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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 59  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 375-379
Alvars of South India: A psychiatric scanner

1 Department of Psychiatry, Madras Medical College, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Kalapet, Puducherry, India

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Date of Web Publication6-Oct-2017


Vaishnavism, the other important Hindu tradition besides Saivism, gained importance by the Bhakti movement sprouting from the Tamil land in the 7th–9th centuries Common Era and spreading all over the subcontinent, and as preached by the Alvars, which is discussed along with the evolution of the Godhead of Lord Vishnu is briefly mentioned. The maternal care of the divine child Sri Krishna by Yashodha as described by the Alvar, Perialvar, is summarized. The mysticism of Nammalvar and the religious experiences of other two Alvars, Kulasekarar and Andal, are sketched in this study.

Keywords: Alvars, mysticism, religious experiences, Vaishnavism

How to cite this article:
Somasundaram O, Murthy T. Alvars of South India: A psychiatric scanner. Indian J Psychiatry 2017;59:375-9

How to cite this URL:
Somasundaram O, Murthy T. Alvars of South India: A psychiatric scanner. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2017 [cited 2020 Jan 23];59:375-9. Available from:

   Introduction Top

The devotees of Lord Vishnu or Narayana are known as Vaishnavas and are spread over time and place in our subcontinent over the centuries, before and after the Common Era (CE). It is proposed to refer to some of the aspects of Vaishnava sampradaayam or Srivaishnavas of South India as practiced and preached by the twelve Alvars, saint-poets, who started and spread the Bhakti movement in the c.7th–10th centuries CE.

There are only few references to Lord Vishnu in the Rig Veda (c.1500 Before Common Era [BCE] and 900 BCE). The first reference in Tamil literature is to be found in the Paripaadal, one of the ten long poems of the Tamil Sangam literature (c.second century BCE to second century CE). Lord Vishnu is referred to as Mayavan (”dark colored”) along with two other Tamil Gods, Murugan (later to be known as Skanda) and Kotravai (later to be known as Durga). In the later Upanishadic periods (c.900 BCE), Lord Krishna is elevated to a Godhead in the Bhagavad Gita. In the fourth chapter, He Himself declares– “Whenever righteousness (dharma) fails and unrighteousness raises its head, I come to birth on earth.”[1],[2]

Yadhaa yadhaa hi dharmasya

Glaanirbhavathi bhaaratha I


Thadhaathmaanam srujaamyaham II

ParithraaNaaya saadhoonaam

Vinaashaaya cha dhushkruthaam I


Sambhavaami yugE yugE II

Chap. IV, Verses 7-8

In the following centuries, when the so-called Puranic Hinduism comes to dominate the religious scene, almost all the present mythologies are incorporated into the pre-Aryan Tamil (Dravidian) religious beliefs. All the oral traditions of this material, especially the Bhaagavatha Puranam, Vishnu Puranam, and Bhaagavatham, were compiled in the following centuries.[3],[4] It is remarkable how the legends associated with Lord Krishna are included in the Jain-Tamil classic, Silappadhikaaram, of the second century CE.

Friends! Mayavan swung a calf like a slung stone,

And knocked down all the orchard's fruit.

If he came down to see our herd

Then we could hear the lovely sound

Of his most wondrous flute.

Friends! Mayavan churned the ocean,

Using a snake for rope.

If he came down to tend our herd,

Then we could enjoy the sound

Of his long bamboo flute.

Friends! Mayavan tore up the wild citrus tree

That stood in our vast pasture land.

Should he appear amidst our herd,

Then we should have a chance to hear

His sweet shepherd's flute.

The contemporary Buddhist-Tamil classic, Manimekalai, mentions the legends associated with Lord Krishna's son Pradhyumnan and grandson Aniruddhan.[5]

The Bhakti movement, for the first time in the history of the subcontinent, sprang from the Tamil country during the 7th–9th centuries CE. The saint-poets of Saivism spread their message.[6] The Vaishnava saint-poets are known as Alvars and they spread their own message about Lord Vishnu. These two religious factions of Vedic-Puranism (incidentally, it should be mentioned that the present-day Hinduism got its name from the Islam and Persian neighbors in the tenth century CE.) are responsible for the decline of the heterodox religions of Jainism and Buddhism in this part of the country, which similarly affected other areas. The Saivite Nayanmars are discussed in an earlier article of ours.[7]

The twelve Tamil Alvars are discussed by various scholars. We would refer only to the important work “Alwars of South India” by Varadachari.[8]

We would explore the writings of a few of these great masters. Their hymns are compiled as the “Naalaayira Dhivya Prabandham” (”The Four Thousand Divine Hymns”) of these Alvars by Nadhamuni who presided over the affairs of the most sacred Vaishnava temple of Srirangam in the twelfth century CE [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam, Courtesy –

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   Maternal Care For The Divine Child Top

We would refer to the poems of the beloved Alvar, Perialvar (literally, “The Great Alvar”). His descriptions of the mothering of Yashodha of her foster son, Lord Krishna, in Brindavan after He was left in her care by the natural parents Devaki and Vasudeva to protect Him from His uncle Kamsa, the demon king of Mathura. The ideal maternal care is described in the Tamil poetic tradition called “Pillai Thamizh” during the child's development from infancy to maturity. This tradition probably originated from Perialvar, which is a literary masterpiece and forerunner of other works of this kind. For example, Pillai Thamizh of Goddess Meenakshi at the Madurai temple and Lord Subramanya at Tiruchendur.

The various developmental stages are mentioned by the Alvar in his section of the Dhivya Prabandham. Here, the Alvar imagines himself to be mother Yashodha and the various hymns are sung which are described as follows:

  • The mother invokes the protection of Lord Thirumal to protect the infant, from the evil eyes of the friends and visitors, who is such a lively and handsome creature (kaappu paruvam)
  • The mother teaches vocalization (sengeerai paruvam)
  • The mother shows clapping of the hands to the infant (sappaani paruvam)
  • The mother takes the child on her back and strides a few steps (achho paruvam)
  • Singing lullabies (thaalaattu paruvam)
  • Inviting the moon to feed the child (ambuli paruvum)
  • Encouraging the child to take steps to walk (thaLarnadai paruvam)
  • Inviting the child for breastfeeding (thaaipaal arundha azhaitthaL)
  • Inviting the child for the ear piercing and encouraging the child to be brave (kaadhu kutthudhal)
  • Inviting the child for a bath (neeraada azhaitthal)
  • Inviting the child to wear the flowers (poochooda azhaitthal)
  • Inviting the crow to adorn the child with flowers (poochooda azhaitthal)
  • Inviting the crow to bring a stick for the child to play with (kaakaaiyai kol kondu vaa enal).

There are so many verses for the various developmental stages which are omitted here for the sake of brevity. Physical caring, feeding, and playing with the child are very well described which form the basis for establishing the mother–child relationship. This mother craft, even though described for the divine child, is applicable to the mother–child relationship in any part of the world and in any culture, which would avoid various relationship problems in later life, so well described by Winnicott, Bowlby, Sigmund and Anna Freud, and others.[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15]

   Mysticism Of Nammalvar Top

Nammalvar is considered as the greatest of the Alvars and his contributions to the Dhivya Prabandham is more than a quarter of the complete text. The hymns are grouped under four categories:

  1. Thiruvaaymozhi
  2. Thiruviruttham
  3. Thiruvaasiriyam
  4. Periya Thiruvandhaadhi.

They are rich sources of mysticism experienced by the great leaders, and Nammalvar is considered as one of the greatest Indian mystics, the others being, Manickavaachagar, the Saiva saint and Kabir, mystic poet of the Bhakti movement.[16] His verses are full of Vedic and Upanishadic teachings and considered as “Tamil Vedas.” Even today, they are recited in the iconic processions of the two most sacred shrines, namely, Srirangam and Tirupati.

His mystic verses relate to his spiritual outpourings when he considers himself as a woman devotee in love with Lord Vishnu. We find these ideas expressed as love, union, separation, and involving other relatives, especially the mother in great anguish for her daughter, messengers sent through girlfriends, and nonhumans such as birds and bees. Nammalvar, in the form of the beloved of the Lord, expresses thus:


Beware, your life is in danger:

The lord of gardens is a thief,

A cheat,

Master of illusions;

He came to me,

A wizard with words,

Sneaked into my body,

My breath,

With bystanders looking on

But seeing nothing,

He consumed me

Life and limb,

And filled me,

Made me over

Into himself.

Verse 10.7.1[17],[18]

”She” talks to her girlfriend about her love for the Lord:

Dear friend,

Dear as the Dark One's paradise,

Night grows long, many lives long,

When we part;

Or goes fast, a split second many times split,

When we are together.

So I suffer even when my lover joins me

Many nights in a row,

And suffer again

When he goes away.

Blessed night, ever flowing,

Is full of tricks,

Plays fast and loose.

Thiruviruttham Verse 16[17],[18]

In another place, he describes his possession by the Lord as follows:

I'm the earth you see,she says.

I'm all the visible skies,she says.

I'm the fires,

The winds,

And the seas.she says.

Is it because our lord dark as the sea

Has entered her and taken her over?

How can I explain my girl

To you who see nothing

But this world?

Verse 5.6.3[17],[18]

   Religious Experiences Of The Alvars Top

Kulasekara Alvar

Now, let us turn our attention to another interesting poet-saint in the Alvar tradition. His name was Kulasekara Alvar. Folklore has it that he is an incarnation of the Gem on Lord Vishnu's chest called Kausthubam. He was a Chera King who ruled in the eighth century CE in a region which is part of the present-day Kerala. He was a staunch devotee of Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam. We shall see some of the significant events in his life.

Kulasekara Alvar held the Bhagavatars (devotees of Lord Vishnu) in a high esteem. Once, it is said, his ministers, who were fed up with his devotion to the Bhagavatars, hid a precious pearl necklace which he used to adorn Lord Vishnu's idol during worship. They then laid blame on the Bhagavatars who were visiting the king at the time. The king was furious with this. He ordered to bring a clay pot with a cobra in it and placed his hand inside it, saying that if it was true that the Bhagavatars had stolen the jewel, the snake will bite him. The cobra did not bite him and thus the Bhagavatars were vindicated of this accusation.

He was very devoted to Lord Vishnu in his incarnation of Rama. Due to this, subsequent saints of the Vaishnavite tradition of the Tamil land called him “Kulasekara Perumal.” He was fond of listening to the narration of Ramayana in the Royal Court. Once when a religious scholar was describing the predicament faced by Lord Rama in fighting the demon Ravana, Kulasekara Alvar got so perturbed that he immediately ordered his army general to send troops to the aid of Rama at once. Such was his devotion to Rama! Immediately, the scholar consoled the king that there was no need for such action as Rama had prevailed in the war.

Kulasekara Alvar penned the classic work known as “Perumal Thirumozhi” which is an exemplary exposition of his intense religious experiences. Some excerpts are as follows:

  • He declares “those who are overwhelmed by the joy of serving the devotees of the Lord are not insane, it is the rest who are insane!,” “I may appear crazy to others, but it is they who are really crazy. Yes! I am madly in love with my Lord”
  • He wishes to be associated with sacred Tirupati, in any capacity; a bird in those forests, a fish in those ponds, a flower at His feet; or even the stepping stone in the innermost sanctum sanctorum of His Temple so that the devotees of the Lord will place their holy feet on him. So, such a step in many Vishnu temples of the region is called Kulasekara padi (meaning “Kulasekara step”) even now
  • He describes his attachment to the Lord with many similes-”like a patient trusts and holds on to the surgeon who cuts and burns his flesh,” “like a seagull that perches on the mast of a ship flies all over in the mid ocean, only to return to it (having no other go),” and so on
  • He imagines himself as Devaki. He laments that though she gave birth to the Lord Krishna, she missed the joy of witnessing His childhood pranks. He pleads to the Lord on behalf of Devaki tearfully “If possible, can you re-enact all these for my sake?”
  • He questions the Lord that while there are lot of lullabies sung by Yashodha for Lord Krishna during his childhood, why there are none for Lord Rama. So, he imagines himself as Kausalya and composes and sings lullabies for the divine child Rama
  • He imagines himself as King Dasharatha and feels his grief on banishing Rama to exile
  • Eventually, he renounced his kingdom, appointed his son on the throne, and started visiting shrines.[8],[19]


The only woman among the twelve Alvars, Andal, lived in the ninth century CE. Her name literally translates as “the one who rules The Lord.” She is believed to be found as a baby, underneath a holy basil plant, in the temple garden of Srivilliputtur, by the temple's garland maker, Vishnuchittan (also known as Periyalvar, another of the twelve Alvars). He named her Kodhai (meaning “garland”). Her father caught her once wearing a garland meant only for the Lord and he chastised her for doing so. That night Lord Vishnu appeared in his dream and told him that He preferred the garlands Andal had worn as she was His bride. As a young woman she fell in love with the Lord Himself and eventually married Him. Legend goes that when she was around 16 she merged with her Lord at the Srirangam Temple. Since then, she has existed as myth and deity. Her two poetic works are “Thiruppaavai” (”The Path to Krishna”) and “Naacchiyaar Thirumozhi” (”The Sacred Songs of The Lady”), which are part of the Naalaayira Dhivya Prabandham. The Thiruppaavai comprises a collection of vows taken by young women to obtain a good husband; in Andal's case, The Lord Himself! In the Naacchiyaar Thirumozhi, Andal sings of her individual need for sexual congress with her chosen god.[19],[20],[21]

Many of these religious experiences are difficult to understand by the ordinary folks, and some of the underlying psychological mechanisms such as dissociation, disturbances of consciousness, and deep religious convictions play a part as discussed by James in his classic work “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.”[22] Andrew Sims also delves into this subject in his chapter on “Psychopathology and the clinical story,” one of his books.[23] Subsequent post-Alvar developments in Vaishnavism in Tamil Nadu are to be found in the various biographies of Ramanuja of Sriperumbudur and the offshoot of the schism, Vadagalai of Vedanta Desikar and are not discussed in this article.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Chaitanya is practiced in Bengal and it is very popular.[24] Many of the followers of the Bhakti movement belong to Vaishnava sects and some of them are very strong anti-caste voices. Mirabai is another important personality of this religion.[16]Akkamahadevi, though belonging to the Veerashaiva tradition of Saivism, is very similar to Andal and Mirabai, in her total surrender to, and longing for her chosen god, the Lord Siva.[25]


The authors express their indebtedness and thanks for the help rendered by Mr. OR Kumaran for collecting the literature which was essential for conceptualizing and writing this article, and Mr. Swaminathan of Virudhunagar for his translation work of some portions from Tamil to English.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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DOI: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_383_16

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