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Finding Out About Iyers and Iyengars

Aug 4, 2008
Have you heard about Tamil Iyers and Iyengars? Who are they? If you are not a Tamil belonging to one of the other, you may not even realize that they have been an important part of Indian history and culture.

The first step to discovering them is to find out about the Tamils first. Tamils are Dravidian-speaking people mostly from the southern part of India. Most Tamils inhabit the state of Tamil Nadu. There are however, many Tamil communities in other areas of India and even in Sri Lanka. At one point, the Tamils of southern India sought political independence from India.

Some groups still continue to do so. A couple of others however are at ease with the level of independence that the Tamils enjoy.The Iyers and Iyengars are intimately connected to the history of the Tamil people. The Iyers and Iyengars are actually Hindu Brahmins who are said to have had the same origins. Many Iyers and Iyengars are Tamils or speak the Tamil language. There are however some Iyers who speak Telugu and who come from Kerala, Karnataka, Pradesh or Andrha. Some Iyengars also speak Telugu or Kannada and are also found in places other than Tamil Nadu. Any academic source about Tamil Iyers and Iyengars will tell you that both the Iyers and Iyengars subscribe to various major tenets of Hinduism. There are however some philosophical differences between the two Brahmin groups. The Iyers subscribe to the philosophy of Adi Shankara which is known as Advaita. Iyengars on the other hand believe in the philosophy supported at a later time by Ramanuja known as Visishtadvaita. In some sources, Iyengars are stated to have broken away from the Iyers which accounts for their establishment at a later period.

In the Advaita belief of the Iyers, Brahman is considered reality. All others are not real. Brahman is furthermore considered to be everywhere and is the origin of everything but cannot be defined or attributed with qualities. It is because of human ignorance that Brahman has been attributed with qualities in the material world. The Iyengars who followed Ramanuja believe differently. They believe that the manifestations that we perceive in the material world are true. Everything however is connected to and controlled by Brahman. Every individual soul is therefore only a part of the absolute Brahman. Like other Brahmins, the Iyers and Iyengars once occupied traditional roles. As Brahmins, they became the scholars, priests and teachers of the sacred scriptures. Again, like other Brahmins, both the Iyers and Iyengars have taken in new roles in society. Although some have still chosen to become priests, many are now professionals in the fields of academic teaching, medicine, technology, arts, law, media and engineering. This is especially true among those who are in other countries. The Iyers and Iyengars have truly diversified.

Aside from philosophical beliefs, Iyers and Iyengars also have their own cultural rituals. It has been suggested that since they share similar origins, they also have very similar cultural practices. It is not clear among those who are non-Brahmin however how far the similarities run. It is common knowledge though that the Brahmin class in general can be divided into many different subclasses with their minor differences in rituals.It is reasonably safe to say though that both Iyers and Iyengars are strict vegetarians. Like other Brahmins they also have precise rituals on bodily purification. Every Brahmin ritually cleanses himself through daily baths. This is especially important before praying and cooking or eating.

There is a lot more to know about Tamil Iyers and Iyengars. Their histories, cultures and philosophies are truly complex and rich.
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