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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - V.Siva Subramaniam

Saivaite Teachings for the 21st Century

3 July 2006

In an article entitled “Whither Saivaism – 21st century” the urgency for the faith to re-invigourate its revivalist tradition to keep the faithful within the Saivite fold in the 21st century environment was examined. Societal degradation morally finds expression in attitudinal and life style changes swaying growing numbers of Saivites towards cruder forms of materialistic behavior.  Insatiated consumerism feeds egos and cravings that encourage acts (karma) antithetical to Saivaite spirituality. Some of the changes in the worldly order are irreversible. Yet for spirituality to remain relevant in such an inhospitable environment Saivaism has to re-invent and improve the quality of its teachings. This will counter the growing attitudinal tendencies that undermine the spiritual foundations of Saivaite society. Historically Saivaite and Hindu teachings have evolved overcoming similar challenges resulting from changes in the worldly order and in the process enriching the teachings of the faith. Would another revival recur? 

Quality of Saivite teachings today 

Despite the good intentions and efforts of dedicated Saivites, the faithful continue to receive teachings that are mostly pedantic (some uncritical and stale) that fail to touch their hearts. The spirit of the revivalist tradition has not nourished present day Saivaite teachings to effectively counter the attitudinal tendencies that undermine Saivaite spirituality.  This becomes apparent when using a benchmark to compare the strength of the revivalist tradition evident in the Gita teachings delivered by the committed sannyasins of organizations like the Ramakrishna mission.  

Quality of mainstream Hindu teachings 

The Gita teachings today touch the hearts of the faithful worldwide. The hints and outlines of the spirituals truths elaborated and explained in the present day Gita can be traced to the Vedas and the Vedic age of spirituality. The hints themselves at that stage took the form of abstract truths understood by the few. Since the concept of God (Brahman) in the Upanishads was an abstract principle, in the age of the Gita it took the form of a savior (Iswara) of the faithful seeking guidance on deliverance or realization. The Gita added a personal dimension to the theistic Brahman of the Upanishads. The Gita (just one part of the Mahabharata) elaborated only a few truths for the faithful to follow. Gita chose to elaborate on values especially self control and detachment to moderate desires to nurture spirituality by not necessarily becoming a hermit or renunciate (entering vanaprasatha) but living in the world.

In the Vedic times vanaprasatha under the ashrama dharma was the route that aspirants sought for spiritual deliverance or moksha. There was detachment from worldly desires. By the time of the Gita the worldly order required aspirants to indulge in acts (karma) to discharge their duties to themselves, the family and the community that the Gita gave karma yoga a major role in aspirants’ spiritual progression. To give sanctity, actions or karma according to the Gita have to be in the spirit of sacrifice to god. The Gita serves as an effective vehicle delivering the subtle change of emphasis in the message in the Hindu scriptures to meet the changed circumstances of the age. This adaptation, some commentators call it yuga dharma. The Gita has unique qualities; its author (a rishi himself like the Vedic day sages) cultivated the values to experience the scriptural truths to be able to deliver them from their heart which message touches the hearts of the faithful who receive them. In the Gita actions (karma) is accommodated in the spiritual scheme of seeking god’s grace, neatly linking it with the love and devotion emphasized in the Vedic scriptures. The message of the Gita is thus both devotional and philosophical. In effect Gita urges the faithful to act (karma) in this world as the God in the Gita does to elevate the soul of man (atman) to the level of the divine to achieve moksha or deliverance. Commentators do point to the Gita as a secondary scripture; an extension of the Upanishads and the limited scope of its message. Yet it is profound when it delivers its message to rank as a great scripture that appeal to the many. This is important.  

Improving the quality of Saivite teachings - rationale 

Though originating from the same philosophical roots (the Vedas), it is not far fetched to consider Saivite teachings in the scriptures like Periyapuranam, thevarams, thiruvasagam and similar spiritual works as secondary scriptures. These remain as they were scripted by the saints. As devotional (bhakthi) outpourings addressed to God (Lord Shiva) these scriptures mention the Vedic truths in passing. Sivapuranam in poetic form besides referring to almost all the philosophical truths in the Vedas has a deep devotional impact on Saivites singing the divine praise.

These comments apply to the thevarams and thiruvasagam.  But as Saivaite theistic teachings, the value of Saivaite secondary scriptures remains weak being essentially devotional outpouring addressed to the divine they were not intended for that role; hence the absence of Gita like secondary scriptures. The poetic form of Saivite scriptures also does not lend itself for Gita style elaboration. Sound Gita style commentaries that could overcome the theistic shortcomings are minimal. By themselves these poetic Saivite scriptures were great spiritual works. On the other hand the Saivite scripture like the Periyapuranam is amenable for Gita style theistic elaboration to enrich Saivite teachings. The life and works of Saivite saints in the Periyapuranam have the ingredients to blossom into Gita style scriptures.  Most Saivite devotees especially those immersed in alien cultures shy away from absorbing the divine message in the Saivite scriptures excusing themselves that these scriptures in Tamil are too difficult to comprehend; an Anglophile phenomena. 

Scope for improvements  

Understanding the basic truths in the Saivite scriptures is a must for the spiritual progress of the faithful. Not only should these truths be delivered in simple and down to earth style the quality of Saivite teachings in the form of secondary scriptures and commentaries need significant improvements. These resources are scarce for Saivites in comparison to those available to mainstream Hindus. For a growing class of literate Saivite faithful there is dreadful dearth of publications and teachers. The 63 Nayanmars were saints whose spiritual experience provides invaluable material for secondary Saivite scriptures that would enrich Saivite teachings.

The spirituality of the Nayanmaras finds expression in their works and their life stories as narrated in the Periyapuranam. This allows scope for elaboration and serve as a vehicle to impart Saivite truths. The rich Saivite spiritual heritage (secondary Saivite scriptures) had the potential for developing Gita style spiritual teachings that could touch the hearts of the Saivite faithful at large. Besides the content, the style and form of the presentation needs to appeal to a wider group of Saivites. Saivaism has not produced rishis of the class that produced the author of Gita. And Saivaism also needs a dedicated order of sannysins to comment upon and improve the theistic component of the Saivite message. Even the Gita required learned commentaries and the deeply committed sannyasins of the various missions to elaborate on the Gita slogas to reach out to the faithful. It is unfortunate that there is a paucity of learned commentaries and committed commentators and teachers to deliver Saivite scriptural message of comparable Gita quality. The bhakthi trait of the Saivaism has served Saivaism well thus far. The inability of the theistic aspects of Saivite teachings to address the challenges arising from the 21st century attitudinal changes that assume tidal wave proportions is cause for concern for all Saivites. Quality commentaries do contribute in these circumstances for overcoming the shortfalls in the delivery of the Saivite message to earn the wider level appeal as the Gita does. Saivaism looks forward to committed practitioners of Saivite spiritual values to undertake this task (producing commentaries) to raise the appeal of Saivite scriptures to a wider circle of the faithful. 

Spirituality – importance of quality teachings 

Why is the quality of teachings important? The striving for spiritual progress to achieve deliverance (moksha) from samsara essentially depends on the intensity of an aspirant’s spiritual pursuit. For the generality of the faithful the spiritual environment does have a major role. From a historical perspective there is evidence that worldly conditions obtaining in a period either inhibit or nurture the spirituality of the community as a whole. Spirituality does not grow in a vacuum and the worldly order significantly influences the values, life styles, the thoughts and actions (karma) of the faithful. The most significant influence that moulds these is the quality of spiritual teachings that the faithful receives. The spirituality of the faithful is closely linked with the thought processes or attitudes of the faithful. Attitudes are moulded amongst others most by the values embodied in the religious doctrines or teachings. Though stating the obvious Saivaism produced the most number of saints during the bhakthi age; an age when the community at large lived by deeply religious and ethical values; there being a symbiotic relationship between the two. In religions that trace their origin to the Vedas some of the values or virtues encouraged amongst others were purity, self-control, detachment, truth and non-violence. These core values are deduced from the scriptures. The values or virtues were adjunct to the moral law of karma and samsara and glorified in the secondary scriptures as well. The Tirukkural is an excellent exposition of the value system for Saivites for all times. Such comments apply subject to qualification to the Kural’s counterpart, the Manu codes that the Hindus inherited. Please see comments on the manu smritis in the appendix to the article “Whither Saivaism – 21st century".

Hierarchy of values (Hindu/Saivite) 

In the present day worldly order the values that Hindus should cherish in ascending order are non-violence, self-control, detachment, purity and truth.  

 Non-violence (vegetarianism) 

Originally non-violence in the scriptures referred to Ahimsa; its role essentially being the discharge of duty to animals. Indians (Hindus and Saivites) were practicing vegetarians but vegetarianism as a value or virtue is fast disappearing. In the Gita when Krishna urges Arjuna to discharge his duty as warrior to fight evil (appears to  abandon ahimsa); this was for a noble cause. The world today is overwhelmed by violence. Nations that grew up through violence against its own people and others perpetrate more and more brutal violence against the weak for the flimsiest of reasons using overwhelming violence against the weak should weak dare to resist, justifying the brutality as a fight against terrorism. This proness to instant blood thirsty violence is attributable to cultures that are totally ignorant of the message of ahimsa. Spiritually violence by both the perpetrators and resistors is against religion.  

 Truth (realizing god)–products of self-control,  detachment and purity.   

For spirituality truth self-control and detachment go hand in hand. The seeking of truth (god) is the core spiritual pursuit in the faith. Detachment and self-control lead to purity of thoughts and actions facilitating the pursuit of the truth (god). When these values or virtues become part of the self; the self attains a level of purity to realise Truth (god) obtaining deliverance from samsara. Purity (in thoughts and acts/karma) result when the thought of god replaces the obsession with desires. With detachment, thoughts become pure. 

Saivite values that growing number of Saivites cherish 

Do these values appeal to present day Saivites? Does the present day worldliness leave any room for these values to be practiced? It is useful to quote a paragraph from the article “Whither Saivaism- 21st century” in the Tailnation.org web pages here:  

“The piece “Saiva (dharma) Neri – its spirituality (a perspective)”..in the Tamilnation.org web pages briefly analysed the implications for values and spirituality caused by crude materialism, consumerism and globalization. The effects are evident most in the attitudinal changes especially amongst the young. Hindu/Saiva parents toil long hours just to provide the many things (material) that the children “Had to Have”. Trips, lavish homes, laptops, music systems, night life, eating of dinner anywhere but at home, lavish birthdays  and wedding anniversaries (for young and old),  designer  clothing and jewels, Omega wrist watches and so on and so on. These (not spirituality) form the topic of conversation feeding egos to be amongst the elite. When thoughts are about finding the means to satisfy such a growing lists of desires where is the space for spiritual thoughts? The phenomenon of “conspicuous consumption” poses a far graver threat to spirituality than anything that Hindus/Saivites faced at any time in the past. The excesses of pre-Upanishadic or Brahmana era pale into insignificance. The gap between values to be observed and actually observed has widened producing an environment that is antithetical spirituality. To create a more conducive environment for spirituality, spiritual teachings have to accept and adjust to the irreversible socio-economic changes in the environment focusing on moderating the monstrous urges that consumerism nourishes amongst the faithful. Historically the inherent strength of Hindu/Saivite teachings is its capacity to adapt to the changing environment without compromising on the core teachings.”  

The nature of gap between thoughts and practice is best illustrated by reference to weddings in most Saivite and Hindu homes. Weddings are occasions for rejoicing. The spirit of rejoicing is not lost when rejoicing is in moderation and not overwhelmed by excessive indulgences which are bad karma. During the brief period when the priest conducts the wedding rituals invoking god with offerings (all essentially vegetarian), there is scrupulous observance of non-violence or ahimsa and the thought of the god adds purity during the wedding ceremony. Offerings (which are acts/karma) invoking god’s blessings for a happy married life is an established ritual. Karma yoga offerings are made  without the expectation of rewards (including god’s blessings). Before the day passes, over-indulgence in acts (karma) driven by unhealthy desires begin and values of self control and detachment take rest leave. High class spirits flow (followed by dancing until the wee hours of the morning) washing down to ingest the lavish meats served. The thought of god also takes rest leave along with it values like ahimsa, detachment, self-control, purity and (seeking) truth. 

When the kural teaches Saivaites about non-violence and self control it encourages abstinence (Pulal unnamai, mathu unnamai) to avoid over indulgences that negates the value of detachment. To quote the kural to others is easy but to practice or overlook such non-observance of values is a different matter.  For seekers of truth, detachment and self-control go hand in hand. In the light of such over-indulgences what role is left for the values or virtues like seeking the truth, detachment, self-control and purity in the scheme of spirituality of the faithful? Would the efforts of the revivalists to re-invigorate these values in the teachings in the face of the overwhelming sway that western values have over the lives of the Saivite and Hindu faithful be fruitful? Where is the space for the practice of the core Saivite values to become part of the self for the self to attain a level of purity to seek Truth (god) and obtain deliverance from samsara. 


Improvements in the quality of teachings is important but the growing non-observance of basic Saivaite values neutralises the benefits flowing from the improved teachings. Accordingly Saivaites instead of being content with temple worship and rituals should  emulate mainstream Hindu spirituality and improving the quality of Saivite theistic teachings and practice.



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