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Wikipedia article on Iyer has a passage without citations which says:

The title 'Iyer' was used as a designation for all Tamil Smartha Brahmins during the medieval period, during which they were organised into single community. However, during the 11th century, a breakaway sect formed a new community called "Iyengars", worshipping Sri Vaishnava.

Did Tamil Vaishnavites (Iyengars) descend from Iyers? Or did they evolve from generic Hindus who were not Iyers?

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Yes, Iyengars are an ofshoot of the Iyers. But Iyer didn't originally mean Smartha Brahmana. Iyer originally just denoted people of the highest jati (subcaste) of the Brahmana varna (caste). Then after the time of Adi Shankaracharya the Smartha philosophy became popular among Iyers. (Smarthas technically worship five gods whom they believe are manifestations of Ishvara, but in practical terms they're often called Shaivite, both because Ishvara is usually considered to be synonymous with Shiva and because Shiva is the god that they typically worship more than the other four. Also note that Smartha originally meant "follower of Smriti", and in that sense pretty much all Hindus in the Kali Yuga are Smartha, but I'm using it in the modern sense of the Smartha philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya.)

And then after the time of Ramanujacharya, Iyers who converted to his Sri Vaishnava philosophy started calling themselves Iyengar. And so since pretty much all the Vaishnava Iyers (other than non-Visitadvaita Vaishnavas) were calling themselves Iyengars, the ones that still called themselves Iyers were the Smartha Iyers, so the term "Iyer" eventually became synonymous with "Smartha Brahmanas of the highest subcaste", which is the current meaning of the word.

  • This answers my question. When you say they worshiped five gods, who are those 5 gods? – Bharat Jul 31 '14 at 14:36
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    @Bharat In theory, Smarthas worship the Panchayatana: Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha, Vishnu, and Surya. But in practical terms they mostly just worship Shiva, which is why Iyers are usually called Shaivites. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 31 '14 at 15:09
  • @KeshavSrinivasan What was the sect that Alawandar, Nadhamuni etc who were before Sri Ramanuja following. Iyengar is the term meaning having five angas which was in the tradition existed even before these notable persons. Is there any reference to what or how the term existed pre Ramajua period? – Narayanan Oct 20 '15 at 4:41
  • @Narayanan I'm not sure when the terms "Sri Vaishnava" and "Iyengar" originated. In Yamunacharya's Agama Pramanya, he just refers to himself as a Bhagavata. Bhagavata was the original term for the followers of Pancharatra; I think "Vaishnava" came later. In any case, my point was that Sri Vaishnavas before Ramanujacharya still called themselves Iyers - they didn't think of "Iyengar" as something separate from Iyers. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 20 '15 at 4:49
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    @Narayanan In the time of Nathamuni, Yamunacharya, etc., the Sri Vaishnava Sampradayam was mostly limited to Sri Rangam. Outside of Sri Rangam there were plenty of people whom we would today call Vaishnavas who followed Pancharatra Agamas, but it is only after the time of Ramanujacharya that Sri Vaishnavism became a major sect of Hinduism. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 20 '15 at 4:53
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The name Iyer or Iyengar did not exist before 300 years. Only Nambi , Mudali etc. Anirudha Birma Rayan in Emperor Raja Raja'a court of Chola empire - 10th century AD - was a vaishnaivite Brahman. Nambi aandar nambi in chola period was a saivite Brahmin. None of the Nayanmars including Appar,sundarar, Sambandhar etc who were Brahmins did not have Iyer tittle - or Azwars who were Vaishnavites befoe Ramanuja had iyengar title even those who were brahmins.

Nayanmars and Azwars both predate Sankara and Ramanuja and saivism and Vaishnavism existed before the two Acharyans.

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    Interesting answer. It would be good if you could support your answer with references. :) – Amit Saxena May 5 '16 at 2:30
  • APPAR (aka Thirunavukkarasar) was NOT a Brahmin. He was a non~Brahmin VELLALA. – Sundaresh Jul 15 '17 at 12:08

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