The Significance of the Holy 18 Steps (Padinettaam Padi)
No teaching can escape the use of symbolism. The words spoken in the various languages of the world are symbols that represent objects, thoughts and ideas. The word ‘cup’ represents a hollow object that is able to contain something. But the word ‘cup’ is not the vessel we are describing and one cannot drink some liquid from the word itself. Similarly, the 18 steps of Swaami Ayyappan’s abode represent a philosophical ideal. When we look at each golden step, it should invoke a higher principle of truth, Tatvam, in our minds as we meditate and reflect on its hidden meaning.
At no other temple has so much importance been attached to the steps leading to the sanctum the holy shrine of Lord Ayyappaa. The 18 sacred steps represent truth and it is commonly referred to as the ladder to heaven, as it indicates the pathway to the ultimate reality.. There have been many legends associated with the Padinettaam paid, and the number 18 has special significance. There are 18 puraanaas, 18 chapters in the Bhagavad Gita ,18 Siddhars , the Kurukshetra war was fought over 18 days and 18 “body letters” in the Tamil language to, there are 18 weapons to destroy evil propensities held in mother Shakthis hands , to mention a few.
The steps face in an easterly direction and they are 18 in number. The steps, facing the rising sun, symbolizes that it is only through the light of enlightenment (divine knowledge) that one can attain the desire to conquer the 18 impediments or obstacles leading to God.
The first 5 steps represent the control of the five senses known as indriyas – taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing, which is part of the body. The senses continuously draw us into the mundane world for instant sense gratification and results in our imprisonment in worldly pursuits. One must first gain control over what one takes in,”ingests”, through the sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing. The first five pertains to the physical body.
w The next 8 steps represent the 8 bad qualities or Astharaagaas or 8 demonic qualities, which belongs to the mind. These are Kaama (sensual desires), Krohdha (anger), Lohbam (greed), Mada (arrogance), Mohha (delusion), Maatseriya (jealousy/envy), Asooya (inability to see the good others do) and Dumbha (dullness/lack of the sense of duty) .These vicious emotions of the heart must be controlled and ruthlessly eradicated for the attainment of true devotion to God and in order to proceed onwards in one’s spiritual evolution..
The next 3 steps represent the transcending the 3 gunas or states of material, physical existence of the principles of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Everything in the mundane world is made up of these qualities, in different proportions, of absolute purity (Sattva), passionate non directional activity (Rajas) and negative activity (Tamas). The ability to identify these differences is a function of the intellect.
The 17th step represents worldly secular knowledge vidya and the 18th step represents ignorance of our true divine nature spiritual ignorance, avidya. This is a function of the ego.
The climbing of the 18 steps symbolically represent the transcending of the limitations of the body, mind, intellect and ego and leads to the vision of the Lord enshrined in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, as well as in our hearts. The mastery of the 5 senses of the body, overcoming the imprisonment of sense gratification associated with the mind, sharpening the power of the intellect and destruction of the vicious ego which obstructs realization of the Supreme, which is seated beyond and above the 18 steps is the objective of all spiritual endeavor. The soul having completed the process of evolvement, its true human journey, becomes one with the Lord.
The steps are also steep and narrow. This is symbolic of the difficult spiritual path. If one misses the spiritual track one falls into a spiritual abyss, just as one who falls from the right path falls into perdition, for the path to realization is as narrow as a razor’s edge.
In the famous verse, “Arinthum Ariyaamalum” it says, “sathiamaana ponnu Padinettaam padimehl vaazhum.” The meaning of which is that Swaami Ayyappaa resides beyond these golden 18 steps of truth. Therefore, by only crossing the impediments symbolized by the sacred 18 steps, not just the steps itself, can the devotee only then attain self-realization or moksha. It represents the spiritual journey of Jeevaathmaa to Paramaatmaa, the individual soul to the cosmic soul.