There have been 12 Alvars who are inseparable from Sri Vaishnavism. I was just wondering whether there can be more Alwars or not? If Not why can't there be? If yes, what is the procedure to become an Alwar?
The āḻvārs, also spelt as alwars or azhwars are 12 devotional saints born in the region of south India. These saints wrote devotional poems in Tamil in the praise of Vishnu directly or his incarnations or his deity forms in different places. All these poems were compiled by Sri Nathamuni around 9th century A.D. This is discussed in this question. This collection of the poems is regarded as the Nālayira Divya Prabhandham(meaning the divine four thousand collection of verses).
The 12 alwars are:
- Poigai Alvar
- Thirumalisai Alvar
- Madhurakavi Alvar
- King Kulasekhara Alvar
- Thondaradippodi Alvar
- Thiruppaan Alvar
The first three alwars are collectively referred as Mudhal Alwrgal meaning the first alwars due to following reasons:
They were all born a day after each other in sequence – poigaiyAr, bhuthathAr, pEyar. They were born in the time period between the end of dhvApara yugam and the beginning of kaliyugam (yuga sandhi – transition period – see in the bottom for details).
They were all ayOnijars – one who is not born from a human mother. They all appeared from flowers by the divine mercy of emperumAn.
- They were attached to Lord Vishnu right from their birth – they were fully/divinely blessed by Lord Vishnu and were fully enjoying bhagavath anubhavam throughout their life.
- At some point in their life, they meet each other and from then onwards they stayed together and they travelled together to various dhivyadhesams/kshethrams. They are also called “Odith thiriyum yOgigaL” the yOgis who are always doing pilgrimage.
I was just wondering whether there can be more Alwars or not? If Not why can't there be?
No, there can't be any other alwars. There are only 12 alwars. The meaning of the word Alwar is
the ones who are totally immersed in something. The other word which gives similar meaning is Talasparshi. Meaning who have immersed very deep and has returned back for us. Here, the Alwars are immersed in the worship of Lord Vishnu. There is nothing important to them than the worship of the Lord and even the welfare of the Lord.
The root of the word Alwar Alughai means "to rule". The word Alwar means the one who saves. Hence, the great devotees of the Lord Vishnu like Garuda and Vishvaksena are often referred as Garuda Alwar and Vishvaksena Alwar respectively. So, the word alwat also means the one who saves. If this word is said in past tense, it is Andavan(the one who has saved- masculine) and Andal(the lady who has saved - feminine). Similar thing was discussed in brief in my answer here about YAmunAchArya.
By reading the second point, we may get the doubt,
If there are many great bhaktas immersed in the love and God, then only few are called with such name?
Yes, some others are also called as Alwars in the Sri Vaishnava tradition. One of them is Ramanujacharya who is also known as Ilaya alwar. The suffix "ar" is added in the Tamil language to people who deserve respect. Others are added "an" for younger people. Many great devotees like Anantacharya about whom I discuss in this answer is referred as Ananthalwan since he is the disciple of Ramanujacharya. The same applies to Koorathalwan a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu and His master Ramanujacharya. These great devotees deserve great respect hence they are identified with alwan name but to show the uniqueness to the 12 alwars, no others are called as alwars.
What makes the alwars special?
There are some reasons why these are special.
The main reason they are identified as such is their work. Their works all combine to form the Nālayira Divya Prabhandham. Only these could able to write the prabandham and no one others. They didn't write because they wanted to write but the poems in the works were delivered from the mouths of the alwars in the form of poems and songs when their heart and body were not enough for the due to their love and affection towards the Lord. Many of them came just when they thought of Lord and some poems when they visited the deity forms of the Lord. These were not intentional. Only these 12 alwars could be able to complete the prabandham. This prabandham is the essence of the Vedas. This was compiled for the man kind irrespective of caste, class or gender and hence called DrAvida Veda. This was one of the main reasons for the birth of the alwars. As the work is completed and there is no incomplete task, there is no need of the incarnations in the future. Hence there will be no alwar in the future. Some commentaries were needed to understand the esoteric meanings of these poems. So, commentaries were written by other great bhaktas. But this doesn't make other alwars. They are Acharyas. When there is need, some great purushas will be incarnated. These are the Acharyas like Sri Nathamuni, Yamunacharya, Ramanujacharya etc., These acharyas are not to be disregarded but they are not Alwars.
These alwars sang the praise of five forms of Vishnu in their poems viz The Para Vasudeva, Vyuha Vasudeva, Vibhava, Antaryami, Archavatara forms of the Lord. The deity forms of the Vishnu in these places were praised in these poems at 108 places. These places are called as Divyadeshams.
The alwars are considered to be the incarnations of the nitya suris of the Paramapada, the highest abode of Lord Vishnu. These are the servants or the attendants of the Lord Vishnu. There are thousands of attendants to Vishnu in the Paramapadam. Each of the alwar is considered as the incarnations of the Lord's weapons or attendants or his ornaments.
Poigai Alwar - Vishnu's Panchajanya Shankha
Bhoothath Alwar - Vishnu's Kaumodaki mace
Pey Alwar - Vishnu's Nandaka sword
Thirumazhisai Alwar - Vishnu's Sudarshana Chakra
Nammalwar - Vishnu's general Vishvaksena
Madhurakavi Alwar - Vishnu's bird Garuda
Kulasekhara Alwar - Vishnu's Kaustubha gem
Periyalwar - Vishnu's bird Garuda
Andal - Vishnu's wife Bhumidevi goddess of the Earth
Thondaradippodi Alwar - Vishnu's Vanamala garland
Thiruppan Alwar - Vishnu's Srivatsa mark
Thirumangai Alwar - Vishnu's Sharanga bow
The main aim of incarnation of Alwars is making people aware of the Vishnu's tattva through poems and the making essence of the Vedas available to all irrespective of class, creed, gender or language. This was already completed when they wrote the Nalayaria divya prabandham. This is called Dravida veda. This is compiled and made famous after their completion of avatars. So, no alwar will be born because the completion of the work has already be made.Even if some great person is born in the future, they will write some other and they will only become an acharya not an alwar.
So, they completed it. So, their mission is accomplished.
So, due to above reasons, there can be no alwar anymore. There is no procedure or anything like that. It is devotion and special qualities in them which earned them the unique respect of Alwars. Hence, there is no procedure for becoming alwar as it is not a status.