Śaivism: Nāyāṉārs

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The sixty-three Nāyaārs (c. 500750 ce) are the early leaders (Tam., nāyaār, "lord, leader"; pl., nāyamār ) and canonized saints of the Tamil Śaivas, a Hindu sect that commands a large following in the Tamil linguistic area of South India. Along with the Vaiava vārs, the Nāyaārs were among the first saints of a regional, vernacular bhakti (devotional) tradition in Hinduism.

Preeminent among the Nāyaārs are Ñāacampantar (also called Tiruñāacampantar or Campantar; c. 650), Tirunāvukkaracar (also called Appar; c. 580670) and Cuntaramūrtti (also called Nampi rūrar; seventh to eighth century), authors of the Tamil hymns of the Tēvāram, which form the first seven books of the Tamil Śaiva canon, and are sung during temple rituals. Māikkavācakar, author of the Tiruvācakam (c. ninth century), is revered as the fourth saint-teacher (camayakuru ) of the tradition, although he is not included among the Nāyaārs. Next in popularity to the four poet-saints are the woman hymnist Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār (c. 550600), Tirumūlar (c. eighth century), author of the mystical text Tirumantiram, and the legendary figures Kaappar and Caēcar.

The contributions of Ñāacampantar, Appar, and Cuntaramūrtti are embodied in their hymns, which Tamil Śaivas consider equal to the Vedas, holiest of Hindu scriptures. In the Tamil hymnsthe first vernacular religious texts in Hinduismthe saints eloquently express emotional love for a personal God (Śiva), a form of religiosity new to Hinduism. The three Nāyaārs traveled to 260 shrines of Śiva in Tamil country and celebrated his presence in these places. The saints' emphasis on Tamil cultural elements, such as emotional love in the setting of particular places, endeared their religion to the Tamils. The Tēvāram helped to drive Buddhism and Jainism out of the Tamil region and to establish Tamil Śaivism as the national religion of the Tamils, patronized by the kings and practiced by the masses.

In his Tamil work Periyapurāam (The great history), the hagiographer Cēkkiār (c. 1135) narrates the lives of Cuntaramūrtti and the sixty-two historical and legendary saints named in a hymn (Tēvāram 7.39). The Nāyaārs came from all segments in Tamil society. The majority were from the upper castes and classeskings, brahmans, cultivatorsbut the list also includes a hunter, a low-caste musician, and even an untouchable. In contrast to the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, the saints formed an ideal society, a spiritually egalitarian community of devotees of Śiva. The extreme acts of Kaappar, who dug out his own eyes to replace the miraculously bleeding eyes of the linga image of Śiva that he was worshiping, and of Ciuttoar, who upon request cooked and served his own son to a Śaiva devotee, are dramatic yet typical examples of the pattern of the saints' lives. At the end of such episodes, Śiva reveals himself, commending the saint as an exemplary "servant" (aiyār ). The lives of the Nāyaārs articulate the Tamil Śaiva view of devotion as love of God expressed with intensity; as emotional poetry; and as ritual service (tou ) to God and service to his devotees, rendered with total and selfless love. To this day, Tamil Śaivas celebrate the saints by worshiping their images, singing their hymns, and retelling their lives.

See Also

Māikkavācakar; Poetry, article on Indian Religious Poetry; Tamil Religions.


There is no comprehensive work on the Tamil Śaiva Nāyaārs. Translation of the major texts relating to these saintsthe Periyapurāam, the Tēvāram and the Tirumantiram remains a desideratum, as does a systematic study of the role of the sixty-three saints in the tradition.

Among the few translations available of the Tēvāram hymns, Francis Kingsbury and Godfrey E. Phillips's Hymns of the Tamil Śaivite Saints (New York, 1921) remains the best to date; though only 79 of the 8,273 verses in the Tēvāram have been translated in this book, the selections are representative, accurate, poetic, and readable. H. W. Schomerus's Śivaitische Heiligenlegenden, Periyapurāa und Tiruvātavūrar Purāa: Aus dem Tamil übersetzt (Jena, 1925) contains a careful translation of the excellent prose summary of the Periyapurāam hagiography done by the Jaffna Tamil scholar umukanāvalar (18221879). M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy's The Religion and Philosophy of Tēvāram, with Special Reference to Nampi rūrar (Sundarar ), 4 vols. in 2 (Madras, 19581959), is a comprehensive study of the life and hymns of Cuntaramurtti, and also includes a general discussion of Tamil Śaiva devotion and the lives of the sixty-three Nāyaārs. The sheer bulk and detail of this erudite study render it more useful to the scholar than to the general reader. Kamil Zvelebil has provided a stimulating and insightful analysis of the lives of the Nāyaārs and of the hymns of the four poet-saints as religious literature in The Smile of Muruka: On Tamil Literature of South India (Leiden, 1973), chap. 12, "Śaiva Bhakti: Two Approaches," pp. 185206. Two other recent essays of interest are George W. Spencer's "The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns," Numen 17 (December 1970): 232244, and my article "Singing of a Place: Pilgrimage as Metaphor and Motif in the Tēvāram Songs of the Tamil Saivite Saints," Journal of the American Oriental Society 102 (JanuaryMarch 1982): 6990. The former explores the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the travels of the saints, while the latter offers translations of hitherto untranslated Tēvāram hymns and assesses the contribution of each of the three poet-saints to Tamil religion and culture.

New Sources

Dehejia, Vidya. Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi, 1988.

Indira Viswanathan Peterson (1987)

Revised Bibliography