Salvation in Hinduism

The word Avatar or Avatāra, is from Sanskrit, means "descent" (typically from heaven to earth), and refers to a deliberate descent of a deity from heaven to earth. Avatar is mostly translated into English as "incarnation", but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation". An early reference to avatar, and to the avatar doctrine, is in the Bhagavad Gita, which was written under the influence of early Indian Christianity - Jesus Christ coming into this world as a man. The Gospel of Christ entered northern India in the 1st century AD through the apostle Thomas and spread in the Pahlava Empire of Gondophares and the Sakas who were under their dominion; this is proved by the analysis of Sanskrit. The apostle’s ministry ended in the South where he died a martyr in Mylapore. South India also had excellent trade relations with the Roman Empire, and when there are trade relations, cultural and religions exchanges also take place. The Christian Gospel is seen in the Krishna concept which evolved in the north, while the Siva concept evolved in the south. Around the 5th century AD, through the southern incursions of the Gupta Empire, these two Christian developments came in contact with each other. The communications in the north were in Sanskrit while it was Tamil in the south. At this juncture, the Dravidians in the south developed Grantha a southern script, for communicating in Sanskrit.

From the 7th century AD onward, a movement with religious origins made itself heard in South Indian literature. The movement was that of bhakti, or intense personal devotion to the two principal gods of Hinduism, Siva and Vishnu. The earliest bhakti poets were the followers of Siva, the Nayanars (Siva Devotees), whose first representative was the poetess Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who called himself a Pey, or ghostly minion of Siva, and sang ecstatically of his dances. Tirumular was a mystic and reformer in the so-called Siddhanta (Perfected Man) school of Saivism, which rejected caste and asceticism, and believed that the body is the true temple of Siva. There were 12 early Nayanar saints. Similar poets, in the tradition of devotion to the god Vishnu, also belonged to this early period. Called Alvars (Immersed Ones), they had as their first representatives Poykai, Putan, and Peyar, who composed "centuries" (groups of 100) of linked verses (antati), in which the final line of a verse is the beginning line of the next and the final line of the last verse is the beginning of the first, so that a "garland" is formed. To these Alvars, God is the light of lights, lit in the heart.

The most important Nayanars were Appar and Campantar, in the 7th century, and Cuntarar, in the 8th. Appar, a self-mortifying Jain ascetic before he became a Saiva saint, sings of his conversion to a religion of love, surprised by the Lord stealing into his heart. After him, the term tevaram ("private worship") came to mean "hymn". Campantar, too, wrote these personal, "bonemelting" songs for the common man. Cuntarar, however, who sees a vision of 63 Tamil saints-rich, poor, male, female, of every caste and trade, unified even with bird and beast in the love of God-epitomizes bhakti. To him and other Bhaktas, every act is worship, every word God's name. Unlike the ascetics, they return man to the world of men, bringing hope, joy, and beauty into religion and making worship an act of music. Their songs have become part of temple ritual. Further, in bhakti, erotic love (as seen in akam) in all its phases became a metaphor for man's love for God, the lover.

In the 9th century, Manikkavacakar, in his great, moving collection of hymns in Tiruvacakam, sees Siva as lover, lord, master, and guru; the poet sings richly and intimately of all sensory joys merging in God. Minister and scholar, he had a child's love for God.

Antal (8th century), a Vaisnava poetess, is literally love-sick for Krsna. Periyalvar, her father, sings of Krsna in the aspect of a divine child, originating a new genre of celebrant poetry. Kulacekarar, a Cera prince, sings of both Rama and Krsna, identifying himself with several roles in the holy legends: a gopi in love with Krsna or his mother, Devaki, who misses nursing him, or the exiled Rama's father, Dasaratha. Tiruppanalvar, an untouchable poet (panan), sang 10 songs about the god in Srirangam, his eyes, mouth, chest, navel, his clothes, and feet. To these Bhaktas, God is not only love but beauty. His creation is his jewel; in separation he longs for union, as man longs for him. Tirumankaiyalvar, religious philosopher, probably guru (personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism) to the Pallava kings, and poet of more than 1,000 verses, was apparently responsible for the building of many Vaisnava temples. The last of Alvars, Nammalvar (Our Alvar), writing in the 9th century, expresses poignantly both the pain and ecstasy of being in love with God, revivifying mythology into revelation.

Vaishnavism explains that God was born so He could deliver us from our sinful nature and give us a new life. This is being sung as follows:

"Poinninra gnanamum pollaa olukkum alukkudambhum
inninra neermai ini yaam vuraamai vuyir alippaan
ienninra yoniumaai piranthaai imaiyore thalaivaa"
(God was born from a noble woman in order to give us a new life so that deceptive knowledge, immorality and unclean body would not possess us)

(Numalvar Thiruviruthum 1 - 3580)

The purpose of the avatar of God is explained in Saivism as follows:

"Iravaa inbaththu yemai iruththa vendip
piravaa muthalvan piranthaan"
(The unborn prime God was born to give us eternal pleasure.)

(Poatrip Pakorodai 69)

If it is said that God became an avatar so that man can be liberated from the bondage of sin to acquire eternal happiness, then a question arises here.

When did man fall into evil?

Sivagnanapotham, the theological foundation for Saivism says as follows,

"Avan aval athu yenum avai moovinaimayin
thotria thithiye odungi malaththulathaam
antham aathi yenmanaar pulavar"
(In the beginning God created man (avan-first man), woman (aval-first woman) and the world (athu) in three different actions and they were holy. But, later on they fell into the sin or malam, which ended the life of holiness and was the beginning of sin say the scholars.)

(Sivagnanapotham - 1)

How did creation which was holy, fall into the sin? Saiva Siddhanta explains it as follows,

"Muththi mutharkodikkae mogak kodi padarnthu
aththi paluththathu yenru vunthee para
appalham vunnaathae vunthee para"
(Amongst the creatures which were holy, on the first creeper (first man), the creeper of sin crept over it and bore the fruit of evil. Speak this forth. Do not partake of that fruit. Speak this forth.)

(Thiruvuntiyar 41)

When did this happen?

The Bible tells us that it occurred after the first man Adam ate the fruit that he was forbidden to eat. Adam was given the commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but when he disobeyed God, sin took dominion over him says the Bible.

Thus all the people who are the descendants of him, the first man, have fallen into sin since the first man disobeyed God’s commandment. Hence the sinful nature which continuously passes through the generations, is known as ‘Sahasa Mala’ in Saivism, and ‘Janmabhandh’ in Vaishnavism.

God alone is holy without sin. Saivism and Vaishnavism accept that all the people are born with a sinful nature. But Advaitists, whose doctrines are totally contrary to the doctrine of God, say that the concept of sin is ‘maya’ or illusion. Then each one can claim that ‘I am God’ and become equal with God. Thus they have devised a doctrine which is totally contrary to God.

Who can liberate man who is born with a sinful nature? Are human efforts sufficient to liberate himself or does God need to intervene? God alone can liberate him since man himself is sinful by nature. It is explained in Saiva Siddhanta by the following illustration. If we want to make copper free from rust, gold, which is never affected by rust, should be melted together with it and mixed. Thereafter it will not be affected by rust. Likewise, God alone who is holy can liberate human beings that have a sinful nature by birth. In order to redeem man from sin and show him the path, God became a man with five senses.

This is explained in Vaishnavism as follows.

‘Pavam aruppaar’
(God who takes away our sin)

(Sadagopar Anthaathi – 8)

"Avan kandaai nannenjae aararulum kedum
avan kandaai aimpulanaai ninraan avan kandaai..."
(You with a pure heart, know him who is with five senses, and who is having grace, and who is the destroyer of sin)

(Nalaryira Divya Prabhandam-
Eyarpa erandam Thiruvanthaathi-(24)-3307)

The above mentioned songs show that God became a man with five senses and destroyed the power of sin over us.

Thus, God became a man with five senses - a Guru and observed the penance of the suffering of death in order to redeem man. It is explained in Saivism as follows,

"Aimpula vaedarin ayarnthanai valarnthena
thammuthal guruvumoi dhavaththinil vunarththa vittu
anniyam inmaiyin aran kalhal selumae"
(God who came into this world as a Guru on seeing the souls who are living in worldly pleasure by enjoying the pleasures of the five senses, made them to feel through his penance of suffering of death that they have forgotten their creator and are living in sin. Once the soul is enlightened through his suffering, it repents of its sins, and the separation with God is removed and it reaches the feet of God)

(Sivagnanapotham - 8)

This is explained in Saiva Siddhanta by the following illustration. A son of a king was lost and he was living as a hunter with the hunters, and he did not know that he was the son of a king. One day, when the king came to know that his son was living as a hunter, he wanted to see him immediately. It occurred to him that if he were to go as a king his son might be afraid of him and run away. So, he disguised himself as a hunter and went to meet him and talked with him. He explained to his son that he was not a hunter but a son of a king and took him back to his palace.

Likewise, God took the form of a man to redeem mankind who were enslaved by the pleasures of this world and had forgotten their God. Also, he made them to realize who they are through his penance of the suffering of death.

‘Penance’ doesn’t refer to the penance that is being observed by a hermit in a forest. Thiruvalluvar says that real penance is sacrificing ones own life for others.

‘Thanuir thaanarap peruthal’

(Thirukurral 268)

Hence God is described in Saivism as

‘Meydhavan kaan’
(Look at the one who has done true penance)

(Thirunavukkarasar 265-8)

‘Perundhavaththu yem pingnagan kaan’
(Look at our Lord of great penance)

(Appar – Pa. A. 278 – 5)

The same concept is explained in Vaishnavism as follows.

‘Thaanae dhava vuruvum’
(He is the embodiment of penance)

(Nalaryira Divya Prabhandam-
Iyarpa mundram Thiruvanthaathi-38-4321)

‘Sinthanaiyai dhavaneriyai thirumaalai’
(He is our thought who is a path through his penance of sacrifice and is Thirumal)

(Periya Thirumolhi 6-3-7 (1404))

‘Pinakkara aruvagai samayamum neriyulli vuraiththa
kanakkaru nalaththan; anthamil aathiam pagavan
vanakkudai dhavaneri valininru’
(The consistent central theme revealed by the Six-fold religion is that our God is the one who is the source of all blessings and is the one who has neither beginning nor end, and is the one who showed the path through his great penance of suffering)

(Numalvar Thiruvaimolhi 1-3-5 (2108))

Hence, the God who accepted the penance of the suffering of death and offered himself as a sacrifice is being sung in the following Saivite songs.

(One who became the sacrifice)

(Appar 307-8)

'Aviyaai aviyumaagi arukkamaai perukkamaagi
paaviyar paavam theerkum paramanoi Brahmanaagi'
(The supreme God became Brahma and he is the sacrifice and sacrificed himself in order to redeem sinners)

(Thirunavukkarasar Devaram – pa. a. 320)

The songs mentioned above explain that God became man and sacrificed himself in order to redeem the sinners.

Hence God sacrificed his five senses, he is known as

(One who sacrificed his five senses)

(Thirukkural – 25)

and it is being explained in Thirukkural as follows:

"Pori vaayil ainthaviththaan poitheer olhukka
neri ninraar needu vaalhvaar"
(Those who follow the one, who sacrificed his five senses on an instrument and showed us the way and who is the life and truth, will have eternal life)

(Thirukkural – 6)

The term ‘Ainthaviththaan’ can be seen only in two places in Thirukkural and it does not refer to a hermit who controls his five senses. Also this term is not seen in any song on sanyasins, but this term exclusively refers to God who sacrificed his five senses. Since it refers to God who took the form of a man it is seen in an invocation of God that is in the first and third chapters which is praising God the Father (Kadavul vaalhththu) and God the Son (Neeththaar perumai).

His feet look like a red flower since he shed his blood for the redemption of mankind. It is sung in Saiva Siddhanta as follows,

‘Semmalar nonthaalh seral ottaa
ammalam kaliee anbar’
(His feet are like a red flower since he observed nonbu or sacrificed himself to redeem the people from their sins).

(Sivagnanapotham - 12)

Once the soul is cleansed from its sin through the sacrifice of God, it is freed from sin and it becomes a temple of God. This is sung as follows,

"Semmalar nonthaal seral ottaa
ammalam kaliee anbarodu mariyee
maalara neyam malinthavar vaedamum
aalayam thaanum aran yena tholumae"
(Once God cleanses a soul which is separated by sin from the feet of God which looks like a red flower because of its sacrifice (nonbu), it becomes one with God and it is freed from confusion and it overflows with love of God and it reaches the feet of God and become a temple of God.)

(Sivagnanapotham - 12)

Thirumular says

‘Ullam perungovil voon udambu aalayam’
(Our soul is a great temple and also our body is a temple)

(Thirumular Thirumundiram 1792)

Vaishnavism denotes this as ‘Shethram’ or ‘Shethranggnan’.

Bible tells us that ‘You are the temple of God’. Since God wants everyone to live with His joy in our hearts, He took the form of a man, sacrificed himself on the cross and bestowed liberation and redemption to mankind.

The songs mentioned above belong to the post-Christian era. The theme of the songs mentioned above is that God became an avatar, and sacrificed himself in order to liberate the sinners who are entangled with their sins. If God became an avatar, then it must have been mentioned in history. In history, who is spoken of becoming an avatar and sacrificing himself for all mankind?

It is Jesus Christ alone who is mentioned in the history of the world religions as the only one who became an avatar and sacrificed himself. Thus, God became a man and sacrificed himself on the cross (through the penance of suffering of death) in order to redeem sinners, and earned salvation for them.

Hence our forefathers of the bhakthi movement, Alvars and Nayanmars, who had deep bhakthi towards God have sung beautifully about this loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the post-Christian era.



Background on the Bhakti songs extracted from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1982.

Research on the Tamil Bhakti songs are extracted from the article, 'Dravidian Worship and the Doctrine of Avatar' by Dr. Devakala in the Dravida Samayam newsletter dated March 1998 .

Click Here for complete research in PDF format

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