Symbolism behind 18 steps in sabarimala:
Pathinettapadi (18 divine steps) to the sanctum sanctorium is divine in all aspects. The 18 steps in sabarimala has many inner meanings. Its not just steps to go to the main temple but its the way to go to God surrender to god. One who has came through all these 18 steps can easily surrender to God.
The first three steps depict "Bhoomi, Agni, Vayoo & Akash", 6 to 9 steps for Karmendriya, 10 to 15 for Jhanandriya, 16th for mind 17th Intelligence and 18th Jeevathma Bhava. Those who cross all these steps are believed to achieve "Punyadarshan". The steep steps are so important and holy that no one can climb them without fasting for 41 days and carrying the holy irrumudi on ones' head.
18 puranas in vedas:
The eighteen steps denote the 18 puranas. Some say that 18 weapons with which Lord Ayyappa destroyed the evil denotes the 18 steps.
18 expressions of Ego expressing at three different levels of body:
Body level. At body level we identify ourselves with the five sense organs of action and perception (Karma-Indriyas and Gnana-Indriyas). Five organs of perception -
Nose (smell) and
Mind level. Being identified with these sense organs we develop six other negative qualities
6. Kama (Desire or possession),
7. Krodha (anger when desires do not get fulfilled or when desired possession is lost).
8. Lobha (greed to fulfill the desire or not allowing anyone partake in one's possession),
9. Moha (Infatuation of the obtained result or having the possession).
10. Mada (pride of getting the desire fulfilled or having a possession)
11. Matsarya (Jealousy that others should not get what we have fulfilled our desire or when others have a possession that we have.)
Intelligence Level. At the intelligence level then there are three gunas that we have to transcend. They are
12. Tamas: The Inertia (not to do action) or lazy or sluggish attitude is Tamasic. This is overcome by doing getting up early in morning having cold-water-baths doing pooja or worship. We dont want to do these because we are lazy in doing this. Only by doing these we overcome Tamasic nature.
13. Rajas: Action oriented with the feeling of "I". By constant mantra Japa of Saranam Ayyappa, this I doing the action feeling get diminished.
14.. Sattva: Goodness. The feeling of I am good is also a Ego feeling. That also should be transcended as Krisha says in Gita. Feel everyone who are doing bad are doing due to ignorance. We should not ignore them, by by compassion help them to grow out of it.
15. Raga: The strong likes or attachments that we use in making decisions. This is possible only by developing Bhakthi to Ayyappa. This means to surrender all likes to Lord for the common good.
16. Dvesha: Same way the strong dislikes also should be given up in making decisions. Also through surrender attitude (Bhakthi) we can transcend this attitude.
17. Avidya: The Knowledge about physical material things alone is Avidya. Vidya is the knowledge of Truth. By attending satsangs of Guru alone will help to gain the highest knowledge.
18. Ahamkara (Identity): All the attachments is summarized as this one factor, the identity felling of "I". This is the final step or block in reaching Ayyappa. Wearing black clothes and addressing ourselves and others as "Swami Ayyappa" dissolves this identity like a salt doll plunging into a salty ocean.
The sacred 108:
In the story of spirituality the 18 steps has some importance. In the Hindu Dharma there is a samkalpa of one, zero, eight. This is 108, has a great spiritual effect. The one is the paramatma the zero is the maya and the eight is the eight formed natural jivatma. This is represented by a necklace having 108 pearls, 108 names of god, a totality of 4 vedas, 20 smrutis, 18 puranas, 64 Tantrasastras, two epics and so on. There are 18 chapters in the Mahabharata and also in the Gita.
If the zero in the middle of the 108 is removed the 1 and the 8 come close together. That reveals, if the zero – maya is removed from between the 8, the jivatma and the 1, the paramatma, they can easily rejoin together. Therefore we can understand that 18 is the number for realization of God. The 18 epics also reveal the reality. The 18 mountains around the Sabarimala and the 18 steps to reach the abode of Ayyappa also reveal the reality.
The steps represent the 18 hills existing in and around the region of Sabarimala. These are Ponnambalamedu, Gowdenmala, Nagamala, Sundaramala, Chittambalamala, Khalgimala, Mathangamala, Myladummala, Sreepadamala, Devarmala, Nilakkalmala, Thalapparamala, Neelimala, Karimala, Puthuserrymala, Kalakettimala, Inchipparamala and Sabarimala.