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]


This book is a fruit of my study of the compositions of the Alvars from the Religious and Philosophical points of view in the main and occasionally from the literary viewpoint. A fairly thorough critical study is offered in the following pages of the hymns on the strength of work done over a period of five years.

The focus of the study is on Nammalvar's poems, for he is the most well-known amongst the Alvars and held as the leading exponent of Vaisnavism through Tamil and as the head of all those who have been following him representing Sri Vaisnavism in the post-Alvar period.  However, the compositions of the other Alvars and contributions made by them to the cause of Vaisnavism have also been taken into consideration for purpose of noting similarity in treatment to that of Nammalvar and for separately mentioning their contributions whichever are individualistic and unique in their nature.

Although a critical study of the commentaries and criticisms upon these compositions is not within the framework of the present study, the expositions of the later Acaryas including their commentaries are utilized mainly for clarifying the interpretation of certain typical passages and problems of religious significance. A general, but brief, account of some of the well-known commentaries is given in a separate chapter [Section V, Chapter XXXI].

Schools of thought in India and elsewhere have been mostly maintaining Religion and Philosophy as independent branches. However, Indian philosophy has been theistic from the earliest times with the exception of the schools of Absolutism. The concept of a personal deity is involved in this coordinated development of religion and philosophy, the principles of which have coalesed rendering impossible a treatment of one in a manner independent of the other. Works which are brought under the subject of philosophy proper to not question the foundations of religious experience and can be admitted to tacity lend support to the validity of the religious experiences. Works like the Itihasas, Puranas and also Agamas which are written in Sanskrit and the compositions of the Alvars which are in Tamil are religious in nature and content. They presuppose the authority of the philosophical foundations on which they are based and on which they are the solid super-structures built at various periods. There is thus no room for a discussion as to the exclusive nature of treatment philosophical or religious of the problems dealt with in these compositions.

A study of the religious and philosophical contributions made by the Alvars cannot be undertaken without reference to the materials which are available in cognate sources. To free such materials from the scope of this study would lead to the understanding of these compositions as the rise of thoughts newly invented by the Alvars without any traditional background and so not capable of accounting for the popularity at the hands of those who have been steeped in age-long traditional lores. An attempt is therefore made here to classify the results of the study in this subject under sections which represent the beginnings of the religious tradition which inspired the writing of these compositions, a general account of the Alvars and their compositions, then an intensive study of Nammalvar's compositions, the influence of these compositions on the development of Sri Vaisnavism in the subsequent periods and a conclusion on the worth of these compositions.

The study is divided into six sections the first of which forms an Introduction dealing with the Alvars' approach to Reality. The second section is devoted to proving that the cult of Visnu is as ancient as the Vedas themselves are. The theistic, personal and saguna aspects of the deity are traceable to the Itihasas, Puranas and the Bhagavad-gita. The various forms which the Lord takes for the welfare of humanity are found better developed in the Agamas, their beginnings being indicated in the other earlier sources. Practical code of conduct of a Vaisnative gets treatment in the Dharmasastras in addition to the sources mentioned above. Some of the aspects of the deity are also suggested and described also in the ancient Tamil classical literature. This section serves as a preparatory chapter to the thesis.

The question of the period of the Alvars is taken up in the third section where the literary, epigraphical and other materials are brought forward to fix the dates of the Alvars with an approximate degree of certainty. The dispute ragarding the actual number of verses and the order in which the compositions of these Alvars are to follow are discussed in the same section which also contains a brief literary appreciation of these compositions. The traditional conclusions on some of the matters treated in this section have been shown to be inadmissible in the light of the materials that are available of late. This section serves as a useful background for a deep study of the compositions of the Alvars.

The fourth section is the biggest with fourteen chapters dealing with several aspects of the Nalayiram. The general approach of the Alvars is treated at the outset. The preeminence of Narayana, His perfections, forms, exploits and His relationship to the self and the world take up the next four chapters. God is shown to be both immanent and transcendent and the inner-controller of one and all not excluding Brahma and Rudra. Mystic experience which varies among the devout men belonging to the various faiths of the world finds its presentation in the form of Nature and Bridal Love. The former is not to be mistaken for pantheism since it implies God's transcendence also. The latter, thought it could be traced to lilas of Krsna in Vrndavana, finds a full and rich depiction only at the hands of the Alvars.  The reason for this lies in the aesthetic appreciation of God with particular reference to His descent as Krsna and arca forms. The available sources have been fully utilized in this study of this aspect of love. Apart from devotion which funcitons ordinarily not at the mystic level but which draws man closer to the deity, the spirit of service which man owes to his deity as an act of obligation gets treatment and it shown to attain its perfection in rendering service to teh bhagavatas. The rich blissful experience which a devotee is allowed to have by the deity here within the limitations of the materials world is openly proved as obtainable even in the state of release. This aspect does not receive this much of explicit support in the sources which are said to belong to the earliest period of literary development. After indicating the individual contributions of the other Alvars it is shown that the Alvars do not generally escape from the suffering humanity to find consolations, encouragement and delightful enjoyment in God-realization. God-experience is well reflected in a major part of their compositions. The Alvars are yet alive to the sufferings of humanity and they prescribe enviable receipes to tide over the miseries of the world now and here itself. The contributions of the Alvars are crowned with unique success in that their compositions came to be looked upon on a level with that of the Vedas a rare and unique privilege given to what is written in a language which is other than Sanskrit.

The fifth section traces the impact and the influence of the message of the Alvars on the leading exponents of Vaisnavism in the post-Alvar period. The tenets of the Visistadvaita school of Vedanta, though primarily based on the triple foundations (prasthanatraya), were actually given shape and developed on the lines of the teachings of the Alvars. This was begun  Ny Nathamuni, underwent a good development at the hands of Yamuna and took a crystalised shape at the hands of Ramanuja who recognised and gave a special status to the Nalayiram by his teachings and by directing his pupil Pillan to give an exposition  of Tiruvaymoli. This attitude to the compositions of the Alvars as being an intergral part of the spiritual training of the Vaisnavites was maintained and continued by Ramanuja's disciples. But for the schism which has lightly divided the followers of the great master to form into two divisions bearing authority for doctrinal interpretation, the tradition of the Alvars' message is being uninterruptedly maintained in tact. Much of what is found to be the specific features characterizing the outlook and conduct of a Vaisnavite within and without the house, in temples and religious conventions owes mainly to what the Alvars had taught and what has been assimilated by the Acaryas from Nathamuni downwards into a character of a Sri Vaisnavite. The commentaries on the Nalayiram and the Tiruvaymoli in particular have been having greater attraction and appeal both to the teachers, disciples and those who listen to the discourses on them.  However, it must be said that these commentaries have more of the ideal of eulogizing the bhagavata cult than what is actually needed to understand the spirit and tenor of the Alvars. The anecdotes which find room often times in these commentaries cloud much of the main issue which are involved in the interpretation of the original text.

The last section shows that the doctrine of self-surrender though not unknown in the period before the Alvars got a direct advocacy in the composition of the Alvars and finding room in the spiritual training became one of the cardinal tenets of the post-Ramanuja Vaisnavism. It is no exaggeration to state emphatically that through Ramanuja who gave importance to the path of devotion keeping those of karma and jnana at jsut below its level on account of the influence borne on him by the teachings of the Alvars that the devotional aspect, the mystic ideal of Nature and Bride, the spirit of service to God and His men which characterize any religious faith permeated the theistic schools of later Vaisnavism such as those of Madhava, Nimbarka, Vallabha and others. A study of these compositions in comparison to that of these later schools of Vaisnavism would have pertinence to a study undertaken on the development of bhakti according to Ramanuja and so is not attempted here as it lies beyond the scope of this thesis.

The materials on which this study is based as also a table showing the method of transliteration adopted are given separately before the thesis proper. The appendices which are eight in number contain information on the list of Brahma Vidyas, the order of enumerating the Alvars, and the anecdotes referred to by the Alvars but not traceable to any known source. A list is given on the number of verses composed by Nammalvar on the arca forms of God enshrined in various temples. Another list here contains the number of shrines exclusively celebrated by some Alvars. The list of succession of the Vaisnavits acaryas is also given for the understanding of the two traditions of the post-Ramanuja school. A table setting out the dates of the Alvars acceptable to the traditionalists also forms a separate appendix.

The work was originally submitted as a doctoral Thesis to Sri Venkateswara University. I heartily acknowledge the able guidance provided for the work by Dr V Varadachari, then Reader in Sanskrit Department of the University and now Professor Emeritus in the Department. But for his unstinting help and meticulous supervision the work could not have taken shape as it has.

My thanks to Dr S Viswanathan of the Department of English for going through the manuscript and offering useful suggesions.

I owe the publication of the work in book form to the University Grants Commission and to the Government of Tamil Nadu whose generous grants have made it possible. I record my keen appreciation of the scrupulous care with which the printing and get-up of the book have been attended to by the SV University Press.

I place on record my gratefulness to Sri M Ananthasayan Ayyengar, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha and ex-Governor of Bihar, for graciously consenting to write a Foreword to this volume. It is the volume's privilege to have a introductory word from this distinguished son of India who is an uncompromising votary of Indian Culture and the premier citizen of the holy city of Tirupati.

As a humble gesture to appreciation and regard, I dedicate this volume to late lamented Bhrata Ratna Dr S Radhakrishnan who did more than any one to acquaint the West with the true essence of Indian thought.


Tirupati - 517 502                                                                                               N SUBBU REDDIAR

5 June 1977