Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classification of SriVaishnavas

~by Gopalan Suresh Raj

The Iyengars and Ammangars that people these days associate SriVaishnavas with, are all Brahmins. The word Iyengar (அய்யங்கார்) by which SriVaishnava Brahmin Male names are suffixed, probably comes from the same root as the word Ayyagaru. Some people say the word Iyengar comes from ஐந்து அங்கம் உடையவர் (Owner of the five-fold sacrament of Prapatthi). Similarly, the word Ammangar (அம்மங்கார்) by which SriVaishnava Brahmin Females are addressed, probably comes from the same root as the word Ammagaru. Some Iyengars carry of a suffix called Chari (चारी-சாரியார்). The word Chari comes from the Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्) root Acharya (आचार्य). These Iyengar suffixes were existent long before the time of Sri Ramanujacharya, since there are ancient historic slabs pre-dating Sri Ramanujacharya's period that contain names such as Krishna Iyengar and Rama Iyengar. Some of these historic slabs are still in existence to this day. [2]


Contrary to popular belief, SriVaishnavites are not born, neither is SriVaishnavam a varna (वर्णा). At birth, people are born as either one of திருக்குலதோர் (Thirukkulatthor)[1] or Vysyas, or Brahmanas, or Kshatriyas according to the varnashrama (र्णाश्रमा) of their parents. It is only after anyone undergoes पञ्च संस्कारा (Pancha-Samskara or The five-fold Sacrament) from a qualified SriVaishnava Acharya (आचार्या) that they are reborn as SriVaishnavites. Their original varna does not change even after they undergo Pancha-Samskara - a Vysya will still continue to be a Vysya, a Kshatriya will still continue to be a Kshatriya and so forth. They are still expected to follow all their varnashrama darmas (र्णाश्रम धर्मा) even after they become SriVaishnavas. SriVaishnavam is not a varna.

Since SriVaishnavam is based on both the Sanskrit Vedas and the Tamil 4000 Divya Prabhandam (दिव्य प्रभन्दं)/Arulicheyal (அருளிச்செயல்), SriVaishnava Iyengars are Ubhaya Vedantic (उभय वेदान्तम्) scholars. SriVaishnava literature mainly consists of:

The four Veda (वेद/வேதம்), and Vedantas like the Upanishads, Puranas, the two Itihasas all written either in the Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्) or Prakrit languages
The 4000 Divya Prabhandam (दिव्य प्रभन्दं)/Arulicheyal (அருளிச்செயல்) written in the Tamil (தமிழ்) language
The commentary to the above by ancients written in either Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्), Tamil (தமிழ்), Manipralava (a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil), or Prakrit (प्राकृतं) languages.

SriVaishnavites are broadly classified into two main sub-sects even though in reality, there is no geographical polarization to justify this classification. They are:

1. Vadakalai Iyengars

2. Thenkalai SriVaishnavas

There are a total of eighteen academic differences between these two major sub-sects, but they are not of significant interest to merit a lengthy discussion of the same in this blog-post.

1. Vadakalai Iyengar/Ammangar [வடகலை அய்யங்கார்/அம்மங்கார்]

Vadakalai Iyengars are SriVaishnavas who predominantly have their origins North of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, India.

2. Thenkalai SriVaishnava [தென்கலை திருவைணவர்]

Thenkalai SriVaishnavas (தென்கலை திருவைணவர்) are further classified into:

• Thenkalai Iyengar (Brahmins)

• Thenkalai Saatthaada SriVaishnavas/Kovil SriVaishnavas

2.1 Thenkalai Iyengar/Ammangar [தென்கலை அய்யங்கார்/அம்மங்கார்] (Brahmins)

Thenkalai Iyengar Brahmins are SriVaishnavites who predominantly have their origins South of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, India.

2.2 Thenkalai Saatthaada SriVaishnava [சாத்தாத திருவைணவர்]/Kovil SriVaishnava [கோவில் திருவைணவர்]

These SriVaishnavas belong to the general category of people, a mixture of both Brahmins and other non-Brahmins including திருக்குலதோர் (Thirukkulatthor)[1] who convert to SriVaishnavam. They belong to the Thenkalai sect, but they are also different from the Thenkalai Iyengar Brahmins in significant ways.

They don’t wear the sacred thread/yajnopavitam (यग्न्योपवीतं-பூணூல்). They don’t perform any Vedic rituals, but rely only on the 4000 Divya Prabhandam (दिव्य प्रभन्दं)/Arulicheyal (அருளிச்செயல்) for all their rituals. They very seldom if ever are temple archakas. From the Guru Parapara Hagiography we can infer that they have been given important roles in temple activities in all SriVaishnava temples all over Tamilnadu, Karnataka, and Andhra and these responsibilities continue to this day!

To this day, in Srirangam Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple and other SriVaishnava Shrines, Saatthada SriVaishnavas perform a wide range of tasks starting from opening the curtain in the morning to closing the curtain at night and a lot in between. Their responsibilities range from making announcements (கட்டியம்), to high status ones like providing flowers and garlands, and the safe-keeping of the temple keys, etc. (The HR&CE department also has one set of keys)

This article by Sri Robert Lester, “The Sattada SriVaishnavas”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 114, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1994), pp. 39-53, presents an outline of the history of Saatthada SriVaishnavas and gives copious references culled out of Temple Chronicles (கோவில் ஒழுகு) and inscriptions.

Sri Lester presents evidence (from age-old times, atleast up until 1942) that Saatthada SriVaishnavas in Srirangam have been reciting Dhivya Prabhandham alongside brahmins in the gosthi. Lester further goes on to prove by evidence that in some temples Saatthada SriVaishnavas have been getting theertha prasadam and other prasadams ahead of Brahmins.

Sri Lester also provides evidence of Brahmins converting to the Saatthada SriVaishnava sect. Sri Lester cites a 1536 inscription of one Saatthada SriVaishnava called Azagiya Manavala Ayyan of Kausika gotra, Apastamba sutra and Yajus shakha and a disciple of Azagiya Manavala Jeeyar (Sriman Manavala Mamuni) - clearly a Saatthada SriVaishnava of brahmin origin. Another record at Srirangam, dated 1665, references a Saatthada SriVaishnava of Srivatsa gotra, once again a clear indication of Brahmin affiliation. For every exalted Saatthada SriVaishnava of Brahmin origin getting recorded through inscription or in chronicles, there must be hundreds, if not thousands of Saatthada SriVaishnavas of Brahmin origin unmentioned. These Saatthada SriVaishnava of brahmin origin remove all their external signs that mark them as Brahmins, like poonal, kaccham, etc. The only sign they sport is the Urdhva Pundaram (namam), common to all, that marks them just as SriVaishnavas.

SriVaishnavam and Women

There is strong evidence from the past that gives us a glimpse of at least a degree of gender equity that has always existed among SriVaishnavas since a long time ago.

Sri K.V. Raman in his book titled “Sri Varadarajaswami Temple, Kanchi: A Study of Its History, Art and Architecture” 1975, published by Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications E37 Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110 016, cites temple records from the 13th century about a special endowment by the Telugu-Choda chieftain Gandagopala for the maintenance of the females goshti (பெருமாள் முன் பாடும் பெண்டுகள் நிமித்தது) p. 135.

Sri K.V. Raman also cites (in the same page 135) another record datable to 1535 C.E. that specifies a certain share in the holy food for the ladies by right, who took part in the group-singing in front of the deity (திருவொழுக்கம் சேவித்த பெண்கள்). The term Thiruvozhukkam (திருவொழுக்கம்) is very important, it refers to formal gathering of SriVaishnavas. So, from this record dating back to 1535, we see that at Kanchi Perarulan temple, there were formal goshti made up of women and they enjoyed certain rights and privileges accorded to them by decree.


[1]The term திருக்குலதோர் (Thirukkulatthor) meaning 'People of The Creed of Sri' was first coined by Srimath Bhagavad Ramanujacharya (श्रीमत् भगवद रामानुजाचार्या) in the Tamil language over a millennium ago, which was later translated in recent times to the Hindi language as हरिजन (Harijan) meaning 'The people of Hari (Sriman Narayana)'.

[2] Article by Sri Kanchi Prativadi Bhayankaram Annangarachariar titled "Names in SriVaishnava Tradition" - NrusimhaPriya (English) August 2004 issue, pp. 54-55.

[3] Article by Sri Robert Lester titled “The Sattada SriVaishnavas”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 114, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1994), pp. 39-53

[4] Book by Sri K.V. Raman titled “Sri Varadarajaswami Temple, Kanchi: A Study of Its History, Art and Architecture” 1975, published by Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications E37 Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110 016


அடியேன் ராமானுஜ தாசன் (Ramanuja's humble servant)

श्रीनिवास वरद शर्मा a.k.a. Suresh Raj Gopalan.
अभिवादये ।

काश्यप आपत्सार नैद्र्व त्रयाक्षय प्रवरान्वितः नैद्र्व काश्यप गोथ्रः आपस्तम्भ सूत्रः यजुष शाकाध्यायिश्रीनिवास वरद शर्मा नाम अहं अस्मि भोः ॥

I am Srinivasa Varadha Sharma, of the Naidruva Kaashyapa gotra, a student of the Apastamba dharma sutras, from the Taittiriya shakha of the Krishna Yajur Veda, and of the three pravaras named Kaashyapa, Aapathsaara, and Naidruva.


  1. The Varnashrama dharma is the cardinal principle of Hinduism and anyone forsaking it cannot be a true follower of Hinduism. All the three great acharyas have affirmed it. Any one from any caste can of course become a srivaishnava by following the path of bhakthi. At the same time he cannot disregard varnashrama dharma which is god ordained. He should follow both principles in parallel, that is the preaching of Ramanuja charya when understood properly. Some state that anyone can adopt sanyasa and gets beyond varnashrama dharma. This is untrue since sanyasa ashrama is prescribed for Brahmins by birth by the scriptures. If one of lower caste by extreme devotion to lord, at the same time following varnashrama dharma becomes realised he becomes free from any kind of bondage. This is a very rare phenomena and cannot be taken as examples by one and all. Therefore it is clear that in any case varnashrama is to be adhered to please the lord. Interpretations to the contrary will transgress the scriptural injunctions and hence becomes invalid on their own

    1. You are right in saying that one should not give up one's varnashram duties even after becoming a Sri Vaishnava., but where in the scripture does "God" ordain ones varna at birth?

  2. The only problem with your narrative is the subscription to the idea that one gets their varna merely by birth and that they are stuck to it till they die. For once, I'd like to see some pramanams for this widely held and yet debateable belief.

    Please don't bother going into how emperumanar held hands of several "shudras" and learnt from them. And how many of the srivaishava saints are themselves from "other castes". I've heard those lectures before up to my neck.

    It'd be useful to conclusively show from our scriptures that varna is determined at birth.

  3. It is clear from shruthis like Rigveda Purasha suktha and Mahabharatha and re-iteration in several other scriptures. The confusion is created because of some westernised neo hindus (not qualified as acharyas as per tradition) are not inclined to accept the shastras in their virgin form, thus make it debatable. It is a well confirmed opinion by all the three great acharyas (sankara, Ramanuja and Maddhwa). If anyone wants to deviate from shastras it is at their own risk, as fruits of karma can reflect in the next successive births as per hindu dharma. I can only say that they can refer to the commentary of Adi sankara who could not be speaking untruth being an ascetic (beyond doubt) who had renounced the world. The following verses also clarify:“From the mouth (of the Lord) sinless brahmanas were created for the purpose of performing sacrifices.The child born of a brahmanain the womb of a brahmana wife is known as a brahmana.” (Harita Smrti 1.12.15) Also Chandogya Upanishad 5/10/7 says,
    “Those whose conduct here on earth has been good will quickly attain some good birth—birth as a brahmin, birth as a kshatriya, or birth as a vaisya. But those whose conduct here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth—birth as a dog, birth as a pig, or birth as a chandala.” Therefor it cannot be otherwise

  4. I also would like to add some matter of importance in reply to the context raised by anonymous above, that emperumanar held hands with ..etc as follows:-
    It has been mentioned in many versions of texts on Acharya Ramanuja's life and preaching's that he had associations with Non Dvijas and had initiated them and taught them mantras. This narration though not well established due to lack of existence of well documented evidence of the period, but has been repeatedly written by well known scholars. Also, we see that the primary alwar of Sri vaishnavas' following vishistadvatha siddantha, Sri Satagopan is included in guru parampara, Sri Pillay Lokacharya is accepted as a Guru by Srimad manavala mamunigal under the premise that vishnubhaktas are exceptions and hence need not abide by the scriptures. As such, there is some credence to the above fact. But looking from the scriptural angle of shruthis and smrithis, such actions are not held valid by them and hence result in transgression of scriptures which is the legitimate voice of God. It is clear in the scriptures that the fourth varna is devoid of any mantra. Even in the Puranas such a position stands unacceptable and appears to be due to an affliction of Kali Yuga. A quotation from Vishnu purana in this regard is relevant, Vishnu Purana:-
    "In Kali all people will talk about Vedas and Brahmam but their practices would not be according to the Vedas. They would be busy in filling their stomachs and fulfilling their passion.
    Whenever troubles surround from all directions those who follow the tenets of Vedas then you can understand that the Kali eon is at its peak .Understanding this people have to take precautions". Therefore, any act which is not as per scriptures requires careful avoidance and has to be considered adharmic irrespective of stature of the interpreters. If past karma and its effect on the nature of birth is ignored, then there is no need to follow the scriptures and such a religion becomes free for all and dharmic paths cannot be firmly carved out in that situation. It will result in persons following such a religion trying to include everything without a tinge of ethics under religion. Wise men therefore has to follow scriptures in spite of great difficulties.

  5. I don't mean any disrespect, but your counter argument does not settle the issue a single bit, even in an academic sense. Again, where exactly does the Shruti, smriti specify that one has to be born in a brahmin household to be a brahmana..? Yes, the injunctions provided there should be strictly followed butunless you show that conclusively, perhaps you are the one that has got it wrong. If anything, there is a good chance for strict interpretation of Shruti, smriti will at once disqualify you as a brahmin as well. Are you engaged in any occupation?

    Plus, your assertions makes someone smoking beedi and eating all kinds of food to be a brahmin just because he had a set of brahmana parents. You just have to walk the streets of any aghraharam these days to witness this. On the other hand, someone who has atma poorthi but not born in a "brahmin family" according to your interpretation will automatically be an untouchable and disqualified from receiving mantroupadesham etc. Do you really reckon the shrutis and smritis were this narrow minded..? No wonder the Christians are wacking us from the right and left.

    Again, no disrespect intended but this needs to be debated.