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The Aazhwar Saints of First Millenium C.E


Revisiting the works of alwar saints of first millennium C.E

The word alwar means one who is immersed in worship. Certainly, the term was a fitting tribute to the divine mystics who lived during first millennium C.E. They showed that by true devotion one can reach the abode of almighty. They were devoted to the worship of sree narayanan (Lord Vishnu), the same way nayanmars were servitors to lord sivan. Hailing from the very many parts of the ancient tamil south which in its heydays extended from cape comorin to venkadam (tirupati) in north and from the kerala in west upto the eastern sea. The alwar saints 12 of them altogether have sung almost all shrines of puranic importance dedicated to lord vishnu in the Indian subcontinent.

One cannot place a limit on divine devotees, both in terms of number and time. They have existed from times immemorial and they will continue to exist as long as almighty wills. One cannot ascertain whether a person will attain salvation or not based on his life because it is entirely upto the divine to decide whether to bestow his grace upon a soul. Umapathi sivacharya a saiva siddanta(saivite philosophy) exponent of 13th cent .C.E, notes that irrespective of the possible unconventional nature of a person’s mundane life, he can be recipient of divine grace if god willed. Definitely the 13th century scholar only asserts that god alone knows whom he will favour and not that unruly and evil activities are tolerated by god. Thus the twelve alwars are whom we know have attained salvation at the feet of lord not to mention the very many through ages whose details by-and-large large does not come down to us.

The devotional outpourings of alwars is known as divya prabandham( divine travelogues). Presently, in the collection known as prabandam there are 4000 hymns of which the last 108 which is in praise of Ramanuja the 13th century scholar which was written around 14th or 15th cent .C.E cannot be regarded as compositions of alwars. Thus of the divine outpourings of alwars only 3892 verses are currently available to us. A break up of these compositions further reveals the possibility of there being missing hymns. We have around 1271 hymns from composition of tirumangai alwar which being not rounded enough does suggest that there may have been more. Of the hymns of nammazhwar who was also responsible for collating the hymns of others, we have 1352 left. 55 of thondar adi podi alwar’s hymns are available , of the rest 500 of periyazhwar’s, 160 of woman mystic andal’s hymns,300 of the first three alwars’, 216 of tirumazhisai alwar’s and 1 each of madhurakavi alwar, tiruppan alwar and miscellaneous devotees are available. The hymn number in the collection as well as their break up and composition suggests that whatever is available is a reduced set consisting of hymns that were re-copied and re-written during later ages.

There are several inconsistencies and irregularities in the hymns. It is very much possible that the venkadam temple referred to and venerated in the hymn set of alwars is different from the current tirupati govindaraja temple. Incidentally, venkatam is the most venerated temple by all the alwars with some of them like tirumangai alwar dedicating close to fifty verses to the same. The works are mostly devotional and praiseful in nature, and the hymns of first three alwars namely poigai alwar,bhootath alwar and pey alwar reveal their devotedness to the lord.Thus in one of his verses poigai alwar declares: “For me haran (lord sivan) is another form of lord narayanan“. Certainly the alwar here is expressing his ecstasy and unflinching devotion towards lord narayanan.

One needs to note here that the devotional mystics are not necessarily scholars whose aim is to understand and also re-interpret ancient philosophical treatises which due to the passage of time may have become decadent and misinterpreted. Their aim is not to produce works that would ultimately be treated as doctrines and lay foundation for cult focus. It is true that pseudo-intellectuals have produced works that hardly point to any divine inundation. Essentially these works are full of labyrinthine half truths and mendacious propositions. Lord Krishna revealed the truth to arjuna because he qualified(a judgement that is to be and was passed by lord alone) both as devotee and servitor, the same holds good for countless saints all over through ages who were dedicated service of lord siva or lord vishnu. The alwars of first millennium C.E were such devotees. It may be worthwhile to take another look at their works as it comes down to us after many revisions through ages. It appears that the works of tirumazhisai alwar who lived in the period of first three alwars have been subjected to many revisions and it appears from some of the verses that they could hardly be attributed to him and the inclusion of those verses in his works certainly mars his greatness. Tirumazhisai aazhwar wrote two long works by names naanmugan tiruvandaadi and tiruchandavruttam consisting of 96 and 120 verses respectively. The number of verses in the first may not be tallying with what may have been his actual composition.

The crux of the problem are the verses which expresses revulsion and even hatred for lord siva whom sankaracharya says” is worshipped by one and all” and whom saint manikkavasagar says in his tiruchaazhal hymn” for had he not swallowed the deadly poison all beings including brahma and Vishnu would have perished”. For example the following verse of alvar’s naanmughan tiruvandaadi is interesting:

“ maRRuth thozhuvA roruvaraiyum yAninmai,
kaRRaich chadaiyAn karikaNdAy, eRRaikkum
kaNdukoL kaNdAy kadalvaNNA, yAnunnaik
kaNdukoL kiRkumA Ru ……………………………………………………… verse..26 , naan mugan


It says:

There is no other deity whom I worship you will see
for the one with matted hair locks(Lord sivan) will bear witness
to. Please see O'Lord with the hue of the ocean,
Such as I shall remain your devotee forever.

Some analysts are of the opinion that the above verse refers to an incident in the life of aazhwar in which according to an absolutely absurd and mendacious tradition, he when being immersed in meditation was visited upon by lord siva and consort Gowri and which goes on to state that inspite of being recipient of his grace, argues and incurs his wrath and in a duel is able to subdue him and being pleased by his devotion to lord Vishnu, lord siva at last confers the title bhakthisara( or ideal devotee) on him. It may be possible that originally tirumazhisai alwar may have been an equally good devotee of lord shiva as well, and that the remainder of above tale on his life was added at a later date. This apart there are many verses in the composition that refer to Lord siva in a very hateful manner. Like for example in the following verse:

idamaava thennencham inRellaam, paNdu
padan^aa kaNain^ediya maaRkku,- thidamaaga
vaiyyEn mathisUdi thannOdu, ayanain^aan
vaiyEnaat cheyyEn valam. …………………………………………..VERSE 66 NANMUGAN TIRUVANDAADI

the above verse is translated as:

“ Henceforth for the supreme Lord who has been
hitherto lying on the bed formed by the
multihooded serpent, my mind will be the
residence. I will not consider Rudra(one of the names of siva) with the
crescent moon on the head and Brahma as
transcendental. Due to my wisdom and strength,
neither will I serve them. ”

It seems to me that the copyist of the above edition is in a way so overwhelmed by his missionary zeal that he is willing to go to the extreme, to coerce, manipulate and spin doctor the reader to accept that his doctrine is true. In the below verse he further denigrates lord sivan as:

naakkoNdu maanidam paadEn, nalamaagath
theekkoNda senchadaiyaan senRu,enRum - pUkkoNdu
vallavaa REththa magizhaatha, vaigundhach
chelvanaar sEvadimEl paattu. -----------------------------verse 75 naanmughan tiruvandaadi

translated as:

I will not sing hymns of praise on humans with my
tongue meant only to sing the glory of the holy feet
of the Lord of Sri Vaikunta, Who is always
worshipped with flowers by Rudra(one of the names of siva) of fire-like red
locks to the best of his capacity, although such
worship does not add to His greatness.

There are many more verses filled with conceit when referring to lord sivan like in one verse he says that he possesses the gnosis of lord sivan but lord sivan is no match to him because he is a worshipper of lord narayanan. The choice of his words full of ridicule needs to be noted here. There are several reasons to propose that the above verses may not have been actual compositions of the alwar. Hymns written by saints usually describe mellifluously the beatific vision of the lord that they had and they are absolutely free of hatred, partisanship ,comparison or any humiliating references to other deities which would certainly mar its divinity,virtue and nullify its substance. As such the above verses written entirely out of priggish conceitedness are pretty ordinary and mundane literature devoid of any divinity that goes with the hymns and hence not attributable to the above mentioned saint. The choice words here full of ridicule and contempt need be noted as it unbecoming and counterproductive for a saint or anybody for that matter to mock god.

Since it is true that it was the same pallava king mahendravarman I(600.C.E-620.C.E), who persecuted saint appar who also drove tirumazhisai alwar out of his dominions, the first four alwars were contemporaries of the great nayanmar saints appar(under whose influence he came back to saivism) and sambandar, whose great service ensured the survival of truth of vedism so much revered by alwars. Thus what comes to us as his compositions that contains ridiculous and mocking references to siva could hardly have been his. It is absolutely clear from this analysis that those verses are a forgery.

The same tragic faith of being misrepresented is being shared by other alwars like tirumangai alwar, where his verses referring to chitrakoodam hills(in the state of MP) where Rama and sita were resident during those days of exile in treta yugam has been conveniently interpreted as chidambaram. The fact that one of the verses refers to the golden hall of nataraja gilded by many emperors of chola and pallava clans definitely points to re-writing.

vembum sinatthup punakkEzha lonRaay
virinNeer mudhuveLLa muLbuk kazhunNdha,
vambuN pozhilsoo zhulagan Redutthaan
adippO dhaNaivaan viruppO diruppeer,
paimbonnu mutthum maNiyum koNarnNdhu
padaimaan van pallavarkOn paNinNdha,(refers to gilding of gold by pallava emperor simha varman 4th cent .C.E)
sembon maNimaadaNG gaLsoozhnNdha thillaith
thirucchithra koodam senRusEr miNngaLE. ........periyathirumozhi verse number 213(3.2.3)

The above incident of gilding of gold by an emperor who was cured of a disease after worshipping the “lord of thillai”( Lord sivan) is also referred to in a copy of sthala puranam of chidambaram written by a 13th century saiva siddanta writer called umapathi sivacharya.

To conclude the piece we accept that the first millennium alwar saints( and perhaps the ones who existed before them) who have left some soul stirring compositions did experience the divine but we need to delve deeper into the available editions of their work to figure out what was actually their work and what is fictious concoction of later ages.
Published: 2008-07-31
Author: K Sethu Madhavan

About the author or the publisher
A management professional with eight years experience in telecommunications industry, I have written a lot of articles in subjects related to management and strategic information analysis.

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