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Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars

Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars
Item Code: NAB750
Author: S.M.S. Chari
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120813427
Pages: 285
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.7 inch X 5.7 inch
From the Jacket

The god—intoxicated twelve Vaisnava Saints of South India popularly known as Alvars, who lived between fifth and eighth centuries A.D. represent a significant phase of Vaisnava Philosophy and Religion which provided a solid foundation for the development of the system of Visistadvaita Vedanta in the hands of Ramanuja and his illustrious successors. They have bequeathed a rich heritage for the posterity in the form of four thousand devotional Tamil hymns collectively known as Nalayira-Divyaprabandham, replete with philosophical and theological teachings. This book attempts to present these teachings as contained in the original hymns in a systematic manner against the background of the Vedanta as reflected in the Upanisads, Agamas and selected Vaisnava Puranas, without bringing the sectarian and theological views that came to be developed by the commentators in the post-Ramanuja period. Based on the original source material, the Philosophy and Mysticism of the Alvars is discussed, fully supported by textual authority, under six broad headings: Doctrine of the Ultimate Reality (paratattva), Doctrine of God (Isvara), Doctrine of the Individual Self (Jivatman), Doctrine of Sadhana, Doctrine of the Supreme Goal (parama-pumsartha) and Theistic Mysticism. This volume makes available for the first time in English a comprehensive and authoritative exposition of the Philosophy and Mysticism of the Alvars. The book will be highly useful for the students of comparative religion for an in depth study of Vaisnavism in general and the Alvars in particular.

S.M. Srinivasa Chari is a distinguished scholar trained up by eminent teachers. He did his Ph.D. from the University of Madras.



The celebrated Vaisnava saints of South India, known as Alvars, not only heralded a significant movement of devotion but prepared the ground for a great philosophical system, later crystallized by the eminent Acaryas, Nathamuni, Yamuna and Ramanuja. They provided the springs from which the waters of ecstatic devotion and intuitive wisdom gushed out to form a mighty stream.

The Vaisnava movement in South India gathered momentum when the Pallavas established their empire here. The Alvars were itinerant saints who contributed to the religious renaissance in the Pallava, Pandya and Chola countries. They witnessed the rise and fall of principalities in these countries and passed through times which were tumultous. But their sole concern was the one Ultimate Reality (paratattva), beyond time and space, whom they called Visnu. The twelve Alvars sang the glory of this Supreme Deity in the Tamil hymns collectively known as Nalayira Divya- prabandham. They moved about extensively and propagated the religious philosophy of total surrender to Godhead. Living between the fifth and eighth centuries A.D., they visited Visnu shrines in Tonda—nadu, Pandi-nadu, Vada-nadu and Sola-nadu and celebrated the glory of these shrines in the Tamil hymnology.

There are frequent references in this Hymnoloy (Prabandham) to the Vedic mantras being recited in the shrines the Alvars visited and of fire-rituals being performed. The Alvars appear to regard the worship of Visnu as well within the fold of Vedic culture. Those were the days when the temple-culture had unmistakable alignment with the Vedic framework. The Pandyas who were avid temple builders were Vedic in their affiliation. They performed great yagas and also built temples like the one at Virakerala vinnagar (Visnugrha).

The Alvars represent the phase of synthesis of the Vedic outlook and the Agama ideology. The philosophy which the Prabandham contains, therefore, would mark an important phase in the evolution of Indian philosophical thought. Books like Divyasuri—carita (by Garudavahana pandita, said to be Ramanuja’s contemporary) and Guru—parampara-prabhavam (by Alagiya—perumal-jiyar), contain only the biography of the Alvars or legendary accounts of their lives. The first attempt to bring out the philosophical teachings contained in the hymns was made by the Vaisnava Acaryas of the post—Ramanuja period in their commentaries on them written mostly in manipravala (Tamil language interspersed with Sanskrit), the earliest one being by Tirukkurukaipiran Pillan, a direct disciple of Ramanuja. Attempts were made in more recent years to present some aspects of the philosophy of the Alvars by a few modern scholars like A. Govindacharya (Divine Wisdom of the Dravida Saints). J.S.M. Hooper (Hymns of the Alvars), K.C. Varadachari (Alvars of South India) and N. Subba Reddiar (Religion and philosophy of Nalayiram). But these attempts have not been very successful; they fail to carry clarity and conviction to the open-minded but earnest student of philosophy.

The first attempt in this direction to focus attention on the philosophical theories in the works of the Alvars, bereft of religious or sectarian sidetracking, has been made by. Dr. S.M. Srinivasa Chari. He has had the advantage of studying the Prabandham and Vedanta under traditional scholars for long years and of being equipped with the modern methods of study and research. A keen student endowed with critical faculty, he has been able to separate the grain from the husk. He has gone into the depths of the Tamil compositions of the Alvars and commentaries on them, to discover the philosophy that is characteristic of the Alvars, and to distinguish it from theistic mysticism.

The Alvars had their intuitive apprehension of the Ultimate Reality (para-tattva), of the Godhead within man’s approach, of the nature of the soul bound as well as yearning to be freed and of the spiritual discipline that leads the soul to the supreme goal. Dr. Chari has presented all these doctrines comprehensively with remarkable clarity, analytical skill and profound understanding. Scholars who have already been acquainted with his work on the Philosophy, Theology and Religious Discipline of Vaisnavism, will find the present work a competent supplement to the former work.

While Dr. Chari is in fact a traditional scholar, his approach to the academic and sectarian controversies like that with regard to the value of Prabandham vis-à-vis the authority of the Vedanta, distinguishes him as an impartial, critical and rational thinker. The Alvars have at last found an exponent of their philosophy, who can do abundant justice to their inspired utterances, and who can feel sympathetically with themselves. Like the Alvars, who were so called because they dived deep into the ecstatic experiences consequent on direct encounter with Godhead, Dr. Chari has dived deep into their compositions. He now invites us to share his findings.

I am sure we will richly rewarded.



This book is devoted to the study of the Tamil hymns of the Vaisnava Saints of South India known as Alvars who lived between the 6th and 8th centuries of the Christian era. Its main objective is to present the philosophical and theological teachings as contained in the hymns and to evaluate the extent to which they have contributed to the Visistadvaita Vedanta and Vaisnava Theology as expounded at a later period by Ramanuja and his successors. Right from the time of Nathamuni (9th century), the Vaisnava Acaryas have given great importance to the four thousand hymns of twelve Alvars collectively known as Nalayira Divyaprabandham. They have accorded to it a status equal to that of the Sanskrit Veda as it contains the quintessence of the Vedic teachings. Except for some sporadic at- tempts to render the hymns into English and a few general studies of some aspects of the teachings of the Alvars, there is no single book in English that presents in a systematic manner the Philosophy and Mysticism of the Alvars comprehensively. The present at- tempt is intended to meet this requirement.

The poetical compositions of the God-intoxicated Saints comprise mostly devotional songs in praise of the glory of God and do not as such discuss philosophical and theological doctrines in a sequential order. In view of this, it is generally believed that these poems contain little philosophy and are intended to pro- mote the bhakti movement. Though such a view may be partly true in respect of the hymns of some Alvars, it is not applicable to the Tiruvaymoli of Nammalvar which comprises 1,102 verses. The philosophical and theological doctrines of the Alvar are well- pronounced in the Tiruvaymoli, while the same are only implicit in the hymns of other Alvars. All the Alvars, however, have dwelt either directly or indirectly on the three fundamental doctrines of Vedanta namely, tattva or the Ultimate Reality, hita or the means of its attainment and purusartha or the supreme goal of life. Their main objective is t0 disseminate the essential tenets of Vedanta philosophy among the common people through the media of Tamil. This fact is not widely recognised by many modern scholars and hence it is considered necessary to bring to light the philosophical contents of the hymns of the Alvars.

In presenting the philosophy of the Alvars, I have drawn material from their original hymns. There are several scholarly commentaries on the poems which by way of interpreting the hymns also include in them theological ideas that came to be developed in the post—Ramanuja period. In order to evaluate the basic tenets of Vaisnavism as they prevailed long before Ramanuja and how the hymns of Alvars have influenced the Vaisnava Acaryas of later period, I have tried to discuss the Philosophy of the Alvars in the background of the Upanisads, Vedanta-sutra, Agamas, Itihasas and Vaisnava Puranas. Besides philosophy, the theistic mysticism understood in the sense of ardent longing of the Alvars for a direct vision of God is a predominant theme of some of the prabandhams. This important subject has also not received proper treatment in the limited literature available at present. The present book aims to cover it. For the first time such an attempt is being made here to present in English a comprehensive exposition of the Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars. It is hoped that the book will be found useful by scholars as well as students of comparative religion.

In a work of this type, the use of terms both in Tamil and Sanskrit is unavoidable. Wherever they are used, their nearest English equivalent is given. I have avoided quoting the Tamil hymns in the body of the text as these would be difficult to read and comprehend by a person not conversant with Tamil. I have, however, given the English rendering of the verses as far as possible in lucid prose in order to convey the true import of the hymns which is often missed in a literal translation. Wherever necessary, the Tamil hymns and the interpretative statements from the commentaries are given in the footnotes in Roman script with the use of standard diacritical marks adopted for Sanskrit. The compound Tamil words in the hymns are split up to facilitate easy reading.

In the preparation of this book, I am guided primarily by the teaching of the essentials of the Visistadvaita Vedanta imparted to me by my spiritual preceptor, the late Sri Gostipuram Sowmya Narayanacharya Swami (1878-1943). I am also guided by the knowledge of Divyaprabandham imparted to me by the late Sri Madhurantakam Veeraraghavacharya Swami (19004983) under whom I studied Bhagavad-visayam (commentary on Tiruvaymoli) which is the major source—book for the philosophy of the Alvars,. I am greatly indebted to both these Acaryas. I have also consulted those few traditional Sri Vaisnava scholars who are available today in South India and I lake this opportunity to express my grateful thanks to them.

I also wish lo express my sincere thanks to Dr. V. Varadachari, Dr. V.K.N.S. Raghavan, Sri S.M. Krishnamachar, Sri AN. Srinivasa Iyengar, Sri Bhuvarahachar and Dr. N.S. Anantharangachar who have gone through the major part of the typescript of the book and offered useful comments. My special thanks are due to my esteemed friend, Sri S. Srinivasachar who patiently read the entire typescript and made useful corrections. I owe a debt of gratitude to Sri R.K. Swamy, President, Vishishtadvaita Research Centre, Madras who made it possible to publish this book. I should also express my grateful thanks to the esteemed Professor S.K. Ramachandra Rao for evincing keen interest in my work and for graciously writing the foreword.


Sri Vaisnavism, the oldest monotheistic religion of India having its roots in the Vedas and Upanisads, has passed through several stages of development before it was expounded by Ramanuja as a full-fledged theological system with a strong philosophical basis.' The four important phases that can be discerned in this development are: the Vedic period, the period of the Itihasas and Puranas, the period of the Agamas and the period of the Alvars or the twelve Vaisnava Saints of South India. Of these the last phase is of special importance because the Tamil hymns of the Alvars, which are the spontaneous outpourings of their divine experience contain rich philosophical and theological ideas related to the three fundamental doctrines of the Visistadvaita Vedanta and Vaisnava religion namely, tattva or the Ultimate Reality, hita or the means of its attainment and purusartha or the supreme goal of life. The teachings of the Alvars are not basically different from what is said in the Vedas, the Epics and the Agamas. Their uniqueness, however, lies in the fact that they are presented for the first time to the common people in their spoken language (Tamil). In view of this, they have been accorded an important place in the history of Vaisnavism.

The names, dates and other biographical details of the Alvars including their works are outlined in the subsequent chapter. The Alvars were born in South India between the 6th and 8th centuries of the Christian era. They were saints who devoted their entire life to the worship of Visnu as the Supreme Deity. Blessed with spiritual insight and intense love for God, they sang the glory of Visnu and spent their active life in the divine service. They have bequeathed a rich heritage of sublime poetical compositions known as prabandham. There are twenty-four prabandhams. The number of hymns in each one varies from ten to eleven hundred making a total of four thousand and hence they are known as Nalayira Divya-prabandham or the collection of Four Thousand Divine Hymns. The hymns in general are laudatory Tamil songs in praise of the glory of God in all His aspects. They are intensely devotional in character and represent the spontaneous outpourings of their deep love and experience of God. They have, therefore, gained great religious significance and are highly esteemed by the Vaisnava Acaryas. They are also recited by the Vaisnavas during worship in temples and at homes on certain special occasions.

These hymns, apart from their religious significance, also contain rich philosophical and theological ideas. As devotional poems they appear to be similar to the devotional songs of other mystics such as the Tevaram and the Tiruvacakam of Nayanmars (Saiva devotees), the Kirtanas of Tyagaraja and Purandaradasa, the Gita-govinda of Jayadeva, the Bhajans of Meera and the Abhangas of Maharashtra saints. On closer examination, however, the Alvars' hymns can be found to stand on a different footing. They embody the philosophy of the Upanisads as interpreted by Ramanuja together with the Vaisnava theology developed on the basis of the Vedas, the Pancaratra Agamas, the Epics and the vaisnava Puranas. These compositions of the Alvars are not merely intended to promote the bhakti cult, as is commonly believed but they aim at disseminating the knowledge of the Vedanta Philosophy among the common people through the familiar medium of Tamil. This fact can be seen conspicuously in the Tiruvaymoli of Nammalvar which comprises 1,102 verses. The Vaisnava Acaryas regard this work as Dravida Veda or Dramida Upanisad in the sense that it contains the quintessence of the Upanisadic teachings. Acknowledging its philosophical character, scholarly commentaries have been written on the Tiruvaymoli by eminent Acaryas of the post-Ramanuja period: Tirukkurukai Piran Pillan (1068 A.D.), Nanjiyar (1113 A.D.), Periyavaccan Pillai (1168 A.D.), Vadakkutiruvidi Pillai (1167 A.D.), Alakiyamanavala Jiyar (1242 A.D.) Vedanta Desika (1268 A.D) Rangararnanuja (circa 1650 A.D.), Periya Parakalasvami (1676 A.D.) and Saksatsvami (circa 1700 A.D.). Several independent treatises known as Sampradaya Granthas (traditional works dealing with esoteric doctrines) contributed between the 12th and 15th centuries have drawn material from the Tiruvaymoli. Thus, the Nalayira Divyaprabandham in general and the Tiruvaymoli in particular along with their commentaries serve as important source-book for both the Visistadvaita Vedanta and Vaisnava religion, to the same extent as are the Upanisads, the Vedanta-sutra and the Bhagavadgita.

The philosophical contribution of the Alvars to the development of Visistadvaita Vedanta does not seem to be widely appreciated among modem scholars. This is primarily due to the fact that it is written in classical Tamil and the commentaries on it are mostly in manipravala (Tamil language interspersed with Sanskrit) which is not easily understood by non-Tamil speaking persons. The literature in English on the subject is sadly inadequate. During the last hundred years, a few sporadic attempts have been made to present the teachings of the Alvars in English. The earliest work is the one written by Alkondavalli Govindacharya under the title "Divine Wisdom of the Dravida Saints" published in 1902. This contains a summary of the selected topics related mostly to the divine glory and attributes illustrated by anecdotes drawn from the commentary on Tiruvaymoli (Idu). The next book appeared in 1929 under the title "Hymns of the Alvars" written by J.S.M. Hooper. It gives a translation of the Tiruviruttam of Nammalvar (100 verses), the Tiruppavai of Andal (30 verses) and a few selected hymns of Periyalvar, Kulasekharan and Tirumangai with a brief general introduction and notes. The book of K.c. Varadachari under the title "Alvars of South India" published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay in 1966 presents a brief sketch of the biography and selected teachings of the Alvars. The next work is the one written by N. Subba Reddiar under the title "Religion and Philosophy of Nalayiram with special reference to Nammalvar" published in 1979 by the Venkatesvara University, Tirupati. It is a voluminous book containing a lot of material not having a direct bearing on the philosophical teachings of the Alvars. One other book jointly contributed by R.D. Kaylor and K.K.A. Venkatachari under the title "God Far, God Near" published in 1981 by the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, Bombay claims to present an interpretation of the thoughts of Nammalvar without leaning on traditional commentaries thereon. It is rather sketchy and as such does not bring out adequately the philosophical theories of all the Alvars. Recently another book under the title "Tamil Veda" authored jointly by John Carman and Vasudha Narayanan has been published by the Chicago University Press, Chicago. This book is mainly concerned with the study of the earliest commentary written by Pillan in manipravala on the Tiruvaymoli with a view to finding out how the Tamil poetic tradition of the Alvars is fused with the Vaisnavite commentarial tradition in Sanskrit on Vedanta. Though' it covers a few theological topics with the purpose of evaluating Pillan's interpretation of the hymns, it does not present the philosophical doctrines of the Alvars comprehensively. Besides these independent works,' a few translations of the Hymns of Nammalvar in English have been published. In the absence of detailed notes and introduction, these translations which are literal do not bring out fully the philosophical ideas implicit in the hymns of the Alvars.

It may be noted in this connection that the Alvars as staunch devotees of Visnu have composed the poems against the back- ground of the Visistadvaita Vedanta as enunciated in the Upanisads, the Vedanta-sutra, the Bhagavadgita, the Vaisnaua Puranas and the Pancaratra Agamas. A full and in-depth understanding of the philosophy imbedded in the hymns of the Alvars calls for a knowledge of ancient Tamil in all its idiomatic nuances, deep insight into Vedanta as expounded by Ramanuja and the underlying tenets of Vaisnavism. It is not, therefore, surprising that many of the books authored by well-meaning scholars have not succeeded in doing full justice to the philosophy of the Alvars, We have on the other hand, an extensive literature written mostly in Sanskritised Tamil by both the traditional and contemporary Vaisnava Acaryas in the form of commentaries and independent treatises which explain in detail the philosophy of the Alvars. With due deference to these authors it must be said that most of them, being carried away by the devotional aspect of the hymns, have glorified the views of the Alvars, by imposing on the hymns the theological ideas that came to be developed later during the post-Rarnanuja period. A balanced and dispassionate approach to the Alvars hymns needs to be made in order to understand properly the philosophical teachings contained in them. This book attempts to make such a study.



  Foreword ix
  Preface xiii
  Notes on Transliteration xvii
  List of Abbreviations xix
  Introduction 1-8
Chapter 1 Life and Works of the Alvars 9-35
  The Dates of the Alvars 10
  The Divine Origin of the Alvars 13
  The Life and Compositions of the Alvars 16
  The Classification of the Prabandhams 32
Chapter 2 The Doctrine of Ultimate Reality 37-67
  The Philosophical Theory of Paratattva 37
  Paratattva as Narayana 52
  Paratattva as Sriyahpati 60
Chapter 3 The Doctrine of God 69-107
  Divine Attributes 70
  Divine Personality 83
  Divine Incarnations 90
  Divine Activities 103
Chapter 4 The Doctrine of Individual Self 109-119
  The Nature of Jiva 110
  Jiva and Human Bondage 111
  Jiva and Isvara 116
  The Concept of Bhavavata-sesatva 118
Chapter 5 The Doctrine of Sadhana 121-141
  The Views of Nammalvar on Sadhana 122
  The Theory of Bhakti-yoga 126
  The Theory of Prapatti 131
  Divine Grace and Sadhana 139
Chapter 6 The Doctrine of Supreme Goal 143-150
  The Upanisadic Theory of Moksa 143
  The Theological View of Moksa 145
  The Theory of Kaivalya 147
Chapter 7 Theistic Mysticism 151-219
  Meaning of Mysticism 151
  Theistic Mysticism as Aspects of Bhakti 153
  Philosophical Significance of Mysticism 158
  Mysticism of Nammalvar 162
  Mysticism of Tirumangai Alvar 186
  Mysticism of Andal 199
  Mysticism of Periyalvar 208
  Mysticism of Kulasekaralvar 214
Chapter 8 General Evaluation and Conclusion 221-245
  The Status of Divyaprabandham as Tamil Veda 222
  The Tiruvaymoli as Vedanta 225
  The Theory of Ubhaya-vedanta 230
  The Influence of the Tamil Prabandhams on Ramanuja and his Successors 234
  The Alvars and the Vaisnava Sects 240
  Glossary 247
  Select Bibliography 253
  Index 259


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