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Ayya Vaikundar was a great humanist who lived in the Princely state of Travancore in the early part of the nineteenth century. He was also a social thinker who raised a revolt against the caste discrimination and religious hierarchy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hence, he is regarded as the first social reformer in India. He is considered even today as one of the pioneers who fought against the practice of untouchability in India. According to the Akilattiratu Ammanai, he was a Manu incarnation of Lord Narayana. The holy script of Akilattiratu Ammanai is followed by the devotees of Ayyavazhi. The Ayyavazhi followers call him Muthukutty or Mudisoodum Perumal, and refer him as Sampooranathevan.
Ayya Vaikundar was born in the year 1809 to a couple Narayanam and Mahalekshmi. This couple hailed from the Kanyakumari district of the erstwhile Princely state of Travancore in Kerala. His initial name was Vaikundam. According to the legend of the region, his parents found him still at birth and then the soul of Sampooranathevan entered the body of the child. Hence, the body of the child started to show the signs of life after some time. This is the reason why the followers of Ayyavazhy regard him as the Sampooranathevan.
After the initial hiccup, the young Vaikundam grew up normally. He was a religious boy and he had a special interest in worshipping the Lord Vishnu. According to the legend of Ayyavazhy followers, he had set a pedestal for the Lord in his house and worshipped it with devotion. When he grew up, he got married to a lady by the name Thirumalammal. According to the scripture, she was in fact a divorcee who had left her previous husband to live with Vaikundam to help him during his religious discourses. Vaikundam, alias Muthukutty, earned his living by climbing Palm trees and doing the agriculture labor work.
When Muthukutty was 24 years old, he suffered from a serious ailment. He had to suffer from the disease for over a year. Because of this, his mother took him to a temple at Thiruchenthur. At that place, he went to have a bath at the sea shore and suddenly disappeared from there. After a few days of unsuccessful searching, the hope of finding the body of Muthukutty faded away. According to the religious scripture Akilattiratu Ammanai, Lord Vishnu emerged from the sea. On seeing him, the Muthukutty's mother mistook him for his son Muthuswamy. On approach, Lord Vishnu stopped the mother from touching him and told her that he was not his son anymore. Later, Vishnu walked towards Detchanam. This place became the rallying point for the followers of Ayya Vaikundar, and they erected a temple in his name.
Another school of thought narrated another story to explain the way he attained the divinity. According to this story, Muthukutty reached a place called Poovantanthoppu, present-day Swamithoppu, and entered into a penance that spanned for a period of six years. During the period of penance, he subsisted on frugal meals and water. As a result of penance, he received the ultimate bliss and realization. Muthukutty had entered into the penance to free himself off the bodily afflictions due to a disease he had contracted. After attaining the divinity, Muthukutty started to do some public services for the benefit of the mankind. It included the act of incineration of evil spirits. When the people came to him for removing the spirits from the bodies of the patients, he ordered the spirits possessed with them to make an oath to surrender their power and get perished in flames. When he gave orders, the people in possessive state gradually fell down exhausted and became normal beings after a period of time. According to the religious scriptures followed by Ayyavazhi followers, Muthukutty also had the power to seize the esoteric evil powers. On seeing the people with esoteric powers renouncing their powers in front of Muthukutty, the ordinary people started to see him with reverence and fondly called him Vaikuntachami.
Role as a Social Reformer
Ayya Vaikundar not only preached his views about the human equality but also practiced the same amongst the lower caste people. As he was against the idol worship, he did not allow the portraitures to draw his picture. As a result of this, no one in the present world has the possession of his picture. He wanted to be known amongst the people through his works and words of wisdom. Throughout his life, Ayya Vaikundar stood for his theory and practice. His theories and practices were 'Samathva Samajam', 'Thottu Namam Podungal' and 'Sama Panthi Bhoja'. These theories and practices were enough to cultivate the thoughts of Social Equality and Unity in the minds of the people. Influenced by his thoughts and practices, many people came to him to listen to his discourses, get the cure from the diseases, and worship him as their revered Guru. When the people came, he asked them to have a ritual bath by the side of a well. Muthukutty also dined with them on many occasions to prove his point that the creations of God are equal.
Ayya Vaikundar used to tell his followers that the uplifting of a lower caste person in the society is considered as a dharmam. Hence, he advocated his followers to turn into the catalysts of change in the society. Through his religious discourses, he used to underscore the importance of self-respect and social dignity. Ayya Vaikundar also used to tell his followers that an era of equality and peace would dawn on them when the social evils such as casteism, caste discrimination, and feudal oppressions were removed from the society. So, he asked his followers to take the mantle of bringing the change upon them to hasten the transition. Soon the fame of Ayya Vaikundar began to spread to the areas adjacent to the Princely state of Travancore. Slowly, he began to be widely recognized as a religious figure with extraordinary powers. Hence, he used to be referred to as a Pantaram in the religious parlance of that time.
Imprisonment and Post-imprisonment Activities
As Ayya Vaikundar's popularity grew, the people from various walks of life began converging around him in multitudes. This seemed to have irked somebody in the society. There could many reasons attributed to this. One among them was his open advocacy for the restoration of social equality and equal opportunities for all the members of the society. As a result of this, a complaint was registered against him with the Maharajah of Travancore. The ruler of the Travancore state ordered his arrest. Subsequently, Ayya Vaikundar was jailed and tortured there.
After a while, Vaikundar was released from the jail and he came back to his hometown. When he was there, he inspired a group of his devotees to carry out a religious exercise called Thuvayal Thavasu. To help his devotees and disciples in times of needs, he performed miracles as well during this period. To keep his flock of devotees active, he instituted a number of rituals and rites for several occasions. In one such ritual, the deities were made to come on some female devotees who act as human media and the marriage was solemnized between these human media. Due to these activities, the stature of Vaikundar grew several times and the devotees started inviting him in their houses to seek his blessings. During these occasions, he laid the foundation stones for small shrine-like worship centers in different parts of the region.
Ayya Vaikundar was a social reformer, a religious preacher and a sage from the Kanyakumari district of the erstwhile Princely state of Travancore. Though there is a dispute on the exact chronological order of events leading to his birth, he was born to a couple hailing from the Kanyakumari district of the present-day Tamil Nadu. When he was about 25 years old, he underwent penance to seek the divine blessings. As a result of the penance, he acquired some supernatural powers, according to the religious scriptures followed by Ayyavazhi devotees. He used these powers for the common good of the society. As a result of this, his popularity grew amongst the members of the society. During his time, he advocated for social equality, abolition of casteism, and providing equal opportunities to the lower caste people.