An ancient sect of Hindu dharma that goes back to at least 3000 years, Shaivism took its shape mainly in southern India though it had found its adherents in the early Vedic works of Svetasvatara Upanishad. There were great devotees who took Shaivism with devotion and meritorious religious compositions.
They were the ones who took the religion to the mass and taught people the path of selfless devotion as a way of salvation, when only Brahmans, the priestly class, were exclusively following the same path. While other monastic religions like Buddhism and Jainism attacked their stance, these devotees kept incorporating the lowest castes into Shaivism and created a new body of religious literature that had great philosophical truths and devotional merit.
As the documentation during the ancient times was really poor, we don’t have a great level of information about early Saiva saints who shaped the religious movement. However, there are few of them:
Kannappa used to live in the region near Kalahasti, which lies in the present day Andhra Pradesh. He was a hunter by profession, and a great devotee of Lord Shiva; he used to worship Shiva every day while offering flowers and meat every day. It is said that he even plucked his own eye and offered it as a sacrifice to Lord Shiva; and when he was trying to pluck the other eye, Lord Shiva is said to have appeared in front of him and stopped him from continuing further.
He is a great saint during the sixth century AD, and he is said to have been endowed with supernatural powers. He even composed more than 3000 devotional poems.
He is said to be the founder of the sat marga, the path of the truth, and is first of the four greatest ancient teachers of Shaivism. He was also the chief minister in the court of a Pandya king before he became a true devotee of Shiva. He got the title Mannikkavachaka, which means he whose utterances are gems, because he had great poetical abilities, and he had composed many songs in honor of Lord Shiva. He even wrote Tiruvachakam, which is considered to be a pioneering work in Shaivism.
Appar thrived during the 7th century A.D. and is considered to be the second greatest ancient teacher of Shaivism. He was also a contemporary of Palla King Mahendra. He is known to have found the Dasamarga, or the path of the servant in Shaivism. Initially, he was, in fact, a great devotee of Jainism. However, after spending considering time studying Siva, he then became a great devotee of Shiva. He composed many poems too, but only a few of his poems can be found today. He is even compared to the legendary Prahlada as he too was a great devotee of Lord Shiva.
5. Jnana Sambandha
The disciple of Shiva, Jnana Sambandha is considered to be the third greatest ancient teacher of Shaivism as he was the founder of the Satputra Marga or the path of the son. He was a devotee of Shiva and Parvati from an early age. He was a poet too and had composed many poems dedicated to Shiva and Parvati. He, along with his teacher Appar, traveled many places in South India and is said to have performed miracles. He also had a great disciple Tirunilakanda Yalpanar.
He is the last of the four greatest ancient teachers of Shaivism and is the founder of Sahamarga or the path of the friend. He had a very unusual life; he became a renunciate right before his marriage and traveled many places while singing the songs dedicated to Lord Shiva. However, he did get married to a non-Brahmin by the name of Paravai. She was also a great devotee of Lord Shiva, but their marriage didn’t last long. Then he went to the north of Chennai and found another girl who he got married to. Then he lost both his eyesight and suffered throughout. However, he gained his eyesight through spiritual discipline and devotion. He was also a poet who composed many devotional poems.
7. Ammaiyar from Karikkal
Ammaiyar’s devotion to Shiva is compared to the devotion of Mira Bai towards Krishna. She was born into a well-off family and was married to a wealthy merchant at an early age. But she was very devoted and was into spiritual yearning. So, her husband left her and married another woman. Though devoted to Shiva, Ammaiyar couldn’t overcome the traditional respect and her love for her husband, but then she was successful afterward and dedicated her whole life to Shiva. She also composed many songs and poems that reflected her love for Lord Shiva.
She was endowed with great literary talents and devotional fervor and composed many songs in Tamil. He is another famous woman saint of Shaivism.
9. Meypporul Nayanar
He was a king by birth, but he sacrificed his life as a king to completely devote his life to Lord Shiva.
10. Sakya Nayanar
He was a Buddhist at first but eventually converted into Shaivism. He is said to have the vision of Lord Shiva and Parvati.
Nandanar fell into an “untouchable caste” in ancient society. But with his devotion to Lord Shiva, he was recognized by many learned people and was admitted into the precincts of Chidambaram temple, which at the time was not open to people of his caste.
He got into Shaivism at three through his association with a sage. He is credited for his work Siva-Jnana-bodham, which has 12 famous Shiva sutras or aphorisms. He is also known as the “Seer of Truth”.
13. Arundai Sivachariar
He is the disciple of Meykandar and got into the world of devotion and self-surrender. He also composed Siva-Jnana-sittiyar that explains the truths hidden in the aphorisms of sittiyar.
He got into Shaivism through Arundai Sivachariar. Though he was from the untouchable class too, he was known by many for his great literary talent and devotion to Shiva.
15. Umapathi Sivam
It was Mara-Jnanasambandar who initiated Umapathi into Shaivism and helped him attain self-realization. Umapathi Sivam contributed with eight philosophical treatises on Shaivism, short biographical work on famous 63 Saiva saints, and other contributors to Saiva literature written in Tamil.
Though he was a rich merchant, he got into the world of Shiva when he realized that he won’t be carrying his richness and wealth beyond his death. Along with his princely friend Bhadragiri, he composed many devotional poems, seeking to bring people into the world of devotion and self-surrender in the tenth century Tamilnadu.
Arunagiri had a “sinful” life at an early age by giving up his life on the pleasures of the world. But a great transformation in him took him to be a devotee of Lord Murugan, the first divine child of Lord Shiva. He is known for his famous composition Tiruppugal, which is lyrically beautiful and devotionally deep.
He belonged to a priestly family that was attached to the Shiva temple at Vedaranyam in Tamilnadu. After working some time at the court of a Naik ruler from Tiruchirapalli, he renounced that life and became a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He undertook the philosophy of Shaivism from the Vedantic point of view and tried to explain the existing confusions and contradictions.
19. Lingayat Saints
There are five famous Lingayat Saints of Virasaivism path: Santalinga, Kumaradeva, Sivaprakasa, and two others. They also spread Shaivism through religious songs and treatises during the seventeenth century.