ĀḺVĀRS . The Āḻvārs are a group of Hindu religious poets of South India. Their name in Tamil means "sages" or "saints." As devotees of Māl, a deity who combines attributes of the Kṛṣṇa of the Bhagavadgītā and earlier Purāṉas with those of Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṉa, they differ from a second, contemporary group of poets, the Śaiva Nāyaṉārs. Yet in other respects both groups are closely related and together must be regarded as responsible for the formation of a devotional, vernacular Hinduism.
The only reliable source on the Āḻvārs is the corpus of their own poetry, which the semilegendary Nāthamuni compiled in the early tenth century ce (and which was somewhat modified in the twelfth century). This corpus is known as the Nālāyira-divya-prabandham (Sacred poetic collection of four thousand); "four thousand" refers to the total number of stanzas. The Prabandham consists of twenty-three separate works, arranged in four books (in imitation of the four Vedas), among which the Tiruvāymoḻi by "Caṭakōpaṉ" (as the poet calls himself) is the longest and most important. This compilation and the preservation of the poems were among the achievements of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. This Viṣṇu-devoted religious movement, which was led by brahmans and oriented itself toward Brahmanical values, had its beginnings in South India during the tenth century and assumed its classic expression in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In fact, the movement looked back upon the vernacular Āḻvārs as its spiritual ancestors. Consequently, Śrī Vaiṣṇavism produced an Āḻvār hagiography, institutionalizing these saints and the Prabandham itself, and commented and reflected on it through an enormous exegetical literature in heavily sanskritized Tamil. The poets are envisaged here as incarnations of Viṣṇu's heavenly weapons and companions many thousands of years ago, and their life stories are punctuated by miraculous events inevitably interpreted as expressions of Śrī Vaiṣṇava religious ideals and thought.
While a critical appreciation of the Prabandham independently from the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition has only just begun, the picture thus revealed is very different, though no less colorful. Traditionally, twelve Āḻvārs are listed, but in the Prabandham only eleven works bear a poet's name (yielding a total of seven different authors), while the remaining twelve works are anonymous. These seven poets provide information in their verses from which we can infer that two were brahman temple priests, Viṭṭucittaṉ (or Periyāḻvār in familiar Śrī Vaiṣṇava parlance) and Toṇṭaraṭippoṭi (Bhaktāṅghrireṇu); one a brahman woman, Kōtai (Āṇṭāḷ, "the lady"); two chieftains; Kulacekaran (almost certainly not the author of the Mukundamālā ) and Kalikaṉṟi (Tirumaṅkai-āḻvār, a "robber knight" in hagiography); one a regional landlord, Caṭakōpaṉ (Nammāḻvār); and one a bard, Maturakavi. According to legend, the remaining five poets were all male low-caste bards and yogins. Geographical references in the poems cover most of what is today Kerala and Tamil Nadu, along with the southern part of Andhra Pradesh. The period from the sixth to the tenth century ce is the most likely one for the composition of the poems in the Prabandham.
Against the background of the bhakti yoga as found in the Bhagavadgītā, that of Vedānta, Pāñcarātra, and Vaikhānasa ritualism, of earlier folk Kṛṣṇaism and sophisticated secular Tamil culture, the Āḻvārs evolved a form of religion with intense emotive flavor. Māl (also known as Tirumāl, Māyōṉ, Perumāl, etc.), who is the object of this devotion, manifests himself on earth in three different modes. There are his mythical exploits, many of them known from stories of the classical avatāra s, especially the amorous Kṛṣṇa. Then there are his incarnations in the statues of numerous South Indian temples (approximately ninety-five such shrines are mentioned by the poets), and finally there is his dwelling within the hearts of his devotees. These three modes provide the emotional and intellectual stimuli that gave rise to Tamil songs and poems (which in turn were intended as further stimuli). The characteristics of eroticism and ecstatic drive, which were subdued in the terse earlier anonymous poems, reached their culmination when Nammalvar drew on Tamil secular love poetry and transformed it into a novel type of mystical literature. Later Āḻvārs such as Āṇṭāḷ, Kalikaṉṟi, and Viṭṭucittaṉ developed this genre further and gave it new shape in the form of folk songs and children's songs. The Prabandham contains no systematic theology or philosophy, but its general orientation of thought is in the direction of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. This latter school, however, had little scope for an ecstatic form of devotion. It was the Bhāgavata Purāṉa (a South Indian text of about the tenth century ce, by an unknown author) that adopted the Āḻvārs devotion and gave it a Sanskrit mold, in fact by translating or paraphrasing poems of the Āḻvārs.
Śrī Vaiṣṇavism was affected in many ways by its Āḻvār heritage; through the Bhāgavata Purāṉa, these poets also exercised an enormous influence on Hinduism generally. But the sophistication and often extreme complexity of the nonbrahman poets, and the cultivation of simpler folk genres by brahman Āḻvārs speak against any notion of them as leaders of a rebellion by the oppressed, exploited masses, or as leaders of a movement in favor of simple theistic faith and against the teachings of the Upaniṣads. The antagonism they express is directed against Buddhists and Jains, Śaivas, folk religious practices, and occasionally against a Brahmanical establishment.
Most of the popularly available information on the Āḻvārs is directly or indirectly derived from J. S. M. Hooper's Hymns of the Āḻvārs (New York, 1929), a slender work that is now outdated. Samples of Nammāḻvār's poetry, in attractive English translation, are found in Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Viṣṇu by Nammāḻvār, translated by A. K. Ramanujan (Princeton, 1981). For a detailed study of the Āḻvārs, their background and treatment in the Bhāgavata Purāṉa, see my book Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India (Oxford, 1983). An illustration of how Śrī Vaiṣṇavism dealt with its Āḻvār heritage is found in my essay "The Tamil Veda of a Śūdra Saint," in Contributions to South Asian Studies, edited by Gopal Krishna (Delhi, 1979), vol. 1, pp. 29–87.
Dehejia, Vidya. Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi, 1988.
Srinivasa Chari, S. M. Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars. Delhi, 1997.
Friedhelm E. Hardy (1987)