What is the difference between Iyer and Iyengar if both are Brahmins?

Balaji Viswanathan

Balaji Viswanathan, Indian by Birth. Indian by Thought.

Abstract: Iyers and Iyengars are both Tamil Brahmins who differ in their core philosophies. In many religions, there is a schism based on the relative priorities accorded to saints and the scriptures. Iyers place more emphasis on the Smriti [scriptures], while Iyengars place more emphasis on the Acharyas [teachers]. This is again the primary difference between Sunni Muslims [followers of Sunnah] and Shia Muslims [who place more emphasis on the spritual leaders – Imamah]. Again, while Protestants fundamentally trust scriptures to be the sole guide, Catholics accord more importance to saints, prophets and Pope.

Iyers follow the Smarta Tradition – a more liberal form of Hinduism whose worship contain 5 key deities – Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Surya and Ganesha [as some mentioned in the comments below, in some versions the sixth god – Shanmuga – is also added to this] . Adi Shankara is their primary guru and Advaita is their primary philosophy. According to Advaita philosophy there is no difference between God and humans. The illusion of Maya makes our souls different from that of the Brahman. A Smarta’s goal is to pierce the screen of Maya to reach unity with the Universe. The preferred path is Jnana [knowledge].

Iyengars follow the Sri Vaishnava tradition – a more stringent form of Hinduism where the worship primarily centers around the Vishnu pantheon. Iyengars are the followers of Ramanuja and Vishishtadvaita is their primary philosophy. Vishishtadvaita philosophy defines 3 entities – God, living and nonliving things. The goal of the jivas [living] is to merge with the Creator [Parabrahman] , primarily through the path of Bhakti [devotion].

Their core philosophy affects their appearance too. Iyers sport the Tripundra  [3 marks]- forehead markings made with ash. The ash signifies that everything eventually burns in the end and we must get beyond the worldly illusions of Maya.

The three lines signify three barriers to truth – anava [ego], karma [deeds] and maya [illusion].

Iyengars sport the Sricharanam [lord’s feet] in their forehead. Sricharanam reminds a Srivaishnavite to always think the feet of the God and spend their life in devotion. [There are two different sects within the tradition who wear it in slightly different ways.]

The two outer lines are the Lord’s feet [imagine someone standing with their feet in V-shape position] and the inner line is that of Mahalakshmi who is keeping her feet closed due to modesty.

There are again two dominant groups within Srivaishnavism – the northern sect [vadakalai] following Vedanta Desika as one of the key guiding paths, while the southern sect [thenkalai] following Manavala Mamunigal as a guiding spirit.

Key differences between Smarta and Srivaishnavas:

  1. Holy text vs. holy teachers: Smarta’s primarily concern with the Smriti – scriptures. While Smartas respect their teachers too, the Srivaishnavites are unrivalled in their devotion to the teachers [acharya] . For the latter, the acharyas often rank even higher than gods. This interestingly also divides the Sunnis [followers of the scriptures] from the Shias who put more devotion to their Imamah [teachers].
  2. Holy temples: Smartas celebrate the 275 temples [Paadal Petra Sthalam]  that have been glorified their gurus termed nayanars. Srivaishnavites celebrate the 106 temples [Divya Desam] that have been glorified by their acharyas. There are intersections of both in Kanchi and Chidambaram. The devotion of the latter towards their 106 holy temples is unrivalled by the former.
  3. Holy scriptures: The daily prayers of Smartas center around the 5 Sukhtas [Purusha, Sri, Durga, Narayana and Rudra]. Srivaishnavas differ in their 5 Sukthas taking Purusha, Sri, Narayana, Bhu, Nila as the five key chapters from Vedas for their everyday recitation.
  4. Language: Smarthas include more of Sanskrit in their speech and prayers. Srivaisnavites, especially the thenkalai group include much more of pure Tamil in theirs.
  5. Mission: Smarthas all come under the Sankara mutt and most often the one in Kanchi. This is equivalent of their Church with Sankaracharya having the status of the Pope. Vadakalai Srivaishnavas come under 4 big mutts/ashrams –  Ahobila, Parakala, Srirangam Andavan Ashram and Poundrikapuram Andavan ashram, while the Thenkalai have even more numerous acharyas with the prominent one being the Vanamamalai mutt at Nanguneri.

Besides these there are noticeable differences in diets, festivals and traditions involving weddings and other events.

As a final note, many people think Hinduism to be a non-religion because there are no prophets, scriptures or central organization. However, once you get at the level of individual traditions – you can see Srivaishnava or Smartha traditions are religions in every way – with prophets, scriptures, institutions, rules and symbols. Hinduism is just the big tree that carries all these individual branch religions. That again answers a typical question in Tamil Nadu on why the Smartas and Srivaishnavites are so intent on keeping their caste traditions. Because for them, their tradition is their religion and guiding philosophy.

Vedas are like the Himalayas that feed an enormous number of streams. These rivers like religions take different paths, feed different people, but all end up in the ocean of Paramathma. There are many such mountains across the world, feeding many river systems but reaching the same ocean called by different names.


Gallery | This entry was posted in SANATANA DHARMA. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s