The Mysticism of Nammalvar



(Department of Philosophy, Mysore University)


The songs of the Alvars are unpremeditated outpourings of the heart stirred by the emotion of bhakti, vitalized by mystic experience. They rank very high as poetry, judged by literary standards. In addition to the expression of feeling they set forth indirectly a definite philosophy of life akin to the visishtadvaita of Ramanuja.


The Alvars belonged to various communities. They rose out of the common ranks of the people. The foremost of them is Nammalvar, a vellala by caste. He was born at Kurukur, now Alvartirunagari, in the Tinnevelly District. He is also known by several other names, Sathagopan and Parankusan. By his spiritual eminence he rose to such a high position among the saints, that Madhurakavi, a brahmin teacher, a contemporary of the saint, sang of him thus:


“Singing His name with my tongue, I enjoy delight,

I grasp the truth of His golden feet,

I know of no other divinity: singing

The songs of the scion of Kurukur, I wander forth,

Desirous to behold the dark beauteous Lord,

I have become the disciple of the great Kurukur scion:

O the good that I have reaped”


Nammalvar is given a niche in every Vaishnava temple in South India. His hymns are chanted daily at the time of worship. His most important work is Tiruvaymoli, which consists of 1,102 stanzas. The exposition of mysticism of Nammalvar in this paper is mainly based on this work.


A significant characteristic of the age of the Alvars is that religion was sought to be brought to the very doors of the humblest and the poorest in the Tamil language in which the common folk might croon the songs for themselves. This may be characterized as the democratic surge in South Indian Vaishnavism. This is the common feature of the bhakti movements in Bengal, Maharashtra, Guzerat and Karnataka. In the time of Nammalvar there must have been aroused in the common people a tremendous religious fervour which left an ineradicable impression on the future generations. Nammalvar dwells constantly on the bliss or Ananda aspect of God, preferring it to all other divine attributes. He aspires after the beatific vision of the Lord. His idea of God is that He is the source of all beauty and love. He conceives of God as having a beautiful form (divya mangala vigraha). The whole Universe is His body and bears on it the impress of the Lord’s beauty. The human soul’s nature and purpose is to seek reunion with God and seek Him through the world as a bride seeks her lover. The Lord must be wooed and won. The goal of all endeavour is communion with the Lord and His service. The soul can participate in the joy of god, for it is an amsa or, as the Upanishad describes it, the scintillation of God. The soul’s pilgrimage is from rung to rung of the ladder of consciousness, until consciousness is experienced in its ultimate expanded mode in loving service to God. Nammalvar shares in the Vaishnava teachings of kripa and bhakti. He was no doctrinaire or metaphysician but a poet and a saint and must be judged as such. As a mystic he was deeply absorbed in his experience or communion with God. He had moods coming over him which transfigured mundane existence. Every beautiful object he encountered in nature reminded him of God’s beauty. The stars shone forth the luster of God’s eyes. The fragrance of flowers and the sweet smell of the sacred basil would transport him with joy. The smile of a baby or the laughter and gait of pretty maidens at play reflected the joy of the Lord dancing in the heart of His devotees. The blueness of the sky and the pleasant tint of gold and green of early foliage reminded him of the hue and radiance of the Lord’s body. Such images as these fill the poems of this great poet, who is artless in his art and make evident the aesthetic elements in his love to God, the Beloved. It is the experience of the Beauty of God that evokes all this imagery. We have in Nammaivar’s poems the sublimest nature-poetry, which is imbued with the spiritual purpose that lies behind. These ideas find beautiful expression in Tiruvaymoli, which has a universal appeal transcending the limits of creed and country. The poem is an allegory of the different stages through which the soul of man passes from its appearance in the body to its final absorption in the Supreme. The attribute of God known as ‘Natam’ which is akin to the Upanishadic Ananda or Rasa is the dominant note in all the utterances of this mystic poet. Through out the poem the mystic clings to God in a touching and tender way and finally enters into the peace of God.


The few selections that follow from Tiruvoymoli will illustrate the philosophy underlying the poetry of Nammalvar. God to him is both transcendent and immanent. He speaks of God as ‘spotless omniscience,’ ‘measureless’–‘by no senses bounded’–‘with wisdom and bliss replete’–‘timeless, matchless, unsurpassed’–though he is beyond the world, yet he is in the nearest to him for “He is my life” says the poet. God is thus immanent in the human soul and easily accessible to the devotee, for he is the very life of our individual existence without which existence would be meaningless.1


“Hard to think of Him, as this, not that:

On earth and in Heaven, He owns all, living and non-living.

He is in touch with sense-objects, yet intact

That blissful unity pervading all”2


From this stanza it is evident that God is in close intimate touch with things of every description, but uninfluenced by the contact, He is able to influence them, till the purpose for which they are brought into existence is fulfilled.


Nammalvar affirms that the soul exists for God. ‘For God’s purpose I exist’, he says. It means that the soul’s nature finds its fulfillment only in dedication to divine service.


“To me alone render thy service,” says God:

For this doth He dwell in my heart.

“Take me for Thy use alone,” I say

And that is my sole prayer to Krishna.”3


            The soul attains the vision of its freedom when


Well weaned from the life of the senses,

Detached from die tangle of prakriti,

Past possibilities of pain and pleasure

There, that day, that moment, is the vision of the soul:4


In the following verse the nature of God and the joy of union with Him are thus depicted:


“Thou dwellest in all the spheres, and encompasseth them all. Thou art in my heart. Thou art in the Universe and beyond it. Thy nature is ineffable. But this I know, that thou art pure nectar such as is found in flowers of every variety of fragrance. Thou art sweetness, joy itself unalloyed.”


Divine grace is an important element in the mystical experience of Nammalvar. This fact is adverted to in the following stanza. Divine grace comes to the mystic unawares and he is carried off his feet.


“Lord, place me at Thy golden feet”. This was my prayer daily sent forth for aeons of time. Thou comest to me where I am and taking possession of my heart, makest it Thy abiding dwelling–even as Vamana, the dwarf (came to Bali, and took possession of all that he thought was his, put really thine).”5


One other aspeet of Nammalvar’s mystical life needs to be understood. In his Tiruvaymoli there are abundant references to the images of God Vishnu installed in several temples, some of them ensconced on hill-tops. He talks of them as if they are living persons capable of responding to the prayers of the mystic. These have today become places of Vaishnava pilgrimage in southern India. Nammalvar and other Vaishnava mystics saw God in Nature and thrilled with joy. No less was their joy when they saw God in idols or images. For purposes of concentration and meditation the Alvars worshipped God in beautiful images fashioned after the artistic canons of Hindu iconography. This was regarded as an avatara or incarnation of God assumed by Him so that He may be easily accessible to the devotees. This was known as the Archavatara and the worship of an image has found recognition in Hindu philosophy as a legitimate mode of worship and is known as pratikopasana. In this way God came to the devotees nearer home. It looks as if they started the life of contemplation of Divine attributes with the contemplation of these images or ikons made of stone, wood or metal until their consciousness was so deepened and enriched as to encompass the whole realm of Nature and the mind and spirit of man, all of which constituted the body of God.


The aspiration of the self is not for the self but for God, not selfishness but service. The prayer of the saint with regard to this aim is enshrined in this hymn:


“God, Thou callest me ever to be at Thy service.

To teach this, Thou hast taken possession of my heart, never for a  moment absenting Thyself.

My prayer to Krishna is this: Be it as thou willest:

Take me to Thee for Thyself.”


Thus the prayer of a true lover of God has no calculation nor barter in it: the self is eliminated altogether. What is the purpose of existence? To strive not to be reduced to a state of inertia, as Moksha is mistakenly conceived to be, but to be actively engaged in the service of God and whatever belongs to Him. Service implies strenuous work: that work is to subserve the accomplishment of the far-off divine event towards which the whole creation moves. There is joy in service, which tends to bring the kingdom of God on earth. The opportunity and joy of service while we live on earth makes us feel that in the kingdom of God is now and here and is in the making, to which we are contributing our mite. A Vaishnava Tamil hymn expresses this by saying ‘iruppidam vaikundam vengadam’ which literally means that the kingdom of God is here and now. Man is to make his contribution towards building up the divine kingdom, not asking for return. To understand this and serve is enlightenment. What better prayer can we send forth than to be made fit physically mentally and spiritually for incessant divine service? This Dravida saint does in the hymn cited above.6 The Dravida, Saints were discovered by Ramanuja to be the best and the clearest exponents of this interpretation of life, so much so that it is chronicled that, when Ramanuja felt puzzled in his Sanskrit expositions of philosophy based on the Vedanta texts, he had recourse to the Dravida prabandhas for light and inspiration.7


Nammalvar speaks of absolute self-surrender or self-donation to God which is an active pursuit of the life of prapatti. Prapatti is the distinctive characteristic of Vaishnavism. In this also Ramanuja and the Alvars were fully in tune. Prapatti “consists in absolute self-surrender and signifies a resolve ‘to follow the will of God, not to cross His purposes, to believe that He will save, to seek help from Him and Him alone and to yield up one’s spirit to Him in all meekness’.”8


An important phase of Nammalvar’s mysticism, in which he resembles most of the mystics of the world, is the employment of the language of human love between man and woman to give expression, albeit imperfect, to an experience which in its core is ineffable, the experience of the union of the human soul with the soul of the Universe. The marriage metaphors employed by the mystic mean in substance the complete surrender of the soul to God, (prapatti or saranagati). This aspect of mysticism has been misunderstood by modern critics of mysticism as mere eroticism. The understanding of the spirit of this phase of mystic experience needs exercise of sympathy, of imagination and spiritual insight which alone would keep us en rapport with the saint in all his trials and tribulations in man’s quest for God faithfully mirrored in Nammalvar’s songs in Tiruvaymoli. Ancient writers had their own clues and keys to enable them to read through the symbolic language of the mystics. The symbology of marriage adopted by Nammalvar and other Vaishnava mystics has been explained by a medieval Vaishnava theologian Nanjiyar in his treatise Atma-vivaha in the following manner:9


“Sriyah-pati is the cloud. A downpour of love fell from it. In the soil of compassion, the plant of life sprouted up. Thus to the father of longing and the mother of wisdom, a girl was born which was baptized as the soul. She was fed with the food of taste for God. In one course wisdom bloomed in the child: and time was ripe for marriage. Marriage is a sacrament which is performed in the presence of Fire (symbolising the energizing divine principle) Fire is ignited; godly men are clustered together and the bride’s soul is handed over to the Spouse God, with the oblation of self-knowledge. The bride is vestured in the robes of humility and the thread of service is tied round the neck and decked with the jewels of name and form. She is led to the seat of faith; the fire of all-consciousness is fanned, fed by the fuel of renunciation, and the final act of surrender is offered into the fire. The Bride is then conducted into the nuptial chamber of Heaven, where on the bed of joy, marriage is consummated. The soul new being one with God is itself God by participation.”


In the light of this interpretation the story of Nammalvars, experiences of communion with God become intelligible. In his ecstasy, the saint imagines himself to be a love-lorn maid. He puts himself in all possible emotional situations in which- a love-lorn maid is placed in her yearning for union with her absentee lover. “The maid has had a glimpse of the divine beauty of the divine Lover and falls in love with Him at first sight. This indicates the vision of the saint. All her thoughts are concentrated on him ever afterwards. She neglects her household duties, which mean ordinary worldly avocations in which everyone else is busy. She never listens to the importunities of her mother and friends but is ever thinking of the Lord. Her one object is to seek union with the Lord. Her only ambition in life is to live, move and have her being in Him.


The divine Lover does not appear. Day after day passes and yet He does not come. She fasts, prays and keeps vigil. He haunts her sleep. Her soul knows no peace. While all the house is plunged in deep slumber she alone is awake and prays to the Lord. She cries:


“All the city sleeps. The world is hugged by darkness. One long stretch of night with no end to it covers up all. In this night I do not see coming to my help, the Sleeper on the Serpent. Sinner that I am, who will save my soul?”10


She is almost mad with love and longing. Her neighbours who do not know her mind begin to whisper that she has gone irreparably crazy. They shun her society as they would one who is possessed and scoff at her queer ways. And yet the Lord does not come. There is village scandal. The shunning and scoffing neighbours represent the worldly-minded who do not understand the mind of the Mystic and thoughtlessly regard Him as one demented and out of touch with the realities of life. To resume the story. The maid waits for the Beloved the livelong day in trysting places with the hope of meeting Him. She wanders, weary with waiting in search of Him up hills and down dales, in groves and arbours and other lovely spots in nature. The purple hills, the beautiful banks of streams, the shady groves of trees in which the birds have built their nests and sing their wild wood notes the lakes where the silver beams of the full moon break into ripples on the surface of the water, where our minds are wafted above the changes and chances of mortal life and where the eternal life flows, as it were, spontaneous through us, all these bring into the mind of the mystic poignant memories of the Lord whose beauty is reflected in Nature.


The Mystic sings:


“Spy the yonder holy hill, Maliramcholai,

Where on high the Lord is perched,

The peaks whereof the Moon rubs past,

Praise that Lord, and fulfil life.”11


He addresses his mind thus:


“Mind: spoil thyself not by petty things.

Look high at the Lord, who like the blue cloud,

With cool drizzle and drop, hangs aloft

Begirt with woods that charm the passer-by.”12


Nammalvar speaks again of Tirumaliramcholai Hill where the Lord dwells in an image.


“The stream of sins is a mighty current.

To stem it is the Lord’s work–for does not

He hold the discus?

This Lord ‘dwells on this Hill,

From which roll rivulets pure as crystal.

Even to resort to its near hill

Is the best way to reach Him.”13


Nammalvar shows in his songs his great fondness for mountains, woods, streams and the denizens of the wood. The poet in him quickly responds to the beautiful in nature. He sings in stanza after stanza of the woods that gird the hill, where the deers roam freely with their offspring, and of herds of elephants which roam rat will and peacocks proud and gay in their native land.


Another sacred mount is the Vallaval, on which the Lord resides. Nammalvar sings of Him thus:


“He dwells in Vallaval, begirt by gardens,

Resonant with bees bent on browsing honey and

redolent with mallika blossoms,

With arecas scraping the sky, spreading and screening it from view.” 14


The Saint addresses his friends thus:


“Friends: When will the dust of His feet deck my head?

He dwells in Vallaval with groves encircled where

the golden punnai, makil and madhavi trees grow,

With their flowery crests kissed by the southern breeze.”15


The saint sees the sugar-cane with paddy growing in loving company and asks: May we, likewise, share the Lord’s company?”


He speaks of the giant elephants rooting out the fresh young bamboo, the steep hills, the unlighted forests, sunless caves, where starving serpents yawn with gnawing hunger. There are the crimson asoka bud, azure clouds, the bees humming in orchards and the cuckoo serenading to its mate. These examples suffice to show the keen eye of the mystic poet for the beauties of nature and, what is more, they reflect the beauty of the Lord and remind the saint of it at every turn.


The saint as maid, calls on free-roaming birds to carry her message to the Lord and tell Him of her suffering and longing. She tells the narai, the bewitching winged heron: “Hie to Heaven and carry my tidings to the Lord,” and tells every bird that flies past, ‘O Birds of beauty, to ye I humbly pray. Deliver the message of my sorrow and longing to join Him. For this service, I and He, my Spouse, will grant ye heaven and earth to rule.” the Mystic calls on the red-footed stork and appeals thus:


“To thy compassionate mind, I appeal–go to my merciful God decked with honey-sweet basil. Let wages for the journey be your red feet placed on my bowing head.”


Thus love lorn, filled with prema-bhakti and distraught with vislesha (separation) from the Lord, the maid chants the Lord’s thousand names and His superhuman achievements in several avataras and runs out into the street calling on the Lord to come, and, in case He does not vouchsafe His gracious presence, threatening to tarnish His fair name proclaiming His utter indifference and heartlessness, thus giving the lie to the belief to which people pathetically cling that God is love and is ever responsive to the call of His devotees. She tells her friend in utter despair:


“Mark, my sweet maid, I will rush in the streets amock, widely declaring;

That every means, foul or fair, I vow to employ,

To tarnish my God’s fair name: for He hath stolen my heart and stripped me of

my modesty and hath shut Himself in Heaven, snug with His angels.”16


“I run wildly in the open, uncurbed by decency,

I shall utter words, such words as no becoming maid

hath yet given vent to,

And wrench from my Lord’s fair hands sweet-smelling basil wreath

with which my own head to adorn.”17


The Mystic has his ‘dark night of the soul’ He is nevertheless God intoxicated and mad or “possessed” as the others think. The maid’s mother is agonized over it. She is sad that her girl is so worn out with longing that her bangles slide down her emaciated wrists. The mother cries:


“Day and night sleepeth not my dear daughter,

Tears in unfailing stream flow.

“She raiseth her closed palms to Him, the bearer of conch and discus,

and languisheth thinking of His Lotus-eyes.

‘How can I live without Thee?’ She waiteth,

And all round feeleth with her hands the traces of her holy god who

sleepeth between the holy streams. What wilt thou do for her?18


The neighbours suggest a remedy. The devil-drives are called in. They shake their heads and say, ‘Mother, what can we do who cannot diagnose this rare malady? She is delirious of that divine Charioteer, who deigned to drive Himself the chariot of Arjuna, His beloved.’19


Nothing is so painful for the Mystic as to feel bereft of God. In moments of separation, the longings and pinings of the soul find their deepest expression. The Mystic transfers his mood to all Nature. All Nature seems filled with it. The Mystic sings:


“The waves that mount one over the other and beat against

the shore lave the grove that borders the sea.

Heron, thou movest about in this grove as sleepless as myself, while

to all the world sleepeth–what indeed may be the reason?

It seems that the same God who hath stolen my heart has stolen

thine. Away from God and restless on that account are we both.”20


How long? ‘O Lord’ cries the maid:


“Arms, as roundish as the bamboo stalk, wither.

The pretty cuckoos sing as if spitting my leanness and loneliness.

And peacocks join their songs by united dance.

Lord, the days without Thee lengthen to ages, while Thy lotus-eyes

pierce me with their beauty.

Mercy, Mercy on me.”21


The soul in its ‘night’ is spurred on to make more rapid marches towards realization than before it. Consciousness under stress of sorrow is pressed towards rapid development. Hence the dark might of the soul is pregnant with the beauty of the dawn of realization lurking in its bosom.


After numerous vigils kept, after fasting and heart-rending scenes of despair, the rumour that her lover comes in a while floats abroad. She feels the approach of the “tremendous lover”22 who has answered the call of the devotee and who has come “down the days and down the nights”23 in hot haste fearing that further delay would prove fatal to His beloved. The expectant heart of the maid is calmed and anger takes the place of despair. She rails at him and reprimands him for his heartlessness in making her wait so long. The divine Lover is repentant and pleads forgiveness at the hands of His beloved who suffered such acute pangs of separation for His sake. At this juncture a new turn is given to the mood of the songs.


Now the maid is possessed of a feeling of troubled joy and fear at the fact that her desires have come too near realization. She remembers how unworthy she has been to deserve the love and grace of the Lord. She dreads His holy contact. She thinks it a sacrilege if she allows Him to become polluted by her touch. But His irresistible grace is blind to all the faults that attach to the human soul, just as a cow-mother is blind to the dirt on her calf’s body and licks up the dirt with great relish.


To her, anyway, her faults are the more glaring now than before in contrast to the nearness to her of the All-holy, All-pure and All-perfect God. She flees from Him in fear of contact. But the persistent footsteps of the divine Lover pursue her till she is overcome with weariness and could run no further. Human effort to escape God fails. The moment of utter helplessness and self-surrender arrives. The human soul stands in all her nakedness. All trappings drop away. “Thy will be done, not mine,” becomes the dominant note of the human heart. The touch of the Lord brings on the state of Ananda or ecstatic bliss. The Unitive consciousness reigns supreme. When she regains normal consciousness, with a smile on her lips that betoken the bliss of union, she unwarily looks into the immense depths of the radiant divine eye and she finds herself in His generous arms face to face with Him, the God of sweet curls and lovely wreaths. She breaks out into song:


“Thou art radiant like the blue atasi blossom.

Thy eyes are like lotuses. Thy mouth is like a red luscious fruit.

Thou, the lord of the lotus-born nymph, art my love. Thou art to

me sweet like nectar which never cloys. Thou eatest up my soul

and my life to satisfy Thyself. Swallow Thou up the rest of me also”24


Here ends the story of the eternal quest of man for God depicted by Nammalvar. The perception of the Infinite, which is the true source of religion, has been the experience of Nammalvar and other mystics as could be inferred from their fervent utterances. Abiding joy and peace had been attained by them, ‘the peace that passeth understanding’. The Mundakopanishad says:


“They, who, having attained the Supreme Soul in knowledge were filled with wisdom and having found Him in union with the soul were in perfect harmony with the Inner self; they having realized. Him in the heart were free from all selfish desires, and having experienced Him in all the activities of the World, had attained calmness. The Rishis were they who having reached the supreme God from all sides had found abiding peace; had become united with all, had entered into the life of the Universe.”25


The message of mysticism is the same all the world over. There is an underlying unity in the poetic utterances of this message. Nammalvar of the Tamil land is one of the finest flowers in the garland of mystics so dear to the Heart of the Universe.


1 Tiruvaymoli, First hundred, First decad, second Stanza.

2 Ibid, 1.1.3

3 Ibid, 2, 9, 4.

4 Ibid, 8, 8, 6.

5 Ibid, 8.7.1

6 cf. Narada: Sutra 62, “No man should however, turn away from active life even after he perfects his love; but he should learn to give up the fruit of the actions which he contiues to perform.”

7 Prof. Kshitimohan Sen Sastri of Viswabharati, Santiniketan, traces the mysticism of Bhakti and Prapati in Northern India during the middle ages to Ramananda who is said to have derived his inspiration from the teachings of Ramanuja. He quotes a popular verse which he translates thus: “Bhakti arose first in the Dravida land; (Ramananda brought it to the north; and Kabir spread it to the seven continents and nine divisions of the world.” P. 250, Vol. II. The Cultural Heritage of India.

8 Outlines of Indian Philosophy by Prof. M. Hiriyanna, Allen Unwin. Pp. 412-413.

9 Quoted and summarized by A. Govindacharya in his Metaphysique of Mysticism, Mysore (p.393-394).

10 Tiruvaymoli 5-4-1.

11 Tiruvaymoli, 2, 10, 2.

12 Ibid, 2, 10, 3.

13 Ibid, 2, 10, 5.

14 Ibid, 5, 9, 1.

15 Ibid, 5, 9, 2.

16 Ibid, 5, 3, 9,

17 Ibid, 5, 3, 10.

18 Ibid, 7, 2, 1.

19 Ibid, 4, 6, 1.

20 Ibid, 2, 1, 1.

21 Ibid, 10. 3. 1.

22 and 23 See Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven from which these phrases are quoted. It is a mystical poem dealing with the chasing of the human soul by God, the “Hound of Heaven.”

24 Ibid, 5, 3, 10.

25 Quoted and Translated by Rabindranath Tagore in his Sadhana.