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culture series...

A brief note on the Saivite and Vaishnavite priestly communities of Andhra Pradesh

Medieval reformers and protestants in Hinduism

There is a incorrect view of "dull,unchanging India" or "otherwordly spiritual religious india". Nothing of the sort. It has always been a very lively place, science and technological developments are clearly noted down the ages, agriculture was efficient, and the range of arts and crafts are well known. People were moving all over the area, quite enthusiastic about attacking and plundering and migrating. The features of society have been changing at a terrific pace most of the time. There have been ups and downs, good and bad like in any quick changing society.

As far as the social conditions were concerned, medieval reformers tried very hard to change the features of society and remove the ills as they saw them. They used a religious idiom to carry their social message. The saivites and vaishnavites in particular were very active. Various enlightenened people and most of the underprivileged communities flocked to the reformers' call enthusiastically. The vigorous reform movements of Buddhism and Jainism, which were very prominent in Andhra Pradesh, had lost steam, fallen into decay and people seemed to be disenchanted with them.

Sankaracharya (8th century) and his advaita tradition were early reformers and targeted the decaying Buddhist establishment, and the cruder and violent tribal cults which made a come back after Buddhist ideology started losing popularity. Similarly other reform movements like ancient Saivite traditions attempted to improve things. The Saiva siddhanta school, the Lingayat, the Aradhyas similarly continued on from the old traditions of Kalamukha and kapalis with varying degrees of popularity.

During the later Chalukyas the sect of Kapalis set up several "schools and colleges" where everybody was admitted. Without looking into "caste" affiliation, by the way. Candidates with aptitude were taught all sorts of subjects. The famous Golaki Matha was known during the kakatiya times for similar educational activity. In the Vaishnavite tradition, there were several thinkers called alvars: further. Ramanujacharya (11th century) developed new doctrines in Vishishta-dvaita and gained adherents.

More details of the reform activities and what it has developed into

Saivite priests in Andhra Pradesh:--

The saivite priests do not follow vedas. They follow the Saiva aagamas, but also study all the old books including those of the vedic tradition. While there are several sects, the saivite brahmins, also called Aradhyas, can be specifically traced to the reform movements of Panditaradhya. (of course the tradition is very old. Yoga is actually part of this tradition. ). It appears this Aradhya movement was a compromise reform. Full equality to all---including so called sc's..but a little bit more respect given to the gurus' families (--which translates as brahmins).

As mentioned above, during Chalukya, Chola, Kakatiya and early Vijayanagar times the Aradhyas were very prominent in reform activities. They generally run Saiva and Shakti shrines, often very large and famous ones like Kalesvaram, Vemulavada, Srisailam, Kalahasti, etc. They are markedly inclined to various Saivite traditions, and the allied shakti ones. They have a link to kashmir saivism, Varanasi and Jyotirlinga shrines all over India like Kedarnath. Some names are Panditaradhyula ("of Pandit Aradhya"), Kasinathuni ("of Lord of Kasi") etc. The rituals they follow are different from the smaartas. They are very prominent in education, literature, and cultural activities like performing arts. Historically, the saivities could be considered rivals of another reform movement --the vaishnavites. (more details below)


There are also some well known groups one of which are Draavids, who seem to be north Indian brahmins who arrived in coastal Andhra via a detour of some centuries in South India. The sections like Aarama, Peruru, Ryali, Puduru etc are based on the locations they settled. Several learned scholars are found among the Draavids. Some of the surnames are Pappu (lentil) , Sonthi (ginger powder), Ganti (bell), Karra (stick), Jiddu (oil), etc.

Vaishnavite priests in Andhra Pradesh

Among the vaishnavities, the strict vegetarians and highly educated people also are given the approximate status of brahmins in Andhra Pradesh. Technically, they do not follow the vedas or sutras or smritis, while they do study the old books and follow the particular interpretations by the medieval gurus. They adhere to either the medieval Tenkalai or Vadakalai and Agaama scriptures. One section follows Vaikhanasa scriptures and other the Pancharaatra, dealing mainly with temple ritual. They run large temple establishments very efficiently. They rose to prominence during Vijayanagar times.

The great reformers include people like Ramanujacharya, Ramananda (north India), Madhva ( all over south India), Vallabhacharya (found among velanadus, and gujarat rajasthan, UP), Nimbaarka, and offshoots based on specific monasteries , Jeeyars etc.. For the most part, the followers are not called brahmins, and neither do they wish to be called so, but prefer the title Achari or Iyengar or velanadu vaideekulu. (Incidentally, Kabir who has a big following, drew inspiration from Ramananda.)

They rely on the doctrines laid down in the medieval scriptures (agamas ). Many of the famous temple establishments like Tirupati and Ahobilam are run per vaishnavite agamic canons.

The big hearted Raamaanuja fought against caste distinctions and gathered under his doctrine, people from all walks of life and caste and religion and occupation and said henceforth they shall be known as one community. Thus he created the Iyengar community, and told them to always work for reform of society. Some of the earlier vaishnava and bhagaavata adherents also merged into the iyengars. Later there was a large immigration of Raamaanandi vaishnavas from north India (who were a bit orthodox, more affiliated to the old brahmin group and tried to put a brake on reform), and another large migration from Gujarat. While they too merged, slight differences arose.

Note: For some reason, most probably vested interest, the central fact of Raamanuja's efforts is glossed over by modern writers (not just 'pseudo-seculars' but also many so called 'traditionalists'...hmm... why? ).

The great Raamanuja specifically included among his followers untouchables (scheduled castes today), tribals, immigrant foreign soldiers.....not just arabs and turks, more recent also..., destitute and exploited womenfolk, jains, etc. Raamaanuja and later illustrious disciples running the movement, certainly saw to it that there was no more exclusivism of caste groups inside the community.

All the same it appears they made sure that the brightest were selected as iyengars ~ evangelizers of vaishnavism. (without any regard to their former caste or other origins. It is however true, after some centuries this reformist movement became just another caste, not quite sure about its place in the hierarchy. )

The immense and lasting influence of Raamaanuja is probably not realised by many Indians. Here are some direct and indirect descendants of his thought.---the entire actual live vaishnava tradition of today : including the offshoots and modifications and the movements heavily influenced by Raamanuja, like those of Raamananda Kabir Ravidas Nanak Tulsidas Vallabhacharya Nimbaarka Madhvacharya Raghavendra Chaitanya Ramdas ....even recent reformers like Phule and isckon and others.

One characteristic method used by the gurus was community dinners similar to sikh "langars" , where everybody sat together without distinction. This went a long way towards reduction of old discriminations, this single tumbler policy of Raamaanuja.

As a consequence there are expert cooks who easily handle very large scale cooking among them, which is a very difficult job. Old tribal cult spots and medieval pilgrimage centers like the Varaaha shrine at Tirupati were modernised, along with the new scriptures and new rituals invented by Ramanujacharya to foster a cooperative spirit. He also kept in mind the weaning away of simple tribal people from blood sacrifices. It seems many jains also merged with vaishnavites, just like in an earlier era buddhists shifted to various sects of saivism. His followers also took up the spread of education : the effect endures to this day. The vaishnavite communities in Andhra Pradesh have a marked bent towards education, literature and performing arts like music and dance.

The Madhvaas date from the recent reform activities of Madhvacharya (somewhere in the 12th century) also of the vaishnava sampradaya , and they were prominent in the last days of Vijayanagar (1500's) . A famous guru of the line was Raghavendra svami. (They are found all over karnataka, south Maharashtra, Tamilnadu as well as Andhra). Their roots include a strong marathi one, and a north Indian connection as well.

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