Just like how the most special among the worshippers of Lord Vishnu are called alvars, the saints who worshipped Lord Shiva are called the nayanmars. There were 63 nayanmars in total and one of them was the hunter called Kannappan. Kannappan and his hunter friends and family lived around the area that is now called Kalahasti, on the banks of the Swarnamukhi river in Andhra Pradesh.
During his hunting rituals in the forest, one day he was drawn in a particularly distant direction by an animal he was determined to shoot. There, he found a beautiful Shiva lingam that he instantly felt attracted to. A small temple was constructed by his hunter friends for the Shiva lingam that Kannappan had found. Kannappan had not learnt any rituals of worship, but he was imbued with a deep sense of devotion to this deity. He loved the Shiva lingam so much, that he wanted to worship it everyday. Every day after hunting, he would carry whatever meat he had hunted, to the Shiva lingam as an offering. Since he was concerned that Shiva would feel thirsty after eating the meat, he also wanted to carry water. A hunter does not carry any drinking bowls while hunting. So Kannappan had only one other choice – to carry water from the river in his mouth and then spit it out on the Shiva idol signifying an offering of water. These actions would normally be construed as disrespect to the deity, but Kannappan’s heart was so pure that the Shiva lingam accepted all his offerings.
At this juncture one should recall the verse from Bhagavad Gita
“Whoever offers Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or a little water — that, so offered devotedly by the pure-minded, I accept.” (Swami Sivananda’s translation)
Pure devotion surpasses the need for ritual. If one’s heart is pure, any form of worship is accepted by a deity. Thus Kannappan continued to worship this Shiva lingam everyday in the same manner. One day, in order to test his devotion, Lord Shiva created a minor earthquake in the temple premises, when there were many people worshipping in the temple. When the ground started shaking and when stones started falling out of the temple ceiling, people panicked and ran out of the temple. But Kannappan did not run out, instead he ran into the temple and covered the Shiva lingam with his arms and body to protect the Shiva lingam from the debris falling from the ceiling. Such was his love for Shiva!
There was yet another test that Shiva had in mind for this simple devotee Kannappan. One day when Kannappan arrived at the temple, with his usual offerings of water in the mouth and flesh of an animal he had killed, he was shocked to see that one of the Shiva lingam’s eyes was bleeding. He tried to clean the blood with the water he had in his mouth, but the bleeding would not stop. He was deeply hurt and without second thought, he used one of his hunting arrows and plucked out one of his own eyes and placed it on the spot where the Shiva lingam was bleeding. And lo! The bleeding stopped. But then the Shiva lingam’s other eye now started bleeding. Kannappan proceeded to pluck out his other eye also, but he stopped suddenly. He realized that if he plucked his other eye out, then he would not know where Shiva’s eyes were, because he would have become blind. So, in order to know the exact spot, Kannappan first placed his toe on the bleeding spot and proceeded to pluck out his other eye also. Kannappan heard a voice booming from the heavens above. It said Stop Kannappa! Stop! Moved by his extreme devotion, Lord Shiva himself appeared before him in his magnificent form, draped in tiger skin, with the crescent moon shining from this thick locks of hair, with ashes smeared all over his body and with the trishul (trident) in his hand. Kannappan prostrated before Lord Shiva, and when he got up, the divine Lord embraced him instantly giving him mukti (realization). His eyesight was restored and he was instantly transformed into a wise saint. He prostrated again before his Lord Shiva, and from then on, he was called Kannappanayanar. Kannappanayanar spread the glories of Shiva far and wide across the southern peninsular India. For the rest of his time on the earth, Kannappanayanar remained immersed in complete bliss and in constant meditation upon the magnificent Lord Shiva.
Another beautiful verse that eulogizes devotion (bhakti) can be found in Verse 7 of the Sivanandalahari, written by Sri Adi Sankara, where he says:
Oh Paramasiva, may my mind focus on your lotus feet, may my words praise you, may my two hands perform archana, may my ears only hear your holy stories, and may my mind constantly remain immersed in meditating on your infinitely maginificent form and may my eyes always behold your beautiful form. In such a blissful state, what is the need for my learning scriptures at all?
Our dharma gives a lot of importance to simple, unadulterated and deep devotion. Bhakti Yoga is equivalent and complete in its own sense, and practicing Bhakti Yoga can lead to realization, even if a bhakti yogi does not know the rituals or does not understand the scriptures. Upon the culmination of bhakti yoga, knowledge and realization are always attained. Just like how this simple Kannappan attained mukti through sincere devotion to his god, every bhakti yogi has the chance for attaining mukti by remaining devoted.
Coming back to the story of the Shiva Lingam that Kannappan worshipped, many thousands of years later, the famous Rajendra Chola of the Chola dynasty constructed a majestic temple for this Shiva lingam. This Shiva lingam in Kalahasti is called the Vayu lingam. It is believed that all the five elements that the universe is made up of reincarnated as Shiva lingams, in five panchabhoota (five basic elements) sthalams (place) across India. Kalahasti is the vayu lingam shtalam. The other Panchabhoota Sthalams are located at Chidambaram (sky/ space), Thiruvanaikaval (water), Tiruvannamalai (fire) and Kanchipuram (earth). The Kalahasti temple is also regarded as Rahu and Ketu shtalams (2 of the 9 heavenly planets). This shiva lingam has continued to attract millions of devotees to it every year especially during the beautiful annual celebrations of Siva Ratri.