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Whither Saivaism - 21st Century?

V.Siva Subramaniam

8 May 2006

Saivaism shares common philosophical roots (the Vedas) and history with Hinduism. Historically both successfully met the challenges in the environment they originated and grew up in. To replicate their past successes in the complex environment of the 21st century the Saivite (Hindu) community including those living overseas has to re-invigorate itself spiritually.

A historical back-drop

The Upanishadic revival

A brief review of the faith’s past successes in revivalism serves as a guide to present day Saivites striving to restore the spiritual purity of Saivaism. According to better researched religious literature, the Age of the Upanishads which produced the Vedanta (the philosophical foundation of Hindu/Saivite faith) was one such revival. The intellectual and spiritual ferment that conditions (an elaborate system of sacrifices and complex rituals buttressed by the varnadharma-caste system) then produced, delivered Hindu and Saivite spirituality freedom from the strangle-hold of an emerging priestly class. Buddhism and Jainism were revolts against the priestly excesses from outside but the first (Upanishadic) revival was a cleansing movement from within. Revivalism did not totally extinguish these taints (excesses). Hence they re-surfaced periodically providing the environment for subsequent revivals. Accordingly the faith produced the age of the Vedangas and Sutras, the Epics. the puranas, the dharshanas and the agamas and Bhakthi (the early Saivite contributors being seers, Jnanasambandar, Appar and Sundarar).

Hindu revival (19 & 20th Century )

Similar conditions were created with the invasions (Muslim and Western colonial powers) and internal wars when the faith (intellectually and spiritually) suffered a period of stagnation in the face of vigorous Christian missionary activities, the obsession of the elites or intellectuals with the secular pursuits (jobs in the colonial civil service) and the re-emergence of the excesses of the pre-Upanishadic period.

These drove substantial sections of the faithful to Christianity. More than the patronage of the colonial rulers the missionaries exploited successfully the grievances of the social classes that suffered under varnadharma (caste practices). These provided the faith with the reformist fervour that moderated harsh practices such as varnadharma, stri-dharma (sati), animal sacrifice in temples, polygamy, enforced widowhood, prejudice against divorcees and untouchability.

Far more important was that the revivalists pioneered activities to adapt spiritual teachings to the socio-economic changes when colonialism brought with capitalism, crude material values. The Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna mission, other similar organizations and religious teachers by going back to the Upanishads and the Gita re-stated the basic concepts of the faith in a proper perspective concentrating on Brahman and the personal god (ishwara), the law of karma and rebirth and the three-fold paths of karma, bhakthi and jnana. These disabused the perceptions the missionaries were creating that Hindus and Saivaites worshiped many deities and the teachings were life negating. The treatises of Radhakrishnan interpreting Hinduism to both the faithful and the outside world raised the status of Hinduism as a great world religion. Thus the revivalist tradition of the faith should enthuse Saivites into action to restore its purity and strength.

Role for 21st century Revivalism

Tasks awaiting completion

From a historical perspective it is evident that Revivalism has been and is a continuous process. Despite its achievements it has much more to achieve. The teachings of the revivalists hitherto have not sunk deep enough into the psyche of the faithful, especially amongst the vulnerable sections of the Hindu youth who easily succumb to the ridicule of other religionists about the worship of idols, many gods and some of the practices.

The caste system is still entrenched at the social level throughout the Hindu world. There are vigorous protagonists who claim a divine origin for the caste system quoting the Manu smritis (scriptures) and who still use the suffix “dharma” (varna-dharma) when referring to it. This causes much unease amongst educated Hindus. Hindus and Saivites look forward eagerly to the day when the word varnadharma (like Stridharma -sati) disappears from the Hindu lexicon for good. Large numbers of devotees have settled overseas. They are exposed to values that are alien to the core Saivite beliefs and the potential for a drift away of youths from Saivaism is a cause for concern amongst Hindus/Saivites. Hence the need to re-invigourate the Saiva Revivalism.

Newer tasks – addressing issues arising from
globalization, attitudinal and life style changes

The piece “Saiva (dharma) Neri – its spirituality (a perspective)” by this author 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. 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 radical societal changes of the 21st century have produced irreversible changes for the Saivite faith. In the societies of our ancestors simple and intense bhakthi was a rewarding path to spiritual deliverance. The study of the scriptures was confined to a small section (the brahmanas) of the faithful. In the present complex and literate Saivite community the faithful irrespective of class seeks spiritual deliverance through other yogic (karma and gnana) disciplines besides bhakthi. The discipline(s) a devotee follows is a function of his spiritual inclinations.

Hence revivalism has again to re-invent and re-invigorate itself to remain relevant and serve the spiritual aspirations of devotees at this critical juncture.

Versatility of Saivite teachings

The scriptures (these drive spiritual practices) served as the ballast for the Hindu/Saivite faith through the ages. Whenever a gulf occurs between the teachings and practices Revivalism finds answers to issues arising out of changes in the environment. For the 21st century this task becomes more challenging especially in the light of the radical nature of the changes in the environment that bridging the gulf between teachings and practice will necessarily require ingenuity and tremendous effort. The faith’s experience with varnadharma suggests that the gulf between teachings and practice may remain without ever being satisfactorily bridged.

The bhakthi tradition – the strength of the Saivite faith

In the ages gone by, the bhakthi and rituals had a major role in nurturing Saivite spirituality. For the mass of Saivites then, spirituality was bhakthi oriented and hence an unquestioning acceptance of the priestly Vedic teachings and rituals in the faith. The guru ship role of the priests was an important pillar in Saivite piety and spirituality. These changed. With the socio-economic evolution, the priestly classes moved away from the role assigned in the Manu smriti (the study and teaching of the Vedas) to secular vocations. The non-priestly classes on the other hand for their own spiritual development showed interest in the study of the Vedas and related scriptures themselves. Although for some of the rituals the priestly class offered no coherent explanations the devotees accepted the rituals as sacred and without dissent. Despite these attendance at temples grew stronger and stronger. The implicit acceptance of rituals is attributable to the strong bhakthi trait in the Saivite community.

Temples - rituals and spiritual teachings

Revivalism encouraged growing temples attendance. It also offered other forms of worship besides pujas and festivals thus improving the contribution of temple programs to spirituality. The scope for temples to serve as places for quiet meditation and centres of spiritual learning were (and are) raised from time to time. The Bhakthi component in spiritual teachings predominated in the traditional (thevarams and katha-pirasangams centred on the puranas) teachings; this changed when the revivalists broadened the teachings to include other yogic disciplines.

The widespread teaching of the Gita a respected treatise on spirituality shows the growing interest amongst Saivite devotees in broadening their knowledge of spiritual truths. The growing circle of devotees of this category is evidence of the results that revivalism has and is producing especially in delivering spiritual truths more effectively in the more literate 21st century environment. Besides the temples, the missions and ashrams, Hindu and Saivite organizations are involved in improving the quality of the spiritual teachings. This is especially important in an age when the decline in the observance of moral values (dharma) and the gulf between morality and spirituality is widening. The faithful are now dispersed around the world where material values predominate.

 In the heartland of the faith itself materialistic Western moral values and life styles pre-dominate over the thought of the divine. One cannot be spiritual without being moral first. The revivalists through the agency of the sannyasins of the Ramakrishnan Mission, ashrams and other religious teachers following on the footsteps of personalities like Dr Radhakrishnan, Mahatma Ghandhi, Aurobindho Ghose, and Tagore show an extra-ordinary capacity to extricate the faith and the moral order from priest ridden rituals and alien values that erode Saivite spirituality and delivering a revitalized bhakthi discipline. The vitality that the Revivalists have shown gives hope that the faith will cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

In Saivaism sages achieved spiritual deliverance principally through the bhakthi. Interest in the scriptures replaces desires with the thought of the divine in devotees; an important step in purifying the soul for spiritual deliverance (moksha). Gnana yoga is an arduous yoga for which only a few are endowed with the necessary inclinations. This means that a revitalized Bhakthi discipline involving temple worship will continue its dominant role in the Revivalist agenda for the 21st century.

Quality of Spiritual teaching

The Ramakrishna mission and like organizations began imparting cleansed scriptural truths (i.e. omitting those rituals and teachings that have lost relevance with societal changes) for decades. Devotees who missed the teachings continued to practice ritualistic worship. Revivalism saw success in focusing on core concepts like Brahman, ishta deivam, the law of karma amongst others, yet there are commentaries originating from respectable sources that mis-quote the scriptures justifying sinful practices like varna dharma. In the West, feudalism (equivalent of the caste system) just disappeared when capitalism arrived. Although the politico-economic structures that supported the caste system crumbled at the social level it continues to plague the lives of Hindus (especially Indians).

Saivites scriptures including the Kural did not offer much support philosophically for these practices as the Manu smriti did. Most disturbing is that commentaries still misquote the scriptures – a practice that damages the philosophical foundations of the faith and in the absence of robust rebuttals from devotees and commentators who disagree (Hindu publications included) such commentaries continue in publications. This means the message of revivalism on the varna dharma failed to accomplish its objective that revivalists have to continue to battle on with greater vigour to win over more and more devotees away from such practices Discussions and publications that articulate the practice of misquoting of the scriptures are important to raise the quality of the scriptural teachings and guide devotees studying the scriptures. Revivalism has a major challenge here.


The whole gamut of spiritual activities that Saivite devotees engage in today (worship in the temples and homes, arduous pilgrimages, attending discourses, observing dharmic behavior) remain bhakthi oriented. Given that the thought of the divine in bhakthi prepares the soul for the spiritual deliverance, the study and practice of scriptural truths act as the stimulus to light up the divine spark revitalizing the bhakthi discipline.

In the past rituals in temples and homes, spiritual retreats under the guidance of sages or rishis in ashrams provided the spiritual succour for devotees. These produced the environment for sages to attain spiritual wisdom. In recent times Revivalist organizations offer religious discourses, retreats and opportunities for social service for devotees to gradually replace worldly thoughts with the thoughts of the divine. Present day conditions demand more of this from Revivalist organizations. Ordinary devotees receiving teachings (from sannyasins of missions and ashrams) are also keen to pursue scriptural studies themselves. For them the scriptures are a bewildering web that cleansing them by codifying and identifying core scriptures and quality commentaries are important. Devotees to receive quality spiritual teachings is achievable by improving the quality of the temple priests (most of whom now merely perform the rituals

Priests capable of imparting spiritual teachings and explaining the significance of rituals to spirituality will improve the faith of devotees especially the young in temple worship and the rituals. Depending on the stage of life, the Hindu/Saivaite faith offers devotees more and more choices to tailor their spiritual pursuits that meet their spiritual inclinations.

Equipping parents with basic scriptural knowledge is urgent to provide the environment in the home for the children to cultivate and include the thought of god within their childhood activities. Inculcating faith in the divine when young insures against the risk of children drifting away as they grow up.

Although spirituality and achieving spiritual deliverance in the last resort is dependent on a devotee’s own divine inclinations and striving, temples and religious organizations had and have a role. The missions, the ashrams, temple management, voluntary organizations and dedicated individuals provided the motive power behind the Revivalist movements. These activities needs direction, leadership and coordination on a world-wide basis to be more effective. The revivalism in Saivite community looks forward to strong leadership in view of the changed character of the challenges for the faith in the 21st century.


Pitfalls in studying commentaries that mis-quote the scriptures - A varnadharma case study

The purusha legend

Examining the commentary of a reputed Varnadharma apologist, illustrates the nature of the pitfalls that devotees have to avoid in relying on quotes from the scriptures in commentaries. ..‘the system of the four varnas was already settled....’ from Vedic times. There was a thriving, occupation based, agrarian society in which gunas (or inherent qualities not birth) apparently determined the functional division of society. Aryan influence super-imposed on it a birth based (hereditary) caste system. How and when this change occured and when the colour (varna) dimension was added to it carrying with it associated prejudices is not clearly established.

The apologist refers to the purusha legend in the sacred Purushasukta (Rig Vedic) hymn 10.90 to explain the creation of the caste classes. The apologist’s commentary reads; “...purusha is said to have produced the Brahmana from his mouth, the Kshatriya from his arms, and the Vaisha from his thighs and the Shudra from his feet”. The quote from the Manu smriti verse (1.31) is; “But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds he caused the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs and his feet”. The quote from the pre-Manu, the Rig Veda Sruti (10.90.11 & 12) reads: “…When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet? (11)”…. “The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced”. (Rig Veda 10.90 (12)

It is interesting to note the import of the words used in the three quotes above. The key words in the apologist’s commentary is “produced” compared to “caused” and “proceed” in the Manu and “call”, “was”, “made”, “became”, “produced” in the Rig Veda. Clearly the apologist takes the imagery in the verse and the (purusha) legend literally implying that castes are a creation of God and varnadharma is a divine message. The commentary accepts a (Manu) Smriti 1.31 over a Rig Veda Sruti 10.90 (11 & 12) (a revealed truth) which overrides a Smriti (a subsequent commentary). The Manu smriti is a much criticized scripture for the reason that it appears to have been edited indiscriminately at different times by different scholars (who invariably were the Brahmanas). Manu was a great sage and the Manu Smriti a great scripture but its relevance in the context of the assertions in the commentary is dubious. A comparison of the Manu smriti and the Saivite kural explains why Saivite jati practices were “kinder’ and “gentler” than the harsh prejudices practiced under varnadharma.

The law of Karma explanation !

To improve the quality of the spiritual teachings the attention of devotes needs to be drawn to spiritual commentaries where an apologist uses the Law of Karma to justify varnadharma using a four line oblique narration in Chhandohya Upanishad V.10.7). Both (the Upanishad quote and the commentary) are quoted to support this observation.

“Those whose conduct here on earth has been good will quickly attain some good birth-birth as a Brahmin, birth as a kshatriya or birth as a vaisya. But those whose conduct here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth- birth as a dog, birth as a pig or birth as a chandala” - Chhandogya Upanishad V 107

“.. a person’s birth in a particular form, as Brahmana, or Shudra depends on his karma in a past birth. His varna is thus the consequence of his past actions....A man’s varna is part of the retributive justice that pursues the self from birth to birth…It is by fulfilling faithfully the duties of his varna and status that one may ascend in the social scale ….birth in a varna is the result of the combined effect of the innate guna of the self and its actions(karma) as moulded in the past births…Translated into terms of purusharthas, the first varna stands for Dharma, the second and third for Artha and Kama and the last for only animal desires (Kama)”.

According to Chhandogya Upanishad scripture in the category “good birth” it included the brahmin, kshatriya and vaisya. These classes lived well in the social context then. The apologist however omits mention of kshatriya and vaisya in the “good birth” category in his commentary. In effect according to the apologist the conduct of all brahmanas is good and are duly rewarded with good birth as brahmanas. What an interpretation of the law of karma and the scripture (Chhandogya Upanishad)? Readers are left to judge the prejudice in the observations (in italics) in the last sentence of the commentary quoted above.  


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