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The AIvars of South India
At the beginning of Kali yuga, after the disappearance of Lord Krishna, the world was plunged into spiritual darkness and the true message of the Vedas was obscured. Although Shri Veda Vyasa had already compiled the Shrimad Bhagavatam, in order to understand it and apply it’s teachings, there was a need for the person-bhagavata to explain it.
The twelve AIvars of the Shri Vaishnava sampradaya appeared in South India at this time in order to re-establish the Vedic culture and the Vaishnava philosophy. Their appearance is predicted in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam 11.5.38-40 :
kritadishu praja rajan
kalav icchanti sambhavam
kalau khalu bhavishyanti
kvacit kvacin maha-raja
dravideshu ca bhurishah
tamraparni nadi yatra
kaveri ca maha-punya
pratici ca maha-nadi
ye pibanti jalam tasam
prayo bhakta bhagavati
The appearance of these devotees is also predicted in Naradiya Purana :
“ Angira said - ‘Some pure devotees of Lord Vishnu will descend and, in the land of Dravida, they will preach the truth through their songs.
Shesha, as the grand-disciple of Natha (Muni), will take birth in Kali yuga to establish the real meaning of the Vedanta Sutras.
The wicked demons, who were all killed in the destruction of the three cities, and those on the occasion of Saugandhika, will be reborn on earth to destroy the Vaishnava philosophy.
Vayu will also incarnate and by smashing all evil doctrines, he will establish the true one. These philosophies will show mankind what real religion is.
These pure devotees are to be worshipped along with the Lord. This system was followed in the past.
The Lord, who rides upon Garuda, granted them the privilege that unless they were worshipped first, His own worship would be useless.
Also the Lord empowered them to compose the Prabandhas, glorifying His greatness, when they were practising austerities and performing devotional service on the peak of Gandhamadana Mountain.’
The word ‘AIvar’ in Tamil means, ‘one who dives deep’. In other words, they were totally immersed in thoughts of serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead and were overwhelmed by the desire to always be with the Lord. They were all incarnations of Lord Vishnu’s paraphernalia in Vaikuntha and they took their births on earth among all grades of men, both high caste and low in order to teach the transcendental message of the Lord to all members of society. The twelve AIvars with their Tamil and Sanskrit names, traditional dates of their appearance and their original Vaikuntha forms are listed below:
Poigai AIvar (Saro Yogi) - 4202 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s conch,Pancajanya
Pudatö AIvar (Bhuta Yogi) - 4202 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s mace,Kaumodaki
Pey AIvar (Bhranta Yogi) - 4202 B.C. incarnation of the Lord’s sword, Nandaki
TirumaIishai (Bhakti Sara) - 4202 B.C. incarnation of the Lord’s disc, Sudarshana
Madhurakavi - 4202 B.C. incarnation of the Lord’s
NammaIvar (Shathakopa) - 3102 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s senapati, Vishvaksena
Kulashekhara - 3075 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s Kaustubha jewel
PeriyaIvar (Vishnucitta or Bhaööanatha) - 3056 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s carrier, Garuda
Andal (Goda Devi) - 3005 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s consort, Bhu Devi
Tondaradipodi AIvar (Bhaktanghrirenu) - 2814 B.C . incarnation of the Lord’s garland,Vanamala
Tiruppani AIvar (Munivahana) - 2760 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s Shrivatsa mark
Tirumangai AIvar (Nila or Parakala) - 2706 B.C incarnation of the Lord’s Sharanga bow
While performing their pastimes, they wrote prayers in Tamil which are known as the Divya Prabandhams. These prayers consist of 4000 verses that are divided into four parts that explain the main mantras of the Shri sampradaya. The first part is made up of ten books that explain the meaning of the Tirumantra, ‘ om namo narayanaya’ and the meaning of the first two parts of the mantra, namely the pranava (om) and the word ‘namah’.
The second part is made up of three books and explains the word ‘narayanaya’.
The third part is seven books that teach the meaning of the carama shloka, “sarva dharma parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja-‘
The fourth part is one book that explains the dvaya mantra, ‘shriman narayana caranau sharanam prapadye’.
The purpose of these prayers is to instill in the devotee a mood of total surrender to and dependence on the Lord (sharanagati).and since they explain the essence of all the Vedas, they are known as the ‘Tamil Vedas’. Unlike the Vedas, there is no restriction in reciting them and even today they are still recited in Vaishnava temples in South India by devotees, irrespective of their caste, creed or sex.
Sara Yogi, Bhuta Yogi, and Bhranta Yogi
The first three AIvars, Sara Yogi, Bhuta Yogi and Bhranta Yogi, were all contemporaries that were born at the end of Dvapara yuga.
Sara Yogi was born in the town of Kancipuram.and was found within a golden lotus. Bhuta Yogi was born within a jasmine flower in the town of Mallapuri (modern day Mahabalipuram) and Bhranta Yogi came from a red lotus in the city of Mayurapura (now called Maylapura). They were all born in the same year, in the same month and in the same week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday respectively.
Although not much is known about the early lives of these AIvars , there is an interesting story about how the three saints first met.
All three Alvars would roam about from place to place spending their nights under trees and eating whatever food came their way. None of them had met each other and so the Lord made an arrangement so that all of them would meet at the same spot.
There had been torrential rain accompanied by lashing winds and a storm raged continuously for two days. Now and then the monotonous weather would only be broken by huge hail stones falling from the sky. Due to these terrifying conditions, the villagers stayed in their homes constantly peering out of their windows and praying for an end to the tempest. Those who were poverty stricken, who had no protection, took to the mountain caves or hollows of trees in a desperate attempt to shelter from the fearful weather.
Sara Yogi had been bold enough to venture out into the storm. Dressed only in rags, and shivering from the cold, he trudged across the desolate land clinging on to one of his only possessions - a thin shawl, which by now was drenched by the heavy rain. As the lightning streaked across the sky, a large hailstone came hurtling towards Sara Yogi. He hurridly leapt out of it's path and in doing so lost his grip over his upper cloth. Within a second, the shawl was stolen away by the wind. The saint, however, did not become perturbed. Rather, he laughed and began praising the Lord:
“Oh Lord Hari! You are so fickle,
You run here and there,
And to make others dance,
You dance Yourself,
Some, You charm with Your beautiful smile,
Others, like the gopis, You captivate with your flute,
Though the entire creation emanates from Your navel,
You find pleasure simply in stealing butter.
Unaware of Your mischief, the gopis,
In their anger, argue with Yashoda.
You feign anger, and scowl at Your cowherd friend,
But in an instant, You lock him in a tight embrace.
Sometimes You are terrible to behold,
Sometimes You capture the heart.
Sometimes You are erratic,
Sometimes You are motionless.
Sometimes You wear kingly clothes,
Sometimes You dress as a beggar.
Who can describe Your transcendental qualities?
By robbing me of my cloth,
You laugh loudly,
But, O cunning one,
I have seen through Your little joke.
Play on my Lord, play on,
Your eternal servant is happy at your delight.”
Although weather-beaten and hungry, he sang this prayer and danced in ecstacy. Not long after, Sara Yogi came to a small cottage, but he found the door to be locked. Deciding to take shelter in a small thatched terrace opposite, he went inside and looked around. The roof was leaking slightly, there was no light and there was barely enough room for one man to lie down. Sara Yogi didn’t mind, it was much better than being outside in the storm, he thought. He laid down and prepared to take rest. As his eyelids slowly closed and sleep was about to overcome him, he thought he heard a voice outside. It was the voice of Bhuta Yogi.
"Is there anyone in there? Is there any place here for a man bitten by cold and overcome with hunger to take rest?", asked the weary Bhuta Yogi.
Sara Yogi sat up and replied cheerfully, " Yes, yes, you‘re most welcome my friend. Come in! If there is enough room for one man to lie down, then definitley there must be enough room for two men to sit".
Bhuta Yogi quickly squeezed into the small hut. As the two devotees were settling down and trying to make themselves comfortable, another voice was heard from outside.
"Please, be kind enough to allow me to enter. I have been travelling for many days and I’m exhausted.." The voice belonged to Bhranta Yogi.
“Now who’s that?” wondered Sara Yogi.
“How will three of us fit in here when theres just enough room for two of us to sit?” Bhuta Yogi asked Sara Yogi in a loud voice,
“Well, if two can sit, surely three can stand!” came the reply from outside.
Sara Yogi and Bhuta Yogi were silent for a moment as they thought about the situation.
"Come in", replied Sarayogi. Bhranta Yogi came inside, soaking wet, and the three stood shoulder to shoulder and inquired about each others identities.
Sara Yogi replied, quoting from the Pancaratra; bhagavacch esha bhutoham ananyarho ‘citah parah ("I am different from this material nature. I am a servant of the Supreme Lord.")
Citing from the Naradiya Purana, Bhuta Yogi said; daso'ham vasudevasya sarvaloka mahatmanah ("I am a servant of Lord Vasudeva, the maintainer of the three worlds.")
Bhranta Yogi spoke from the Ramayana; daso'ham kausalendrasya rama syaklishöa karmanah ("I am servant of Lord Ramacandra, king of Kosala")
Thus the three AIvars began to pass the night by talking about the Lord and His transcendental pastimes. Then as they spoke, they suddenly became aware of a fourth person squeezing himself between them.
Bhuta Yogi thought to himself. "It is difficult enough for the three of us to stand in here, now it seems that some cruel ghost has decided to force his way in here as well."
The uncomfortable situation gave rise to a sudden outburst from Sara Yogi. "Whats happening? I shall light a lamp to see who this mysterious stranger is."
"Er, but brother!" exclaimed the other two, "We don’t have a lamp here, nor any oil or wicks."
Sara Yogi then began to sing -
"Let my lamp be made of the earth,
And the oil be made from the sea,
The light shall come from the sun globe.
Then this elusive stranger will be discovered."
Hearing this song, Bhuta Yogi became enthusiastic and exclaimed, "Let me light my lamp!"
"My lamp is made of wisdom,
It is the vessel of love of God,
Holding within the oil of intense emotions,
In which is soaked the wick of my mind."
"I must light my lamp now", remarked Bhranta Yogi. "Although I feel most unqualified after hearing your wonderful efforts. My very name "Bhranta" means madman, for my love for Shri Padmaramana's lotus feet drives me insane. My love for Him makes me shiver and sweat. My eyes gush forth torrents of tears. My voice chokes up, and I dance with joy, becoming completely indifferent to the world around me. So when you light your lamps, all I can say is this -
I see Lakshmi Devi,
I see the Lord's effulgent form,
I see their shining hues blending,
I see the majestic disc weapon,
And the transcendental conchshell,
Oh Lord of my heart,
All this I see today."
Upon Bhranta singing this, the tiny shack became flooded with light and the three devotees discovered the identity of the fourth person. Standing there with conch, discus, club, and lotus flower, bedecked with the Vijayantimala, and adorned with the Kaustubha gem, Shri Narayana, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, stood before them.
In ecstatic love each AIvar , on the spot, sang a hundred hymns to the Lord. One glorified the Lord as the Universal form (Viraöa rupa). Another sung of the Lord addressing Him as Narayana, and the third glorified Narayana by adding "Shri " to His name.
The Lord having accepted His devotees prayers, disappeared from their sight. And as He did so, the violent storm and the rain simultaneously ceased. The sky became clear again, the sun shone forth, and the birds began to sing. The three travellers came out of the hut to look upon the first rays of the morning sun as it traversed over the horizon.. Joyful at the sight of the Supreme Lord, and of having had one another's association, Sara Yogi, Bhuta Yogi, and Bhranta Yogi bid farewell to each other and went their separate ways.
According to the Brahmanda Purana, the sages led by Atri, Bhrigu, Vashishöha, Bhargsava and Angiras, once went to Lord Brahma and asked him to allocate a suitable place for them on earth to perform their sadhana. Brahma told them that in his mind, the best place for them to reside was the land of Mahisara Kshetra, for that place was purified by the presence of the rajarshis of Videha. Hearing this, the rshis went to earth and occupied that sacred place.
All the sages made their residences in the different quarters of Mahisara Kshetra. Bhargava Rishi occupied the Western end and spent his days in worshipping Lord Vasudeva. After some time his wife gave birth to a child. Actually it would be a mistake to call her offspring a ‘child’; it was a lump of flesh without any limbs or features. The poor sage and his wife were horrified, “ How inauspicious! What can I do with such a repulsive ‘thing’?” Bhargava thought, “Better to get rid of it as soon as possible.” So he warily picked up the lump, walked into the forest, dropped it in a bamboo thicket and made his way back to his ashrama, happy to be rid of such a monstrosity.
However, not long after being abandoned, the shapeless lump began to develop arms, legs and features. Then it began to breathe. Then feeling the first pangs of hunger, the child began to cry. The child’s wailing got louder and louder, but who was there in the huge, dark forest that would hear him? Then suddenly he heard a voice -
“Don’t worry my friend. I bless you that you will never feel the pain of hunger and thirst.”
The child’s small eyes opened and as he looked up his eyes became wider and wider. There standing in front of him was the Supreme Lord Narayana Himself. But in an instant that amazing vision of the Lord was gone and seeing that he was all alone again, once more the baby started to cry.
At first, the wood-cutter, Tiruvalan. and his men thought it was the cry of a fox, but as they listened more carefully they recognised it as the sound of an infant. “But ‘ow on earth could a baby be ‘ere in this vast forest?” he pondered. Picking up their axes, Tiruvalan and the others set out in the direction that the sound was coming from and at last stumbled upon the thicket where the child lay. Tiruvalan scratched his head in wonder, “ This is strange! Poor thing must be starvin’ no doubt. Thats why ‘es makin’ so much noise. My wife will be pleased to see ‘im though, she’s always wanted a child.” And tenderly picking up the child, the old wood-cutter went home.
When his wife, Pankaja Selvi, saw the child, she became overwhelmed with emotion. Tears streamed down her cheeks and even though she was old, milk flowed from her breasts. But when she tried to feed the child, he wouldn’t drink the milk - not a drop! Since the Lord had blessed him he didn’t feel hungry any more. This went on for many days and as the child grew brighter and healthier, it dawned on Tiruvalan and Pankaja Selvi that their new son was no ordinary child.
News spread, of course. All the townsfolk of Mahisara were talking about the new miracle -
“Did you hear about Tiruvalan and his wife? They’ve been childless for so many years and now they have a son.”
“And what a son! The boy never eats a thing, yet he’s the strongest looking baby you’ve ever seen.”
It just so happened that these words came to the ears of one old shudra and his wife who lived in the town. He thought to himself, “ My wife and I are childless. If I get the blessings of this amazing boy, maybe we will also be blessed with a son.”
So early one morning he rose, and with his wife he went to the house of Tiruvalan on the outskirts of the forest. They were welcomed by the wood-cutter and his wife who took them to see their son. As soon as the shudra couple saw the child, they were awe-stuck. The boy was so effulgent and his composure was unnatural for one of his age. They folded their hands and offered their obeisances.Then the old shudra took a container of milk fom his shoulder bag and prayed,”I’ve ‘eard that you don’t eat or drink anythin’, but please be so good as to accept this ‘umble offerin’." Surprisingly, the infant responded to their prayers by drinking the milk. For many days the old couple came with milk for the divine child, and every day he would drink it.
One day he drank the milk, but left some over. Then another strange thing happened - he spoke. " My friends," he said, "I understand your intentions.If you both drink the remainder of this milk, a good son will be born to you." The shudra and his wife returned home and drank the milk, and old as they were, they soon felt youth in their veins. Soon afterwards, his wife conceived and after nine months she gave birth to a son. They named the boy Kani Kannar and educated him as much as their social status permitted.
Seven years past and the son of Tiruvalan left home and took to the mountains. There, he decided to take the path of Ashöanga-Yoga. As he was engaged in this sadhana he pondered over different philosophies such as Buddhism, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Patanjali's Yoga system, shaivism, Mayavada, Nyaya, Purva Mimamsa etc But whichever system he studied he felt dissatisfied with it. In fact, he found all the systems completely dry and dull. In this way 700 years went by and he began to study the Vedas and Vedanta Sutras. In these he discovered that the Supreme Personality of Godhead was indeed the Absolute Truth. After searching for the truth for so long, the saint, TirumaIishai, was overcome with ecstasy. He decided that he would now devote the next 700 years of his life in serving and meditating upon the Supreme Lord Narayana on the banks of Gajendra Kunda at Kairavani (now called Tiruvallikkeni, near Madras).
It was while he was residing at Kairavani that Lord Shiva decided to test him. Being very renounced, it was TirumaIishai's habit to wear old cloth, and he would sew and maintain it until practically speaking it was unwearable. Only then would he go and find another. He could be often seen sitting on ther steps of the tank sewing. One day Lord Shiva and Parvati were flying through the sky on Nandi. As they flew, their shadow was cast upon the ground and whoever it fell upon, that person would become very enlivened in his material desires. However, when their shadow fell upon TirumaIishai, they all stopped and observed him. He was busy sewing, and when he saw the shadow he could understand that it was inauspicious, and so he moved out of it. Parvati was surprised and turned to her husband, "Who is this man? Everyone is so eager to receive our blessings that they rejoi ce if they catch sight of us or if our shadow falls upon them. Yet this person moves out of the shadow!"
Lord Shiva replied, "He is a great devotee of Lord Vishnu."
"Which is exactly the reason why I want to go down and see this man," Parvati quickly retorted. Lord Shiva shook his head, "We have no business with him, he doesn't need anything from us."
At this answer the great demigod's wife showed a little surprise and said, "No no no. Everyone wants something from us. Everybody has material desires and wants them fulfilled. Let us go down there."
So Parvati and Shiva went down there, and appeared before TirumaIishai, who just continued sewing his cloth. Lord Shiva asked him, "Why don't you aknowledge our presence? We wish to give you a boon." Tirumalishai replied without looking up, "What do I need from you? I'm quite happy as I am.
Lord Shiva said, "My dear Vaishnava, we have come down espescially to bless you, don't let our journey have been fruitless." TirumaIisai didn't even look up, he just kept on sewing and ignored them. Again Lord Shiva asked him to accept a boon, so with a sigh TirumaIishai asked, "Well, give me liberation from material existence." Lord Shiva answered, "That's one thing I can't give. Only Vishnu alone has the power to give liberation. I'm sorry."
TirumaIishai shrugged his shoulders and, returning to his sowing, said, "Then what's the use? What is the use of you and your benedictions?" Yet again Lord Shiva requested him to accept a benediction.
"All right," TirumaIishai said," Can you postpone a man's death even by one day?" Lord Shiva looked down and sheepishly replied, " Well, er, no I can't do that either as it goes according to the persons karma. But I request you, please ask from me any other boon." The saint looked up at Shiva and exclaimed," Since you're determined to do me a favour, I have only one request."
"Anything!" replied Lord Shiva eagerly.
You see, while I sew, the thread is always coming off the needle. So could you please make some arrangement that the thread doesn't slip off so that I can finish sewing my cloth."
At this, Parvati became enraged. "He's insulting you! You could give him the universe, and he's asking for such a stupid thing! You must do something to teach him a lesson."
Lord Shiva roared in anger, "What my wife says is true. Now I will burn you to ashes as I did to Kandarpa!" and saying this, he opened his third eye, and a huge column of fire shot out towards TirumaIishai. Unbeknown to Lord Shiva however, TirumaIishai also had a third eye on the big toe of his right foot. So seeing this great flame coming, the AIvar pointed his foot at Shiva and an even greater fire came out, devouring the flames from Lord Shiva's eye. Seeing this, Lord Shiva created a Pushkalavartaka storm-cloud to rain upon the fire and extinguish it. As the storm clouds came, flashing and roaring, they poured down torrents of water and the land looked as if it had become an ocean. TirumaIishai AIvar however remained unperturbed amongst all this and levitated above the water, still stitching his cloth. Very soon the fire was quenched and the water subsided.
Lord Shiva appeared before TirumaIishai and blessed him. He gave him this name 'Bhakti Sara' which means 'the essence of devotion'. Lord Shiva said, "Your attitude and devotion to Lord Vishnu is the essence of devotion, because even when I came, you did not want anything from me." Then he turned to his wife and chided, "Just see what lengths your female curiosity has led us! Just as Duvasa was troubled for offending the saintly Maharaja Ambarisha, similarly we have also been troubled for meddling with this innocent devotee.You should learn from this that the Vaishnavas are invunerable." And with thiese words, Lord Shiva took Parvati by the hand, sat her on his bull-carrier, and they both flew away.
Another time a shuktihara ( a type of goblin), who was flying through the sky on his tiger, saw TirumaIishai sitting sewing his cloth. He landed and approached the saint, but as they got closer the tiger stopped dead in it's tracks and refused to go any nearer. The shuktihara was bewildered, "Eh? What is this? Why won't he go any further?"
Then seeing TirumaIishai he suddenly realised, "Aha! it must be by the influence of this saintly person that my magic is rendered useless." The shuktihara got down from his tiger and tip-toed over to where the AIvar sat addressing him thus, "O best of the Bhrigu dynasty, why are you wasting so much time sowing that old rag? let me give you something better."
And saying this he created a fabulous cloth that sparkled with glistening gems. TirumaIishai AIvar looked at the cloth for a moment, then out of nowhere he created another one, which outshone the shuktihara's. Seeing it the goblin lowered his head in shame. Still he was determined to impress the saint, so he took off a beautiful rudraksha mala and presented it to him. TirumaIishai didn't even look at it. He removed his own tulasi and lotus-seed beads and handed it to the shuktihara. To his utter surprise, the beads had turned into a necklace of precious gems, strung together on a gold thread. The shuktihara gave up, thinking," this devotee is too great a person to be impressed by the likes of me." And falling at his feet, he begged him to excuse his pride and then fleew away again on his tiger.
A similar incident happened soon after this when the tantrik magician, Konkana Siddhan came to see TirumaIishai. He had heard of his reputation and wished to test him. He came and told him that he was a master of alchemy, and offered him a magic pill. He claimed that it could convert an eightieth part of copper into pure gold. "I don't need your pill." replied an amused TirumaIishai, "Here, take this! It will not only give you a crore of gold, but a crore of a crore." So saying, he rubbed off some dry sweat from his body and mixed it with some wax that he scraped out of his ear. Then, rolling it into a ball, he gave it to the wide-eyed tantrik. Konkana Siddhan took the ball home and put it to the test. Overnight, the man became wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.He returned to TirumaIishai and offered his obeisances to him, and after receiving his blessings, he returned home.
After this, TirumaIishai decided to move. There were too many disturbances in Kairavani. What with Shiva, and all these magicians always coming and pestering him, how could he meditate? And how could he fix his cloth in peace? He went and hid in a cave and began to perform his sadhana there.
And so in this way time went by. Then one day it just so happened that the first three AIvars , Sara Yogi, Bhuta Yogi and Bhranta Yogi came near to the spot where TirumaIishai was engaged in austerities. As they approached the mouth of the cave, they saw a marvellous light inside. "What could this be? "they all wondered. Driven by their curiosity they all entered and discovered within someone sitting in meditation. They all divined through their mystic powers that this must be none other than TirumaIishai AIvar . At that moment TirumaIishai came out of his trance and greeted them. " Are you all well, O flower-born devotees?" They offered obeisances to each other and embraced. The three AIvars stayed with TirumaIishai for some days, talking about the Lord's transcendental glories and then went on their way towards Mayurapuri.
TirumaIishai left his cave in order to visit his native place, Mahisara. When he arrived there, he discovered that he had run out of tilaka. " Now what shall I do?" He pondered, "If I don't wear tilaka how can I chant gayatri, read the scriptures, worship the Lord, or eat prasada?" He sat down to think over the problem, but soon sleep overcame him. While he slept, he had a dream that Lord Venkaöeshvara came to him and led him to a place nearby where tilaka could be found. He suddenly awoke and went out to find the place. on reaching the spot he found the tilaka, exactly where the Lord had showed him.
From Mahisara, he travelled to Kanci, where his friend, Sara Yogi was born. Kanci is known as Satyavrata Kshetra and the presiding Deity of that place is Lord Varadaraja, who lies on Ananta Sesha. TirumaIishai lived there peacefully for 700 years. In the meantime, he was joined by Kani Kannar (the son of the old shudra couple)who engaged himself in serving him. Under the tutalage of TirumaIishai, Kani Kannar became a great poet and composed many beautiful poems describing the Lord.
An old woman of Kanci also came and decided that she would end her days by rendering menial service to TirumaIishai AIvar . She would sweep the place where he lived, decorate the floors with artistic designs, clean the cooking utensils etc. One day, as the saint came out of his meditation, he saw the old woman sweeping the floor and told her that because of her selfless service to him, he would give whatever boon she wanted. Hearing this she was overjoyed and immeadiatly asked him to remove her old age and bless her with youth. Just by his glance, she suddenly found herself with a beautiful body that resembled one of the denizens of the heavenly planets. Just at that time, the king of the Tonda Province, Pallava Raya, was riding past on his horse and happened to spot her.He was at once struck with her beauty and begged her to become his wife. She consented and he carried her off to the royal palace.
Pallava Raya found great happiness in his new wife's company, but as the years rolled by he noticed one very odd thing. His wife never seemed to age. The king was struck by this and enquired from his queen, " How is it that you seem to have eternal youth?"
"It is by the blessings of the great devotee Tirumaishai," the queen replied, "But you can also be blessed with the same boon. Do you know the poet Kani Kannar? He comes every day to beg alms at the palace. You should try to please him because he is the disciple and friend of TirumaIishai. If you please him, I'm sure the saint will bless you also with eternal youth."
That day, Pallava Raya anxiously waited for Kani Kannar. Finally when he arrived, the king ran out to the gate to meet him. "My dear Kani Kannar, I am very eager to meet your illustrious guru TirumaIishai. Be kind enough to request him to come to my palace at once."
"Impossible!"came the reply from Kani Kannar, "My master does not enter any man's house, even if that man is a king like you."
Pallava Raya was not used to being refused by anybody. Upon hearing these words he became infuriated. "Very well, that may be. However you're a beggar at my door and I am your king, so sing a poem praising my royal qualities."
Kani Kannar, however, sang a different song -
"O never will my tongue stoop so low to sing mundane praise
For it is only blessed when singing of the Lord.
Not for mortal flattery was this mouth made
Nor can I bribe my mind for any human use."
The King, however, would not let the poet go so easily and again he insisted that Kani Kannar should sing his glories. This time Kani Kannar sang -
"Who owns a lover's praise, except the True Beloved,
He that drowns one in His Supreme Grace.
That beloved, whose Deity sits and sometimes stands,
And also sleeps - all present in Kanci’s groves."
This was too much for Pallava Raya. "What!" He screamed."Even after ordering you twice to sing my glories, you dare to sing like this? You are hereby banished from my kingdom. Get out!" And turning on his heel, he stormed back into the palace.
Kani Kannar sped back to his spiritual master, fell at his feet and related all that had happened. TirumaIishai sighed, "Well, if you leave, how can I stay? And if I leave, will our Lord remain behind? And if He leaves, how can the demigods remain without Him? I will go to the temple of Varadaraja, wake Him up and bring Him with Me."
TirumaIishai walked to the temple and standing before the Deity of Varadaraja, he sang -
"Please hear O beautiful Lord of Kanci,
Our dear Kani Kannar now leaves.
That sweet-tongued poet whom I too must follow.
O sapphire-hued One, roll up Your snake-bed
And please accompany us."
As soon as he sang these lines, the Deity of Varadaraja got off his snake-bed, rolled it up, put it under His arm and stepped off the altar to follow His devotee. TirumaIishai walked out of the temple followed by Kani Kannar and Lord Varadaraja, and when he looked round he saw all legions of demigods, such as Brahma, Shiva, Indra accompanied by their devotees, also leaving Kanci with their luggage.
The foolish Pallava Raya was taking his afternoon rest at this time until he was abruptly awoken by his ministers, who were all making a tumultuous racket. "What’s going on?" roared the king, "Why are you all making so much noise?"
"Pardon me, your majesty," quaked one of the ministers, "but if you would care to look out of the window you'll see why we're so perturbed."
The King went to the window and looked out. What he saw made him gape in horror - a thick cloud of darkness hung heavily over his whole kingdom, for there was neither sun nor moon. The river beds had become dry and there was no plant or tree growing anywhere. The sounds of the town’s people screaming in panic filled his ears, and it suddenly dawned upon him what had happened. "Oh how stupid I was! This calamity has happened only because of my uncontrolled pride." Calling his army and ministers, he rode with them to try to find TirumaIishai and Kani Kannar. He found them at a place outside of Kanci called Oriavirukkai and jumping off his horse, ran to the AIvar and clasped his feet, begging for forgiveness. Hearing the pitious pleas of Pallava Raya, TirumaIishai forgave him. Then walking over to Lord Varadaraja, he sang -
"Please hear, O beautiful Lord of Kanci,
Our dear Kani Kannar now returns.
That sweet-tongued poet whom I too must follow.
O sapphire-hued One, Please return with us."
And unroll Your snake-bed."
The Lord followed His dear devotee's request, turned around and returned to the temple in Kanci. And with His return, all light, water and happiness also returned to the kingdom of the humbled Pallava Raya.
Some time after, TirumaIishai had the desire to go to Kumbhakonam and have darshana of the Deity of Lord Aravamudan. On the way, he stopped at a village called Perumpuliyur where he saw a group of brahmanas reciting the Vedas. When they saw him watching them, they all stopped chanting, thinking that he was a low-born shudra.But when they tried to continue the recitation where they left off, they couldn't remember. TirumaIishai could understand their predicament and taking a piece of rice-paddy that was lodged under his finger-nail, he threw it on the floor in the midst of all the brahmanas.As son as it hit the floor, their memories returned and they remembered what they had been chanting before. The passage that they had been reciting was about the performance of the Rajasuya Yajna,wherein the king should take paddy, which his wife should husk with her finger-nails, cook it and offer it in the fire as oblations. At this they were all wonder-struck and they all fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness.
When he arrived in Kumbhakonam, he took darshana of Lord Aravamudan, who lies on Ananta Sesa, he sang to the Lord,
“Why do You lie down all the time?
Is it because You are tired from walking around the forest of Dandakaranya all day?
Or is it because You have been dancing all night with the Gopis of Vraja?
Why don’t You tell me?”
Just as he had finished singing this, the Deity of Lord Aravamudan began to rise off his snake couch to answer. Tirumalisai felt very ashamed and cried, “Oh please excuse me, Lord. I didn’t mean to disturb You, please lie back down on Your bed again!” (Even to this day the Deity of Lord Aravamudan can be seen half lying and half rising)
Tirumalisai AIvar remained immersed in meditating on the Supreme Lord for the next 2300 years. After a long stay of 4700 years in this material world, Tirumalisai returned to Vaikuntha in his constitutional position as the Lord’s Sudarsana Cakra.
NammaIvar and Madhurakavi AIvar
NammaIvar was born in the first year of Kali Yuga about 43 days after Lord Krishna returned to His eternal abode of Goloka Vrndavana. His appearance is mentioned in the Bhavisya Purana-
“In the beginning of Kali Yuga, on the day when the full moon is in conjunction with the star sign Visakha, the Lord’s commander –in-chief, Visvaksena will incarnate in order to revive and preach love of Godhead.”
In the Shri Vaishnava sampradaya, NammaIvar is considered to be the most important of all the AIvars , therefore he is called ‘NammIvar’ which means, ‘our own AIvar
His family can be traced back to the rulers of Kurugunadu in the Pandya kingdom. His father and mother were called Kariyar and Udaiya Nangaiyar and they lived in the town of Tirunagari.
One time, they went on pilgrimage to the temple of Tirukkurungudi near the Mahendra mountains, where they prayed to the Lord for a son. At that exact time the pujari came and gave them the Deity’s tulasi-garland, caranamrta and prasada. Kariyar looked upon this as an auspicious sign and feeling great happiness, they returned to Tirunagari. Very soon after this, Udaiya Nangaiyar gave birth to a son. The child never cried, nor drank his mother’s milk –he just sat silently with his eyes closed, smiling serenely. His parents were amazed at this strange baby, but took it as the Lord’s arrangement. Eleven days after the birth of a newborn child, it is the Vedic tradition for the parents to bathe and take the child to see the Deity. Kariyar and his wife followed this custom and after visiting the temple, placed the baby under a sacred tamarind tree nearby. In actuality, it has been explained that when Visvaksena was born as NammaIvar , Lord Narayana ordered His servant Ananta Sesa to take the form of this tamarind tree and give shelter to him. Kariyar and his wife saw that this child was indeed very special and had appeared on earth for a specific purpose. When they tried to move the infant, he would not budge! Sixteen years passed and NammaIvar remained under the shade of the tamarind tree.
At the same time that NammaIvar appeared, Madhurakavi AIvar was also born. He was the incarnation of Garuda, the Lord’s carrier. He was born in a brahmana family and studied all fourteen branches of Vedic knowledge. After completing his studies, he decided that he would go on pilgrimage to North India to see Ayodhya, Avanti, Dwarka, Kasi, Badrikasrama etc Madhurakavi visited all these places, but on the way back from Badri something very unusual happened. One night he woke up to answer the call of nature when he saw in the Southern direction a supernatural light.
“That’s strange!” he thought, “Could any village have caught ablaze? Maybe there’s a forest fire!” He tried to go back to sleep, but somehow he kept thinking about the light. The next night he awoke to see the same light in the South. This phenomena continued every night, therefore he decided to uncover the mystery and so he journeyed South. He would rest during the day and as soon as darkness fell, he would travel Southwards, guided by the light. After some time he arrived at Shri Rangam, but the light receded further South. He continued his search until he reached Tirunagari, where the light dissappeared.
Madhurakavi began to inquire from the townsfolk to find a clue about the light that he had seen.
He was told about a wonderful child that lived under a tamarind tree and who had never spoke a word nor opened his eyes since the day he was born. Madhurakavi felt a great urge to see this child and so he requested the townsfolk to take him to that spot.. When he reached there he saw a young boy sitting in padmasana under a large tamarind tree, absorbed in meditation. His eyes were closed and his right hand showed the jnana mudra. In fact so still was this young boy, that Madhurakavi doubted whether he was alive! He decided to conduct a test by taking a large stone and dropping it on the floor to see if he could make the child react to the noise. He dropped the stone on the floor –thud!!! Slowly the boy’s eyes opened and he smiled at Madhurakavi.
“Well he’s certainly not deaf, that’s for sure.”thought Madhurakavi. “But maybe he’s dumb, so let me test him”
So then Madhurakavi asked him a question:
“If in the womb of something dead, a subtle thing is born, what does it eat and where does it live?”
NammaIvar opened his mouth and replied,
“It eats that, and lives there!”
When Madhurakavi heard this he went into ecstasy. The child had answered his question correctly. That which is dead is the human body, the subtle thing that appears in the human body is the soul. What does it eat? Or in other words, what does it enjoy? It enjoys that! It enjoys the human body and experiences pleasure and pain through that body. Where does it live? It lives in that same body, incapable of leaving it. Madhurakavi was convinced that this young child of sixteen was no ordinary child. He threw himself upon the ground and begged him to accept him as his disciple. At that time Lord Narayana was so pleased with the two AIvars that He blessed them by appearing in the sky accompanied by Laksmi Devi and all His associates. NammaIvar became so enamoured at this transcendental vision that he spontaneously composed four prayers which constitute the essence of the four Vedas. Not only did NammaIvar see the Lord directly in the sky, he also saw the Deity forms of the Lord as Venkatesvara, Ranganatha, Varadaraja and Tirunarayana and so he composed hymns to those Deitys also. NammaIvar composed the famous ‘Tiruvaimoli’ which is considered one of the most important works for the Shri Vaishnavas.
After the disappearance of NammaIvar , his disciple Madhurakavi lived for several years preaching the message of his spiritual master. He wrote ten verses called the ‘Kanninun Siruttambu’ that expound the greatness of the Lord’s devotees. At that time there lived in Madhura, a court poet named Kambanattalvan who was the head of a royal council of three hundred panditas. In those days every poet was obliged to pass an exam set by this council before he could be declared as a poet. There was a mystical plank of wood which floated in a pond called Padma Sarovara in the temple of Madhura. The poet’s works were placed on one side of the plank. On the other side of the plank was other works of great reputable poets. The work was judged by the council according to the movements of the plank.
Kambanattalvan had heard of the fame of NammaIvar being spread by his disciple Madhurakavi and he objected. He complained that what Madhurakavi was doing was unauthorized and demanded that he produce his master and his works before the council for inspection. Madhurakavi appeared before the council and told them,
“My master will not leave from the place where he now resides, but I will give you a fragment of one of his works for you to inspect.”
Saying this, he gave Kambanattalvan a palm-leaf with the first verse of NammaIvar ’s Tiruvaimoli. As soon as the palm-leaf was put on the plank, all the other works on the opposite end sank into the water. Kumbanattalvan and his three hundred panditas were at once convinced of NammaIvar ’s greatness and to show their admiration, they all took shelter of the lotus feet of Madhurakavi.
From time immemorial it has been the custom of the kings of the Travancore province never to consider themselves as the rulers of their kingdom. Rather, the actual ruler was the patron Deity of Travancore, Lord Ananta Padmanabha, and the king saw himself as His minister. Thus, the kings of Travancore were all rajarishis or royal saints. One such rajarishi was Maharaja Kulashekhara who was the incarnation of the Lord’s kaustubha jewel.
He was a kshatriya of great prowess for he was not only the king of Travancore, but also of the Colas and the Pandya provinces. All the neighboring kings fell under his jurisdiction. He was virtuous and just and everyone under his administration felt happy and content. However, for the sake of lila, at first he behaved as a worldly man. Although pious, he considered himself as independent and his conceit led to spiritual blindness. However, The Lord had other plans for him. Kulashekhara began to see the futility of material life and underwent a complete change in consciousness .
“Just see how men are slaves to their temporary bodies!” he thought to himself, “How they think that their bodies are the all in all. They have become so distant from the Lord. To stay in the midst of such people is madness. To enjoy all these royal delights is just like walking into a blazing fire. Let me go to Shri Rangam and take shelter of the Lord there. Let me associate with the devotees there and serve their lotus feet. When will I get the chance to abandon all this useless opulence?”
In this way, Kulashekhara would lament every day. To make his heart feel some relief, he would invite learned Vaishnavas to his palace and discuss with them all the Puranas, Upapuranas, Itihasas and Upanishads. Taking the essence from these scriptures, he composed a prayer called “Mukunda Mala”.
However, his favorite book was The Ramayana and he would listen to it every day, for Lord Ramacandra was his most cherished form of the Lord. One day the devotee was reciting from ??khanda where it is written:
“There 14,000 Rakshasas stand
With evil heart and wicked hand.
Here Rama stands, by virtue known,
How can our hero fight alone?”
As soon as Kulashekhara heard these words, he went into a frenzy. Standing up he shouted, “O my dear Lord Rama is alone, surrounded by these demons. Who is there to help Him? Lakshmana is guarding Mother Sita. I must do something at once! Where is my armor? Call the army at once! We must march to Janasthana and help Him.”
All of Kulashekhara’s ministers were totally bewildered, “Has the king gone mad?” they asked each other, “How will we calm him down?” Finally one of the more level-headed amongst them hit upon an idea. “We should send a secret party ahead of the king, they can meet the king and his army from the opposite side. They can tell him that they have just come from the battlefield where Rama fought and killed all the demons single-handed.” All the ministers agreed that this was a good plan and so the advance party sped off, turning around at some distance and meeting Kulashekhara and telling him the good news of Rama’s victory over His enemies. When he heard this news the king’s joy knew no bounds. “This is wonderful! Let us return at once and celebrate Rama’s victory. Let us have a festival.” The ministers heaved a sigh of relief and on returning to the palace took the reciter aside. “From now on,” they told him, “be very careful which passages you read to the king.”
And so the daily recital of the Ramayana went on as usual. Of course, the reciter was extra cautious in choosing which chapters to read to the king. He elaborated on the joyful events in the life of Lord Ramacandra and only slightly touched on such parts that may cause the king distress. And with each happy event that was narrated, it was natural that the king would become ecstatic and celebrate with a festival. The whole city would be decorated, there would be feasts, distribution of wealth and the Deity of Lord Rama would go on procession through all the streets.
One day however, the reciter fell ill and sent his son to replace him. Unfortunately the son was unaware of the king’s strange illness and so he opened the book and the page fell open at the incident where Sita is abducted by Ravana. As the reciters son read more and more, the king got more and more worked up until finally he could contain himself no longer. “NO!!! I must march across the ocean to Lanka at once! I will burn it to ashes and kill that rascal Ravana and all his demons. I must rescue poor Mother Sita and return her to my Rama.” And once more he summoned his entire army and they rode off towards the sea as the ministers just stood and watched helplessly.