By Swami Harshananda
Ālvārs literally means ‘those who are immersed in the love of God’.
Srivaiṣṇavism, the religion, and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, its philosophy, are of hoary antiquity. If the philosophy is traced to the Upaniṣads, the religion is traced to Lord Nārāyaṇa Himself. However, while Srivaiṣṇavism is basically the Bhāgavata religion rooted in the Vaiṣṇavite scriptures like the Nārāyanīya section of the Mahābhārata; Visnupurāna, Bhāgavata and the Pāñcarātra works are conceded.
The Ālvārs are the pioneers of this religious cult. Literally, the word ‘ālvār’ means ‘one who is immersed deeply’ (in God). The Srivaiṣṇava tradition recognizes twelve such Ālvārs. All of them belonged to Tamil Nadu and lived during the Pallava period (7th to 9th cent. A. D.). These Ālvārs are as follows :
- Poygai - He was a contemporary. Since he spent most of the time laughing and singing, weeping or dancing, people considered him as spirit or mad being.
- Pudam (Bhuta) - He was a contemporary. Since he spent most of the time laughing and singing, weeping or dancing, people considered him as spirit or mad being.
- Pey - He was a contemporary. Since he spent most of the time laughing and singing, weeping or dancing, people considered him as spirit or mad being. Poygai, Pudam and Pey jointly ascribed the work Tiruvandādi of 300 verses.
- Tirumaliśai - He was an abandoned child brought up by a hunter couple. His two works Nānmukhan Tiruvandādi and Tiruccandaviruttam are a fine combination of devotional fervor as well as metaphysical acumen.
- Kulaśekhara - He was the king of Travancore, who was never affected by wealth, pleasures or power but always lived as a true servant of God. His exquisite Sanskrit hymn, the Mukundamālā is considered a rare combination of devotion and poetic beauty. Perumāl Tirumoli is his other work (in Tamil).
- Periyālvār or Viṣṇucitta - He was an orthodox brāhmaṇa, a resident of Srīvilliputtur, famous for its temple dedicated to child Srī Kṛṣṇa (known as Vaṭapatraśāyin, ‘one who is lying on the Banyan leaf’). He was delighted in spending most of his time in gathering flowers and preparing garlands for the Lord. He loved the Lord with a motherly heart like Yaśodā. His famous work, the Tirupallāndu gives a fine description of the Lord going in a procession. However, the verses also contain prayers for the protection of the Lord’s beauty.
- Āṇḍāl (Godādevī) - She was the adopted daughter of Periyālvār. She is the only woman among the Ālvārs. Tradition considers her as the avatāra (incarnation) of Lakṣmī or Bhudevī. She refused to wed any man and led the life of a lover of the Lord, like the gopīs of Vṛndāvan. Her work Tiruppāvai consisted of 30 pāśuras or verses is extremely popular among the Srivaiṣṇavas. Even today it is sung and discoursed upon regularly during the month of Dhanuṣ (when the sun enters the Zodiacal sign of Sagittarius). Nācciyār Tirumoli is her other work. She is said to have disappeared into the image of Lord Raṅganātha at Sriraṅgam (Tamil Nadu).
- Toiidaradippodi - He is a glorious example of a fallen soul redeemed by repentance and service to the holy ones. Known as Vipranārāyaṇa, an orthodox brāhmaṇa puṇḍit, he was enticed into evil ways of life by a courtesan. When she deserted him he woke up to the great tragedy. He served the devotees of God and considered himself as the dust of their feet (that is the meaning of the word ‘toṇḍara-aḍi-ppodi’). He gradually purified himself and rose to supreme heights of devotion. Tirupalliyelucci and Tirumālai are the works attributed to him.
- Tiruppāṇi - He was a pariah who lived in a hut near the Srīraṅgam temple. He was a musician saint. It is said that Lord Raṅganātha commanded the chief priest to carry this saint on his shoulders into the sanctum sanctorum where he merged with Him. Amalanādippirān was composed by him.
- Tirumaṅgai - He was a highway robber who turned to a saint. Six works beginning with Periya Tirumoli are attributed to him. He is said to have excelled in four types of poetic composition.
- Madhurakavi - He was a brāhmaṇa who accepted, Nammālvār, of low caste as his preceptor.
- Nammālvār - He was also called Māran, Parāṅkuśar or Sathakopar and is regarded as the greatest of all the Ālvārs. His works are an exquisite examples describing his profound spiritual experiences. His work Tiruvāimoli had 1102 verses is well-known and widely studied. His four works are :
- Periya Tiruvandādi
A study of the works of the Ālvārs (called Nālāyira Prabandham) is invariably prefaced by Tirupallāndu and also concluded with it. Tirumoli, the other work of Periyālvār, contains a good description of the childish pranks of Lord Srī Kṛṣṇa as seen by mother Yaśodā. The whole mass of compositions of the Ālvārs is known as Nālāyira Prabandham (because it numbers 4000), or Divya Prabandham. They are regarded in status as equal to the Vedas. Hence it was named as ‘Drāviḍa Veda.’ The Viśiṣṭā- dvaita system which has accorded an equal status to the Vedas and the Divya Prabandhams is incidentally known as ‘Ubhaya Vedānta’ (ubhaya = two, both).
The teachings of these Ālvārs can be briefly summarised as follows :
- Nārāyaṇa is the supreme Lord.
- He is both immanent and transcendent.
- He is the personification of all perfection.
- Apart from incarnating himself as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa, he is manifesting himself in the icons that are devoutly worshiped as ‘arcāvatāra.’
- Devotion to him, devoted service to him, total surrender to him (called prapatti) is the surest and the easiest way of attaining him.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore