals and traditions signify. The first three Alvars describe him as a combination of Vishnu and Shiva. Dr. Medasani Mohan, director, Bhagavatha Project, TTD, attests to the idol having jatas (locks of hair) of Shiva and chiselled out bosom of Shakti when observed from close quarters during the prolonged Abhishekam Seva (holy bath) when the idol is undressed. You don’t need to go to Tirumala to fathom the Lord’s mystique or greatness. Mere listening to the wondrous compositions of his noblest and humblest devotees, like Annamacharya or Tyagaraja, Alvars Pasurama, and Purandara Dasa, suffices. They combine the quintessence of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
But Bhattacharyulu contradicts this theory. Normally the lions atop the Vimanam (roof) are taken as proof of its being a Shakti temple. But he says they are mere guards as in Badrinath and other Vaishnavite shrines.
A DAY IN THE DEITY’S LIFE
His day begins with the Melu Kolupu Paata (awakening song) sung by the descendants of Annamacharya, followed by Sri Venkateswara Suprabhatam.
A traditional cowherd or Yadava is given the first darsan or holy sight of the idol, of the day. The recitation of the deity’s 1,008 names is begun in the name of Hathiram Babaji, a 15th-century seeker from North India. The Muthyala (pearls) Harathi at night and Pavalimpu Seva (putting the deity to sleep) is done in the name of Tarikonda Venku Mamba, a rebel, writer and staunch woman devotee.
The Lord is said to go down the hills to neighboring Tiruchanur to see his consort, Sri Padmavathy, by using the large shoes made as an offering by a Madiga ‘untouchable’ and returns early for the morning sevas or services.
Sri Ramanujacharya, the 12th-century reformer, and Vaisnavite saint laid down a comprehensive system of organization, management, and worship, which survives to this day in Tirumala. The daily worship was institutionalized by 1200 AD. It represents a notable exception to the casteist and dominant Brahmanism even in the early part of the millennium, mainly due to Ramanuja’s towering stature.
AN ENDURING PHENOMENON
The geography of the central hill ranges of the Eastern Ghats of India is compared by the Puranas or ancient texts, to a huge recumbent cobra or Adisesha. The Jyotirlinga of Sri Mallikarjuna Swami in Srisailam temple is located on its tail, Sri Narasimha Swami Temple in Ahobilam on its back, Sri Venkateswara temple atop its hood like the dancing Krishna (though the temple is noted for its location in the low of the last hill rather than the peak) and Sri Kalahasti temple of Shiva at the opening of its mouth.
Surprisingly, despite the hill’s topography suiting military operations, which were frequent in the region, the Balaji temple remained miraculously untouched, even by the infamous iconoclast Aurangzeb’s (the last of the Great Mughal Emperors) plundering and pillaging army.
Ancient references to the deity and the purifying hill even before the advent of the deity are many. They go back to the Rig-Veda. Some described only the purifying hill, others mentioned the Lord who absolves sins and presides over the hill, but not any temple. The Puranas refer to the Tirumala hill as Venkatadri or Venkatachala.
According to the Hindu epic Ramayana, Lord Rama, one of Lord Vishnu’s incarnations, and his Vanara (monkeys) army marching to Lanka for war with Ravana halted here on the request of Anjana Devi, the mother of Hanuman. The Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world, describes the transformation of the departed spirit of Sri Krishna, after it entered the solar disc, into a lifeless four-armed image, which was to descend to Earth. An ethereal voice told the assembled devas or gods that it was to be worshipped in Kaliyuga, the present era of darkness and ignorance, as an easy means for seeking personal salvation. This is believed to be the Tirupati deity. The eighth-century Tamil classic Silappadikaram quotes a pilgrim’s description of the deity.
WHY IDOL WORSHIP
Idol worship is not animism practiced by the so-called primitive peoples and cultures, as colonialist anthropology would have us believe. Faith in it opens up many gates of spirituality. A recent book on the first encounter of medieval Arabian Muslims with idol worship in India reveals their curiosity and respect for this path to God-realization instead of intolerant iconoclasm they became infamous for.
Esoteric Brahmanism which evolved a complex system of Archa or image worship is rooted in Balaji’s idol. The deity is the first image of any god or goddess that manifested spontaneously.
Bhakti (devotion) path has nothing to do with sandhya, vandana, japa, and other rituals, which are all means of worship and are all right, but the worship of divine images is accorded primacy in bhakti or devotion. Attachment to the deity’s image detaches the devotee from samsara, this world, and enables him to realize the supreme being as Narayana.
It is worth noting that Balaji’s right hand is pointing down towards his feet just above the knee, indicating that worshipping him will liberate one from kneedeep illusions of worldly existence.
Thus, not only is the main idol in Tirumala believed to be of divine origin, but it is also connected with divine sanction for Archa worship. The earlier yugas or eras offered a tough yogic path of penance, mental concentration, and meditation. Archa is to enable all in Kaliyuga, the present era of darkness, to achieve God-realization through less tedious means of intense love and devotion.
Lord Venkateswara is also known as Pratyaksha Daivam (manifest divinity) who helps his devotees in distress even if they do not or cannot help themselves, thus contradicting a simplistic adage. This is, of course, linked to one’s yogam or spiritual entitlement.
TTD AND DESPIRITUALIZATION
TTD, the multi-billion rupees endowment, represents the best temple management system in any shrine in India. But it has also fallen victim to the general trend of increasing commercialization and despiritualization of pilgrim centers.
Black money constitutes only a small fraction of the annual collection at the temple, contrary to popular belief. The income from darshan and Seva tickets itself constitutes half the revenue and donations to the free meal scheme add up another 33 crores (330 million) rupees.
The culture of crass commercialism and exploitation that dogs you in Tirumala has been institutionalized by TTD itself. It has made minor services needlessly free even as it milks people who prefer to pay to jump the queue for darsan or several. With its eye on revenue and populist policies, TTD has been tinkering with the deity’s sleeping time, religious duties and timings, rather than work around the Lord as every temple should.
An exceptional stampede in the temple many years back was attributed by the then Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham to the improper or non-observance of the rituals prescribed by the Agama Sastras. The violation of the proscription on men entering the temple wearing upper garments is prompted by the TTD. This is in sharp contrast to the custom at major temples in Kerala, India.
M.V. Soundar Rajan, secretary, Dharma Rakshana Samiti, Hyderabad, is highly critical of the violation of the Agama Sastras by the TTD and it's treating the deity as a mere stone. The famed, delicious laddu prasad, he says, is not even offered to the deity but has been turned into an industry despite strictures by the Justice Kondiah Committee report 12 years ago.
He further points out that the deity has to suffer the unnecessary and heavy diamond crown besides the heat of focused electric lights. All sevas are compacted to be completed by dawn to facilitate darshan by pilgrims while ignoring the importance of Ushas Kalam (the period starting at 4.30 a.m).
TTD is trying to please all, especially the state government of Andhra Pradesh, except the presiding deity it thrives on and claims to serve.
‘The devotion and pilgrimage by millions increase the power of the deity while violation of the Agama Sastras will deplete its power and wealth,’ Soundar Rajan points out. One result of rabid commercialism and a brazen doubling of displayed rates of eatables and beverages is frequent scuffles between indignant devotees and vendors in the massive Vaikuntam Queue Complex.
While its administrative and educational institutions could have been managed better, the TTD’s medical institutions, such as the one for the handicapped, are doing yeoman’s service.
Its flaws apart, TTD continues to cater to the needs of millions of devotees who throng the temple every year to seek help for their mundane worries and problems, propagating further the legend of this God of Kaliyug.
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