An Introduction to the Tamil Siddhas:
Their Tantric Roots, Alchemy, Poetry,
and the True Nature of their Heresy
Within the Context of South Indian Shaivite Society
by Layne Little
(Please Note: This paper was originally presented at a symposium on world religions at the University of Utah in the spring of '97. It was haphazardly strung together almost overnight. Unfortunately, I failed to carefully list my sources and footnote their contributions. I have tried to list the most significant references at the tail of this article, but it is by no means complete. Nor to I give them proper credit in the body of the work. I apologize profusely for this oversight, and welcome comments and criticism on this or any other issues. I must especially acknowledge how much Dr. David Gordon White and Dr. Kamil Zvelebil have contributed to this raggle-taggle introduction to Siddha tradition. Thanks!) Back to Indian alchemy.
The Tamil Siddhas are a religious order of mystics found in the southern part of India, who's origins can be traced back to the eighth century. They form a distinctive part of a larger movement which spread throughout South Asia, from Sri Lanka in the South to Tibet in the north, between the seventh and eleventh centuries. Siddhas everywhere share common practices, cosmology, and symbols derived from Tantrism whether the practitioner is Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain. All are part of a "pan-Indian tantric yoga movement" which Eliade described as formulating over a five hundred year period, between the 7th and the 11th centuries, but fully flowering only after the 12th century.
Excluding perhaps the Buddhist Siddhas, all such groups are considered radical, if not dangerous, by the orthodoxy.
An intriguing aspect of the Tamil Siddha cult is that it shares with the orthodox Saiva Siddhanta sect a common text which defines the philosophy of both groups. Since each sect emphasized different aspects of the teaching they quickly became widely divergent, with the two orders often at odds. The Siddhas would be scoffing at temple worship, reliance upon Brahminical authority, and proclaiming the injustice of caste; while the Saiva Siddhantins would berate the Siddhas much as M. Srinivasa Iyangar did in 1914 when he wrote that the Siddhas are "mostly plagiarists and impostors" and in addition, "Being eaters of opium & dwellers in the land of dreams, their conceit knew no bounds".
At times the Siddhantins have even engaged in an organized effort to eliminate the Siddhar faction. For example, one movement, observed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, systematically sought out any copy of the writings of the heretical Siddha-poet Sivavakkiyar, and promptly destroyed them.
The rift between the two orders has been sharply polarized by the fact that some Saiva Siddhantins, who mostly worship their God Shiva as the Lingam or sacred Phallus, have had a difficult time accepting the Siddhas tendency to emphasize the Goddess. To the Tamil Siddhas, Shiva is the unqualified and ultimate reality beyond form or comprehension, but Shakti, the Goddess, is immanent and accessible as the divine force abiding within the body itself. There she can be coaxed & subdued, manipulated & directed. As the serpent power Kundalini, flowing through the subtle body, she can propel the consciousness of the Siddhar into union with the Absolute. Though the orthodox Saiva Siddhantin may content himself with the worship of Shiva in the temple through the rituals of the priest, the Siddha placates the goddess to intercede on his behalf and expand the consciousness of the Siddha beyond all limitation, where he may become Shiva himself. Notions, such as this, being fundamental to the Tamil Siddha, has struck the Shaivite orthodoxy as heretical.
Within the context of Hindu myth the name Siddha originally denoted one of the eighteen categories of celestial beings. These beings of semi-divine status were said to be of great purity and their dwelling was thought to be in the sky between the earth and the sun. Later they became associated with a class of more adept human being, often an accomplished yogi. The term had been derived from the Sanskrit root sidh meaning "fulfillment" or "achievement," so the noun came to refer to one who had attained perfection. Because the Tamil language lacks the aspirated consonants of Sanskrit the word has been written and pronounced by the Tamils as cittar. This has lead the Tamils to associate the word more with the Sanskrit term chit, meaning "consciousness."
This appellation is evident even in the Shaivite devotionals known as the Tevaram hymns of the 6th & 7th centuries that would later become part of the Saiva Siddhanta canon. There the term is applied not only to one of the 18 categories of divine beings but also to God Shiva himself, who is a cittar because the very nature of God is consciousness. Likewise, it describes the devotee as also being a cittar since his consciousness is always immersed in the Divine presence. By the 12th-13th century the term has taken on new meaning as we learn from the writings of Perumparrapuliyur Nambi who describes the God Shiva as the cittar alchemist who is working strange miracles in the city of Madurai.
Essentially though, the term Siddha or Cittar has the same connotations as it does when referring to the 84 Siddhas of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Natha Siddhas of North India, or the medieval alchemists known as the Rasa Siddhas. It is a movement born of a synthesis of Vajrayana Buddhism, Shaivite Tantrism, Indian Alchemy, magic, and the hatha yoga and pranayama disciplines as expounded by the ascetic saint Goraknath. Although, in the present era, the term is often applied to any form of unorthodox mystic or saint.
All of the writings of the Tamil Siddhas, whether defining philosophical viewpoints, yogic practices, or presenting alchemical recipes for herbal tinctures and base metal amalgams were presented in poetic form, often employing the more difficult meters that harkened back to the ancient Tamil Sangam Age. These works are also riddled with tantric imagery, references to Kundalini, and clues to control the dangerous feminine power through breathing practices or the recitation of the Goddess's secret names. Because of the enigmatic nature of the Siddha imagery, and their philosophy structured in direct defiance of human logic, few scholars have ventured to address the Tamil Siddhas and then often only as mere curiosities. Needless to say, the vast majority of the Tamil Siddha works have never been translated, as has been the case with some of the verses presented here.
One of the most basic characteristics of Tamil composition, and one that is particularly relevant to Siddha poetry, is the tendency to layer the work so that each word or image builds upon the last. Because each component image is presented so as to be viewed autonomously and in relationship both sequentially and to the totality of the verse, the images of the poem may seem slightly disjointed and contradictory. Though this may at first seem to undermine the aesthetic quality and over-complicate the simple act of enjoying poetry, the Tamil Siddha compositions pattern the imagery to expound the subtle complexity of their philosophical concepts or to map out the terrain of the inner landscape which is dominated by the dormant serpent energy.
Though most of the Indian Siddha schools did not come into their own until the 12th century, we find that the southern variant, the Tamil Siddha school, had a fully defined system in the eighth century itself. It was at this time that Tirumular, himself one of the 64 canonized Shaivite saints or Nayanars of the Saiva Siddhanta sect, authored the Tirumantiram which fully defined the nature of the Tamil Siddha cult up until the present era. The text also became the 10th book of the Saiva Siddhanta canon, which is referred to as the Tirumurai. Though it was the one work outlining the philosophy of the Saiva Siddhanta cult, the orthodox followers within the Saiva Siddhanta sect have always had a difficult time fully accepting the many passages which discuss the worship of the Goddess and the Kundalini Yoga practices so characteristic of Tantrism. On the other hand, the Siddhas have viewed these same passages as the most critical in formulating their esoteric doctrines on the arousal of the serpent energy.
As we can see in verse 730, the Siddhantins were confronted with the tantric orientation of their philosopher Tirumular, when he relates that it is the human body itself that is the temple of the Goddess Shakti...
In Shakti's temple
if you control
the left & the right
you can hear a lute
in the center of your face.
And Shiva will come out
I swear upon Sada Nandi
we have spoken the truth.
Here Tirumular discusses the basis of Kundalini Yoga whereby the breath, carrying one of the vital airs known as prana, flows into the solar and lunar currents which run from the right and left nostrils down to the base of the spine and are there brought into union. The point of this union is at the root chakra Muladhara, the first of six chakras or nerve plexuses through which the Kundalini energy will flow. This energy is moved by the solar and lunar streams of vital breath that have entered the central current at Muladhara and will ascend upwards through the six chakras, each corresponding to a higher and more expansive state of consciousness. The individual awareness is sublimated into divine union at the crown of the head. It is a kind of inner journey towards the infinitude of the Divine, but begins only after the two streams flow into the central current as we learn from verse 801 of the Tirumantiram...
He who eats
with the hand of worship
need not be depleted.
The conscious ones
capable of abandoning sleep
need not die...
they can live forever.
The term used to denote the 'hand of worship' is Tutikai. Tuti is a verb meaning "to worship," kai is the noun meaning "hand". Together, as Tutikai, the expression also means the "elephant's trunk." This interpretation is equally viable in that Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of gateways and new beginnings is said to reside in the body at the base of the spine, at the root chakra Muladhara where the two currents flow together and enter central current Shashumna. Shashumna is sometimes envisioned as the trunk of Ganesha raised aloft and holding the full blown lotus of enlightenment, Sahasrara, at the crown of the head. What is eaten is amrita, conceived of as both the nectar of spiritual ecstasy and the elixir of immortality.
Tantra appears in its definitive form around the 4th century, but its beginnings seem to reach back much earlier. Elements of tantric thought had already pervaded the south by the time of Tirumular, as they had seeped into yogic theory and practice at some antecedent time and even impacted temple ritual and the budding bhakti cults. Tantra was more deeply rooted in a fluid set of symbolic constructs than a static enunciation of doctrine. It represents a profound refinement of the symbol system of Hindu-Buddhist South Asia. It's emphasis on the experiential aspects of the individual's religious experience collided with the Shaivite orthodoxy like the Gnostic heresy did with the early Christian Church.
In an effort to demonstrate that the macrocosm is reflected within the microcosm, Tantra began to emphasize that the universe, in all its totality, is contained within the body of the individual. It superimposed universal symbols over the human body to help demonstrate this relationship. The spine, along which the Shashumna or central channel ran, became the cosmic axis. All the Gods that oversaw the mechanism that is this universe we-re hidden in the lotus centers of the body's chakras, like blossoms flowering on the vine of the spine. But it was the portly god Ganesha, who guarded the gate to the inner world. He became a patron of Kundalini yoga in the South and was invoked by the female Siddha mendicant Avaiyar, in this excerpt from her 14th century work Vinayagar Agaval. Here she relates how the elephant-headed god has reconciled the dualistic nature of the universe as the various manifestations of Shiva were taught to be part of her inner savoring.
He has concentrated my mind,
clarified my intellect,
and said, "Light & Darkness share a common place."
He presses me down
into the grace giving ecstasy.
In my ear
he renders limitless bliss.
He has revealed Sada Shiva
within the sound.
He has revealed the Shiva Lingam
within the mind.
And he has revealed that... The smaller than the smallest, The larger that the largest, stands within... like ripe sugarcane.
In about 1661, as Aurangzeb set about to expand his kingdom throughout the subcontinent and free the land of heretics, he was at the same time extending his protection to an obscure Hindu monastery in the Punjab. At the time in question Aanand Nath, the abbot of the monastery and a Natha Siddha alchemist, was providing history's great persecutor of Hinduism a regular supply of treated mercury which promised to confer longevity. At the same time in the deep south, the Tamil Siddha alchemist Bhogar, who had supposedly migrated from China along with his guru Kalangi Nathar, was establishing a shrine to the God Murugan on the top of Palani Hill. It was there that he composed his 7000 verses on Kundalini Yoga, alchemy, and Siddha medicine. By medieval times Indian alchemy had come into vogue much like tantra had done almost a millennium earlier. And though the Indian alchemists also sought to develop the chemical processes of transforming base metals into gold as in Europe & the Middle East, they often emphasized the pursuit of bodily perfection and the preparation of the elixir of immortality as the Chinese alchemists had sought. They often viewed their experience of the inner processes of Kundalini Yoga as mirroring the chemical process of the alchemical work.
Though nine hundred years after Tirumular, Bhogar is still wrestling with the serpent energy, even in the midst of his alchemical operations. Though now, the Kundalini is personified as the consort of Ganesha, the Goddess Vallabai...
9 The green-hued Vallabai
will become subservient
and bow down.
She'll tell you
the appropriate time
for the appropriate chakra.
If the basis of Muladhara
You can go anywhere,
throughout the three worlds.
The dull-hued body
will be removed
and the six chakras
will become visible
to the eye.
The gold-colored alchemy
will heed your every word.
In the Sleepless Sleep
can be perceived.
Look and see.
In a particularly odd verse of Bhogar, we find him describing a visionary experience involving the ingestion of an unidentified substance and the wearing of mercurial amalgams.
80 Bhogar's Leap Into the Universe
As the Principle of Intelligence itself
I leapt into the cosmos.
Shiva clearly elucidated
the nature of this universe.
For the sake of all beings
there is a path
that becomes a vehicle
for the five senses.
The universe that appeared before me
was arranged in layers.
Grandfather (Tirumular) said,
"Enter the tenth one."
I took what was given me
and put it in my mouth.
And a bunch
of mercurial amalgams
I tied onto my wrist.
Off I went.
Entering the universe
of fire and light.
In 1293, on his way back from China, Marco Polo got a taste of South India when he stopped along the Malabar Coast. He records a meeting he had with a group of yogi alchemists who, by preparing a tincture of mercury and sulfur, were afforded a lifespan of 150-200 years. Mercury was viewed as the seminal seed of Shiva. It formed a part of the alchemical triad of mercury sulfur and air, corresponding to the trinity of moon sun, and wind. Breath controlled through the practices of Pranayama, transformed the body's winds into a spiritual mediator that could unify the solar and lunar currents within the body. Much like the alchemical process applied air to mercury and sulfur to form the amalgam that brought the work to completion.
Consciousness was seen to ride the vehicle of breath into union with the absolute in the Sahasrara chakra at the top of the head. The Siddha could, through the intercession of the Goddess, placated by manipulation of the breath, expand consciousness to the point where it becomes what is called the Maha Chitta or "Great Awareness" which is the God Shiva himself. Here is one of the closing verses of Bhogar's discussion of Kundalini Yoga..
Invite the breath,
the outer space,
to come within your house.
If you are unwavering,
placing it there
as though you were
putting oil in a lamp,...
They shall meet.
Breath and God
Like wind becoming breath
there is no individual intelligence.
The Great Awareness becomes Siva.
He and breath
merge into one.
It is this light becoming breath
that redeems the soul.
Surely this is the truth
of Siva Yoga!
In the modern era, the Siddhas have had a profound influence on contemporary Tamil society because of the impact of a single poet who lived in the last century. Ramalingar was born in 1823 near Chidambaram, the greatest of all Shaivite temples. Naturally, the heretical nature of his teaching and the growing number of his disciples caused the protest of temple officials and a variety of Saiva Siddhanta institutions throughout the region. Eventually they were forced to call in Arumuga Naalavar from Jaffna to put an end to Ramalingar. As a Tamil scholar and Shaivite authority, the orthodox religious leaders throughout the area, were confident that he could expose the fallacy of Ramalingar's teaching and defrock the heretical saint. Arumuga quickly set about organizing public meetings to provide a platform on which to abuse Ramalingar and a horde of pamphlets were circulated issuing public warning about this dangerous little man. Eventually though, Arumuga was forced to take legal action and filed a suit against the saint. The gentle Ramalingar was dragged into court, but eloquently speaking in his own defense, easily won the case.
The nature of Ramalingar's heresy is found to be all the more insidious when we learn that he also cherished and called his own the devotional hymns of Saiva Siddhanta saints other than Tirumular. One of these, the last of the canonized 64, was Manikkavasagar,who had a profound influence on Ramalingar and Siddha devotionalism in general. Manikkavasagar's name means "He who's utterances are rubies" and in the 9th century he beautifully wrote this mini creation myth in flowing verse...
Becoming sky & earth Wind & light Becoming flesh & spirit All that truly is & all that which is not Becoming the Lord, He makes those who say, "I" & "mine" Dance in the show Becoming sky & standing there... How can my words praise Him?
In this final work of Ramalingar, we see a different side of the heretical Siddhas. Not the enigmatic ramblings or harsh riddles of the ascetic, but a tender ode, that views the Siddha's experience of union as the distilled essence of life's sweetness. In this poem Ramalingar praises Saint Manikkavasagar, and weaves his verse with a complex echoing of sound as he speaks again and again of the sweetness of his mystic absorption experienced when hearing the poetry of the saint. This fervent merging, savored by the ecstatic Ramalingar is described with the Tamil word Kalantha, from the verb root Kala meaning "to flow together", "to make as one", as it also denotes a sexual union.
One with sky Manikkavasagar, your words... One with me when I sing Nectar of sugarcane One with honey One with milk and one with the sweetness of the fertile fruit One with my flesh One with my soul Insatiable is that sweetness!
Although Ramalingar's hymns were penned in praise of the God Shiva, they were often addressed to a feminine audience with unqualified personal designations such as 'Amma' or 'Akka', 'Mother' or 'Sister'. Perhaps indicating that the hymn was meant for an internal and distinctly feminine force that could propel the invocation along the proper channels of the inner cosmos, towards Shiva's divine abode.
The fact that his songs began to be sung in the schools, villages and even the temples of 19th century Cennai, began to outrage the orthodox Shaivites in the area. He, as all other Tamil Siddhas, was somewhat iconoclastic, not adequately deferential to temple or Brahminical tradition. He did not worship the linga. Forgoing all such images, he perpetrated the greatest of heresies by blatantly revealing the true face of God veiled within volumes of tantric lore. At the shrine he established at Vadalur, behind the curtain that housed the holy of holy's, he established a single flame's light to illuminate a mirror that would reflect the image of the worshipper as the secret face of god and final mystery of the Tamil Siddha cult.
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Princeton: Bollingen, 1969.
Francis, T. Dayanandan. The Mission and Message of Ramalinga Swamy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.
Little, Layne. Shaking the Tree: Kundalini Yoga, Spiritual Alchemy, & the Mysteries of the Breath in Bhogar's 7000. Unpublished, 1994.
Venkataraman, R. A History of the Tamil Siddha Cult. Madurai: Ennes Publications, 1990.
White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. (By far the best work of its kind. Its exploration of the North Indian schools is indepth and unparralelled.)
Zvelebil, Kamil V. Tamil Literature. Leiden, 1975.
----The Poets of the Powers. London: Rider,1973.
----Tamil Lexicon. ???