Karen Pechilis

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:

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The term nāyaṉmār (singular, nāyaṉār) is a Tamil-language word that today generally means “leaders,” but as the term is widely known and used it specifically refers to sixty-three exemplary human figures in the Hindu devotional path of Tamil Shiva bhakti (devotion to the god Shiva), whose lives are described in a 12th-century volume attributed to Cēkkiḻār, the Periya Purāṇam (Great story), also known as Tiruttoṇṭar Purāṇam (The story of the holy servants). Cēkkiḻār’s work was extremely influential and became designated as the twelfth and final volume of the canon of Shiva bhakti, known as the Tirumuṟai (Sacred collection), which included devotional works authored by some of the nāyaṉmār in praise of Shiva in its first through eleventh volumes. In compiling his list of the nāyaṉmār, Cēkkiḻār drew on a poem from the 8th-century poet-saint Cuntarar, as well as a brief biography of the nāyaṉmār from an 11th-century author, Nampi Āṇṭār Nampi. These precursors use the terms aṭiyar (servant) and tiruttoṇṭar (holy servant) to refer to the devotees. Cēkkiḻār’s biographical text uses the term nāyaṉār, but only in the singular, to refer to god Shiva himself, and not the paradigmatic devotees. The term nāyaṉār seems to have been first used in the 13th century to describe the three most famous male poet-saints (Campantar, Appar, and Cuntarar) in an inscription dated to the tenth regnal year of the Chola dynasty king, Rājendra III (1256 ce). The term nāyaṉmār may have been first expanded in the next century to refer to all of the devotees described in the Periya Purāṇam, in a text that purports to describe the making of the Tamil Shiva-bhakti canon. The canon seems to have been brought together by an important interpreter of Tamil Shiva bhakti from a philosophical perspective, Umāpati Civācāryār, who lived in the 14th century. In a text attributed to Umāpati that describes the making of the Tirumuṟai (the Tirumuṟaikaṇṭa Purāṇam [The story of collecting the Tirumuṟai]) he uses the term nāyaṉmār to refer to all sixty-three of the emblematic devotees (verse 29; see Prentiss 2001, cited under Philosophical Interpretation of the Nāyaṉmār). Umāpati’s use of the term and the biographical stories provided by Cēkkiḻār have contributed to the contemporary cultural understanding of the nāyaṉmār as saints. The nāyaṉmār have a prominent presence in Tamil religious history as well as the present, wherever Tamils have settled across the globe—through their own compositions; biographical stories about them; their rendering in images including song, art, and film; and their incorporation into the lineage of the Tamil philosophical school, Shaiva Siddhānta. The nāyaṉmār are also fruitfully understood within the wider context of other bhakti poet-saints from Tamil tradition, as well as bhakti poet-saints from across India.

Article.  6602 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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