Religion in the Sangam Age was associated with rituals and certain amount of metaphysical thought. The religion of the Sangam Age was not uniform; it was an “intangible network of quasi-religious customs and practices.” Their rituals were related to animism and other forms of anthropomorphic deity worship.
The whole philosophies of reincarnation, hero worship, ancestor worship, sati worship etc. were related to death. Animism accounts for a good part of Tamil Sangam religion and comprised worship of stones, water, stars and planets. A mere planted log of wood called kandu was an object of worship for it was believed that a deity resided in that log of wood.
Three strands of religion, clearly marked off from each other, are discernible during the Sangam period: (a) the indigenous gods and systems of worship; (b) the exotic Hindu gods and systems of worship; and (c) the exotic non-Hindu religious faiths and functions.
The Vedic religion had struck root in the south, which is proved by references to the costly sacrifices performed by monarchs of the age. Brahmins, devoted to their studies and religious duties, held a high position in society.
The worship of Subrahmanya (Murugan) and the legendary achievements of that deity are often alluded to in the contemporary literatue. The hunters of the hill tracts worshipped Murugan as the God of the hillock. Indra, God of Marudam, was worshipped by the agriculturists. There was a special festival instituted in Puhar in honour of Indra. The fishermen and the people of the coastal regions worshipped Varuna, the god of the wide ocean. Korravai was the goddess of victory.
Among the established gods worshippped according to rituals, the three eyed god (Siva), Murugan, Tirumal, Balram and Indra seem to have been the more important. Murugan was the deity par excellence of the Tamils. Among the temples in the Sangam Age there is specific mention of quite a large number of temples dedicated to different deities. The temple was called Nagar, koil, kottam, purai or devalayam.
The popularity and prevalence of the Brahmanical velvi (yajna) the sraddha and pinda to the dead, fasting etc. are well attested to by the Sangam literature. During the Sangam Age, Buddhism and Jainism also flourished together, but were subordinate to the Brahmanical Vedic religion. The Tamils of the Sangam Age were aware of certain spiritual and philosophical truths, such as concepts of body and soul, superiority of destiny, dying for a noble cause and so on.
In the sphere of religion, we find a mixture of practices and beliefs of diverse origin often jointly observed and held by the same sections of the people. The Vedic religion of sacrifice was followed by kings and chieftains. References are not lacking to the performance of Vedic sacrifices and the sacrificial posts, theyupas, those of the Pandya kig Mudukudumi Peruvaludi being the best known.
The word yakacalai is used for yajnasala. Individual Brahmins maintained and regularly worshipped the three sacred fires in their houses; they made sacrifices and feasts for gods and guests respectively, rice, ghee and meat figuring prominently in both. Rice mixed with flesh was offered daily to crows on the thresholds of houses. Gifts made to Brahmins were always accompanied by a libation of water. A pantheon of many gods, honoured with temples, where public worship was offered to them, had arisen.
The worship of Vishnu with tulsi (basil) leaves, bells and other accompaniments is mentioned, as also the custom of devotional fasting in the precincts of the temple with the object of obtaining the grace of Vishnu. Vishnu sleeping on the coils of Ananta in Kanchipuram is mentioned in the Perumbanarruppadai.
Shiva as ardhanarisvara (half-man half-woman), his bull Nandi, his ganas, in fact the whole gamut of Saivite legends are found together in the invocatory verse of the Purananuru. Siva, Balarama, Krishna, and Subrahmanya (better known as Murugan in Tamil) are mentioned together in one poem. The birth of Subrahmanya from Kali, and his warlike achievements like the destruction of the asura called Sura are favourite themes of the poets.
The worship of this deity was attended by primitive dances known as velanadal, possibly a survival of an ancient Tamil religious fashion like the dances connected with the worship of Krishna as a shepherd hero. The reference to the worship of the deity of the forest (kaduraikadavul), often identified with Durga, may be another survival of a similar nature.
Though Buddhism and Jainism must have found a footing in the land, there are few references to them in this literature. The mention of sravakas, the lay followers of Jainism, and the Jain monasteries in Madurai and of Indras in the plural are the more noteworthy pieces of evidence pointing to the presence of Jainism. Ascetics wearing orange robes and carrying a tridanda (mukkol) are referred to.
The enjoyment of the pleasures of life is compared to the performers of tapas (austerities) reaping their fruit even in this world. We hear relatively little of domestic rituals. There is, however, a detailed account of pre-natal rites designed to ensure that the unborn child will excel in the desired directions after its birth.
There are references both to cremation and burial urns, and to judge only from the trend of these references, cremation and burial appear to have been alternative modes of disposal, and the Manimekalai furnishes evidence that both these and other methods of disposal survived together upto a relatively late age, say the sixth or seventh century AD. Archaeological evidence points to burials, to cremated remains as well as to decorated bodies.
Some light on the funerary rites of the time is thrown by the references to the wife offering a pindam (rice-ball) to her dead husband who was supposed to eat it at the instance of a pulaiyan, before his pyre was kindled.
Indra, Yama, Varuna and Soma (Kubera) are mentioned as the guardians of the four directions: the east, the south, the west and the north respectively. Gods on the basis of caste are also mentioned in the Silappadikaram. Brahma (the four-faced one), the thirty-three devas and the eleven ganas are also mentioned in Tirumuruarruopadai. Umai, Tirumal, Kalaimaga, Aylrani (wife of Indra) were some of the goddesses worshipped.
Analysis of the names of these gods and goddesses makes one thing clear: there seem to be parallel names in Tmil and in Sanskrit for the same Gods – Murugan and Subrahmanya, Tirumal and Vishnu, Siva and Rudra.
But it seems probable at least in the case of Murugan, that the entire worship started with the Tamils and Murugan got transformed into Subrahmanya carrying with him his old legends and surrounding himself with more and more new legends and myths. Much accommodation between indigenous religious practices and exotic Aryan beliefs and rituals seems to have taken places.
Among the temples in the Sangam Age there is specific mention of quite a large number. The temple was called nagar, in latter-day inscriptions we also read of vinnagara, meaning the temple of ‘Vishnu’. Kottam, koil, nagar, or ilorgriham place of residence; hence the expressioi Vishnugriha also meant ‘temple for Vishnu’, name ‘Siva’ is rarely mentioned in the San| literature; but many of his attributes (namely, Three-eyed One, the One that destroyed the aerial forts, He that holds the trisula, He that seated under the banyan tree) are given in tni contexts.
Siva, of course had his temple and Kilar advising Pandyan Palyagasa! Mudukudumipperuvaludi, says that his ro; umbrella should be lowered when he comes roi the temple of the Three-eyed One. The temple Indra is mentioned in Silappadikaram and Manimekalai; the festival of Indra was held all pomp by the Chola king in Puhar ai Manimekalai calls it “the festival of the Thousai eyed One”.
His temple was called VajrakkotU for vajra is the divine weapon of Indra commencement of the festival of Indra (Vila Kail was proclaimed by the beat of drums placed elephant’s back.
An analysis of the gods worshipped in Sangam Age brings out prominently two fai In the first place, Tirumal as Tirumal and Kannan is quite often mentioned and ws| worshipped and associated with Valigon (Balade and with Kaman. Secondly, synthesis of the noi Aryan Tamil and the Aryan Vedic deities had begd during this period. The culture of the Sangam Age, as a whole, is a synthesis of the Tamil and Arvai cultures.