Twelve Alwars
(Vaishnavite Acharyas)

History of Alvars - Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya
Twelve Vaishnava Alvars

Several schools of Hindu religious thoughts have been established by great saints and thinkers. Visishtadvaita is one of those schools of thought which was propounded by Sri Ramanujacharya on the basis of Brahma Sutra and Thiruvaimozhi of Nammalvar. The Hymns of twelve Alwars or azhwars are instrumental in bringing about Bhakti movement and Prapatti Marga in India. Alwars used Tamil language as medium for their songs and prayer. The melody and charm of the verses (Pasurams), which were inspired by their divine love of God and mankind, made them immensely popular. Gradually over time, they became an integral part of temple worship and are today recited during the daily poojas. Alwars saw and felt Sriman Narayana in everything. They visualized Him in all his great Avatharas (மஹா விஷ்ணுவின் அவதாரங்கள்) on this earth such as Matsya, Koorma, Varaha, Nrisimha, Vamana, Sri Rama and Krishna.

THE ALWARS (தமிழ் ஆழ்வார்கள்)

Twelve Alwars have contributed to the hymns in the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham. They are Poigai alwar (பொய்கை ஆழ்வார்), Bhutat alwar, Peyalwar (பேயாழ்வார்), Bhaktisara (Tirumazhisai alwar), Kulashekhara alwar, Vipranarayana (Thondaradippodi Alwar), Thiruppaan alwar, Thirumangai alwar, Vishnuchitta (Periyalwar), Goda Devi (Andal), Satakopa (Nammalvar) and Madhurakavi Azhawar. It is generally held that the Alvars belong to the period between 2nd and 9th century A.D.

Tamil Alwars Literature and Perumal Thirumozhi

Poigai, Bhutam and Pey alwars are known as the first three Alwars. There is a significant story attached to them that implies a mystic origin to the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham. The three Alvars who were contemporaries were on a pilgrimage worshiping Vishnu in different temples and they happened to meet in Tirukoilur. It was raining heavily and so they sought shelter in the front room of a house. It was a very small place and the first to come in was Poykai Alvar, who lay down. Presently Bhutattalvar entered and now there was enough space for both only to sit. There was no let-up in the rain and as they sat meditating, Pey Alvar came to the place seeking shelter. So the three of them stood there repeating the Lord's name. Just then it began to appear as if they were being pressed together by a fourth person. It was a feeling, a presence and yet quite palpable.

The mystic presence illumined in a flash the true nature of Reality to Poykai, Bhutan and Pey Alvars, The gnostic experience opened up the floodgates of sovereign devotional poesy for it was not inferential knowledge but direct perception that had brought the Alvars to the Divine. And what had they understood? Simply, that the whole creation is God and the devotee uses the world of phenomena to offer his thanksgiving to the Creator of this world. So Poykai sang:

"With the world as bowl, the sea as ghee, The fiery sun as the kindled wick; I have strung a garland praise for His feet, For one who holds the red-flamed discus, So as to cross this sea of troubles."

There is a world within man which matches the external world and this too can be recognized clearly by intuition. Bhutattalvar uses the inner countries of this mind for his adoration:

"Devotion as the bowl, aspiration as ghee, Meditative delight as the wick; Such the flaming lamp of knowledge I have lighted for Naaraayana Whom I have served through scriptural Tamil."

When the outer and the inner worlds thus move in rhythm, all contraries disappear. One sees the One unalterable Truth everywhere. God appears then as Redemptive Grace, as recorded by the third aspirant at Tirukoilur, Pey Alvar:

"I have seen Lakshmi; the golden form of my Lord brilliant as the sun; The golden discus that veers ferocious In the battle-ground; also the conch In the hand of my sea-hued Lord"

The Vedic invocations to Sri are experiential realities to the Alwars and they transcend the human barriers effortlessly.

A new perception of the Reality happens, which is altogether different from what one perceives from the point of view of the world or the individual. The divinely possessed one perceives the world and all with the over-welling love that God has for his creation. It is no longer with human love that one loves God; but with God-love that one perceives the world and all. This is parama-bhakti, not merely transcendent, but superior verily to that also.

The three Alvars sang a hundred hymns each. These three hundred verses are the starting point of the Divya Prabandham canon. Thirumazhisai Alvar was their younger contemporary and thus among the earliest Alvars. Thirumazhisai Alvar having been a devotee of Shiva. It was Pey Alvar who made him realize the glory of Narayana as the only sanctuary to gain salvation.

The Alvars hailed from different strata of life. Kulasekhara Alvar was a king of Chera land and was an. intense devotee of Rama. His attachment to Sri Ranganatha who was worshipped by Rama himself was phenomenal. Tired with the purposeless cycle of pomp and power, Kulasekhara abdicated and settled down in Srirangam (ஸ்ரீரங்கம்) and spent his life worshipping .Ranganatha. His Perumal Thirumozhi consisting of 105 verses are luminous examples of absolute self-surrender to the Divine.

Another Alvar who made Srirangam his residence was Vipranarayana. A devout Brahmin, he performed pushpa-kainkarya (offering flower garlands for worship) to Ranganatha. Unfortunately for him, he fell a victim to the wiles of courtesan, Devadevi. He lost his property to her and was thrown out of his garden. Ranganatha in the guise of a servant took a golden vessel from the temple and gave it to the courtesan as a gift from Vipranarayana. The king's guards took hold of the hapless Brahmin who was accused of stealing a golden cup used for Ranganatha's worship. Finally the Lord took pity on him and announced his innocence. Vipranarayana returned to his service and life of pure devotion. Henceforth he called himself Tondaradippodi (Dust of the feet of the devotees) and indited Tirupalliezhuchi and Tirumalai in praise of Ranganatha. These hymns are among the most mellifluous in the Nalayira Divya Prabandam. Thirupalliezhuchi is a matin song of ten verses that is sung at dawn in temples dedicated to Vishnu.

Tirumalai has forty-five verses and contains high philosophy, a deep love of nature and an ecstatic envisioning of Divine.

The Tiruppan Alvar belonged to the caste of Pannar, once considered untouchable. Born in Uraiyur near Srirangam, he spent long hours on the banks of the Kaveri playing the lute and praising the Lord. Once when he remained self-lost in this manner, Lokasaranga, a priest of the temple came to the river. As Tiruppan was in the way, Lokasaranga's assistants stoned him for his arrogance. Coming to himself, Tiruppan retired in all humility. The same night Lord Ranganatha appeared in Lokasaranga's dream and commanded him to bring Tiruppan into the temple.

Tiruppan was quite overwhelmed when on the following day Lokasaranga insisted upon carrying him to the sanctum sanctorum. The ineffable vision of Lord Ranganatha in yogic trance brought forth ten verses of utmost beauty from Tirupan's devotion-drenched heart. Even as he completed reciting his verse, he merged with the Lord.

"He tore up the large body of the demon Hiranys; He is the Supreme Who is not easily approachable, Even for the Immortals; the Home-of-All; The Pure One of Srirangam. His large eyes that are dark, Vast, Bright and Red-veined Have indeed rendered me mad."

Tirumangai Alwar is certainly the most colorful of the twelve devotional hymnologists. A petty chieftain, Tirumangai married Kumudavalli who was a great devotee of Lord Narayana. Together they spent their immense wealth in feeding pilgrims. When he had nothing left, Tirumangai took to high-way robbery. And who should come as his willing victim but Ranganatha himself? Tirumangai spent long years of his life in Srirangam constructing and strengthening the temple's fortress walls. He has written six works which are listed as Peria Tirumozhi, Thirukkurundhandakam, Thirunedunthandakam, Tiruvezhukutrirukai, Siriya Thirumadal Periya Thirumadal, A great traveller, his poems are couched in powerful diction that conveys the inner life of a spiritual seeker with great honesty.

Periyalvar has been given the pride of place in Nalayira Divya Prabandham because his "Pallandu" verse are not a prayer but a benediction to the Lord! Such was his superior bakthi. He was the first to see the Lord as a little child. His verses on the childhood, boyhood and youth of Krishna initiated a new genre in Tamil literature known as 'Pallait Tamil'. Here one watches the Divine with a double vision. Even as we see the child as one given to the play, pranks and pleasantries of an ordinary mortal being, we gain a vision of the extraordinary Divine presence. Perialvar's verses describing the flute-play of Krishna are sweet and sublime.

Perialvar was instrumental in teaching the Pandyan ruler Vallabhadeva of the name and nature of Narayana who is the secret of the Vedas. The pleased ruler presented him with a bag of gold and honoured him. Perialvar returned to Srivallipputtur where he engaged himself in tending a garden and offering the Lord Vatapatrasayi garlands of fresh flowers.

The Bhakthi-laden atmosphere of Perialvar's household moulded his foster dayghter, Goda Devi. Also known as Andal, Goda Devi surrendered to Narayana completely. She would not hear of taking part in mundane life and rejected marriage. Here bridegroom would have to be Narayana. So real was her identification with the deity in the Srivallipputtur temple that she would wear the garlands prepared by her father ofr Vatapatrasayi's worship. On discovering the sacrilege, Periyalvar admonished her but the Lord assured him that Andal's act was a pleasure and made the garlands dear to the Divine. Henceforth she came to be known as Soodik Koduthaal (Amuktamalyada). When on a pilgrimage to Srirangam, she gained an ineffable vision of the lord and merged with him. Andal's verses bring to the Divya Prabandham the total intensity of bridal mysticism. The thirty verses of her Thiruppavai describe the vrata performed by young girls in Margasirsa month and has a scriptural finality and great poetic beauty about it.

Madhurakavi Alwar's ten verses in the Divya Prabandham are not addressed to Narayana but His greatest devotee, Nammalvar. It is said that Madhurakavi Alvar was the first to discover Namalvar's spiritual brilliance when he asked the hitherto silent young man: "If a soul is born of matter, what does it eat and where does it rest?" Pat came the reply: "It eats That (the Divine) and would lie there (in Matter)". From now on Madhurakavi the Brahmin scholar from Tirukolur spent his days with Nammalvar in a farmer's caste. The eleven verses sung by him begin with the word 'Kanninun-Siruthambu' which means a rope made of tiny knots.

Nammalvar is a term of endearment applied to Satakopa and because of his sterling services in propagating Vaishnavism, he is known as a prapanna jana kootastha (head of aspirant souls) as he retold vedic truths in the everyday language of the comman man, Tamil. His Tiruviruttam presents the different stops in the mystic's way: aspiration, the darknight of the soul, prostration, drawing forth the figure of Narayana from the Nature that is visible to the human eyes.

Peria Thiruvanthathi shows how one's mind can be trained to become an instrument to comprehend the Divine. Nammalvar's Tiruvaimozhi is a spiritual kaleidoscope that helps us draw close to the Divine. It is also the most musical of Nammalvar's compositions.

These twelve Alwars had initiated a Bhakti revolution that transformed the spiritual map of India for all time to come.

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