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The Alwars (also spelled Azhwars) are a group of 12 ancient Vaishnava saints who lived in Tamil Nadu and are famous for their poetry in praise of Vishnu. The collection of their 4000 poems, known as the Nalayira Divya Prabhandam, is considered by many to be the "Dravida Veda", or South Indian Veda. The Alwars are crucially important figures in the history of Vaishnavism; it's the principles and beliefs embodied in the Alwars' poems that ultimately gave rise to the Sri Vaishnava sect (of which I'm a member).

Now as I discuss in this question, the Alwars are believed by Sri Vaishnavas to be incarnations of various attendants and attributes of Vishnu; here is who each Alwar is an incarnation of:

  1. Poigai Alwar - Vishnu's Panchajanya Shankha

  2. Bhoothath Alwar - Vishnu's Kaumodaki mace

  3. Pey Alwar - Vishnu's Nandaka sword

  4. Thirumazhisai Alwar - Vishnu's Sudarshana Chakra

  5. Nammalwar - Vishnu's general Vishwaksena

  6. Madhurakavi Alwar - Vishnu's bird Garuda

  7. Kulasekhara Alwar - Vishnu's Kaustubha gem

  8. Periyalwar - Vishnu's bird Garuda

  9. Andal - Vishnu's wife Bhumidevi goddess of the Earth

  10. Thondaradippodi Alwar - Vishnu's Vanamala garland

  11. Thiruppan Alwar - Vishnu's Srivatsa mark

  12. Thirumangai Alwar - Vishnu's Sharanga bow

Now since the Alwars' poems are in praise of Vishnu, you'd naturally expect them to contain references to numerous attributes and attendants of Vishnu. So my question is, which of the Alwars mention the gods that they themselves are incarnations of. For instance, does Nammalwar (whom I discuss here) ever mention Vishwaksena, the general of Vishnu's army whom he incarnated from?

The reason I ask is that I'm wondering if the Alwars tried to avoid mentioning the gods they were incarnated from. For instance, Periyalwar's famous Thirupallandu poem praises various attributes of Vishnu, but it neglects to mention Garuda. Perhaps that's because Periyalwar did not want to praise himself. Also, it might shed light on why Sri Vaishnavas associate each Alwar with a specific god.

You can read the Naalayira Divya Prabandham, the compilation of all the Alwars' poems, here.

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  • Both Periyazhvar and Madhurakavi Azhvar were avataras of Garuda?
    – Surya
    Dec 14, 2015 at 13:27
  • Yes, they were. That's always puzzled me as well. If it helps, in traditional Sri Vaishnava works, Madhurakavi Alwar is described as an incarnation of "Vainateya", whereas Periyalwar is described as an incarnation of "Garuda". Perhaps that means that there are two Garudas, one who is the son of Vinata and who lives in Vyuha Vasudeva's ocean of milk, and another eternal Garuda who lives in Vishnu's highest abode of Paramapadam and has no birth or death. Dec 14, 2015 at 14:08
  • But Periyazhvar is also described as Vainateyamsam in a Sloka I heard.
    – Surya
    Dec 14, 2015 at 14:44
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    @Surya Is that in a shloka listing all of the Alwars, or just a standalone shloka about Periyalwar? Because in a standalone shloka people would be imprecise and just use all the epithets of Garuda, just like they use Krishna's names to refer to Venkateshwara. In any case, like I said the two Garudas thing has always puzzled me; perhaps I'll post a question on it. I can understand Madhurakavi Alwar being an incarnation of Garuda, since Garuda is a servant of Vishvaksena and thus it makes sense for Madhurakavi Alwar to be devoted to Nammalwar. But I'm not sure why Garuda became Bhudevi's father. Dec 15, 2015 at 2:07
  • None of the Azhwars saw themselves as Divine. In fact, all saw themselves as being undeserving of His Grace. The story was added to offer an apologetic on their diverse castes. Mar 3, 2018 at 3:59

1 Answer 1

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AzhvArs are, in fact, not incarnations of any of the nityasUris as they are known to be right now. This has been a subject of great debate and discussion right from the times of svAmi nampiLLai. In fact, The Most Merciful periyavAchchAn piLLai starts off his commentary of AzhvAr's (note: wherever the word AzhvAr is mentioned alone, it refers to svAmi nammAzhvAr) tiruviruttam, by tackling a few opinions about AzhvAr logically, wherein he states that AzhvAr cannot be a mukta or a nityasUri who has been ordained by sarvESvaran to spread His word, because if that is the case, then AzhvAr being a personality who knew all the events of the past, present and future, would have waited patiently for His return to nitya-vibhUti. But we see that that is not the case, because right from tiruviruttam (1), ini yAm uRAmai (may we, (i.e.) both AzhvAr and the samsAris, not suffer this nature of being born repeatedly in this samsAram) upto tiruvAymozhi (10.10.11), avAvaRach chUzh (sarvESvaran who has surrounded me by quenching my desire of being united with Him), we can see that He has repeatedly requested sarvESvaran to eliminate the bondage of samsAram. Still, one may ask, "But AzhvAr himself states in many places that he has seen sarvESvaran. Since that is not possible for a nityasamsAri, how can he not be deemed as a nityAtmA?" But the reality is, though He has spoken of "seeing" sarvESvaran 10 times (in tiruvAymozhi (1.9.9), (2.8.10), (3.2.10), (4.7.7), (5.7.5), (5.8.1), (6.3.1), (9.4.8), (10.4.9) and (10.8.8)), all of these "sights" are those seen within the mind, as spoken by AzhvAr in periya tiruvantAti (28), nenjennum uTkaN (The inner-eye known as mind). Also, AzhvAr's longing to see sarvESvaran is echoed 20 times ((i.e) twice the number of times that he has "seen" sarvESvaran) in tiruviruttam (84), tiruvAymozhi (1.5.7), (2.4.2), (3.2.8), (3.8.4), (3.8.7), (3.8.8), (4.7.1), (4.7.9), (4.7.10), (5.8.4), (5.8.9), (5.9.5), (6.9.4), (6.9.6), (8.1.1), (8.5.1), (8.5.6), (8.5.10) and (9.4.1). Hence, due to his restlessness and haste in seeing sarvESvaran and his utter dislike when it comes to the nature of samsAram, we can conclude that AzhvAr is not a nityaSuri.

One may ask, "But these are all conclusions. Has AzhvAr said anywhere that He is a nityasamsAri?" Yes. In tiruvAymozhi (2.6.8) he says, mARi mARip palapiRappum piRantu (I have been born time after time). But does all of this undermine the glory of AzhvAr? No, because AzhvAr is clearly higher than all of the nityAtmAs, muktAtmAs and samsAris. This has been stated by svAmi nampiLLai in the mutal SrIya:pati of ITu-mahApravESam and also by azhagiya maNavALap perumAL nAyanAr in his AchArya hrdayam. Infact, nAyanAr goes on to elucidate the similarities between AzhvAr and sarvESvaran's eternal consorts and His consorts during His incarnations, sItA-pirATTi, His brothers viz. iLayaperumAL, bharatAzhvAn and SatrughnAzhvAn, great personalities like daSaratha, yaSOdA, prahlAdAzhvAn, vibhIshaNAzhvAn, tiruvaTi (mAruti) and arjuna, nityasUris like bhUmi-pirATTi and tiruvanantAzhvAn and great women like draupadI and kausalyA and also explains that AzhvAr stands out distinctly in his eternal love for sarvESvaran.

He is not of the ranks of nityasamsAris as well, being bestowed with faultless knowledge as stated by him in tiruvAymozhi (1.1.1), mayarvaRa matinalam aruLinan (He bestowed me faultless knowledge), thus being able to recite tiruvAymozhi as dictated within his heart by sarvESvaran. Due to all of these reasons, AzhvAr is to be deemed as a personality higher than both the nityasUris and the nityasamsAris.

Since the other AzhvArs are the avayavams (parts) of AzhvAr who is the avayavi (the one endowed with those parts), all of the above characteristics are true for them as well (with maybe ANDaL being an exception in citing periyAzhvar to be "garuDAzhvAn" (meimmaip peruvArthai viTTuchittar kETTiruppar (nAchchiyAr thirumozhi (11.10)).

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