The Beliefs, Practices and Path to Liberation in the Srouta Saiva Tradition
“Siva creates the world and all souls. As Shakti, Siva is also the material cause of the world. We are part of the body of God.”
THE SROUTA SAIVITES TRACE THEIR caste lineage to the rishis who first received the Vedas from God Siva, each of whom was the progenitor of a specific gotra, or family group. All brahmin castes similarly regard themselves as descendants of one of these rishis. These gotras form a grihastha tradition in which the teachings flow from father to son, mother to daughter. Thus, the tradition has been passed on for centuries in unbroken continuity.
Historically, twelve teachers among the Srouta Saivites are revered above all others. They are the twelve aradhyas, those “fit to be worshiped,” holy teachers considered to be above even the brahminical caste itself. Born with full awareness of Siva consciousness, they propagated devotion to Lord Siva and taught the Sivadvaita philosophy. Today, male descendents of these aradhyas may act as initiating gurus.
The foremost saint of this tradition is Badarayana, author of the Brahma Sutras, 550 pithy verses which encapsulate the Upanishads, explaining the nature of God, the status of the world and the individual self. Badarayana’s work is a fundamental to all schools of Vedanta.
The next most significant teacher was Nilakantha Sivacharya, also known as Srikantha, said to have been born in 3100 bce in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. His commentary on Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras, the Nilakantha Bhashyam, forms the basis for the philosophy of Siva Vishishtadvaita, or, more simply, Sivadvaita. This philosophy, also called Srouta Saiva Siddhanta, regards both the Vedas and the Saiva Agamas as revealed scripture.
Historical evidence for the lineage can be traced back to the 11th century ce, with the most important modern exponent being Sivayogi Mudigonda Nagalinga Shastri (1876-1948). As a young man, he studied in Tamil Nadu with Sri Srinivasa Shastrigal, who gave him a palm leaf copy of Nilakantha Bhashyam, calling it the oldest and most authoritative commentary on Saiva Siddhanta. With his prodigious pen, he consolidated and restated the tradition in over 100 books.
A second key figure, Mudigonda Sankararadhyula (1851-1924), founded the Saiva Maha Sabha in 1904, a formal institution representing the community. It became Saiva Maha Peetham in 1941. Its current head is Sivasri Sadguru Dr. Kandukuri Sivananda Murthy Garu.
The Srouta community is not a movement, nor does it seek expansion. In fact, it has remained so insulated that few inside or outside of India know of the existence of this important living Sivadvaita tradition. But thanks to the website by Siva Sri Annadevara Subbarao, , and his translation of their books into English, the days of Srouta Saivism’s being hidden are gone.
God, Soul and World
The core Srouta theological tenets can be summarized as follows. Siva is God, Rudra, the Parabrahma of the Vedas and the creator (efficient cause) of the world. As Shakti, He is also the material cause of the world. All souls, too, are Siva’s creation. God, souls and the world are eternal entities. The multiplicity of form and beings is real and not just an appearance. From Siva’s point of view, it is all One. It is Himself. He is the tree of life, and also that which is beyond the tree. One Srouta analogy says, to Lord Siva, souls are like fingers are to your hand. We are part of the body of God.
Srouta Saiva Siddhanta acknowledges the pan-Hindu view of the cycles of manifestation. All form emanates from Siva, and all form will dissolve back into Him at the time of the Great Dissolution, mahapralaya. Souls continue to exist after mahapralaya, but in subtle form, emerging once again in the next cycle of manifestation.
Siva is regarded as having two forms. The murta/saguna, personal form of God is Siva/Shakti, known as Ardhanarishwara, “Half Female Lord.” Following the Saiva Agamas, this supreme personal form is also called Parameshwara, which manifests Sadasiva, the Five-Faced Lord from whom all beings and creation arise. The amurta/nirguna, formless Siva, is represented by the Sivalingam.
Dear to Srouta Saivites is the Vedic teaching describing the process of anupravesham. Each of us has a vacant space at the top of the heart. This space corresponds to the cosmic heart of Siva, known as daharaksham or chidambaram, the “sky/space of consciousness.” Upon incarnation, the karma-laden soul enters this space with Lord Siva. Therein, Siva acts like a mother, helping the soul fructify its karmas and progress toward liberation.
Srouta Saivites adhere closely to Vedic prescriptions. These include practice of Gayatri japa, following the rules for one’s particular caste, fulfilling the 18 ritual sacraments (samskaras) that consecrate life’s milestones, and the ritual honoring of one’s ancestors.
Practice includes general guidelines for conduct, such as being truthful, keeping purity (which includes observing rules of untouchability during death and birth periods), straightforwardness, seeing the world as God’s gift, being celibate before marriage and after marriage being faithful to one’s spouse. During the month of Krittika and on Mahasivaratri, food is taken once a day only. Adherents are urged to follow the shastras and teachings of their lineage with determination.
Lingadharana initiation is to be received at an early age. Recitation of Aum Namah Sivaya and Sri Rudram chanting are central. Siva is ardently worshiped in the Linga around one’s neck, in the Linga in the heart and as the Linga that is the cosmos. Stress is placed on wearing rudraksha beads, holy ash and performing puja daily.
Stages of Unfoldment
As one develops a strong desire for liberation, there comes a natural intensification of spiritual practice, including daily puja, offerings and Aum Namah Sivaya japa. Eventually, gaining a deep understanding of God Siva, one enters into nirikshana, a state of yearning for a vision of Lord Siva.
Upon death, the goal is to direct the life forces from the heart through the Brahmanadi, the spiritual nerve current that runs to and through the top of the head. Leaving the body in this manner, one enters high spiritual inner realms, bathing in the Viraja river and joining Siva in the heaven world. Thereafter, the soul evolves through the final states of exaltation as given in the Saiva Agamas: 1) salokyam—abiding in Siva’s inner world of Kailasam; 2) samipyam, being near God Siva; 3) sarupyam—attaining the same form as Siva and, finally; 4) sayujyam, becoming one with Him and viewing creation through His eyes.
(Blessing the Ishta Sivalingas: The small crystal (for men) and black stone (for women) Sivalingas are prepared according to the same scriptural injunctions used when a Sivalingam is installed in a temple. Here two Lingas receive the nine-grains consecration.
Chattampi Swami’s Long Shadow
The 19th-century Kerala saint instigated reform, inspired his disciple Narayana Guru and directly influenced Swamis Vivekananda and Chinmayananda
BY G.K. NAIR, KERALA
“ABROAD FOREHEAD SMEARED WITH HOLY ASH, eyebrows expressing undaunted courage, eyes flowing with kindness and consideration, a face that bespoke friendliness and amiability, a beautiful flowing silvery beard, a broad and muscular chest, long hands, speech that was sweet, full of meaning, soft and gentle, and murmuring with rhythm”—such was the great Kerala Saint Chattampi Swami as described by his biographer. The 19th-century teacher broke down caste inequality while reestablishing the traditional Saiva philosophy of Kerala. He argued for rights of women, equal access to education and removal of any restrictions on temple entry. It is a quirk of history that he is less well known even inside Kerala than his disciple Narayana Guru, whose influence remains strong to this day.
Vidhyadhiraja Parama Bhattaraka Chattampi Swami, as he is formally called, was born Kunjan Pillai on August 25, 1853, in Thiruvananthapuram, then the seat of power of the Travancore Kingdom and today the capital of Kerala. His father, Vasudeva Sharma, was of the Nambudiri brahmin caste (which dominated Kerala society at the time) and his mother a lower-caste Nair. In one of the matrilineal marriage systems peculiar to Kerala, the eldest son in a brahmin family could marry a brahmin lady; but the younger sons could only take a wife from the Nair caste. The husband and wife did not live together, and the children were not admitted to the family of their father but were raised by their mother and her brothers—a practice called hypergamy. Kunjan’s family was indigent, and two of his siblings died from malnutrition.
A bright child, Kunjan was admitted to a local gurukulam where, along with Tamil, Malayalam, mathematics and music, he learned Sanskrit—despite the prohibition on low-caste people doing so. Because he was older than most of the students, he was put in charge of them and given the name Chattampi, “monitor,” which stuck with him throughout his life. He left school at 15 to earn money to support his mother, becoming a “headload worker” carrying bricks, sand, etc., at a state construction site. He soon got a better job as a title deed writer, then as a clerk. At 18 he returned to the same building he helped build as a laborer, this time as an accountant for the Diwan. He left this job in 1871 and started associating with educated religious people, including a sannyasin named Subramanhya, who taught him a mantra. After days of chanting, austerity and penance as advised by Subramanhya, he felt himself and appeared to others a different man. Henceforth he tended toward the life of a sannyasin and spent five years living and studying Saiva Siddhanta and Vedanta with Sri Subba Jadapadigal, a famed scholar of South India.
The Search for His Guru
In 1874 Chattampi became a student of Ayyavu Swami, who instructed him in yoga, Vedanta, Tamil Saivite philosophy and other South Indian schools of thought. He also studied with other saints and scholars of Kerala, even for a time with a Christian priest and later a Muslim Sufi mystic. Finally, he left Kerala to wander through South India in search of his guru.
Sometime in 1881 he arrived in the village of Vadaveesvaam in the modern Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India. There he encountered an old beggar on the side of the road picking food off banana-leaf plates which had been tossed out on the street for the cows to eat after a feast. He was sharing the leftovers with a pack of village dogs. Some boys started throwing stones at the old man, but he paid them no mind. Convinced he had encountered no ordinary beggar, Chattampi approached the man, who immediately fled into the forest outside the village. Chattampi followed him to a hilltop, where the old man disappeared. The exhausted Chattampi fell asleep on the spot.
When he woke in the morning, his head was in the lap of the beggar. Chattampi Swami later recalled that the man said, “My dear son, you have already traveled far along the way of truth.” They lived off what they could find in the forest while the old man taught him the way to God realization. After just a few days, the old man left Chattampi to meditate upon what he had been taught. The old man never returned; but from that short experience, Chattampi was a changed person. He had achieved nirvikalpa samadhi and become a jivanmukti, one who is liberated from rebirth. He was 28 years old.
People immediately sensed the change and started addressing him with great reverence as Chattampi Swami. Upon his return to Kerala, Nanu Asan, two years younger than he, became his disciple and was given the name Narayana Guru. Together the two set about initiating a Hindu renaissance in Kerala. Narayana Guru came from the Ezhava caste—like the Nairs, a major group in Kerala. Between them they could impact a large portion of the population.
During his lifetime, Chattampi Swami met and influenced future leaders of India. Swami Vivekananda, ten years his junior, came to him with questions about meditation. Chattampi later recounted that Vivekananda said, “You have explained well. Now, I can understand. I have traveled from Bengal to these southernmost parts of India. I have met many sadhus and sannyasins. I asked the same to them. But till now I could not get satisfactory answers.” Vivekananda took both of Chattampi Swami’s hands and placed them on his head in an expression of respect.
The story of Kerala-born Swami Chinmayananda, founder of Chinmaya Mission, is far more unusual, and best related in his own words: “It must have been in the early twenties; I only have a very dim, vague memory. And yet, the flashes that rise in my bosom are unfailingly clear. They have been my silent inspiration. They have helped me more often than I dare to confess.
“It cannot be explained because it all happened when I was only three or perhaps four years old. I remember the unique smell of the long, white beard, the rough hairy chest, and the rounded soft belly. This I remember clearly of Sri Chattampi Swami, in the early 1920s. He used to be a regular visitor to our house in Ernakulam, and my mother tells me it was his usual practice to lay me on his chest and lie down on a cot and prattle away to me. Mother told me that I in my turn used to prattle back, and thus long periods of quiet communication used to be there between the great sage and me, an innocent child. As I was being rocked up and down in a vertical position, Swami was in the habit of rolling his head at the neck from right to left. All those who knew him, can remember this happy pose of the unique Master. It was this simple picture, drawn in my memory that did often return, again and again, to help me in the path of my life. It contained for me a testimony, a testament and an evergreen hope, all in one, for all times.
“One day my mother asked Swami, ‘What exactly are you telling to that baby, and what is the language you both use?’ To this Swami answered, ‘He understands it all, why do you interfere with us?’
“These are all the reminiscences that I can report. Is it all true? Is there communication possible between a silver-bearded Master and an uninitiated infant? Whatever else there might have been in my early life, there was no spirituality or religion apparently evident; and yet twenty-five years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I can look back now and declare that suddenly, from nowhere, a spiritual urge and a religious hunger took me by storm, and in one tidal-wave sustained me for ten short years in Uttara Kasi, only to leave me back, again, on the shores of the Indian Hindu metropolis, to preach, to serve and to convert the Hindus to Hinduism.”
Chattampi Swami continued his scholastic endeavors throughout his life and wrote many books. He is remembered most for establishing, through reference to scriptures such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the eligibility of all, irrespective of caste or sex, to study the teachings of the Vedas. Up to this time, scholarship itself was considered the province only of brahmins. Study of the Vedas in particular was forbidden to sudras, the caste to which Swami himself belonged. His reasoning with regard to Vedic study was published in a book, Vedadhikara Nirupanam, in 1918. It is his most important work. A later disciple of Narayana Guru commented on reading the book, “It is our luck that it was not banned [by the British], so revolutionary was its content, like a bomb placed in that era’s world of social discrimination.”
Swami’s next book, Advaita Chintha Paddhathi, was written in simple language to teach Vedanta and practical advaita to ordinary people having no knowledge of Sanskrit. A third book, Jivakarunya Nirupanam, on nonviolence and vegetarianism, quotes not only Hindu tradition but also the opinions of Newman, Milton, Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, Robert Bell, Darwin, Christian saints and others on nonvegetarian food.
In 1913 Swami published a very different book, Pracheena Malayalam (“Ancient Malayalam”), a historical work which sought to refute the claim to supremacy of the Nambudiri brahmins. Understandably, this book was not well received by that community. A main point was that the Nair community of Kerala were originally followers of Saiva Siddhanta (still strong in Tamil Nadu), which is quite different from the Mimamsa philosophical system of the Nambudiris.
In another book, Christumata Saram and Christumata Schethanam (“Summary and Critique of Christianity”), Swami summarized the Christian Bible and analyzed its illogical aspects and faulty statements. The book went a long ways toward curtailing the conversion efforts of the missionaries. Oddly enough, it is kept in print today by a Christian publishing house and is popular among Kerala Christians.
Swami taught that the role of women in society is important. He said it is only the foolish that believe “Na stree swatantryamarhathi” (“A woman does not deserve freedom”). It is unjust, he emphasized, and against all laws to keep her bonded, ignorant and as a machine for producing children. It is also wrong to consider that man can do any injustice he likes to a woman and that only he has the power to rule. But, Swami taught, this does not mean that men should leave their occupations and remain at home for child rearing. Both should understand the unique roles which each has to fulfill.
Chattampi Swami initiated a few disciples into sannyas but made no systematic effort to set up ashrams to perpetuate his work. He rarely even settled in one place, traveling constantly. Narayana Guru was the only person he spent extended periods with. He would not handle money; and when given 100 acres of valuable land in Kodanad for an ashram or school, he gifted it to a disciple to “put to good use.” The Theerthapada Ashrams established by his disciples, are, with some exceptions, relatively inactive today.
For this article HINDUISM TODAY visited two Theerthapada ashrams. One is located in Kollam district, at a place where Chattampi Swami installed a Siva Lingam. It is looked after by Swami Vageesananda Theerthapada. The second, and main, Theerthapada Ashram (pictured above), located in Vazhoor, is headed by Swami Prajnananda Theerthapada. It has 17 acres of land, with farms and a goshala with 80 cows and calves. With income from its rubber tree plantation, it sustains other Theerthapada ashrams in need of support. It has a library and reading room and is engaged in publishing the writings of Chattampi Swamigal and his disciples. Unfortunately, the Theerthapada ashrams lack the modern facilities of others in Kerala and are neglected even by the Nair community. One resident said he doubted the present generation of Nairs even know the name Chattampi Swami.
Swami Prajnananda lamented the state of today’s society. “We seldom find children having an inherent liking for spiritualism and religion. This may be because of the changed lifestyles of parents who are in the clutches of the modern Western culture of materialism. In pursuit of that, the parents have lost the spiritual and religious traditions and values. Consequently, the children born to them neither come with any inherent spiritual qualities nor learn any prudent values. In addition to this selfishness and the resultant greed for wealth to satisfy their material pleasures, the majority of the youths lack an aptitude and/or mind for serving the God by serving the fellow human beings.”
When asked what Chattampi Swamigal would say if he were alive today, Prajnananda Swami responded, “He would be sorrowing to see the violent and wicked nature of the people, especially the Hindus who are relegated to the lower levels of spiritualism, abandoning their culture, traditions and values. He would have made a clarion call to the mothers to come forward to educate and guide their children in the righteous path.”
Vaikom Vivekanandan, an octogenarian and staunch devotee of the Swami, said one problem is the absence of Nair leaders who understand Chattampi Swami’s exhortations to extricate the community from “the clutches of the upper-caste brahmins.” He said most of the brahmins are Vaishnavites. In order to bring the Nairs into their fold, he narrated, they first introduced the idea of seeing Siva and Vishnu together. Instead of learning Chattampi Swami’s Advaita Vedanta derived from Saiva Siddhanta, the people absorbed the message of Vaishnavism, which was spread through popularization of the Bhagavatha Purana, Bhagavad Gita, etc. Thus over a long period of time, the Nairs, who were mainly Saivites in the past, moved away from Saiva Siddhanta; though a good number of Ezhavas, following Narayana Guru, remained followers of Advaita Vedanta.
The role played by Chattampi Swami in the history of Kerala has not yet been seriously assessed. While the Ezhava community has reverently accepted his disciple Narayana Guru as their spiritual preceptor, the Nair community did not follow suit with Chattampi Swami. One reason was his sharp criticism of the Nambudiri brahmin community, which did not sit well with Nairs whose fathers were brahmins (like his own). Consequently, the rich contributions made by him for the uplift of all the oppressed communities and the women of Kerala did not reach the people as they might have.
The movements initiated by him for social and religious reforms did make some progress in weeding out the age-old caste-based hierarchical social structures in the state, where not only the brahmins, but also the Nairs and Ezhavas, played according to their own divisive rules.
After seven decades, the sage left his body at the time and place decided by him in advance and merged with Siva. This was on May 5, 1924, in the village of Panmana, while under the care of two close disciples. His samadhi shrine (burial place) is established at the Panmana Ashram.
Recently the Nair Service Society, which represents many of the state’s Nairs, has asked all their village units, numbering about 6,000, to display the picture of Chattampi Swami in their offices as their spiritual guru. Those who understand Swami’s life believe that had people more closely followed what he taught about social equality, empowerment of women, nonviolence, compassion and love for all living creatures, protection of environment and, above all, the philosophy of pure Saiva Advaita, the present generation would be the better for it.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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