Saivism is a very ancient sect of Hinduism with a known history of at least 5000 years. It is a historical fact that though Saivism found its adherents in the early Vedic works such as the Svetavatara Upanishad, it took shape mainly in southern India in the remote past.
Many great devotees of Lord Siva who hailed from the land of Tamils, enriched Saivism with their devotional fervor and meritorious religious compositions.
They brought Hinduism out of the closed door policy of castism by taking religion to the masses and teaching them the path of selfless devotion as a way of salvation.
They countered the attacks from monastic religions like Buddhism and Jainism, and defied the social order of their times by often initiating people from the lowest castes into Saivism.
They created a body of entirely new religious literature, of great devotional merit and deep philosophical truths.
Just like many aspects of ancient Indian history, we have little information about the early Saiva saints who shaped Saivism into a great religious movement.
We come across few names like the famous sage Thirumula, Agastya, Manickavasaga, Sundarar, Appar and Thirugnanasambandar. They probably lived during post vedic and later Vedic periods. They were ardent devotees of Lord Siva, and remembered in the scriptures for their devotion and contribution to Saivism.
An ardent devotee of Lord Siva and a disciple of Nandi, he lived sometime during the sixth century A.D, was endowed with supernatural powers and composed about 3000 poems in the name of Thirumantiram.
First among the four greatest ancient teachers of Saivism, he is considered as the founder of the path of truth or ‘sat marga’. Known for his intelligence from an early age, he worked as a chief minister in the court of a Pandya king for sometime before he became a true enunciate. Gifted with poetical abilities, which earned him the title of Mannikkavachaka, which literally means he whose utterances are gems, he composed many songs in honor of Lord Siva. His work Tiruvachakam is considered to be a pioneering work in Saivism.
A contemporary of the Pallava King Mahendra1, and reckoned as the second greatest ancient teacher of Saivism, he lived about 7th Century A.D. He is credited with the discovery of dasamarga or the path of the servant in Saivism. Originally a follower of Jainism he became subsequently a great devotee of Lord Siva and spent considerable time rendering bodily service (dasa seva) to him.
He also composed many poems out of which only a few are available today. He is often compared to the legendary Prahlada for his devotion to Lord Siva.
He was a disciple of Appar. He is considered as the third greatest ancient teacher of Saivism, who found the path of satputra marga or the path of the son and therefore he is regarded as the father of the saiva sect.
A precocious child, he was dedicated to Lord Siva and Parvathi from a very early age. He was blessed with the divine feeding of the mother of universe, Parvathi.
He and Appar toured many places in South India and said to have performed many miracles. He composed many beautiful poems extolling Siva and Parvathi. But only a few poems are available today.
If Sambandha had a great teacher in the form of Appar, he also had a great disciple in the form of Tirunilakanda Yalpanar who accompanied him always in his tours and sing along with him.
Kannappa lived in the region near Kalahasti in the present day Andhra Pradesh. A hunter by profession, he was totally dedicated to Lord Siva. He worshipped Siva regularly every day, with intense love, sometimes offering him such things as flowers and even meat.
Overwhelmed with intense devotion, once he said to have plucked out one of his eyes and offered it to Lord Siva as a symbol of sacrifice. He tried to pluck out the other eye also immersed totally in his devotion, when Lord Siva said to have appeared infront of him and prevented him from proceeding further.
He is the last among the four greatest ancient teachers of Saivism. He founded sahamarga or the path of the friend. He led a very unusual life. He became a renunciate just before his marriage and thereafter traveled to many places singing songs in praise of Lord Siva. But strangely after sometime, he married a beautiful non Brahmin, maiden named Paravai.
He stayed with her for sometime as she was also a great devotee of Lord Siva. But their association did not last for long. A few miles north of Chennai, he married again, this time to a Brahmin virgin. Subsequently he lost vision in both of his eyes and said to have suffered greatly.
But he regained his lost vision through intense spiritual discipline and devotion. He composed many thousands of devotional poems of which very few are available today.
Her devotion to Lord Siva can be compared in someway with that of Mira Bai, the famous devotee of Lord Krishna. Born into a princely family, she was married to a wealthy merchant at an early age.
Seeing her devotional fervor and spiritual yearning, her husband decided to leave her to herself and married another woman. But Ammaiyar, though devoted to Lord Siva from an early age, could not overcome her traditional respect and love for her husband initially.
But seeing her husband in his new role, she overcame that afterwards and dedicated her life completely to Lord Siva. She also composed many devotional poems which reflect the depth of her devotion to Lord Siva.
Another famous woman saint of Saivism, she was endowed with great literary talents and devotional fervor. She composed many verses which immortalized her name in Tamil religious literature.
A king by birth he sacrificed his life out of love for Lord Siva.
Originally a Buddhist, he later embraced Saivism and was said to have been blessed with a vision of Lord Siva and Parvathi.
An untouchable by birth, he was a great devotee of Lord Siva who won the recognition of many learned people and was even admitted into the precincts of the Chidambaram temple which at that time was not open to people from his caste.
Initiated into Saivism at the early age of three by a sage, he is credited with the composition of the famous work Siva-Jnana-bodham, which contains twelve famous Siva Sutras or aphorisms.
Meykandar is known in the history of Saivism as the seer of Truth and his life is a shining example of knowledge and devotion coming together in total dedication to God.
He became a disciple of Meykandar, after the latter opened his eyes in a famous encounter to the world of devotion and self-surrender. He composed Siva-Jnana-sittiyar, according to the wishes of his guru, explaining the truths hidden in the aphorisms of the latter.
Arundai Sivachariar also remembered in Saiva tradition for his initiation of Marai-gnanasambandar into Saivism. The latter though hailed from an untouchable caste was blessed with great literary talent and devotional fervor.
Marai-gnanasambandar in turn initiated another famous Saiva saint, named Umapathi Sivam and helped him attain self-realization. Umapathi Sivam contributed greatly to Saiva literature in Tamil. He wrote eight philosophical treatises on Saivism, apart from a short biographical work on the famous 63 Saiva saints.
A rich merchant by birth, he turned to spiritualism in strange circumstances when he realized that all his wealth would not accompany him beyond his death.
He along with his princely friend Bhadragiri composed many devotional poems, exhorting people to renounce their worldly ways and enter the world of devotion and self-surrender. He lived about tenth century in Tamilnadu.
He lived about fifteenth century. Early in his life, he led a very sinful life, giving himself up entirely to the pleasures of the world. But later a great transformation took place in him and he became a great devotee of Lord Murugan, the first divine child of Lord Siva. Tiruppugal is one of his famous compositions which is known for its lyrical beauty and devotional depths.
He lived in the seventeenth century, and belonged to the priestly family which was attached to the Siva temple at Vedaranyam, in Tamilnadu. He lived and worked for some time at the court of a Naik ruler from Tiruchinapalli, before he renounced his worldly life and became a great devotee of Lord Siva. He expounded the philosophy of Saivism from a Vedantic point of view and tried to reconcile the existing contradictions.
Mention may also be made of the five famous Lingayat Saints of Virasaivism path, namely Sivaprakasa 1, Santalinga, Kumaradeva and Sivaprakasa 2. They were men of great religious and spiritual merit, who lived during the seventeenth century and composed many religious songs and treatises