Śrīvaiṣṇavism, the religion, and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, its philosophy, are of hoary antiquity. If the philosophy is traced to the Upaniṣads, the religion is traced to Lord Nārāyaṇa Himself. However, that Śrīvaiṣṇavism is basically the Bhāgavata religion rooted in the Vaiṣṇavite scriptures like the Nārāyaṇīya section of the Mahābhārata, Viṣṇupurāṇa, Bhāgavata and the Pāñcarātra works is conceded. The Āḷvārs are important, even pioneering, leaders of this religious cult.
Literally, the word ‘āḷvār’ means ‘one who is immersed deeply’ (in God). The Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition recognizes twelve such Āḷvārs. All of them belonged to Tamil Nadu and lived during the Pallava period (7th to 9th cent. A. D.).
The first three Āḷvārs—Poygai, Pūdam (Bhūta) and Pey—were contemporaries. Since they spent most of their time laughing and singing, weeping or dancing, people considered them as spirits or mad beings. The work Tiruvandādi, of 300 verses, is jointly ascribed to them.
Tirumaḷiśai, the fourth was an abandoned child brought up by a hunter couple. His two works Nānmukhan Tiruvandādi and Tiruccandaviruttam are a fine combi-nation of devotional fervour as well as metaphysical acumen.
The next was Kulaśekhara, the king of Travancore, who was never affected by wealth, pleasures or power but always lived as a true servant of God. His exqui-site Sanskrit hymn, the Mukundamālā, is considered a rare combination of devotion and poetic beauty. Perumāḷ Tirumoḷi is his other work (in Tamil).
Periyāḷvār or Viṣṇucitta, an orthodox brāhmaṇa is the sixth in the series. A resident of Śrīviḷḷiputtūr, famous for its temple dedicated to child Śrī Kṛṣṇa (known as Vaṭapatraśāyin, ‘one who is lying on the Banyan leaf ’) he delighted in spending most of his time in gathering flowers and preparing garlands for the Lord. He loved the Lord with a motherly heart like Yaśodā. His famous work, the Tirupallāṇḍu, gives a fine description of the Lord going in a procession. However, the verses also contain prayers for the protec-tion of the Lord’s beauty! A study of the works of the Āḷvārs (called Nālāyira Prabandham) is invariably prefaced by Tirupallāṇḍu and also concluded with it. Tirumoḷi, the other work of Periyāḷvār, contains a good description of the childish pranks of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa as seen by mother Yaśodā.
Āṇḍāḷ (also known as Godādevī) the seventh, was the adopted daughter of Periyāḷvār. She is the only woman among the Āḷvārs. Tradition considers her as the avatāra (incarnation) of Lakṣmī or Bhūdevī. Refusing to wed any man, she led the life of a lover of the Lord, like the gopīs of Vṛndāvan. Her work Tiruppāvai consisting of 30 pāśuras or verses is extremely popular among the Śrīvaiṣṇa-vas. Even today it is sung and discoursed upon regularly during the month of Dhanuṣ (when the sun enters the Zodiacal sign of Sagittarius). Nācciyār Tirumoḷi is her other work. She is said to have disappeared into the image of Lord Raṅganātha at Śrīraṅgam (Tamil Nadu).
The eighth, Toṇḍaraḍippoḍi Āḷvār, is a glorious example of a fallen soul redeemed by repentance and service to the holy ones. Known as Vipranārāyaṇa, an orthodox brāhmaṇa puṇḍit, he was enticed into evil ways of life by a courtesan. When she deserted him he woke up to the great tragedy. By serving the devotees of God and considering himself as the dust of their feet (that is the meaning of the word ‘toṇḍara-aḍi-ppoḍi’) he gradually purified himself and rose to supreme heights of devotion. Tirupaḷḷiyeḷucci and Tirumālai are the works attributed to him.
Tiruppāṇi, the ninth Āḷvār, was a pariah who lived in a hut near the Śrīraṅgam temple. He was a musician saint. It is said that Lord Raṅganātha commanded the chief priest to carry this saint on his shoulders into the sanctum sanctorum where he merged with Him. Amalanādippirān was composed by him.
Tirumaṅgai Āḷvār, the next in the series, was a highway robber turned a saint. Six works beginning with Periya Tirumoḷi are attributed to him. He is said to have excelled in four types of poetic composition.
Madhurakavi Āḷvār and Nammāḷvār were contemporaries and their lives were interwoven. The former, a brāhmaṇa, accepted the latter, though of low caste, as his spiritual preceptor. Nammāḷvār, also called Māran, Parāṅkuśar or Śaṭhakopar, is regarded as the greatest of all the Āḷvārs. His four works are: Tiruviruttam, Tiruvāśiriyam, Periya Tiruvandādi and Tiruvāimoḷi. These are exquisite works describing his profound spiritual experiences. Out of these, the last work with 1102 verses is well-known and widely studied.
The whole mass of compositions of the Āḷvārs is known as Nālāyira Prabandham (because it numbers 4000), or Divya Prabandham. They are regarded in status as equal to the Vedas. Hence the name ‘Drāviḍa Veda.’ The Viśiṣṭā-dvaita system which has accorded an equal status to the Vedas and the Divya Prabandhams is incidentally known as ‘Ubhaya Vedānta’ (ubhaya = two, both).
The teachings of these Āḷvārs can be briefly summarised as follows: Nārāyaṇa is the supreme Lord. He is both immanent and transcendent. He is the personification of all perfection. Apart from incarnating himself as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa, he is manifesting himself in the icons that are devoutly worshipped, as ‘arcāvatāra.’ Devotion to him, devoted service to him, total surrender to him (called prapatti) is the surest and the easiest way of attaining him.