Religion and Philosophy of Nalayiram with Special Reference to Nammalvar

Professor's PhD Thesis : Published by Sri Venkteswara University, Tirupathi, AP in 1977

[Considered to be Professor's  magnum opus  in  Vaishnavism]



Dr M Ananthasayanam Ayyengar

Ex-Governor of Bihar & Ex-Speaker of Lok Sabha


The author of this work Prof N Subbu Reddiar is  a well-known Tamil writer. He got a Department of Tamil founded in the Sri Venkateswara University at Tirupati and has been the Head of the Department for many years. He has recently been raised to teh status of a Professor in the University and he richly deserves that position. He has written a number of works in Tamil on various subjects - scientific, technological and academic. His language is easy-flowing and mellifluous, understandable both by scholars and by laymen. He has contributed greatly to Tamil writing.

The present work of his is a unique one dealing as it does with the Alvars. The Alvars are Sri Vaishnavite saints of South India who realised Godhead in His acra form in the Vaisnavite temples of South India. They are mystic of a very high order and sang of God in ecstasy and their verses number about 4000 which are called Nalayiram Divya Prabandham. The main Alvars are ten in number who with the addition of two others, viz Antal and Maturakavi constitute a dozen. They are drawn from all castes and they gave a great impetus to the spread of Sri Vaishavism. Their verses mostly relate to Rama and Krshna - the   avataras of Visnu - besides the absolute Para-vasudeva in Sri Vaikuntha. Of all these Alvars, Nammalvar is the foremost one though not the earliest. He is recognised as the patron-saint of Sri Vaisnavism in southern India. His thousand verses are called Thruvaymoli Ayiram as having emanated from his holy mouth. Before  the singing of any of these songs, the taniyan or the verse relating to the author is recited and his blessings are invoked. The taniyan of Nammalvar describes him as one who rendered teh Vedas into Tamil and that his thousand verses have all the sanctity and the authority of the Vedas.

Referring to the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, Sri Vedantha Desika states that they throw considerable light on a number of intricate and difficult passages in the Vedas and help to clarify many doubts therein; and the Tenkalais have given greater authority to the Tamil Prabandhams than even to the Vedas themselves. Nammalvar's hymns are considered to be the authority on Sri Vaisnavism by both the sects of Sri Vaisnavism. These Prabandhams are recited during all the temple festivals and have even been made a part of the daily worship both in Sri Vaisnavite temples and houses of the Vaisnavites. Sri Vaisnavites must feel greatly indebted to Prof N Subbu Reddiar for the deep study and thought he has bestowed on the Prabandhams;  he has written on the religion and philosophy of the Alvars in his fine English style, thus carrying the message of the Alvars to the very doors of Vaisnavites and non-Vaisnavites alike. The task is stupendous and though Prof N Subbu Reddiar is a born saivite, he has taken a deep interest in the Sri Vaisnavite literature and written on it with great sympathy, love and admiration must better than even a born Vaisnavite can do. In this his great work which can be called his magnum opus, he has traced the history of Vaisnavite religion from time of the Rg Veda.

He has considered the subject under six sections. The first contains his introduction summarising the work. The second relates to the pre-Alvar period starting from the Vedas. The third is a prefactory study of the work of Nalayiram. In section four, he discusses the main theme of the work relating to religion and philosophy of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham with special reference to Nammalvar. The fifth refers to post-Alvar period and the sixth gives his conclusion. His summary is in sufficient detail to convey a comprehensive idea of his great work in his own language. In the second section, there is nothing controversial in the subject matter but with regard to Vaisnavism during the pre-Alvar period, there may be a difference of opinion regarding his observations. It is true that the Vedic scholars of the West have described Visnu as a minor deity during the Vedic period and to some extent he has reproduced their views. The Rg Veda is the earliest Veda and the one on which the other Vedas and later religious literatures are based. It contains a large number of hymns addressed to various natural elements whose aid and blessing the Vedic Aryans invoked by praise and prayer and by offering ablations and libations to them. But Visnu as He emerges in the Rg Veda is a personal God. The accepted essential feature of all theistic religions is the existence of a personal God who created the universe. Such attributes like the creator, protector and sustainer are used in the Rg Veda only with regard to Visnu. It is also specifically mentioned therein that He created even the Sun and Varuna and that others followed Him and that He grew from a primeval germ into the cosmos. After having created the worlds, fixed his lasting abode for himself a Paramapadam or Heaven which ordinary mortals may not be able to see or reach easily and which place is full of sweetness and bliss. Rg Veda  also refers to His consort Sri Mahalakshmi. It states   that His worship is easy and the repetition of His name is enough. It also refers to His incarnations.

Thus it appears that the essential features of Vaisnavism were known to the Rg Vedic Aryans and they worshipped Him as the Supreme Being. The divine qualities of Visnu were enhanced late by the Brahmanas, the Upanisads and the Puranas in the North and by the Alvars in the South and these laid the foundation for the systematisation of Vaisnavite philosophy and religion by Sri Ramanuja.

Coming to the central theme of the discourse of Prof N Subbu Reddiar in this volume, all the essential elements of Sri Vaisnavism, as practised and preached today, have been elaborated by him with special reference to the Alvar saints. Briefly they are as follows: that Sriman Narayana is the Supreme Being; that He is the creator; that His abode is the highest in the universe; that He is both transcendent in Heaven and immanent in the Universe; that for the devotees, He took the Vibhava form as Rama and Krsna  and that o make Himself easily available to all for worship, He has taken the arca or permanent incarnation in temples. Their conception of the relationship of the individual soul to God is one of Nayaka-Nayaki bhava - that is between a lover and his beloved. Nammalvar and Tirumankaimannan have emphasised this Madhura-bhava and sung in ecstasy and longed to become one with the divine being. In many passages their description shows how the separation from the Lord is unbearable to them. They appeal to Sri Mahalakshmi to recommend them to the Lord's Grace to perform purusahara. They have developed  sakti and more than that prapatti or saranagati, the doctrine of surrender, as the means of attaining Godhead. They knew God and realized Him and became one with Him. It is said that after reciting his ten verses, Sri Tiruppanalvar, a harijan saint lost himself in ecstasy and his soul merged into that of Sri Ranganatha. The thousand verses of Nammalvar called Tiruvaymoli, are treated as sacred. They contain the essence of the Sama-veda and particularly, that of Chandogya Upanisad which work is largely drawn upon for describing the creation in the Brahma-sutras by the Badarayana to establish the existence of God, His attributes and the mode of reaching Him. Tatva-traya which is the distinguishing feature of Sri Vaisnative philosophy is also referred to by Nammalvar. The emphasis of all the Prabandhams particularly of Nammalvar is laid on true knowledge which is described as one, which finds the universe as the body of la universal consciousness or soul of which body all beings are limbs. It implies that there is only on thing in the world and that is God. In fact, he found God in everything in the universe.

Lastly Saranagati or self-surrender as the means of attaining salvation and release from the cycle of births and deaths is described wonderfully by every one of the Alvars, and Prof N Subbu Reddiar has quoted chapter and verse from the original text in support of his conclusion. I admire his great talents and his inexhaustible energy and industry in gathering the material which has spread over millenia and brought the essence of all the texts in the compass of a single work.

I pray to Lord Venkateswara that He may grant him a hundred years of life to serve the cause of the Tamil language, religion and philosophy in an ever-increasing measure. The greatest tribute that can be paid to Prof N Subbu Reddiar for his glorious work is to keep his book in every library and in every home and to read and digest it. I most heartily congratulate him on his glorious work and wish his enterprise all success.


Dated 15 February 1977 @ Tirupati