Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Sattada Srivaisnavas

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Sattada Srivaisnavas

Article excerpt


The Distinctiveness of Srivaisnava Hinduism lies not only in the fact that it gives special attention to the female mode of the godhead (sri), but also in its claim to inspiration by both the Sanskrit Veda and the devotional poems of the twelve devotees known as Alvars (650-850 C.E.) - considered to be the Tamil Veda. The two vedas are not of equal weight for all Srivaisnavas - Vatakalai, or Northern-branch, Srivaisnavism gives precedence to the Sanskrit and Tenkalai, or Southern-branch, Srivaisnavism to the Tamil; nonetheless both lineages of theologians come to speak of their theology as ubhaya vedanta - "the wisdom of both" the Tamil Veda and the Sanskrit Veda. Among the Alvars - one female and eleven males, at least five are non-brahmin and it is the works of one of these, Nammalvar, a sudra, that most properly constitute the Tamil Veda. The literature of both the northern and southern lineages stipulates that moksa is by the grace of the supreme Lord through rituals open to both male and female members of all castes, and theologians of the southern lineage expressly criticize those Vaisnavas who attribute significance to caste status.

At the same time, it appears that the entire lineage of theologians, on both the Tenkalai and Vatakalai sides, from the beginning (Nathamuni, c. 900) to the present, is brahmin. Sociological and ritual studies show that both Tenkalai and Vatakalai brahmins consider the maintenance of caste purity important and continue to perform the prescribed Vedic rituals - and that those who administer initiatory rites (diksa), as well as Srivaisnava temple priests, are invariably brahmin. Indeed, the rather extensive scholarly literature describing and interpreting Srivaisnavism represents it as essentially a brahmin tradition. Non-brahmin devotees are mentioned, sometimes prominently, in the traditional accounts of the lives of the early theologians (guruparamparaprabhava [Tam. kuruparamparaippirapavam]) and in temple chronicles (oluku), but then disappear from or, at the least, appear to have had no significance for the later movement.

My "discovery" of the Sattada Srivaisnavas sheds some light on who some of these devotees were and what happened to them; and it significantly alters our understanding both of contemporary Srivaisnavism and of its historical development. The Sattadas are not only a sizeable, distinctive contemporary community - a jati - of non-brahmin Srivaisnavas, but a community with a lengthy history, a guru-lineage and a substantial literature - a heritage which, though now subdued, still plays a significant part in and had a major impact on the historical development of Srivaisnava Hinduism.


V. Srinivasa-ayya(1) is a full-time servant to the Sriranganathaswami Temple, Srirangam, the chief temple for Srivaisnavas. His duties include opening the curtain to the main sanctum at the commencement of daily worship (puja), providing and offering the flower garland for presentation to the deity and guiding the placement of it by the priest (arcaka), assembling the worshippers for receipt of prasada and maintaining order during the distribution, and acting as "herald" (Tam. kattiyakkaran) - announcing the commencement and conclusion of all processions of the deity.(2) Only he and the government-appointed overseer hold the key to the door of the inner sanctum. In performing his duties, Srinivasa is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and other males of his family line, and is training his eldest son to succeed him. He claims that this lineage of temple service dates back to at least the 11th century, when the great acarya, Ramanuja, in reorganizing temple activities, appointed his ancestors to these duties; or, perhaps, confirmed them in duties they were already performing.

Srinivasa-ayya is the elder-leader of a distinctive community (twelve families) of servants to the Srirangam temple known as Sattada Srivaisnavas - a community that gains its livelihood from flower trade, the sale of prasada and a share of temple income. …

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