The Saivite Saints of Periya PurANam
1. A general perspective
The Thamizh Saiva Canon (known as panniru thirumuRais) consisting of 20,000 verses singing the glory of Lord Shiva was authored by 26 devotees of the Lord. The first seven of the thirumuRais (called thEvAram) were written by ThirugnAna Sambandhar (first three), the next three by ThirunAvukkarasar (also known as appar), and the seventh by Sundarar. The eighth (ThiruvAcagam) was written by MANickavAcagar, the ninth (ThiruvisaippA) by a group of devotees, and the tenth (Thirumandhiram) by ThirumUlar. The eleventh is another miscellaneous collection, and the twelfth (PeriyapurANam) was authored by SEkkizhAr (who lived in the 11th century CE).
PeriyapurANam is a hagiography of the 63 recognized Saivite saints known as nAyanmArs who lived from a few centuries BCE to 9th century CE. PeriyapurANam has its basis on two other works, ThiruththoNDaththogai consisting of 11 verses of 8 lines each written by Sundarar and ThiruththoNDar thiruvandhAdhi (89 quatrains) written by nambiyANDAr nambi who lived in 10th century CE. But PeriyapurANam is a quantitatively voluminous and qualitatively superb poetic narrative by far in describing the lives of the nAyanmArs, their backgrounds, and the splendorous places in which they lived.
SEkkizhAr was the prime minister for the king KulOththungac cOzhan, who advised the king not only on stately matters but also on religion. He was encouraged by the king to write about the servitors of Lord Shiva. Taking cue from the works of Sundarar and nambiyANDAr nambi, SEkkizhAr wrote a masterly literary piece detailing the lives of the 60 nAyanmArs (thiruththoNDars) mentioned by Sundarar and included 3 more (Sundarar, and Sundarar’s parents, isaignaniyAr, and saDaiyanAr) on his own thus branding a total of 63 nAyanmArs (who remain so revered till today) in a total of 4286 stanzas of which 1888 stanzas dealt with the thEvAram trinity (Sambandhar, ThirunAvukkarasar, and Sundarar). The king declared PeriyapurANam as the 12th thirumuRai. PeriyapurANam is considered to be of great significance in Saivite literature next only to thEvAram and thiruvAcagam. Ironically the author of eighth thirumuRai, MANickavAcagar, who preceded SEkkizhAr, is not counted among the 63 nAyanmArs mainly because he came after Sundarar when the 60 nAyanmArs (aDiyArgaL) were named by Sundarar. SEkkizhAr, although aware of MANickavAcagar’s greatness, could not or would not include him in the list of nAyanmArs.
Who are the Saints/Servitors?
Of the 63 nAyanmArs, four vocal and scholarly devotees account for half of the total content of thirumuRais. They are Sambandhar, appar, Sundarar, and ThirumUlar. Three others (kAraikkAl ammaiyAr, ayyaDigaL kADavarkOn—a pallavA king, and cEramAn perumAL nAyanAr—a cEra king) also sang in praise of the Lord. The remaining 56 devotees are the so-called “dumb” devotees. The epithet “dumb” should not be taken at its literal meaning. It simply means they did not express their devotion in words (unlike the four mentioned above) but only in deeds.
The saints were drawn from all segments of the society—from the kings to the “menial” citizens. The three foremost among the 63 are Sambandhar, ThirunAvukkarasar, and Sundarar. In addition, there was a hunter (kaNNappar), a fisherman (adhipaththar), an untouchable (nandhanAr), a weaver (nEsa nAyanAr), a potter (thirunIlakaNDar), a washer man (thirukkuRippuththoNDar), a merchant (kaNampullar), vEdhic brhamins ( Sambandhar, sOmAsi mARar), a farmer (appar), a poet (kAri nAyanAr), petty chieftains (narasinga munai-araiyar, perumizhalaik kuRumbar)), an ex-general (ciRuththoNDar), a chief minister to a king (kulacciRaiyAr), kings (pugazhccOzhar, cEramAn perumAL, ninRasIr neDumARan, ayyaDigaL kADavarkOn, kOccengat cOzhan) and a whole bunch of others who were just plain folks who pursued some craft or other for a living but were mainly known for their devotion to the Lord and the servitors. Bringing up the rear are three women (kAraikkAl ammaiyAr, mangaiyarkkarasiyAr, and isaignAniyAr) in the list. We will write about the women separately.
All the 63 were householders, bachelors or married (with or without children) and one was an ascetic (ThirumUlar). They performed various duties to earn a living while keeping the devotion to the Lord and His devotees as their primary goal in life. Many of the 63 were not educated—almost illiterate so to speak. Not all of them were vegetarians. One hunter even offered meat to the Lord. Most of them did not do anything extraordinary by today’s standards. But the chronicles tell us that they all attained salvation (mukthi). The primary characteristic in all of them is their love of God and His devotees. Not all of them were non-violent. Some of them were violent enough to use weapons like a hand axe or knife in achieving their goal in the service of the Lord. But all of them had material desires set aside from their hearts and minds.
Geographical and temporal distribution of nAyanmArs:
While the servitors of the Lord cannot be restricted to just 63, those who have found a place among the 63 are unique. Where did they live and when did they live? As for the time period it is generally known that 9 of them lived before Sambandhar’s period. Eleven of the 63 were Sambandhar’s contemporaries (7th century CE). Twelve servitors were Sundarar’s contemporaries (9th century CE), and the time period of 29 others is not well characterized. The earliest is known to be kaNNappar (the hunter) who is presumed to have lived in the period BCE.
A large number (32) were from sOzha country, 8 were from middle country (naDunADu), a region stretching north of the river KoLLiDam but south of the Arcot districts, 7 were from thoNDainADu (pallavA country), 4 from PANDiyanADu, 2 from cEra country (malainADu), and one each from kongunADu, mazhanADu, and the current Andhra Pradesh. The places of origin or domicile of the remaining are not known. The 63 who have been placed on pedestals are known to have attained Godhead. Twelve of them gained through worshipping the Guru, nineteen of them through service to devotees of the Lord, and 32 others through their love and worship of God.
Saivism got a revival during the pallavA and sOzha periods. ThirunAvukkarasar was known to have converted the pallavA king Mahendravarman from Jainism to Saivism when royal patronage changed the course of the spread of religion. Sambandhar converted the PANDiya king ninRasIr neDumARan from Jainism to Saivism. The thEvAram trinity, among the 63, was mainly responsible for a transformation on the religious front (from the then pervasive Jainism to universal Saivism).
We will not write about the thEvAram trinity here. They have been the subject of several books and articles. For an excellent, analytical, thoughtful, and comprehensive account about them the book “Periya PurANam” (Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai-600 004) by G. Vanmikanathan is recommended.
General Reading on nAyanmArs and PeriyapurANam (in Thamizh text):