Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Alwars: Flowers of Vaishnavism

Though Vaishnavism had its origin even during the periods of Ramayana, Mahabharatha and other puranas, its development can be traced historically from the first millennium BC. It has developed well during Gupta period. The Gupta kings were great champions of this religion. Even some of the Greeks showed interest in Vaishnavism. But the Alwars made it highly popular in South India.

They are great saints immersed in divinity deeply and hence they are referred to as Alwars (literal meaning). They are twelve in number. The most important character of the Alwars is that at the height of Vedic orthodoxy, they made no distinction of caste or sex and thus appear to be quite modern in this concept. One was a Vellala, another belonged to mleccha or thief's profession, one was a Harijan, and only three were Brahmins while the precise caste of the other four is not known. Above all one is a woman. But all were equal in stature in divine love and not distinguished on any other count.

Wisdom of religion:
Another equally significant character is that they preached in local language Tamil as against Sanskrit which was the lingua franca of the country, particularly for religious matters. They also wrote in Tamil the wisdom of religion and hence their writings are famous as Dravida Veda or Tamil Veda.

The dates they flourished is a matter of controversy. The traditional legends have fixed their dates which range from 4203 to 2706 BC. This date is not accepted by the historians. However, they are said to have lived during the periods of the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas. Basing their conclusion on this fact, the historians have fixed their chronology between 6th to 8th centuries AD.

The Alwars were great composers in Tamil and their compositions are generally referred to as Divya Prabandhas (sacred compositions). These Prabandhas have been elevated to the level of Vedas. In all the Vaishnava temples even during the daily worship to the deities, these Prabandhas are riveted. Thus they have become quite popular. In fact regular classes are held in Sri Vaishnava temples for the learning of these holy Prabandhas. In most of Vaishnava temples the idols of all or at least some of the Alwars are consecrated in small shrines, mostly as prakara deities and daily worship is offered.

Super – devotion:

More than the philosophical aspects, the Alwars laid great stress on devotion or Bhakti. Another concept is Prapati which may be crudely translated as super - devotion. The individual self is always longing to be in the company of paramatma. Bhakti is possible for strong willed people but surrender has only one qualification, namely sincerity or purity of mind. This has made the Alwars really great. Though each Alwar deserves a separate study, it is proposed to mention each of them briefly. The first Alwar is Poygai Alwar who was born in Kanchi. He is associated with lotus flower and hence his name. He is considered as the symbol of panchajanya. Poodattalwar a native of Tirumakudalmalai was the contemporary of Poygai Alwar. He is considered to be the symbol of gadha (club) of Vishnu. The third Alwar was Peyalwar, born at a place called Mamailainagar. He is considered as symbolising Vishnu's sword (nandaka).

Symbol of chakra:
The next Alwar was Tirumalishai Alwar. He was born at Tirumalishai. It is said that as a baby he was abandoned by his parents and a hunter couple brought him up. His friend and disciple was Kanikrishna, a shudra. A great scholar in Vedic lore, he was so immersed in Vishnu that he refused to think of any other god other than Vishnu. He is considred to be a symbol of chakra.

Nammalwar is a famous saint born in Tirukkuruhur. He is believed to have lived in sixth century AD. As the baby neither cried nor ate any food, the parents abandoned it. Madhurakavi Alwar saw this child and picked him up and as he grew, he realised that he was his Guru whom he was searching for. Madhurakavi became his disciple though he himself was a Brahmin. Nammalwar is the author of four prabandhas of which Tiruvaymoli is very famous. Madhurakavi Alwar lived for some more time after the demise of Nammalwar and popularised his teachings.

Kulashekhara Alwar was a king of Travancore (Kerala). He did not show any interest in royal pleasures and was always immersed in the thought of divinity. In addition to many Tamil hymns, he also wrote the famous Mukundamala stotra in Sanskrit. The next Alwar was Periyalwar, a Brahmin by birth born at Srivalliputtur. His great contribution is the poem Tirupallandu which is recited in Sri Vaishnava temples even now.

Only woman:
Andal or Godadevi is the only woman in the group of Alwars. She was the discovery of Periyalwar. She developed divine love with Vishnu and became one with him in the highest tradition of mukti. Her greatest contribution is Tiruppavai, one of the most popular prabandhas. In most of post - Vijayanagara and modern temples she finds a place in a separate shrine. The next Alwar was Tondarappodi Alwar. He was a Brahmin. Tiruppanalwar was a person belonging to the fifth caste but rose to the position of an Alwar by his devotion to Vishnu. He is considered as a symbol of Srivasta of Vishnu.

Tirumangai Alwar was a shudra. He was getting into a trance while praising Sri Ranganath. He is the author of six prabandhas in which the relationship between the Lord and the servant is brought out beautifully. The idol of Tirumangai Alwar is found in most of the Sri Vaishnava temples. Thus these twelve Alwars enriched the religious life of South India with particular reference to Vaishnavism. They heralded a new era of religious life and prepared a holy platform to receive Sri Ramanujacharya, the great Srivaishnava saint. There lies the uniqueness of the Alwars. Perhaps no other group of saints is as popular as these Alwars of South India.

Prof. A. V. Narasimha Murthy,
Former Head,
Department of Ancient History & Archaeology,
University of Mysore

Courtesy: Star of Mysore

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