Alvars and Nayanaras
As already mentioned, the recent theory of 'Vyakta Vishnu Vyakta-avyakta-Siva' propagated by recent scholars is mainly based on verses by early Alvars, which could be interpreted to mean Vishnu and Siva combinations.
The worshipers of Vishnu were called the Alvars, who moved from place to place, singing the praises of the Lord Vishnu and asking the people to join their creed, and advocating the tenets of what came to be known later on as Vaishnavism. They produced the most marvelous poetry in Tamil country. Their teachings about caste and position of women etc. were copied from those of Buddhism and Jainism, which were the most prevalent religions of the time. But they opposed Buddhism and Jainism, and propagated Brahmnism. Their Saivite counterparts were the Nayanaras doing the same thing in the name of Siva. Here we are only concerned with the Alvars as the Lord of Tirumalai is presented to us as one of the Vaishnava shrines.
Alvars and Avataras of Vishnu
Our interest in this study is to find out the description of the Murthi from the writings of the Alvars, and not to study their conception of the Image. Murthi existed before the Alvars, and it can not be considered as Harihara Murthi only by Alvars' praying as such.
The most popular avataras with the Alvars, however, seem to be only Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama and Krishna, and the majority of the verses of these Alvars centre around these avataras only. Lord of Tirumalai is praised as any one or more than one, of the popular avatars, at the same time. To know which avatara is alluded to, we have to consider the various attributes mentioned by the Alvara in his song.
'Vyakta-avyakta' is a myth
Surprisingly some of the verses of early Alvars can be interpreted to suggest that the Lord of Tirumalai was considered by them to be Siva rather than Vishnu, or Siva in combination with Vishnu. These verses describe the image with "long hanging jata" and the "shining malu," i.e. AXE and crown, chakra and coililng round serpent. Raghavacharya avers positively that "it is an obsolute truth that the image has no jata depicted integerally on the image; there is no serpent coiling round any portion of body" and "Neither sankham, chakram or Malu is an integral part of the image". [Raghavacharya: II,1126] This is really a perplexing situation for the modern scholars. Some scholars like Raghavacharya tried to dismiss the issue by considering the same verses as "spurious interpolations", taking place during the Chola Rule. [Ibid.] This was the time when Ramajuna also had to flee the area and take shelter in Mysore country, his followers were persecuted and chief disciple was blinded.
The more recent scholars, wish to resolve this by saying that the Lord was always considered as "Vyakta Vishnu and Vyakta- avyakta Siva". Sitapati and his colleagues come in this group. Sitapati observes in "Sri Venkateswara".
"...the view that the Lord is a Hari-Hara Murthi is perhaps nearer the truth, as the image combines qualities of Vishnu and Siva. ...for the Lord has always been considered even during this period as Vyakta Vishnu and Vyakta-Avyakta Siva. The peculiarities of the Lord's image make us pause and consider, whether Lord of Tirumalai is really not a combination of Siva and Vishnu. The image has four arms; the upper two arms do not really have the chakra and sankha as integral parts of the image. These would appear from tradition as well as from traditional account of the Venkatachala Itihas Mala to have been fixed to the Lord's hand by Sri Ramanuja during one of his three visits to Tirumalai in the 12th century A.D. The Characteristics of the image namely the cresecent-moon mark on the mukta of the Lord, the Jata Jutas or matted locks common to Siva, the nagabharanams and the cobra on the right arm of the Lord, certain other peculiar customs followed in the temple such as worship by using 'bilva', the presence of the Sakteya symbols on the Vimanam of the temple, the fact that a Garuda shrine came to be constructed in the temple only after fifteeth century are all strong pointers that the Lord has several 'Saiva' Gunas or aspects" [Sitapati:25, emphasis ours]
He relies on the evidence of Alvars for this as he observes: "We have then the more reliable evidence for the Alvars" [Sitapati:27] So we will now try to examine who were these Alvars and what did they actually say about the Lord of Tirumalai.
Verses of Alvars had gone in oblivion
What exactly is meant by saying that the verses of Alvars had gone into oblivion, should be understood. The poets were non- Brahmins, preaching an egalitarian religion like those of Buddhists. Naturally, elites did not care to pen these down, but the masses remembered the songs and sang them. That is how they were preserved. Later elites wished to use these songs for propagating their religion, after the fall of Buddhists, and they resurrected these verses.
These Alvars - flourished, earlier Alvars decidedly, flourished in centuries before Shankaracharya. The only religious sects known to the Alvars were Vaishnavism, Saivism (Lingam Worship), Buddhism and Jainism. [Raghavacharya: II,933]
The pantheon (of the Alvar) certainly did not come into existence till after the days of Sriman Natha Munigal and even long after Sri Ramanuja's days, having gained country wide acceptance during their life time. [Raghavacharya: I,64] They lived at different times and their works were therefore not composed simultaneously. They do not seem to have been called Alvars in their own days; [Raghavacharya: II,938] The Tamil word Alvar was used as an honour to designate Sri Nammalvar only and for the first time by Sri Pillan a commentator on Tiruvoymoli composed a few years before death of Ramanuja. [Raghavacharya: II,967] In fact Sri Nammalvar's Tiruvoymoli appears to have been the first of the Prabandhams made known to the Tamil world. The works of all the Alvars had gone into oblivion and Sri Nathamuni resuscitated the Tiruvoymoli first and the others were discovered later by others from time to time. [Raghavacharya: II,939]
Natha Muni recovers these verses by yogic powers
Sriman Nathamuni was a great yogi, a great scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil, a vendantin and a musician. He happened to hear some verses of Nammalvar through some pilgrims. His desire to hear more of these songs brought him to a disciple of the disciple of Nammalvar, on whose advice Sri Nathamuni being a yogi went through yogic exercise and established direct contact with the spirit of Sri Nammalvar. The thousand verses of his Tiruvoymoli were then revealed to to Nathamuni by word of mouth. [Raghavacharya: II,939] He is said to have been 340 years in yoga to acquire the Tiruvoymoli from Nammalvar himself direct. [Aiyangar: I,134]
Acharyas wrote Taniyans
The greatness of every devotional literature and its worth is invariably summarized in a verse called 'Taniyan'(in Sanskrit or Tamil) composed by some great scholar and expounder who first sponsored the study of the same or who first rescued the work from oblivion. [Raghavacharya: II,941] The greatness of the work is judged by the number of Taniyans and commentaries on it.
"Judged by this standard Sri Nammalvar's Tiruvoymoli stands unrivaled among the works forming the Tamil Prabandham. Besides the Sanskrit taniyan composed by Sriman Nathamuni, there as many as five Taniyans in Tamil..." [Raghavacharya: II,944]
The date of Nathamuni's Taniyan is given as about 900 A.D. [Raghavacharya: II,950] and the date of first commentary on Tiruvoymoli by Pillan is given as between 1100-1130 A.D. [Raghavacharya: II,956]
This is in short how we know about the verses of Alvars. This is how the sayings of Alvars have reached us. And on the basis of such books, Sitapati tries to base his theory of "vyakata vishnu vyakta-avayakta siva", claiming it as history. There are many more commentaries said to be written by various sect authorities, with which we are not concerned. Without any prejudice it could be justifiably assumed that whatever be the tenets of religion of Alvars, the factual information regarding the image and worship at Tirumalai, while reaching us through these processes would have been coloured by the the views of different acharyas, who wrote the Taniyans and commentaries and it is reasonable to presume that the verses of Alvars as we know them now, do not necessarily give a reliable picture of the conditions prevailing in the times of Alvars, to say the least.
Nammalvar was denied status of Kulapati because of his caste
About the purpose of asking Pillan to write a commentary on Tiruvoymoli, we are told:
"Sri Nammalvar was born in the fourth caste and whatever may be the merits of his work and philosophy there would have been a natural hesitation on the part of the members of the three higher castes to acknowledge him as as the 'Kulapati' of all Sri Vaishnavas ... Sri Ramanuja commissioned his ganaputra Sri Tirukkurukaippiran Pillan (the younger son of his uncle Sri Tirumalai Nambi) to write this commentary. ..." [Raghavacharya: II,948]
Modern examples of discrimination
It may be noted that Raghavacharya calls the hesitation "natural". The tendency of caste discrimination continues even in modern times. For example, when Dr. Ambedkar was trying for "Hindu Code Bill", which was to remove the injustice on Hindu women, Jereshastri the then Shankarachrya of Sankeswara Pitha, wrote:
"... Milk or Ganges water may be holy, but if it comes through a nallah or a gutter, it can not be considered sacred. Similarly, the 'Dharmasastra' howsoever it may be authentic, it can not be considered authentic because it has come from a 'Mahar' like Dr. Ambedkar. Ambedkar is a scholar, it is said that his study of scriptures is great, but he is an 'antyaja'. How can the Ganga of Scriptures comming from the nallah of Ambedkar be holy? It must be discardable like milk comming from the gutter..."
Quoting this passage from 'Nav Bharat', daily, 21 Jan. 1950, Yashwant Manohar observes, even the women for whose liberation was this Bill opposed it. We see today these women participating in hindutwavadi organizations. They opposed Mandal Commission, and they still oppose the reservation of OBC and other women, however, they demand right to priesthood. [Yashwant Manohar:, 1999: p.73]
The other reason of Commentry
The other reason for this commentary is given by Bhandarkar as follwos:
"... The necessity for such a work was felt by the leaders of the Vaishnava faith, since they found it not possible to maintain this doctrine of Bhakti or love in the face of the theory of Advaita or Monism of spirit set up by Shankaracharya as based upon the Brahmasutras and Upanishidas." [Bhandarkar: 1982: 71]
Evidence of Alvars is unreliable as history
We have seen that they had considered the murthi as of Vishnu in general terms, which is natural for them. We need not be concerned with their conceptions. We want to know what they said about the weapons in the hand and presence of Devi etc., i.e. the physical features of the murthi rather than their conception of it; that is what matters for our purpose.
The traditional story as we have seen earlier is based on Mahatyams in Puranas. Alvars knew Puranas but not the traditional story of Lord of Tirumalai. Raghavacharya observes that the other names in vogue today like Seshadri, Seshachalam, Venkatadri, Vrishadri, Vrishachalam etc. were not known to the Alvars. These names became more common after the compilation of the book 'Venkatachala Mahatmyam' about the end of the 15th century A.D. [Raghavacharya: II,1091] The Alvars do not mention the existence of any village like Tiruchanoor and the Deities therein; nor Tirupati and the Parthasarathyswami there or of any other place of worship on the hill or nearby in the plains. Even the Deity Sri Varahaswami has not been mentioned. Either none existed or were too insignificant. [Raghavacharya: II,1091] Raghavacharya further explains:
"...Even a cursory reading of the Prabandhams will show that the Alvars were well versed in the Puranas and that they frequently refer to incidents connected with the different avatars of Sri Vishnu. But there is not a single reference in the Prabhandhams to any of the anecdotes mentioned in the Brahmanda and other Puranas mentioned in the Venkatachala Mahatmyam which assign a reason for the manifestation of Vishnu on the Vengadam Hill." [Raghavacharya: II,1091]
He is considered the last Alvar. He was leader in establishing proxy image of Lord at the foot of the hill. Raghavacharya assumes that Tirumangai Alvar flourished sometime after 775 A.D. and that he was a contemporary of Dantivarman (775-826 A.D.) Raghavacharya feels there is one observation worth making:
"... It is strange that he has not said one word about Periya Alvar, Sri Andal, Madhurakavi and Sri Nammalvar. They were not perhaps considered great religious leaders in those days; or Tirumangai Alvar had not a high regard for the Kings and people of the extreme South. He calls Varaguna Maharajah by the name (the man of the South) which is not quite a respectable way of referring to a King. The same indifference may have been shown by him to the religious leaders of the South. He did not visit Srivilliputtur and Tirukkurukur (Alvar Tirunari). [Raghavacharya: II,1014]
What Raghavacharya calls 'indifference' may also be termed as arrogance. It could also be presumed that he was ignorant about the other Alvars. It must be remembered that the name Alvar, which was rather an honorific title, was given to them during a much later period.
Worship during Alvars' time
There was not much organised worship, nor there was any singing of Prabandhams during their own times, and it started quite late. As Raghavacharya observes about Vishnu worship during Alvars' times:
"No definite type of worship seems to have been current then. ... They (devotees) had full faith in all anecdotes of Vishnu Purana." [Raghavacharya: II,975]
"The recital of Tirumoli was commenced in 1253 A.D. in Tirupati only but not in Tirumalai. ... Tirumoli was not sung then in Tirumalai; nor was Tiruvaymoli. This was done perhaps soon after the renovation ofthe temple in 1250 A.D." [Raghavacharya: II,1018]
Ramanuja had created 74 aharyapurushas with hereditory rights of succession to spread vishistadvaita philosophy and temple worship, in contrast to sankara's teachings. So non- brahmins were also given seal of authority to convert. However, Vedas were restricted to Brahmins.:
"While the recitation of Vedas was the monopoly of the Brahmins the recitation of Prabandhams was made the common right of all castes and both sexes." [Raghavacharya: II,974 italics original]
As most of the Alvars belonged to Shudra caste, it is said that they abstained form ascending the hill which was considered sacred. At least the reason put forward for not putting the images of Alvars in Tirumalai is said to be Alvars' hesitation to set foot on the hill. [Aiyangar: I,151]
It is however mentioned that each Alvar visited the hill once, except Nammalvar who visited twice. [Raghavacharya: II,990]
We will see what they said about the Image in next chapter.