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No history of the evolution of religious philosophy in South India would be complete without mentioning the 75 Gems of Spirituality most of whom came from the Tamil country. These are the twelve Vaishnava Alvars and the sixty-three Saiva Nayanmars. They were all apostles of God-intoxication. The last of them lived in the 9th century C.E. For all these, religion was a poignant human experience of togetherness with either Lord Vishnu (in the first case) or Lord Siva (in the second case). Some of them were superlatively gifted singers as well. They have left behind them an imperishable legacy of devotional poetry rarely parallelled in quantity or quality before or after. They revered the Vedic texts, knew the principal Puranas, avocated the recitation of Godís varied names, strongly recommended meditation on his different forms and the Mantras associated with Him and literally lived by worshipping Him in the temples all over the land of the Tamils. They gave expression to the purest love of God and are most reverently recited in all Hindu temples that have a Tamil origin and by all Tamil Hindu families who believe in worship as an important daily routine. In addition the literary value of all this poetry is great as is shown by the fact that this massive collection of 20000 verses (4000 Vaishnava hymns and 16000 Saiva hymns) outweighs all other literature produced during this period so much that historians of Tamil literature have taken the liberty of designating this period (6th to 10th century C.E.) the age of Devotional Literature. In addition to the attractive poetry that this literature contains, the content, which is at the same time impassioned and philosophical, cuts across all barriers of caste and class, and therefore attracts one and all to the faith. This Bhakti literature has in no small measure contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that broke away from the ritual-oriented Vedic and elitistic religion and transformed it into a religion of the masses rooted in Devotion as the only path for salvation. This resurgence of Bhakti came in such a massive way that it may be compared to the Renaissance of the sixteenth century in Europe. It challenged the orthodoxy in its strongest sphere, namely the cognitive, by demystifying the myths associated with the rigidities of caste system, domination of priestly hierarchy and mindless proliferation of rituals.

While north India produced Saints who wrote poetry and sang devotional music like Mirabai, Kabir and Surdas, they were not immortalised in art or worshipped in temples. Saints of the western world are frequently portrayed in art, but their presence in churches and cathedrals does not seem to be universal . By contrast, icons of these 12 Vaishnava and 63 Saiva south Indian saints were invariably commissioned by the Vishnu and Siva temples respectively. They were placed in prominent positions and were accorded ritual worship. To this day these saints remain a living tradition. Their images are carried in processions during festivals along with the main deities of the temples. Sometimes there are festivals exclusively for them. Their hymns are chanted in homes and at a variety of ceremonial gatherings including secular performances of dance and music

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Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 12, 2000