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1. The Alvars

The great Hindu revival that took place in Tamil Nadu between the fifth and the ninth centuries A.D. 1 saw the emergence of Tamil as a powerful instrument that carried the old faith to the masses and at the same time served as a resplendent medium of expression to the bhakti or love of God that was the chief characteristic of its resurgence. Buddhism and Jainism that had spread earlier in the South had shown the way by their use of Tamil as the language of religious propaganda, and also of poetic expression in the two Tamil epics Manimekalai and Silappadikaram; Hinduism followed, not so much because the Buddhist and Jain had done it before, but as a consequence of the fervour that animated a few saintly souls and found natural expression in their mother-tongue. The Hinduism that revived took two main directions, and the two movements crystallised in course of time into what were later identified as two distinct faiths, each one of which claimed absolute validity, leading much later to the theological wrangles and acrimonious controversies that generally follow an era of genuine spiritual uplift. To this period of Hindu religious expansion belong the Nayanmars and the Alvars,2 the Nayanmars representing Saivam and the Alvars serving as the poetic voice of Vaishnavam.

The Alvars are twelve in number. Eleven of them have sung of God and one, Madhurakavi, of his spiritual preceptor, Nammalvar. The chronological order in which they appeared, as accepted by the Ramanuja school of Vaishnavam, is still a matter of controversy and historical research. Tradition places them roughly between 4200 and 2700 B. C. Historical, linguistic and literary research however, assigns to them a period from the fifth or the sixth to the ninth century A.D.

Details of their lives and the dates of their birth and death are lost in the mists of time. The months and the stars under which they were born are given in some accounts. Vaishnava tradition places Nammalvar as the fifth among the Alvars in order of birth but gives him the foremost place in sanctity and hails him as "Kulapati".3 It considers all the other Alvars as limbs and Nammalvar as the body and has raised him to a place of worship as one who intercedes with God for saving the souls of men. Nammalvar (literally "Our Alvar") is the name by which he is generally known now and is an indication of the reverence in which the Vaishnava world holds him.

Voluminous commentaries in manipravala, a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil, have been written on Nammalvar's works and elaborate and learned attempts have been made to link all that he has written with the theology of Sri Ramanuja. 4 These commentaries are a marvel of scholarship and theological acumen. They are not insensitive to the essentially human in Nammalvar and to the poetry in which it finds expression. The commentators, though their vigilant eye is on theology, do often bring out the suggestions and overtones of the poetry in a manner that an aesthete might well envy. Nevertheless, their main purpose is theological.

And they start on the basis that Nammalvar is a saint, not a man who struggled towards Reality but a realised soul even from birth, an avatara or descent of one of the aspects of God. They believe that he is the incarnation of Senai Mudaliar, the Chief of Hosts of the Lord. It is also said that he is the avatara of God himself. If this is accepted, the yearning and the travail that Nammalvar's works record, seem strange for if he was born a realised soul, and was aware as such of the purpose of his descent from God, where is the need for all the agony of the seeking that breaks out from him? One of the explanations given is that though in himself he was in touch with God, he put on voluntarily the predicament of the human spirit in bondage and worked out the various stages of the way of liberation for the world to see and follow. In other words, all the experiences in the long journey to the Real that find a place in Nammalvar's works are to be consi dered as presentations by a saint who descended to the human condition by divine dispensation, of all the struggles of man in his march to Reality as though they were his, though they were not. Viewed thus, all Nammalvar's works are a piece of drama portraying the progress of a soul to the Ultimate.

This may be true. But one cannot explain away the intensity that is Nammalvar's poetry in terms of drama and vicarious or imagined experience. We may well consider Nammalvar's life as a being as well as a becoming. His being a man did not militate, though it stood in the way for a time, against his final vision of God. If we accept this line of thought, we will see Nammalvar's works as the first personal singular in all its trials, failures and achievements, in its despair and hope, and final merging with what transcends the individual personal, what transforms it from its questing self-ness into a sesha, a willing and perfect instrument that has no will except that of God. To approach Nammalvar's work in this way is not to lessen his saintliness but to realise in full the evolution of a saint from a man, the flooding in of Reality into apparently unavailing human hands. Herein lies Namm alvar's true greatness, the special reach of his poetry, that they are a testament not merely of his saintliness but also of human destiny. Nammalvar's passion left the earth to lose itself in the sky, it is true, but it started from here and expressed itself only through the language of the earth.5 To deny this is to forget that for all its symbolism which makes for dramatic form its puranic imagery and its philosophic thought, Nammalvar's work is a lyric cry. This book is an attempt to interpret it as such.

1 Some scholars think that the revival took place during the period from the sixth to the early part of the tenth century A. D. Buddhism and Jainism retreated slowly during this time but fighting a rear-guard action to the last. [Back]

2 The term "Alvars" means "those who are immersed", here, in love of God. The term interpreted as meaning "Those who rule" has been used, as certain inscriptions show, to denote persons of royal or noble birth. [Back]

3 The head of the family of realised souls. [Back]

4 The commentaries were written after Sri Ramanuja's time, in the latter part of the twelfth century and in the thirteenth century, more than three centuries after Nammalvar. One commentary was written during Sri Ramanuja's life-time. [Back]

5 "The touch of earth is always invigorating to the son of Earth, even when he seeks a supra physical Knowledge. It may even be said that the supraphysical can only be really mastered in its fullness -- to its heights we can always reach -- when we keep our feet firmly on the physical. 'Earth is His footing' says the Upanishad. whenever it images the Self that manifests in the universe." -- Sri Aurobindo. [Back]

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