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An Historical Sketch

Part 3

As among the Śivaites, so among the Vishnuites of the south, history begins with poet-saints. They are called the twelve Âr̤vârs.[1] For the three earliest no historical basis has been found, but the later ones seem to be real personalities. The most revered of them is Namm'âr̤vâr also called Sathagopa, whose images and pictures may be seen everywhere in south India and receive the same reverence as figures of the gods.[2] He may have lived in the seventh or eighth century A.D.[3]

The chronology of the Âr̤vârs is exceedingly vague but if the praises of Śiva were sung by poet-saints in the seventh century, it is probable that the Vishṇu worshippers were not behindhand. Two circumstances argue a fairly early date.

1) First Nâthamuni is said to have arranged the hymns of the Âr̤vârs and he probably lived about 1000 A.D. Therefore the Âr̤vârs must have become classics by this date.

2) Secondly the Bhâgavata Purâṇa[4] says that in the Kali age the worshippers of Nârâyaṇa will be numerous in the Dravidian country, though in other parts found only here and there, and that those who drink the water of the Kaveri and other southern rivers will mostly be devotees of Vâsudeva. This passage must have been written after a Vishnuite movement had begun in the Dravidian country.[5]

The hymns attributed to the Âr̤vârs are commonly known by the name of Prabandham or Nâlâyiram and are accepted by the Tengalai Vishnuites as their canonical scriptures. The whole collection contains 4000 verses arranged in four parts[6] and an extract consisting of 602 verses selected for use in daily worship is in part accessible.[7]

This poetry shows the same ecstatic devotion and love of nature as the Tiruvaçagam. It contemplates the worship of images and a temple ritual consisting in awakening the god at morning and attending on him during the day. It quotes the Upanishads and Bhagavad-gîtâ, assumes as a metaphysical basis a vedantized form of the Sâṅkhya philosophy, and also accepts the legends of the pastoral Kṛishṇa but without giving much detail.

Jains, Buddhists and Śaivas are blamed and the repetition of the name Govinda is enjoined. Though the hymns are not anti-brahmanic they decidedly do not contemplate a life spent in orthodox observances and their reputed authors include several Śûdras, a king and a woman.

After the poet-saints came the doctors and theologians. Accounts of them, which seem historical in the main though full of miraculous details, are found in the Tamil biographies[8] illustrating the apostolic succession of teachers. It appears fairly certain that Râmânuja, the fourth in succession, was alive in 1118: the first, known as Nâthamuni, may therefore have lived 100-150 years earlier.

None of his works are extant but he is said to have arranged the poems of the Âr̤vârs for recitation in temple services. He went on a pilgrimage to northern India and according to tradition was an adept in Yoga, being one of the last to practise it in the south.

Third in succession was his grandson Yamunârcârya (known as Âlavandâr or victor), who spent the first part of his life as a wealthy layman but was converted and resided at Śrîrangam. Here he composed several important works in Sanskrit including one written to establish the orthodoxy of the Pâncarâtra and its ritual.[9]

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- Footnotes:


Also spelt Alvar and Azhvar. The Tamil pronunciation of this difficult letter varies in different districts. The word apparently means one who is drowned or immersed in the divine love. Cf. Azhi, the deep sea; Azhal, being deep or being immersed.


An educated Vaishṇava told me at Śrîrangam that devas and saints receive the same homage.


It is possible that the poems attributed to Namm'âr̤vâr and other saints are really later compositions. See Epig. Ind. vol. VIII. p. 294.


XI. 5. 38-40.


Bhandarkar (Vaishṇ. and Śaivism, p. 50) thinks it probable that Kulaśekhara, one of the middle Âr̤vârs, lived about 1130. But the argument is not conclusive and it seems to me improbable that he lived after Nâthamuni.


The first called Mudal-Âyiram consists of nine hymns ascribed to various saints such as Periyâr̤var and Andal. The second and third each consist of a single work the Periya-tiru-mor̤i and the Tiru-vay-mor̤i ascribed to Tiru-mangai and Namm'âr̤vâr respectively. The fourth part or Iyar-pa is like the first a miscellany containing further compositions by these two as well as by others.


Nityânusandhânam series: edited with Telugu paraphrase and English translation by M.B. Srinivasa Aiyangar, Madras, 1898.


The best known is the Guru-paramparâ-prabhâvam of Brahmatantra-svatantra-swâmi. For an English account of these doctors see T. Râjagopala Chariar, The Vaishṇavite Reformers of India, Madras, 1909.


Âgamaprâmâṇya. He also wrote a well-known hymn called Âlavandâr-Stotram and a philosophical treatise called Siddhi-traya.

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