The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism have evolved across diverse traditions through Vedic and medieval era and are viewed as aspects of the Ultimate Divine Reality referred to as Brahman. The human body is said to be the temple encasing the Soul or Atman with the deities representing the different parts of the body. Most of the deities represent the forces of nature and symbolise moral values, energy, knowledge and power. These deities have rich and extensive mythologies associated with them and represent deep spiritual concepts. They are often pitted against Asuras indicating the contradictory forces motivating individuals. The core concept of Hinduism emphasises that it is actions and thoughts that define the character of an individual and not necessarily birth and family circumstances. Each deity is worshipped either through lineage or personal devotion. Among the Hindu pantheon of Gods, one of the most famous among them is Lord Balaji also known by his various names such as Srinivasa and Venkateshwara. He is said to be one of the most powerful Hindu Gods mentioned in the Puranas.
There has been reference to Lord Balaji in various Puranas like Padma Purana, Bhavishyottara Purana, Brahma Purana, Vamana Purana, Skanda Purana, Aditya Purana, Markandeya Purana and many other Puranas though the most notable legends are those taken from Varaha Purana and Venkatachala Mahatmya. The meaning of the name Venkateshwara is ‘the Lord who removes sins’ with ‘Ven’ meaning sin, ‘Kata’ meaning burning and ‘Eshwara’ meaning Lord or Controller of the Universe. According to another legend, there was a helper boy called Bala. One day, mistaking him for a thief, people began to chase him. They hit him on his head and he began bleeding profusely. He is said to have run to the main door of the Tirupati temple towards the idol of the Lord. When the people entered the temple, the boy was missing and they could only witness the bleeding head of the idol. The astonished priests then put a cloth on the head to stop the bleeding as they felt the Lord had protected the boy. The idol then became known as Balaji and to this day it is said that the idol has a white covering on the head.
Deep Esoteric Significance of the Idol
The deity Balaji is said to represent the God of Justice. The Namam or the forehead mark denotes his blindfold while his two wives on either side of his chest are said to be the scales of justice with the sword of justice hanging between. His black figure indicates his representation of Shani or Saturn. The Lord is said to judge the merits and demerits of his devotees and grant punishments and rewards and by faith, devotion and love for the Lord, his compassion is invoked which helps to mitigate the evil effects of past actions.
From the Puranas
It is said that before the advent of Kaliyuga, the Rishis headed by Rishi Kashyapa decided to perform a Yagna on the banks of the River Ganga for the good of mankind. Sage Narada visited them and asked them their reasons for performing it and which God they proposed to please and honour by it. The Rishis could not arrive at a conclusion and decided to approach Sage Bhrigu who was one of the Saptarishis and was said to represent the opulence of God. Bhrigu decided to directly ascertain for himself before reaching a solution. He first went to Satyaloka, the abode of Lord Brahma where the Lord was being attended to by Goddess Saraswati while he was reciting the Vedas and thus he did not notice Bhrigu. He then went to Kailas, the abode of Lord Shiva where the Lord was deep in meditation with Parvati by his side and thus could not notice him. He then left for Vaikunta the abode of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu was reposing on Adisesha with Lakshmi lovingly in service at his feet and he too failed to notice the sage. By now the sage was furious and kicked Vishnu on the chest. Vishnu immediately got hold of the legs of the sage in an attempt to pacify him and in the process gently squeezed the extra eye that was present in the sole of Bhrigu’s foot which was said to represent the sage’s egotism. Immediately the sage realised his grave error and begged pardon of the Lord. He then decided that Lord Vishnu deserved the supreme honour of reverence by the sages and went back to inform them. Meanwhile, Goddess Lakshmi was distraught at Sage Bhrigu’s action and in anguish left Vaikunta for Karavirpur (now called Kolhapur).
Lord Vishnu was forlorn after the departure of Lakshmi and is said to have left Vaikunta and coming down to Earth, began meditating on an ant hill under a tamarind tree on the Venkata Hills ceaselessly without food or sleep for the return of Lakshmi. The Gods were worried about the situation. Brahma and Shiva took on the guise of a cow and calf. The Sun God Surya then went to Lakshmi and requested her to take the form of a cowherdess and sell them to the King of the Chola country. The King then bought them and when they went along with the other cows to graze on the Venkata Hills, the cow who was Brahma in disguise began feeding Vishnu on the ant hill. This went on for some period of time. Soon the Queen chided the cow herder as the cow was not yielding any milk in the palace. The cow herder was puzzled and decided to secretly follow the cow. He observed it emptying its udder over the ant hill. This angered him and he took an axe and aimed a blow at the cow’s head. The Lord then rose from the ant hill and received the blow and saved the cow. The shocked cow herder then fell down dead and the cow bellowing in fright returned to the kingdom with blood stains on its body. The King followed the cow to the scene of the incident. Lord Vishnu then cursed the King to become an Asura due to the fault of his servant. The frightened King begged pardon saying he was innocent. The compassionate Lord then said that the King would be reborn as Akash Raja and would present the Lord with a crown at the time of his marriage to Padmavati which would end the curse. Lord Vishnu also known as Srinivasa requested Shri Varaha Swamy to provide him with a site where he built a hermitage and stayed there and was taken care of by Vakula Devi (his foster mother). She was said to be Yashoda reborn. Yashoda had expressed her anguish to Krishna that she had been unable to witness the wedding of Krishna and Rukmini. Krishna comforted her by saying that in his incarnation as Srinivasa, she would be his foster mother and witness his grand wedding to Padmavati.
Life of Padmavati
The King Akasha Raja had no heirs and decided to perform a sacrifice. As he was ploughing the field as part of the sacrifice, he found a lotus in the ground with a female child inside it. The overjoyed King heard a heavenly voice which asked him to tend the child lovingly and fortune will befall him. The King then carried it to his Queen and as the child was found in a lotus, they decided to name her Padmavati. One day Srinivasa while hunting a wild elephant in the forests around the hills, chased it to a garden where Padmavati and her retinue were picking flowers. The elephant then saluted the Lord and vanished. The maidens who were frightened on seeing the elephant, began to hurl stones at Srinivasa who then left his horse behind and returned to the hills. Srinivasa was thrilled to see Padmavati and he then informed Vakula Devi that he would marry only princess Padmavati and none other. He related to her Padmavati’s past as Vedavati and his promise of marriage to her in her next birth. Vakula Devi then decided to help him and as she was approaching King Akasha Raja to ask for Padmavati’s hand in marriage, she met Padmavati’s maids returning from a nearby temple. They informed her that Padmavati too was pining for Srinivasa. All of them together went to meet the King and Queen.
The Divine Wedding
Meanwhile, the King and Queen had consulted Brihaspati about Padmavati’s marriage as they learnt that their daughter was pining for Srinivasa. The sage informed them that they were destined for each other and asked the King to agree to the union. Lord Kubera granted a loan to Srinivasa for the marriage expenses and Srinivasa arrived along with Brahma and Shiva for the wedding mounted on Garuda. The wedding took place in a grand manner in the presence of all the Devas. To this day the divine union is celebrated as ‘Kalyana Utsavam’ in the famous Balaji temple at the top of the seven hills in Tirumala. During Brahmotsavam, traditional sari, turmeric and kumkum are sent from the temple to the abode of Padmavati at Alamelu Mangapuram.
The debt to Kubera
Thousands of pilgrims donate a large amount of money at the temple of Balaji at Tirupati. It is said that Lord Vishnu would reside as Balaji there until the loan to Kubera has been repaid. To help him repay his debt, the devotees place offerings in the Hundi or donation box and the Lord in return is said to fulfill their prayers.
Srinivasa becomes Venkateshwara
After the celestial marriage Lakshmi (Mahalakshmi) divined about the wedding of her consort Vishnu and rushed to see him. On encountering both Padmavati and Mahalakshmi, the Lord turned into stone. Shiva and Brahma appeared before them and explained the divine leela of the Lord. The Goddesses then also turned into stone and expressed their desire to be with the Lord always. Padmavati is said to occupy the right side of the Lord’s chest while Mahalakshmi resides on the left side of his chest.
The idol of the Lord
The idol of Balaji is black in colour and about eight feet in height covered in precious ornaments. The temple is a fine example of Dravidian Art and style and is a famous centre for wood carving. The deity symbolises goodness, the disc is said to destroy evil while the conch is said to create the cosmic sound that destroys ignorance.
The Temple at Tirupati
One of the most famous temples of Lord Venkateshwara is situated in the town of Tirupati at the foot of the Tirumala hills in the Chitoor district of Andhra Pradesh. It is referred to as Kaliyuga Vaikuntam and being at 2800 feet above sea level, forms part of the Eastern Ghats which, with its curves and heights is said to resemble the serpent Adisesha. The seven hills symbolise its seven heads, the main temple or Ahobalam its centre and Srisailam its tail end. According to legends, this sacred place has been referred to as Vrishabhachala in Sathya Yuga, Anjanachala in Treta Yuga, Seshachala in Dwapara Yuga and Venkatachala in the present Kali Yuga. Unlike other Vishnu temples, in this temple there are no idols or shrines of Vaishnava saints. The other main practices of the temple are hair tonsuring and thulabharam which is performed by devotees from all over the world.
Origin of the temple
The exact period of origin of the temple is not known as the temple is considered to be Swayambhu or self-existent. According to legends mentioned in Sangam poetry (500 BC -2000 AD), a Queen named Samavai of the Pallava dynasty (614 AD) is said to have consecrated the first silver image here. Temple inscriptions of the 9th century show records of contributions of the Chola and Pallava Kings. Later on in 1517, Krishnadevaraya contributed to the gilding of the roofing of the inner Vimana. Later the Marathas and rulers of Mysore and Gadwal too made significant contributions. In the 18th century the East India Company entrusted the Math activities to Hathiramji Mutt at Tirumala and in the 19th century the Madras legislature invested the management to the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD) Committee. It is said to be the richest temple in India and the second richest in the world, the first being the Vatican City Church. The TTD not only oversees the operations and finances but is also involved in various educational, literary, social and religious activities.
Visits by great personages
Over the centuries, many saints and sages are said to have visited the holy temple and sanctified the place. The Vaishnava Saint Ramanuja is said to have visited Andhra in the 12th century when the Tirupathi temple was built. The famous Venkateshwara Suprabhatam marking the morning recital of prayers to awaken the Lord is said to have been composed and sung by one of his disciples. The Madhva saint Vadiraja Thirtha is said to have climbed the holy hill on his knees and offered a garland of Shaligram to the Lord. Adi Shankara is said to have visited Tirumala and placed the Sri Chakra at the lotus feet of Lord Venkateshwara and recited the Bhaja Govindam there. The great saint Annamacharya was a fervent devotee of the Lord and composed numerous songs about the deity. The poet saints Purandaradasa and Thyagaraja too composed many devotional songs on the Lord. The Tamil poet saints or Alwars too have extolled the glory of Lord Venkatesha.
This festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated every year in the months of September and October for a period of nine days. The Utsava Murtis (procession deities) of the Lord Venkateshwara with his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi are taken out in colourful processions in different Vahanams or vehicles around the temple every morning and evening. Sacred texts are read out every day. The origin of this festival is traced to Lord Brahma who is said to have worshipped Lord Venkateshwara on the banks of the Pushkarini in Tirupati as thanks giving gesture for his protection to mankind. The festival begins with the hoisting of the Garuda flag at the Dhwajasthambam. The concluding day is celebrated in a grand way as it is the Star(Nakshatra) birthday of the Lord.
Practically every state in India has temples dedicated to the Lord and some of the most famous ones are the Chilkur Balaji Temple in Hyderabad, Sri Venkateshwara Temple in Delhi, Balaji Temple in Navi Mumbai, the Balaji Temple at Dausa, Tirupati Balaji Temple at Ahmedabad, Balaji Temple at Pune and many other renowned temples all over India.
There are a number of Venkateshwara temples all over the world in Australia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, UK, USA and many other countries.
Shlokas from various Puranas
There are a number of shlokas in the scriptures which eulogise and praise Lord Venkateshwara.
From Varaha Purana
The Varaha Purana mentions the Sri Venkatesha Mahatmyam. The Venkatesha Stotra Namavali gives the 108 names of Lord Venkatesha which is generally recited in Tirumala Temple during morning prayers after the second bell.
Sri Venkateshath Paro Devo Naasthanyah
Saranam Bhuvi Venkatesha Samo Devo Nasthi Nasthi Maheetale
There is no other God like Venkatesha who offers protection, Seek refuge in Him, He is the greatest among all Gods.
From Skanda Purana
In Skanda Purana, the Vaishnava Khanda enumerates the glories of the Lord under ‘Venkatachala Mahatmya’
Namo Devaadhi Devaaya, Sarangine
Narayanadhri Vasaya, Srinivasayathe Namaha
Salutations to the Lord of Lords who hold the Saranga bow
Salutations to Srinivasa who lives on the Narayana mountain
From Brahmanda Purana
Venkatesho Vasudevah Pradyumno Amitah Vikramah
Sankarshano Anirudhascha Seshadri Patireva Cha
Lord Venkatesha is Vasudeva (one who is present everywhere & the root of knowledge), Amitah (Unlimited), Vikramah (valorous), Pradyumna (extremely mighty), Sankarshana (power of attraction), Anirudha (boundless) and the Lord of Seshadri-hills (The Tirumala/Tirupati Hill was known famously as Seshadri in Dwapara Yuga).
This Purana gives the example of a Brahmin called Madhava who from being pious and Godly falls to an unbecoming conduct. The minute he accidentally steps on the sacred Venkatachala hills, all his misdeeds are wiped out in a flash just as fire burns rubbish.
Venkatadri Samanam Sthanam Brahmanda Nasthi Kinchana
Venkatesha Samo Devo Na Bhootho Na Bhavishyathi
There is no other holy place in the universe comparable to the Venkatadri hills and no God in the past or future who could be equated to Lord Venkateshwara. Just thinking of him can redeem mankind from all sins.
This Purana contains the 1008 (Sahasranama) names of Lord Venkateshwara and gives vivid description of the Lord, the advent of the Goddess and their subsequent wedding.
Markandeya Purana mentions Sri Venkateshwara Vajra Kavacha Stotram by sage Markandeya
Narayanam Parabrahma Sarvakaarana Kaaranam
Prapadye Venkatesakhyam Tadeva Kavacham Mama
I bow and salute to Venkatesa, who is Lord Narayana himself, who is the divine Lord of all, and who is the cause of all causes. May he protect me always (as an armour).
Hinduism has various deities and objects of worship to accommodate people with different concepts of the Supreme, thus enabling each one to progress towards God realisation. The Divine is said to be perceived in diverse ways taking countless names and forms to suit the various aspirations of the devotees. Since the concept of Brahman is beyond the understanding of the common masses, a chosen form or Ishta Devta is visualised and propitiated to cultivate devotion which is the royal path to transcend the cycles of birth and death and attain salvation. Lord Balaji is said to have incarnated in Kali Yuga for the love of his devotees according to Hindu scriptures and will continue to be venerated for generations to come.