This section is from the book "Some Contributions Of South India To Indian Culture", by S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar. Also available from Amazon: Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture.
Among the two principal schools of Bhakti cult prevalent in South India, Saivism comes in for a large clientele. Saivism consists in the recognition of Siva as the supreme beneficent deity. Siva is believed to exercise the functions of creation, protection, destruction, prevention from lapses in the enjoyment of the results of one's action, and beneficence. These functions he is said to discharge with a view to release struggling souls from the bondage resulting from their previous action, and to present unto them the knowledge of the nature of Siva, so that they might ultimately attain to the much desired release. In order to discharge these self-imposed functions of his, Siva assumes the position of Lord with the following six attributes: omniscience, limitless contentment, knowledge that does not spring out of experience, self-possession, undiminished power, and limitless power. It is the possession of these qualities, exhibiting themselves in extreme purity, in the capacity to destroy the bondage of action and to improve the power for good, that gives appropriateness to the name of Siva.
It is under command of this Supreme Deity that souls assume forms, and struggle in the world. They work their way gradually through the six outer forms of religion, viz., Lokayata, Bauddha, Arhata (Jaina), Mimamsa, Mayavada (Advaita) and Pancharatra by faithfully carrying out the various regulations for conduct laid down by them. In the course of this struggle Siva assumes the forms of the various beings that guide these souls, and makes them attain to the respective benefits resulting from what they do. They pass from this to the methods of the inner religion (inner to Saivism) such as Saivism, Pasupatam, Vamam, Bhairavam, Mahavrtam and Kalamukham.
Souls in their next stage of development enter the inner religions as a result of their good action in their pursuit of life in the outer religions. Then they follow the "path of the Veda," or the regulations of the Smritis and adopt the life of the four castes and the four orders. As a result of good action in this method they go to heaven and enjoy a higher life, only to be born again on earth at the end of their course of enjoyment. As a result, however, of their good deeds while living in the path of the Veda and by the grace of Siva they get into the "path of Siva," and understand the significance of Charya (conduct), Kriya (duty), and Yoga (contemplation by concentration). Adopting this course they attain to the position of being at sight of Siva (Sa/oka), or in proximity to him (Samipya) or of attaining to a form like him (Sarupa). Those among them who have weaned themselves of the notion of enjoyment cease to be born on earth and get rid of the cycle of existence as a result of the grace of Siva. It will thus be clear that, according to Saivism, salvation is attainable only by means of the Saiva Siddhanta; the only way to attain salvation is by the knowledge of the nature of Siva; the attainment of this knowledge is achieved by the adoption of the four methods, conduct, etc. The rights and ceremonies prescribed by the Veda however, produce good fruit, but these latter are not eternal. The results of action in the path of the Veda are no less productive of bondage than evil action, only these are something like golden fetters, while those may be likened to iron ones. These lead to the enjoyment of good, but bring on re-birth inevitably. It is only the right knowledge of Siva that puts an end to this rebirth. Of these four, Sariyai, Kiriyai, Yogam and Ganam, the first two constitute what is understood by the term Siva-dharma. This Siva-dharma is pursued both by an easy path and by a difficult path. The mere adoption of the rule of conduct laid down in the Siva-dharma constitutes the former; while, as a result of the adoption of this line of conduct, the affection for
Siva has so thoroughly engrossed the whole soul, it shrinks from nothing in doing what it conceives to he pleasing to Siva. This duty extends even to the killing of parents and children, and the pulling out of one's own eyes in the service that would please the supreme deity. Those that pursue their unswerving duty to Siva in either of these ways constitute his Bhaktas. Those that pursue it by the former method might well be called Vira Saivas, though this name is reserved for a class of people who adopted a similar, but a somewhat modified creed. Some of the well-known Adiyars of the Saivas actually adopted, according to the traditional accounts, this method and such classification could not be regarded as actually exclusive, or really strictly correct. In the ultimate analysis Saivism comes to be this. It recognises the supremacy of Siva as the beneficent deity who makes it his function to save souls (pasu) from their bondage in the fetters of action (pasam, the results of karman or action); he does this as the result of his own grace.
We have already seen that the Sangam literature does give evidence of this supremacy of Siva though not quite exclusively. In the passage already quoted from Narkirar, Siva figures first among the four world-ruling deities,
Krishna, Baladeva and Skanda taking rank with him. In the passage quoted from the Maduraik-kanji, Rudran Kannan seems to go a step further, and indicate more clearly the supremacy of Siva where he is distinctly placed as the first. It will thus be clear that the rudiments were already there in the earliest period to which Tamil literature can take us while in the age immediately following a further vast development becomes discernible.