What Saiva Siddhanta Gave Us: A Social Reform Movement And Literary Treasure

What Saiva
Siddhanta Gave Us:  A Social Reform Movement And Literary Treasure(Nataraja)
  • Saiva Siddhanta can be considered as one of the least explored Vedantic systems of Hinduism.

    But it waits patiently, like the great Siva himself, for all humanity to benefit from it.

There was a time when in South India there seemed to be an era of chaos in both political and cultural realms. Social stagnation prevailed. Certain occupations got branded as defiled. Dogmatic emphasis on excessive non-violence, a fanatical creed of veganism and hyper-puritanism made fishermen and hunters, courtesans and bards as being ‘inferior’. Tamil heartland was very much in need of a revival. The earlier Sangam age in contrast had been marked by celebration of life. Now the spirit of the Sangam age had to be reborn adapted to the changing times.

Thiru Gnana Sambandar, Thiru Navukarasar, Sundarar and Manicka Vasagar
Thiru Gnana Sambandar, Thiru Navukarasar, Sundarar and Manicka Vasagar

It was in such a situation that the Saivaite movement was born.

Called the sacred Four of the religion, Thiru Gnana Sambandar, Thiru Navukarasar, Sundarar and Manicka Vasagar travelled the length and breadth of Tamil land and visited every temple and created a Saivaite sacred geography.

Karaikal Ammayar (6th century CE) a unique woman saint revived Tamil music and Sambandar (7th century CE), a child prodigy, took it forward.

Thirumoolar a mystic yogi variously dated between 6th century and 9th century CE, composed a treatise, Thirumantiram that integrated Vedic Saivism with Tantric and Yogic disciplines.

The works of all these saints, exquisite mystic hymns of high literary value, were systematically arranged and redacted by a saint Nambiandar Nambi in the 10th century.

These works not only rejuvenated Saivaite religion at the popular level but became the substratum on which a well codified Saiva Siddhanta was based.

Meikandar, Arulnandhi Sivam, Maraigyana Sambandam and Umapathi Sivam
Meikandar, Arulnandhi Sivam, Maraigyana Sambandam and Umapathi Sivam

The next Four in Saiva Siddhanta are Meikandar (13th century), his direct disciple Arulnandhi Sivam, his direct disciple Maraigyana Sambandam, his direct disciple Umapathi Sivam. Of the six schools of Indian ‘Darshanas’, Saiva Siddhanta belongs to Vedantic school.

Saivaite saints were, by the standards of their day, radicals and were pioneers of social reform. What caused them to act was their deep conviction in Saivism.

Rejecting scriptural literalism

Thirumoolar states that mythology should be seen not literally but as a process that occurs in inner space. He says:

The Primordial Deity who has water-locked hairlocks, burnt the three cities claim the fools; What He destroys, are the three inner impurities (ego, karma and delusion); And who knows about that destruction? (None.) [verse 329]

The original mythology might be an archeo-astronomical event and thus becomes poetry with inner symbolism, and also provides a framework to approach Hindu puranas.


In 7th century CE, Thirugnana Sambandar convinced a Brahmin to let bard Neelakanda Yazhpaanar and his wife sleep by the sacrificial fire in the Brahmin’s house. During his time, due to the influence of religious systems demanding prudish moralism, bards had become untouchables.

To give a perspective, St Augustine in Christendom wanted performing artists and prostitutes to be excluded from Christian Communion. Christian synods excluded performers from the right to go to court. Christian theology held that devil spoke through performing artists and wandering minstrels. As late as 14th century, it was mentioned in birth certificates that the person was ‘honourable and pious birth’ and not the son of ‘barber or a minstrel’.

This act of Thirugnana Sambandar was a spiritual cry against all such social stagnations. Appar too sang that even those afflicted with leprosy or those who skin the cow and eat it, if they are the devotees of Siva, then they would be his very Gods to whom he would prostrate.

The famous ‘frog in the well’ fable said by Swami Vivekananda in the Parliament of Religions, can be seen in the hymns of Appar. Appar compares the inability of a karma-bound human to realise the magnificence of Siva to the inability of tortoise in the well to comprehend the vastness of ocean described to it by the tortoise from the ocean.

Siva, the go between.

The deity in Saivism in tune with rest of Indic spirituality is a friend to be loved rather than a celestial God to be feared. Sundarar who was called the ‘tough-friend’ devotee, did not hesitate to ask Siva to go as his emissary to his wife who had been angry with Sundarar. Siva too complied and went not once but twice convincing Sundarar’s wife to live again with him. Interestingly Sundarar’s very first hymn addresses Siva as ‘mad guy’.

Against Casteism

The ability of Saivaite Hinduism to pierce through the barriers of social stagnation through sheer spiritual strength continued unabated in the coming centuries too and is unparalleled in the then contemporary world.

Meikanda Devar born in the fourth Varna became the Guru of Arul Nanthi Sivam born in the first Varna. The history of the seers in this lineage shows the extent to which they went to remove all traces of birth-based pride that emanated from social stagnation.

Maraigyna Sambandar who continued the spiritual lineage of Meikandar once took his principal disciple Umapathi Sivam, a Brahmin by birth, to the street of weavers. There the seer begged and got as his food the colloidal starch used by weavers.

He drank the starch as ‘Siva prasadam’ and the disciple drank that which was flowing as left over from the hands of the Guru as ‘Guru prasadam’.

Maraigyna Sambandar accepts an offering from a ‘lower caste’ weaver. His disciple takes what is left of the offering.
Maraigyna Sambandar accepts an offering from a ‘lower caste’ weaver. His disciple takes what is left of the offering.

Shaivism and the Cosmic oneness

Manichavasakar needs a special study for his poetry is one that evokes what Einstein calls the ‘cosmic religious feeling’. His description of the physical universe as he elaborates the magnificence of Siva can well be the poetic description of the images from Hubble’s telescope, only he belonged to 9th century.

Cosmos of the ellipsoid shape whose

vision fantastic defies measurement;

Each of its constituents shines with

such a beauty expanding immeasurably.

Yet all these vast spheres look like

the innumerable floating particles

seen in the sun beam entering a room.

His Thiruvasagam has also eased the Tamil mind into accepting the modern idea of evolution for he speaks of the evolution of life and the unity of all life forms. Another feature of Saiva Siddhanta is the ability to effect samanvaya through the divine feminine. She is both the Shakthi and also identified with Vishnu as well.

Throughout Saivaite literature, one finds this harmonising aspect. It is particularly well seen in the outpourings of latter mystics like Arunagirinathar (15th century CE) and Kumaragurubarar (17th century). The latter went to North India, met Dara Shukoh. So impressed by Kumaraguruparar, Shukoh gave him land at Kasi where the saint established a Math to propagate Saiva Siddhanta.

Saint Kumaraguruparar who was born in a village in the southern district of Thirunelveli was an autistic child and when he gained his ability to speak in late childhood he became a prolific poet whose poems diligently combine high literary poetry with rigorous Siddhanta while manifesting mysticism.

He revived a genre called Pillai Tamil which sees the god/goddess as a child and sings specific songs for 10 stages of child’s development. Kumaraguruparar sang on the Goddess Meenakshi. One of the childhood stages is when the child starts playing with crystalline pebbles, which it throws up and catches. So as the child-goddess throws the crystalline stone and catches, what happens…

‘White pearl’ some marvel, when it reflects Her teeth

‘Sapphire!’ some exclaim as it crosses Her eyes

‘Ruby stone surely’ when it rests on Her red hands,

Like all religionist claiming the Truth to be their own

knowing not Siva exists in all,

The same Siva who abides in You Divine Mother!

Play oh Play my Goddess!

Saiva Siddhanta can be considered as one of the least explored Vedantic systems of Hinduism. Unfortunately, it has been misused jealously by narrow linguistic chauvinists, who never realised its greatness, but used it to promote the pettiness of their own egoistic pride. But Saiva Siddhanta, waits patiently like the great Siva himself, for all humanity to benefit from it.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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