The Alwars or Vaishnava Mystics of South India
This chapter included the three Ancient Alwars, Periyalwar, Nammalwar, Kulasekhara Alwar, Thondaradippodi Alwar, Thiruppan Alwar, Thirumangai Alwar, Thirumazhisai Alwar, Andal and Saint Alavandar. I have covered three Ancient Alwars, Periyalwar, Nammalwar, Kulasekhara Alwar, Thondaradippodi Alwar, Thiruppan Alwar, Thirumangai Alwar and Thirumazhisai Alwar.
Whenever there is a decay of righteousness, people become irreligious great saints take birth for the spiritual upliftment of the people. The Alwars incarnated in South India to save the people from such a crisis, rekindled the flame of Bhakti in South India. They sang the glory of Lord Hari. The Alwars came from all castes. Four of them were orthodox Brahmins. Two of them were non-Brahmins. One belonged to the depressed class. One was a woman. Four were Ayonijas, i.e. not born out of a womb. One was Kshatriya. The Vaishnav saints were twelve in number.
They were known as Alwars because they immersed in God-love. The hyms of the Alwar saints are known as Nalayira Divya Prabhandam, a book of four thousand verses. These hyms were collected by the great scholar Nada Muni. The Divya Prabhandam is a sacred treasure of divine knowledge that contains the quintessence of the Vedas, Itihasas and the Puranas in an attractive form.
THE THREE ANCIENT ALWARS
Poygai Alwar (Saroyogi). Bhudattalwar and Peyalwar are the three most ancient Alwars. They were born-saints. They are called the ‘Pioneers of the Alwars’. Poygai Alwar was born at Kancheepuram in the 862, 962nd year of the Dvapara Yuga, i.e., nearly 5,500 years ago. Bhudattalwar was born the next day in Tirukadarmallai, the present-day Mahabalipuram. Peyalwar was born the next day at Mamayilai, now called Mylapore.
Poygai Alwar is regarded as the incarnation of Panchajanya or the conch of lord Hari. Bhudattalwar is regarded as the incarnation of His Gadha or mace. Peyalwar is regarded as the incarnation of Nandaka, the sword of lord Hari.
Poygai Alwar laid great stress on Jnana. Bhudattalwar laid great stress on Bhakti and Peyalwar on renunciation. They realized and uttered the same essential truths. They never felt or uttered any depreciation of lord Siva. They realized and sang the essential unity of Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu. They were far superior to the bigoted commentators of later days.
The verse of these three ancient Alwars are collectively known as Antadis. In an Antadi, the last word of each were forms the first word of the succeeding one.
The ancient Alwars showed perfect tolerance towards Saivism. Poygai Alwar says that there is but one God who is variously called Siva and Hari, that His vehicle is either Garuda or a Bull, and that His action is either destruction or preservation. He says also that the Supreme Lord is one and the same, though He appears in two forms as Hara and Narayana. Peyalwar also states that he saw the Lord at Venkata Hill as Siva with His matted locks and axe, and as Hari with His discus and crown.
The message of these ancient Alwars is: “Control the senses. Remain in the holy company of devotees. Do total surrender to lord Narayana. Repeat His Name always. Worship Him. Meditate on Him. Sing His glory. He is the Lord of the three worlds. He is your prop and refuge. Obtain His grace. You will attain bliss and immortality. His grace alone can save you. He abides in your heart”.
Periyalwar means ‘Great Alwar.’ Periyalwar was known by the name Vishnuchitta also as his mind was ever absorbed in Lord Vishnu. He was the foster-father of Andal.
All the Alwars or Vaishnavite mystics of South India form the body and limbs of Nammalwar. Periyalwar forms the head. The other Alwars prayed to the Lord for wisdom and liberation, but Periyalwar, out of Vatsalya Bhav towards the Lord, cared much for His well-being and blessed Him: “His holy feet may remain in undiminished effulgence for millions and millions of years to come-Pallandu”. Hence, a prominent position is given to Periyalwar.
A pious Brahmin named Mukundachary lived with his chaste and devoted wife Padma in Srivilliputhur in the Tirunelveli district. He was daily praying to the Lord for the gift of a child. His prayer was granted. Periyalwar or Vishnuchitta was born. He is regarded as the incarnation of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Hari.
The Parliament of Religions was held in Madurai. Professors of every faith in the country attended the conference. Vaishnavites, Saivites, Saktas, Jains, Buddhists and Pasupadas were all present on this unique occasion. Heated discussions went on. No one satisfied the king.
Lord Hari appeared in the dream of Vishnuchitta or periyalwar and said, “Awake Vishnuchitta, start at once for Madurai. A big religious conference is being held there under the patronage of the king. Take part in the conference. I assure you of full success. Give to the king and the people the message of devotion to Lord Hari”.
Vishnuchitta attended the conference and took a prominent part in it. The king welcomed him and paid him due respects. Vishnuchitta answered all the questions put to him by the scholars. He said, “Lord Hari is the Supreme Deity. He is the highest Truth. He is the Protector. Take refuge in Him alone. Do total, unreserved, ungrudging self-surrender. Repeat His Mantra Om Namo Narayanaya. Obtain His grace. He will liberate you. He will make you immortal. He will give you supreme peace and eternal bliss. Through His grace only you can conquer Maya. He abides in the heart of all beings. He is all-pervading. He is all merciful. He is infinite. Sing His glory. Do Japa of his Name. Worship Him. Be ever attached to His lotus feet”.
A miracle happened now. The moneybag, which was fixed in a high place, broke loose and fell at the feet of Vishnuchitta by itself. The king was quite convinced. He was highly satisfied.
Periyalwar has given us two poems. The first is the Pallandu in twelve verses. The other is a collection known as Periyalwar Thirumozhi in four hundred and sixty-one charming verses of fine melody. Pallandu is given the foremost place in the collection of works of all the Alwars. What Pranava is to the Vedas, so is Pallandu to the works of the Alwars.
Periyalwar Thirumozhi treats of the Lilas of Lord Krishna. It contains the essence of the Bhagavatam. He passed away at the age of eighty five.
Nammalwar is the first great mystic and poet. He is the greatest among the Alwars. ‘Nammalwar’ means ‘Our Alwar’. He is also known by the names Satakopar and Vakulabharanar. Nammalwar is the popular name.
Tradition says that Nammalwar was born in Thirukkuruhur, now called as “Azhwar Thirunagari”, in the Tirunelveli district, on the banks of the Tambraparani, ona Friday, which was a Full Moon day in Vygasi, Pramadhi, in the 43rd year after the birth of the Kali Age.
Nammalwar was born of Kariar or Karimaran and Udaiya Nangaiyar. Kariar was a Vellala Pillai. His ancestors were all devoted worshippers of Lord Hari. Kariar was married, while young, to Udaiya Nangaiyar, daughter of the Vaishnava Sthanik of the village of Thiruvanparisaran, lying on the other side of the Western Ghats. Udaiya Nangaiyar was a chaste woman. Nammalwar was known by the names of Maran and Senamsa.
Madhurakavi a learned Brahmin from the Chola country who was well versed in the Vedas came to Maran’s village and asked him an abstruse philosophical question. “If within a dead thing a small thing were to take birth, what will the latter eat and where will it sleep? The meaning is: If within the inanimate matter or body, the subtle soul or Jiva were to take birth, what would it feed on and where would it rest? Maran replied “The small thing will feed on it and rest therein. It means The subtle soul encashed in matter of prakirti will feed on it. The Prakirti will enjoy pleasure and pain the body and rest in it. Or it will enjoy God and rest in God”.
Madhurakavi was struck with admiration at the subtle and wise answer. He became Maran’s disciple. He determined to remain by the side of his Guru and learn wisdom at his feet. Maran sang soul-stirring hymns such as Thiruvirutham, Thiruvasiriam, Peria Thiruvantadi and Thiruvaimozhi. Madhurakavi carefully wrote down the song-as they were sung-on palm leaves and published them after the death of Nammalwar.
The popular view is that Thiruvirutham contains the essence of the Rig Veda, that Thiruvasiriam contains the essence of the Yajur Veda, that Peria Thiruvantadi contains the Atharva Veda and that Thiruvaimozhi contains the essence of the Sama Veda. This is not correct. There is no semblance between Nammalwar’s works and the Vedas. The only thing that is common to both Nammalwar’s works and the Vedas is that both contain descriptions about God and the means of attaining God-realization.
Nammalwar ever lived in divine consciousness. He had cosmic consciousness. He experienced “Sarvam Vishnumayam Jagat. The whole world is full of Vishnu”. He would embracea tree or a calf or a pillar say: This is my Lord Hari”. He would point out to the blue sky and say: “Here is my blue-colored Krishna”. He shed profuse tears. He sang, wept and danced. He passed away at the age of 35.
Kulasekhara was a pious king of the Kerala or Chera dynasty of South India. He was a king at Calicut and was the son of King Dritavratha. He was born at Tiruvanjikkulam in the 28th year of the Kali Era, in Prabhava, Masi, Sukla Paksha, Dvadasi, Thursday, when the star Punarvasu was in ascendancy.
Kulasekhara was an ardent devotee of Sri Rama. He found happiness in worshipping Lord Rama and in the service of His devotees. He was learned, wise and devoted, He had knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil. He was proficient in the Vedas. He was chivalrous. He attained victories over the then princes of South India. He had titles such as Koodanayaka and Kongarkone. He ruled his dominion justly and wisely.
As Kulasekhara was an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, called in Tamil ‘Perumal’ and as he identified himself with the Lord, he was called Kulasekhara Perumal and his Tamil them was called ‘Perumal Thirumozhi’, a collection of 105 verses. It is included in the first part of the Divya Prabhandam. Half of the collection glorifies the temples that he had visited. The twenty verses on Lord Krishna are pregnant with Madhurya Bhav. The ten verses that pertain to Chitrakut give a description of the chief incidents in the life of Lord Rama. It is the strong belief of the Vaishnavas that a repetition of these ten verses would bestow on one as much merit as a reading of the whole Ramayana.
Kulasekhara stayed at Srirangam for several years. He sang Mukunda Mala in Sanskrit. It consists of forty stanzas. This is a very reputed work of Kulasekhara.
Kulasekhara has sung many hymns on the Lilas of Sri Krishna and Sri Rama, on the love of the Gopis and the glory of Krishna, and on the glory of Rama and His chivalrous deeds.
Thondaradippodi Alwar was born in a Choliya Brahmin family in Thirumandangudi. The traditional date of his birth is Tuesday, Krishna Paksha, Chaturdasi, Margazhi, Prabhava, in the 28th year of the Kali Era. He was named Vipranarayana. He was devoted to God Ranganatha of Sriangam. He is regarded as the incarnation of the Tulasi garland of Lord Hari. He had a flower garden in Srirangam and offered garlands daily to the Lord.
Thondaradippodi Alwar was well versed in the Vedic lore. He had intense Vairagya. Ha lived in a hut in his garden and lived upon the Prasad of Lord Ranganatha. He sang the glory of the Lord.
Thondaradippodi Alwar lived for 105 years at Srirangam and then attained the abode of Lord Hari. His beautiful hymns are Thirumalai and Thiruppalliezhuchi.
Thondaradippodi Alwar and Thirumangai Alwar ware contemporaries; and hence, thondararippodi Alwar also seems to have belonged to the 6th century A.D.
Thiruppan Alwar was born in Woraiyur, near Tiruchirapalli. His traditional date of birth is Durmathi, Karthigai, Krishna Paksha Dvitiya, Wednesday, in the 342nd year of the Kali Era. He was known by the name Munivahana as he was carried to the temple on the shoulders of Saranga Muni. He is regarded as the incarnation of Srivatsa, a mark on Sri Vishnu’s chest.
Thirumangai Alwar was born in Thirukuraiyalur in the chola Desa. His traditional date of birth is Nala, Karthika, Full Moon, Thursday, in the 398th year of the Kali Era. Thirumangai Alwar was known by the names Parakala and Nila. He is regarded as the incarnation of the bow Saranga of Lord Hari. He was a petty chieftain. He was a brave warrior and a dauntless hero. He was the commander of the army of the Chola king.
Nila wanted to marry Kumudavalli, a pious virgin who lived in Thiruvali. She was a great devotee of lord Hari. She refused to marry one who was not a SriVaishnava. Then Nila got himself initiated into Vaishnavism. Then Kumudavalli said, “This outward conversion is nothing. You must daily feed 1008 Bhaktas for one year and bring their Prasad to me every day”. Nila consented. He fed 1008 Vaishnavas daily for a year Kumudavalli then married Nila and they lived happily.
Nila composed the sacred hymns known as Peria Thirumozhi, Thirukuruthandagam, Thirunedunthandagam, Thiruvezhukoorirukkai, Siria Thirumadal and Peria Thirumadal. He said with tears of repentance, “I have wasted my life in lust. The lord has saved me. I committed atrocious crimes. I plundered even the Lord. I was very wicked. The Name of the Lord has saved me. Hail, Hari! Hail, Vishnu”.
A voice was heard from above: “Fear not, Thirumangai Alwar! You have not offended Me. Go to Srirangam. Complete the construction of the temple. Disseminate Bhakti far and wide. Worship Me with the garlands of your beautiful hymns and then come to Me”.
Thirumangai Alwar went from temple to temple and composed hymns in respect of eighty-six temples. He met the great Sivacharya Thiru Jnana Sambandhar at Sirgazhi and was honored by him. Thus he seems to have belonged to the 6th century A.D.
Thirumangai Alwar brought away a golden image of the Buddha from Nagapattinam and used the gold in it to build the temple walls of Srirangam. He reached the abode of eternal bliss, Vaikuntha, in his 105th year.
Nammalwar came to Srirangam from Azhwar Thirunagari. Thirumangai Alwar gave him a grand reception and listened with intense devotion to his inspiring hymns.
Thirumangai Alwar’s message is: “Repeat constantly the names of lord Vishnu. Remember Him always. Do total self-surrender unto the lord and obtain His grace. Be attached to His lotus feet. Lord Narayana is our savior and redeemer. He is the ocean of compassion. Serve the Bhaktas. A Bhakta and the Lord are one. Sing His glory. Dance in divine ecstasy. Live in Lord Hari. Repeat His thousand names. Study Vishnusahasranama”.
Thirumazhisai Alwar was also known by the name Bhaktisara. He was called after his birthplace as Thirumazhisai Alwar. He was the son of sage Bhrigu, one of the Brahma Rishis, and an Apsara or heavenly nymph named Kanakangi or Kanakavati. His birthplace was Mahisara or Mahisarapuram, corrupted into Mazhisai or Thirumazhisai, a village near Madras.
Thiruchandavriruttam is a poem that consists of a hundred and twenty stanzas. Nanmukhan Thiruvantadi is a poem consisting of ninety-six verses. Both of them have been included in the Divya Prabhandam, a collection of the Tamil works of all the Alwars. As Thirumazhisai Alwar was a convert from Saivism to vaishnavism, we see in his works traces of bigoted devotion.
The Alwar made Kumbakonam his permanent place of residence. He died there at a very advanced age. Tradition says that he lived for four thousand and seven hundred years through his Yogic powers.
This Alwar’s message is: “Narayana is the Supreme Lord. He is the sole refuge. There is great power in the names of the Lord. Yama, the Lord of Death, whispers into the ears of his messengers that they should not approach the devotees of Lord Hari. Feel His presence everywhere. He dwells in your heart. He is your protector at all times and stages. Love the Lord. Do self-surrender and obtain His grace. You will attain eternal bliss and immortality”.