Saivism and Western Nihilism


K.Loganathan, University Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.


My recent visit to London to participate in the First Saiva Conference in UK was an eye-opener in many ways. With the dispersion of Saivites throughout the world particularly the West that creates cultural contexts foreign to Saivism, new problems and dilemmas have emerged. One of the most worrying is the development of nihilistic attitudes among the youths and because of that neglect and abandonment of Saiva way of life. Temple going instead of being a rich experience of the symbolic presence of Siva and hence immensely meaningful, has become a meaningless drudgery. And this has created a wide gap between the youths and adults leading to a variety of conflicts.

The root cause of course is Westernization from which the youths cannot be sheltered and the fact that the Western philosophical mood currently is nihilistic in essence. Added to that is the ruthless proselytization by many active Christian sects to which the youths fall prey, unable to understand that they are in fact being misguided. What the youths do not seem to know and something the Saivite adults have failed to communicate is that Nihilism is not something new to the Tamils and that Saivism emerged only by overcoming it. And also that it is a religion above religions, THE RELIGION that all mankind sooner or later will come to understand and live by . At the moment the only system of philosophy that has grappled with the problem of Nihilism and dogmatism and has overcome them successfully is Saiva Siddhanta. The variants of Buddhism that was dominant in Tamil countries for several centuries in the past and the Vedantic thinking of AthiSankara that emerged from it, were essentially nihilistic . There were many religions with their own deities and dogmas. The Nayanmars and the Saiva philosophers, particularly Meykandar fought a vigorous battle with these nihilisms and dogmatisms, established a religion without religion as an answer to it. Saivism is not a religion in the ordinary sense of the word but rather something that’s camayAthItham, as Thayumanavar has said, something ABOVE the ordinarily religions i.e. Metaphysica Universalis.


What is Nihilism?

When Nietsche , the 19th cent German philosopher declared ‘God is Dead’ and that all including the religious are motivated by the Will to Power and that there is nothing objective in whatever that’s said, he initiated a cultural break in the West that’s termed now PostModernism the essential ingredient of which is nihilism. In the light of what Nietsche has said, there is distrust of metaphysics as such and philosophy of nihilism aims to dissect and dissolve all claims of objective truth by unmasking the hidden values , the will to power beneath all such claims. The notion of truth is seen as a variant of values and hence simply beliefs and opinions, one just as good as another. " All thought that pretends to discover truth is but an expression of the will to power- even to dominate- of those making the truth-claims over those who are being addressed by them; in particular, the disinterested, scientific, wholly rational search for the objective, neutral truth of a proposition is an illusion produced by metaphysical thought for its own benefit .[1]

Heidegger and following him the Italian philosopher Vattimo has articulated a related notion of Nihilism by focusing on the analysis of the meaning of what is termed Being. What is termed ‘beings’ is what is called in Tamil ‘poruL’ , the substance of what is investigated in the PoruLathikaram of Tolkaapiyam. As distinct form beings is Being, the is-ness that pertains to everything that IS and hence something indefinable as any attempt to define will already presuppose it. Western metaphysics at least from the days of Plato has been essentially forgetful of the meaning of Being and has preoccupied itself only with beings, the things. When the question of the meaning of Being is reinstated, i.e. ontological investigations pursued we come to a dead end again. Because Being is indefinable nothing definite and positive can be said about it, and therefore ontology as such is prior to the metaphysics of reason and logic. As the indefinable, the meaning of Being also dissolves the distinction in subject- object relationship for both are not without Being. Nihilism of a kind emerges in this way with the reinstatement of the question of Being which is said to exist in an autonomous, independent and foundational way and is never in the power of the thinking, reasoning subjects. Metaphysics is prevented from attempting what can be called Fundamental Ontology in which emerges the truths of God and soul i.e. the anAthip poruLial of Saiva Siddhanta.

European Nihilism thus articulates a distrust with REASON and because of which it is termed postmodern, modernism being identified with reason and rationalism. The philosophy of nihilism distrusts all claims of truths purportedly arrived at logically and rationally and seeks to show all such truths such as God and soul, are in fact subjective values and no less ‘errors’ than any other human beliefs or opinions.

"Nihilistic thought seeks to show that metaphysical ‘truths’ simply express the subjective values of a given individual or social group, not the immutable, unchanging essence of either the divine, human or natural world."[2] Thus this Western nihilism in a way resembles the Vedanta in which objective truths are denied because everything is said to be kaRpitam, mental fabrications of individuals. ‘Everything is subjective, there is no objective truths at all ‘ is the philosophy that has become the undercurrent of Western Culture and which undermines the foundations of Saivite philosophy and existence and because of which the youths are distancing themselves from Saivism and the parents who still live by it. ‘Existence has no specific meaning or meanings , anything goes and hence there is no point in going to the temples and so forth’ appears to be the philosophy that has now come to grip the Saiva Youths in the West.


Saiva View of Nihilism

What relates recent developments in Western Philosophy with Saiva Siddhanta is the philosophic concern with the meaning of Being , i.e. ontology. Heidegger appears to be the philosopher responsible for this change and with the publication of his Being and Time, philosophy in the West is back again on the right track. However when we view the use of the word Being in Heidegger against similar notions in Sivajnana Botham, we can see a conflation of distinct senses of the word and because of which Heidegger could not raise himself above Being and see Nothingness and hence articulate Metaphysica Universalis as such. Being as the unchanging self-identical ‘is-ness’ that pertains to everything is the ‘uLathu" of Meykandar which stands in opposition to ‘ilathu’. We shall term this the Metaphysical Being, (henceforth M-Being) But Being that’s somehow related to TIME as such, temporality as such cannot be this M-Being which is beyond time. We shall term this the Phenomenal Being (henceforth P-Being) and we can see that as such it is equivalent to Meykandar’s, mUvinaimai or thORRam (appearance) This distinction and the truth that an entity that has Metaphysical Being cannot assume Phenomenal Being on its own and therefore there is BEING ( SIVAM) that’s responsible for it, is the TRUTH that has enabled the Saivites to escape the painful nihilism of the past and restore faith and trust in GOD. In the light of this clarity we can see that the Western nihilism is a philosophical stance in which perhaps Being, both the metaphysical and phenomenal, are acknowledged but not BEING as such for it demands subscribing to absolute TRUTHS and unchanging essences ie saththu. The Western nihilism , just like ancient Buddhists deny the ABSOLUTENESS of BEING and because of which it is lost , simply drifts without any sense of direction, a definite meaning for existence.


Being, BEING and Nothingness


The notions of Metaphysical Being (uLathu,), Phenomenal Being (mUvinaimai, thORRam) and BEING (civacaththu) are the fundamental terms , no matter how difficult and abstruse, that need to be understood clearly in order to maintain ourselves in ways of life that are religious but not dogmatic, i.e. in Saivism. And for this we have to analyze and understand another important technical term – sUnyam or NOTHINGNESS-- that also occurs in Civajnana Botham as that which illuminates the notion of civacaththu i.e. BEING and which also has an ancient history in Dravidian Philosophy.


Etymologically ‘sUnyam’ can be derived from Ta. ‘sUr’ or ‘sUn’ meaning the sun, radiance, brilliance and so forth. In philosophical usage it has come to mean ‘nothingness’

But where can the notion of Nothingness find a place along with these concepts of Being? How can the two can co-occur without being self-contradictory? The M-Being is the self-identical unchanging ‘is-ness’ and hence it cannot be dissolved no matter how. What is IS in this sense continues to BE, i.e. anAthi, as it is noted in S.Siddhanta. The P-Being however especially that which pertains to the psychic entities (ciththup poruL) has UNDERSTANDING as its essential way of Being, holds the possibility of raising itself to the state of Nothingness for understanding as such can be so. The world can be EMPTY but not NOTHING, for it is always something, even when engulfed in utter DARKNESS. In the P-Being of psychic entities, especially in the understanding however, there can Nothingness in a way without meaning the ABSENCE of the world as such. Objectively the world can continue to be but it can be Nothing in the UNDERSTANDING of someone. This much is clear now. But when can UNDERSTANDING as such be Nothingness?

When we examine ordinary understanding of the sentient beings, it is clear that along with consciousness there is also the unconscious; while somethings remain lighted up and hence clear there are many that remain CONCEALED, covered-up, hidden, not lighted up .i.e. maRaipporuL. Hence such an understanding does not yet confront Nothingness because there is always SOMETHING as that which is hidden ununderstood and hence anniyam or Other. However it follows from this that when understanding reaches a state where there is NOTHING that remains alien, foreign, not understood yet, i.e. when understanding is absolutely illuminated, totally non-alien understanding confronts NOTHINGNESS as such. Meykandar grasped this very clearly to his eternal glory and articulated it as ‘yAvaiyum sUnyam caththu ethir’ an insight never to be lost sight of by any Saivite.

Nothingness as such is a dissolution, a CLOSURE of kind. It closes the need for the phenomenal presence of beings i.e. the P-Being of entities. Notice that in closing the P-Being of an entity, it’s M-Being, its ‘is-ness’ remain untouched. Only that which IS, can be NOTHING for someone. The entity IS though it ceases its phenomenal presence for a person. This state of being , which is always that of an individual, is articulated as ParaMukti, a notion still foreign to the Western philosophers and theologians. ParaMukti is a state of M-Being but fully radiated so that the understanding is absolutely translucent and hence without any patches of Darkness or Ignorance.

Now if there is CLOSURE, certainly there must be an OPENING that installs the phenomenal presence i.e. the P-Being of the entities. While the closure is a folding-up, the OPENING , it’s converse must then be an UNFOLDING, a lighting up, a disclosure. Such disclosures, lighting up is the notion of CREATION of Saiva Siddhanta which, incidentally, is not the same as the notion of creation in the Semitic religions. Creation is not bringing into being what is not from the VOID; it is simply allowing phenomenal circulation of what is already there, i.e. what has Metaphysical Being.

Now begins the important question. Can the psychic entities that enjoy and lose the P-Being, be responsible for it? Can they on their own accord install and withdraw the P-Being of themselves and other entities? Certainly it is impossible for both the initial unfoldment and the final Closure are above and beyond the psychic entities. As Meykandar puts it, ‘uLLathaRku ceyvOninRi ceyvinai inmaiyin’. There must be ANOTHER over and above the psychic entities, distinct but always along with them that is responsible for this CLOSURE and OPENING i.e. antham and Athi. This AnthamAthi is the BEING, that which IS as already there before any phenomenal presentations and without which there cannot be this phenomenal world.

This BEING is SIVAM, the absolutely Radiant, the Pure. It is sentient but with an understanding that is always characterized by this NOTHINGESS and because which HE can bestow it to others in need of it and are ripe for its reception


Overcoming Nihilism


Having secured the reality of BEING, we also have secured an understanding that allows us to escape nihilism. There is something that remains as the ABSOLUTE, the permanent and the most auspicious. The thought of BEING secures for us a sense of the RIGHT and hence an unassailable DIRECTION for living, existing, Being -in –the- world as a phenomenal reality. Existence has MEANING and the meaning is to attain PARAMUKTI, to reach a state of P-Being in which understanding confronts only NOTHINGNESS. But we must mention here that only the genuinely religious experience guided continuously by BEING Himself can secure for us this blissful state of P-Being. But the religious here is not the ordinary religious that proselytizes with empty rhetoric and false mythologies. Saivism as a way of life is transcendent to the ordinarily religious and is founded upon the TRUTH of Metaphysica Universalis, an understanding that’s already there in the bosom of every creature and hence thoroughly objective. When BEING dominates totally and completely, IT severes the alienness of the psychic entities with everything so that there is nothing as Other, Nothingness is experienced. And this possibility remains the possibility of everybody- no one is especially privileged and therefore eminently OBJECTIVE.

Rationality and Saivism

Saivism as founded upon Metaphysica Universalis, is founded upon Truth. There are objective TRUTHS standing as there independent of the subjective values. The truths are beyond the ThaRpOtham, intellectual attempts to rationalize and justify one’s own fancies, perhaps in the vein of the will to power as observed by Nietsche. The Truths as such are met with only when the instinct to power over others is overcome and understanding is submitted humbly to be formed by BEING itself. Thus we cannot go along with either Nietsche or any Western philosopher whether modern or postmodern. Since Metaphysica Universalis is already there in the understanding of every body, it is an objective TRUTH. But there is an absence of an understanding of it and because of which it remains unacknowledged. There is a science of attaining this understanding and for which there are sadhanas. The practices of Saivism are sadhanas for the attainment of an understanding already there in bosom of everybody. Saivism doest not demand subscription to dogmas and belief systems on the basis of any authority. The sadhana are utties, movements of understanding that lights up and discloses the truths of Metaphysica Universalis in stages. Since the sightings of such truths remain the possibility for everybody who is earnest enough, they are not mental constructions, rationalized values or in short kaRpitham.

The Tasks Ahead

With this clarification it is possible now to outline something that needs to be done immediately. The first is that our Saiva philosophers must not remain content with studies of Thevaram and the Meykanda Sastras. In addition to this they have to master the Western philosophical tradition and attempt to reduce them to the Parapakkam, without which Saiva Siddhanta as a Supakkam, as the final TRUTH, will not emerge. In this we have to single out Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Hume, Humbolt, Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer, Derrida, Levinas , Foucalt and many others who have written brilliant books in the light of which the truths of S.Siddhanta emerge in bolder relief.

We must also reorganize the training program for our Sivacariyars for gone are the days when they were well versed in the principles of Saiva Siddhanta. Now –a-days they appear to have degenerated into simply people who have memorized some mantras from the Agamas for the purpose of conducting poojas kumbabishekam and such other rituals. Furthermore in their philosophical inclinations they appear to be more Vedantic than Siddhantic. In addition to reinstating Tamil as the language of Saiva rituals, which is well on the way, we have to train them also effectively in the fundamental principles of Saiva Siddhanta.

Now another action that needs to be done immediately is that the Temples in addition to being places of worship, must also initiate programs for educating the Saiva public on the fundamental of Saiva Siddhanta so that they UNDERSTAND the essences at least. In this the Federation of Saiva Temples in London appear to move in the right direction. For they already have very successfully organized a Saiva Conference and intend to do so annually. It also appears that the other Temples in London are also equally enthusiastic about such conferences on Saiva Philosophy. I hope the Saiva Temples in other countries can organize similar seminars.

The most urgent thing however is to organize Youths Camps with international participation so that the Saiva Youths can meet, air out their problems and seek out explanations of a suitable kind so that they gain a better understanding of Saivite culture. Failure to do this, particularly for the youths in the West, will mean a growing alienation and hence a decline. The youths of the future will cease to be the carriers of Saiva culture- it will meet a natural death, a phenomenon we are already witnessing among some of our Youths and with which we are not at all happy.


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