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Friday, July 19, 2024

Andal – the Female Alvar Saint from Tamil Nadu

After the recent controversial statements made by Kollywood screenwriter and lyricist Vairamuthu about Andal, a considerable section of Bharat’s public who have hitherto been unaware of Andal or have little or no knowledge of her stature and ubiquitous presence in Dakshin Bharatiya (South Indian) history, literature and culture were perplexed and shocked at the uproar that his statements have caused in the last few days. This piece is specifically intended for those who are unaware of who Anadal was and what significance she holds in especially Tamil culture.

Andal or Goda Devi is the venerated Alwar Saint of the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya. Andal is the only female figure among the 12 canonical Alwar-s worshipped and revered by the majority of Dakshin Bharatiya practitioners of Hindu Dharma, especially Vaishnava-s. Temples dedicated to the Alwar-s, and Andal in particular, are found throughout Bharat, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, South East Asia, South Africa, West Indies and even as far away as the Pacific Fiji Islands.

To put it in context, ‘Alwar’ is a Tamil word meaning “someone who is immersed in bhakti”. The 12 Alwar-s composed and sang devotional poems in praise of Bhagavan Srimanarayana/Sri Maha-Vishnu as well as His Divine Female Counterpart Sri/Lakshmi Devi in chaste Tamil; and their poetry was compiled together in a 4000-verse long anthology known as Nalayira Divya Prabandham. The Great Acharya-s, who were to come later in the parampara lineage of the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya, would introduce these hymns of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham into the canon of sacred literature of the Sampradaya, according them the same status as the Vedic hymns, and no less.

Andal was the Alwar Saint who composed 30 blissful devotional hymns known as Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumoli. Without knowing about Andal’s history, devotional and literary contributions to the Tamil socio-cultural life (and as an extension, to the larger Hindu samaj) as well as the salient traits of her heightened presence in the Tamil society – both ancient and contemporary, it is very difficult to appreciate the exalted personage and significance of Andal, leave alone judging her on the lines of commenting on or questioning her chastity.

Even today, almost every Dakshin Bharatiya grandmother is famous (or infamous) for never missing an opportunity to dress up her grandchildren, as the little child Saint Goda Devi if it is her granddaughter, and as Sri Krishna, in case it is her grandson. Almost every Sri Vaishnava bride is customarily dressed up as Andal during her wedding ceremony, while pictures of Andal adorn the prayer altars in most Dakshin Bharatiya households.


The Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya’s literary and Hagiographical texts serve as crucial historical sources of information, detailing the birth, life and history regarding the little girl Saint Goda Devi, who grew up and lived for a short span of only 16 years and came to be venerated, worshipped and immortalised into posterity as the Goddess Andal.

Traditional dates of the Alwar-s and Andal take us to anything from 5000-6000 years before present, but the historical dates of the Alwar-s, based on inscriptional evidence, are inferred to fall between 6th century CE and 9th century CE (Reference: Musings on Andal’s Thiruppavai by Dr V. S. Sampathkumar). Andal is believed to have lived during the late 7th century CE or early 8th century CE, but the Vaishnava texts date the birth and life of Andal to have occurred during the first quarter and initial phase of the Kali Yuga.

Andal is said to have been found as an infant in the quaint temple town of Srivilliputtur, lying in a Tulasi Vanam or garden. It was the baby’s effulgent face, which radiated with the light of a thousand suns, that attracted the attention of the Saint Periyalwar (Tamil name) aka Vishnuchittar (Sanskrit name). Periyalwar was also known as Bhattanatha.

Who were the Alwars Saints according to Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya?

The 12 Alwar saints are worshipped by the Sri Vaishanavas, as the divine embodiment of each of the supreme qualitatives and celestial accessories of Lord Srimannarayana or Lord Sri Maha Vishnu. The divine discus Sudarshana Chakra, Panchajanya or divine conch, and other weapons like Sarangam (bow), Nandaki (sword), ornaments like Kaustubha (blue sapphire gem studded pendant), Tulasi Mala and the likes possessed by Lord Srimannarayana, are believed by to have reincarnated on earth to guide, protect and preach the souls (jivatman) towards the path of spirituality and attain the ultimate goal of Moksha. Likewise, Aandal is worshipped as being the celestial personification or spiritual embodiment of Lord Srimannarayana’s divine consort-Bhoodevi.

Who was Periyalwar?

Periyalwar was a devout Bhakta of Bhagavan Vishnu who attended to his hand-garden and performed the daily flower kainkaryam or flower seva to the presiding deity Sri Maha-Vishnu at Srivilliputtur. Periyalwar was an erudite scholar and exponent of Tamil and Sanskrit shastra-s. The famous Tamil hymn Pallandu also known as Thirupallandu from the Divya Prabandham was composed by Periya Alwar around 31 century BCE (3055 BCE). Thirupallandu is still very religiously sung at each and every Divya desam on a daily basis as part of the Lord’s daily Mangalasasanam rituals, throughout Bharat and Nepal.

Sri Vaishnava hagiography and inscriptions found in the Vatapatrasayi temple at Srivilliputhur state that the temple was built by Periyalwar. After establishing the “Supreme Reality” (paratatva) in the royal court of King Pandiyan, Periyalwar was gifted loads of wealth by the benevolent king. Periyalwar was a simple man, a brahmachari who had no requirement for that large sum of money. So, Periyalwar is said to have used the money to build a large temple tower for his favourite deity Vatapatrasayi – Baby Krishna who reclines on a fig leaf. Since then, Periyalwar has been praised as:

“Minna:r thadamadil su:r villipuththu:r sonna:r kararkamalasu:dino:m”

This roughly translates into English as, “we surrender unto the lotus feet of all those who at least once, in their mind think about Villiputthur, where Periyalwar had built wide, glittering ramparts”. In those days Villiputhur Vatapatrasayi temple had the largest rampart and the largest temple tower. (Dec 2017 Edition of Bhakthi Nivedana Magazine, printed by the Jeeyar Educational Trust, Dr S. V. Ranga Ramanujacharya, translated by Prof S Laxmana Murthy, Warangal. A trustworthy source once clarified that the tower did not actually belong to that temple.)

God’s Gift: Goda Devi

Former T.T. Devasthanam’s Executive Officer, the renowned P.V.R.K. Prasad (I.A.S) describes Goda Devi as follows:

“A little girl found by Periyalwar in his Tulasi Garden became one of the most adorable women-saints of our country. Educated in the school of piety and devotion to her God and Guru, she later carved a niche in the mystic poetry with her sublime verses. That is the story of Andal. She lived a life of perfect purity and gave expression to her own spiritual experiences in a style unmatched for its rustic charm” (1980)

Periyalwar’s kainkaryam at the temple involved tending and picking Tulasi leaves and fragrant flowers from his hand garden or Nandana Vana (Flower garden), which he would later weave into beautiful garlands, meant for the deity, Bhagavan Vishnu.

Sacred Sri Vaishnava texts expound that Sri Goda Devi was not born to human parents, just like Sita Devi in the Treta Yuga was found by Janaka Maharaja while ploughing the field.

One auspicious day, when the Sun was in the constellation of Cancer, during the star Purva Phalguni, Periyalwar is said to have found a baby girl in the Tulasi Vanam. Periyalwar felt that the infant was an extraordinary boon granted by Lord Vishnu and accepted her as his own child.

Since Periyalwar was always engaged in picking and weaving the Tulasi garlands for Lord, Periyalwar felt that the baby was a divine flower garland too, and he gave her the name Kothai, which is the Tamil for ‘garland’. Later on the word ‘Kothai’ came to be pronounced as Goda in common usage.

Periyalwar is said to have brought up little Goda with a lot of love and affection, fondly indulging her with devotional stories of baby Krishna, Purva Acharyas, Srimad Bhagavatam and other divine songs of Bhakti. At school, Goda was an exceptionally bright student for her age, excelling in both Sanskrit and Tamil.

Just as the Tulasi has its natural fragrance, Goda grew up and began spreading the sweet scent of knowledge, devotion and renunciation, and displayed enthusiastic interest in all things divine. Goda was instilled with love for Bhagavan right from her childhood by her father Periyalwar. Goda grew up loving Krishna and immersed herself in contemplating Krishna’s divine qualities, which was repeated years later by another great Krishna devotee, Meera Bai.

As she grew up into adolescence, Goda Devi fervently aspired for the hand of Krishna in marriage. Having heard from elders that, in the past during Dwapara Yug, gopika-s used to perform Katyayani Vrata to realise a similar ambition, Goda undertook a similar ambition. Goda Devi translated the Sanskrit-based spiritual discipline of the Katyayani Vrata into chaste Tamil for the benefit of generations to come, in the form of a sacred book of songs called Thiruppavai.

Andal is considered to be one of the foremost Acharya-s of the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya, a fact which highlights that one need not belong to a particular species, caste, religion or gender etc to perform the Katyayani Vrata, which later went on to be known as Dhanurmasam Vrata.

Phalasruthi or Auspicious Results of Dhanurmasam Vrata

By performing this Vrata, people can gain external ends, affluence (aishwarya) such as material prosperity (priyam); and inward benefits such as experience of the Divine, spiritual and other-worldly bliss (Sreyam) and eternal union with God (Moksha).

In the very first Pasuram of the Thiruppavai, Andal writes:

“The desire to be uplifted is enough.”

“Divinity is present in all of mankind and everyone is eligible for Lord Narayana’s grace”.

Andal gave everyone an equal platform and made sure there was no discrimination against people based on caste.

Andal reiterates,ni:ra:dappo:vi:r, that the only prerequisite to perform this Vrata is that intense desire for the Lord, a pure zeal to attain His Lotus Feet. Contrary to the popular modern day belief that the religious practices during ancient, medieval times were rather rigid and orthodox, this was indeed a revolutionary proclamation by a young girl.

Pasuram 1 of the Thiruppavai

Ma:rgazhi ththingal madinirainda nanna:la:l ni:ra:da ppo:devi:r po:dumino: ne:rizhaiyi:r

E:ra:rndakanni yaso:dai yilam singam

Ka:rme:ni chchengan kadir madiyamampo mugaththan

Na:ra:yanane: namakke parrai tharuva:n

Pa:ro:r pugalappadinde:lo: remba:vay

Si:r malguma:yppa:di chchelvachchirumi:rga:

Ku:rve:l kozhindozhilan Nandago:pan kumaran

The greatness of Andal is clearly expressed through these sacred verses, this is possibly the reason that she is given the pride of place among the Alwars as an exemplar. Andal could easily have been one of the youngest social reformers of her time, who heroically discarded the concept of any form of discrimination and established the truth about universal devotion & equality in the eyes of the divine.

Goda Devi’s Kalyanam and Deification

After Goda Devi performed this Vrata and composed the 30 hymns of Thiruppavai, the scriptures state that Lord Ranganatha, the presiding deity of Sri Rangam, appeared in the Periyalwar’s dream and requested Goda Devi’s hand in marriage. Periyalwar got Goda Devi married to Lord Ranganatha at Srirangam and the sacred texts of Sri Vaishnava’s conclude that Goda Devi or Andal as she was fondly addressed as by Periyalwar; her mortal body is believed to have dissolved into and merged with the Vigraham of Sri Ranganatha right after the wedding ceremony. In other words, Andal’s Jivatma is stated to have attained permanent reunion with that of Paramatma (Lord Krishna’s); ultimately leading Andal to the holy abode of her husband Sri Ranganatha at Vaikuntam, after obtaining Moksha!

Who was Bhagavad Ramanujacharya?

The story of Ramanujacharya is actually the story Srivaishnavam in Bharat.

Ramanujacharya was the great philosopher-Saint, theologian and chief exponent of the Visishtadvaita School of Vedanta or qualified non-dualism. He was responsible for reviving, rekindling and spreading the Visishtadvaita and Srivaishnavam throughout Bharat Varsha (India), 1000 years ago.

The Srivaishnava Sampradaya is a genius system designed as a dissoluble tie by Ramanujacharya to unite the heterogeneous population of Bharat through mutual respect and equality and thereby, the whole world in one spiritual bond. The social philosophy of Ramanujacharya was designed to cross the boundary of caste system and embrace the whole humanity. He has thus been acclaimed as a great religious and social genius.

Ramanujacharya was responsible for preserving, re establishing and spreading the Srivaishnava Sampradaya and lineage.

The greatest testimony of Ramanujacharya’s incredible contributions is that every temple and house where Lord Srimannarayana and His avatars are worshipped, Sri Ramanujacharya is worshipped as the foremost great teacher or Acharya and His worship goes hand in hand with everyday prayer.

He travelled the length and breadth of Bharat from Tamil Nadu in the south, right up to the north and Kashmir, peacefully teaching, propagating and establishing Srivaishnavam and the Visishtadvaita philosophy. He visited all sacred places throughout Bharat and rectified the social evils which had crept into the community and society. He taught and ensured that all scriptural duties are to be performed in the spirit of a servant of God.

Ramanuja established a congregation of 700 sanyasis and 74 mutts(branches) and thousands of men and women, devotees and Sishyas in order to promote Srivaishnavam Sampradaya.

Each of these mutts is presided by an appointed and designated Srivaishnava Saint. The common goal of these mutts is to spread the Visishtadvaita philosophy and spread the message of peace, love, worship of the Supreme Lord Srimannarayana through devotion, Saranagathi (devotional surrender), mutual respect, humility and selfless service to mankind. The goal of service is not just to help the distressed, but also to provide opportunity for all to attend the basic needs of life. He connected lakhs of people to the path of Srivaishnavam. This tradition remains in tact and continues to thrive, to this very day!

The leadership provided by Ramanujacharya continues to influence and inspire great saints, teachers, scholars and His disciples.

Bhagavad Ramanujacharya lived for 120 years and travelled throughout Bharat, from Gyana Bhoomi (South) to Karma Bhoomi (North), spreading His philosophy and message to the common man.

Bhagavad Sri Ramanujacharya & Andal

Bhagavad Ramanujacharya once read the Nachiyar Thirumozhi and came upon a vow undertaken by Andal at the Thirumalirumsolai temple, prior to her wedding.

na:n nu:r thada:vil vennai va:the:runda para:vivaiththen

nu:r thada: nirainda Akka:ru vadishil shonne:n

Which translates to: “ God, if you make Sri Ranganatha my husband, I will offer you one hundered pots filled with rice cooked in milk and ghee”

However, Ramanujacharya noticed that there was no mention or record that Andal had fulfilled her vow. So, on behalf of Andal, Bhagavad Ramanujacharya took up the service of offering 100 pails of butter and sweet rice pudding (akka:r adishil) at the Thirumalirumsolai temple.

Bhagavad Ramanujacharya then went to Srivilliputhur. After worshipping Sri Vatapatrasayi, he went to the shrine of Godadevi. He bowed to her and said, “Mother, I have fulfilled your vow”. Having said this, he was about to leave the shrine, Sri Andal is believed to have called out “Anna” (elder brother). That endearing call appeared to acknowledge the fact that Sri Ramanujacharya has fulfilled Andal’s vow. Therefore, in the 108 sacred names of Sri Ramanuja, he is referred to as “Godagrajaya Namaha” (We bow to the elder brother of Goda).

Go:da De:vi prahrushta:thma: suthara:m vishnu vallabha

Thasya go:da:grajasche:thi namaschakre: krupa:vasa:th

It is a common practice in the world that brothers fulfill the wishes of sisters. Therefore, Sri Ramanuja was called Godagraja. He was also “annadana perumal” for Goda Devi. We also find “yathiraja sahodaryai namaha” among the 108 divine names of Goda Devi. Sri Ramanuja is called Yathiraja. Goda Devi in archa-deity form in the shire called Sri Ramanuja as “koil anna” through the archaka.

In the past, HH Sri Sri Paramahamsa Tridandi Srimannarayana Ramanujacharya Pedda Jeeyar Swamiji followed in the footsteps of Sri Ramanuja and performed 100 akka:r adishil seva at Thirumalirumsolai temple. As recently as 2016, HH Sri Sri Paramahamsa Tridandi Srimannarayana Ramanujacharya Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji also followed in the footsteps of his Guru, Sri Pedda Jeeyar Swamiji and Purva Acharyas and worshipped Aandal with the same Bhava of a little sister by performing this legendary akka:r adishil seva at Thirumalirumsolai temple; commemorating the 1000th birth anniversary of Bhagavad Ramanujacharya.

So Andal was not just the beloved daughter to her father Periyalwar, but she also went on to be venerated and worshipped as the little sister to Sri Ramanuja and other future Acharyas of the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya. She was also the adamant and confident feminist who took a bold stance, stuck to her ground and married the person of her own choice, never compromising or settling for someone other than her ideal groom- Sri Krishna in the form of Lord Sri Ranganatha of Srirangam.

Translations include works by Prof S Laxmana Murthy, Warangal and Sri C. Sitaramamurti (MA) Retd Lecturer and Principal (AP Edl Services) Published by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, Tirupati.

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