Divyasooris or Nityasooris are those who live close to the Lord in Sri Vaikuntam and serve Him personally. The Lord took ten Avatars on earth; and, the Avatar of the ten Azhwars came about to illustrate the glory of these ten Avatars of the Lord! This number adds up to twelve with the inclusion of Madhurakavi Azhwar [the renowned disciple of Nammazhwar who sang the praises of his Guru] and Andal [the daughter of Periazhwar]. The name ‘Azhwar’ has evolved not without reason. One who has deep devotion [‘Azhnda bhakti’] to the Lord is ‘Azhwar’! On taking birth on earth, the Divyasooris, visited the various Holy abodes of Lord Vishnu on earth and sang in praise of the respective deities there. These abodes where the deity has been sung by one or more Divyasooris, are known as ‘Divya desam’ [divine place].
There are in all 108 Divya Desams. These hymns, sung in praise of Perumal by the Divyasooris, are in Tamizh language and are called ‘Divya Prabandam’. There are in all 4000 ‘Divya Prabandam’ and they are all outpour of pure devotion. The ‘Divya Prabandam’ is no mundane work but is, in fact, the summum bonum of the Vedas, the Upanishads, Ramayan, Srimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharat, etc. Such is the glory of these hymns of great Azhwars.
Speaking of the glory of the Azhwars we find that they are greater than the Maharishis who have performed severe spiritual austerities [sadhana]. A comparative study of the Azhwars and the Maharishis brings out the greatness of the former. Most Maharishis were contemporaries, yet, held contradictory views. Their philosophy differed. For example, one spoke of Advaita philosophy while another spoke of Visishtadvaita and yet another, Dvaita philosophy. They did not see eye to eye even in trivial matters; whereas the twelve Azhwars, who lived in different Ages, held one view! This is amazing and highly commendable. All the Azhwars held the view that Lord Narayana is the Supreme One and the goal of life is to attain Him. And, what is the path that each one of these Azhwars advocates? Chanting the Divine Name of the Lord! They show that this is the easiest path to the Lord.
To cut down a huge banyan tree various types of machines are brought with difficulty involving high cost and much time; and the work is carried out with great hardship. But there is an easy way to bring down this huge banyan tree. If we let into its root a few termites, they quickly multiply and bring down the huge tree without much ado.
Likewise, to flush out lust, anger, desires, avarice, rivalry, one need not practice arduous spiritual austerities. There is the smooth and easiest way – uttering the Divine Name of the Lord. Just as the termites smoothly and furtively bring down the huge banyan tree, so too, does the Divine Name of the Lord erase out the undesired qualities in us and eventually earn the Lord’s darsan for us. The Azhwars have shown us only this path of the Divine Name of the Lord to attain Him.
The Maharishis speak of God who is not visible to our physical eyes whereas the Azhwars speak of One who can be seen with these physical eyes. When we visit Sri Rangam is not Lord Ranganatha visible to our physical eyes? When we visit Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane is the Lord visible to the naked eye? Thus, the Azhwars show the Lord who is visible even to us, the laypeople.
The hymns of Azhwars are not the result of the intellect of a good orator/poet or the power of a Mantra japa or some other kind of spiritual austerities. If such was their dependence on sadhana the ability to sing hymns would not be the same – if their sadhana took a downward swing the hymns would no longer reflect deep devotion. Here, we find that the Azhwars sang hymns in praise of the Lord due to the ‘Grace of the Lord’. Their hymns are not based on the strength of their sadhana but the outcome of the Grace of the Lord. Therefore, all the 4000 ‘Pasurams’ [hymns] are the Lord’s own words; they speak of the Lord’s view and that is the special glory of the Azhwars.
To us the life history [‘charitra’] of these great devotees [‘Azhwars’] of the Lord seems no different from the normal life of any other person on earth. However, the fact is, the Lord, through such seemingly ordinary life, tries to convey a message to us. The life of Vipranarayana [‘Thondaradipodi Azhwar’] is one such. His life history illustrates that if a devotee of the Lord happens to fall from dharma and his life becomes worldly the Lord would certainly intervene and take him back into His fold.
Vipranarayana who later became Thondradipodi Azhwar is one of the twelve Azhwars. Vipranarayana was born in Thirumandangudi near Kumbakonam, South India. ‘Vipran’ means Brahmin. He had studied the Vedas. He was a ‘Brahmachari’ (celibate, unmarried). After ablutions early in the morning, he would perform a thousand japa of the Gayatri and worship the Lord. He purchased a big plot of land in Sri Rangam and laid a beautiful flower garden in it. He would collect the flowers and make a huge garland for Lord Ranganatha. He served Lord Ranganatha through offer of flowers [‘pushpa kainkarya’]. Everyday, he would string the flowers into a beautiful garland and take it to the Temple.
One day two dancing damsels [‘deva dasis’] passed by the garden of Vipranarayana. It was a hot summer afternoon. They moved into the shade of a tree close to Vipranaryana’s garden. One of them was Deva devi. The other was her sister. Noting Vipranarayana, Deva devi said to her sister, “I am a beautiful maiden! There is none who is as beautiful as I am! And, here is a young man. But, while working in the garden he has not turned even to glance at me!”
Her sister explained, “He will not turn even to take a glance at us because he is a Vaishnav. Vaishnavas are minions of the Lord.”
Struck to the core, Deva devi challenged, “No! I do not accept this. I will transform him.”
Deva devi and her sister got into an argument over this and it led to a solemn challenge – that Deva devi would attract and hold him down.
Deva devi began to dress like a devotee of Lord Vishnu – an yellow attire, a Tulasi mala around her neck and ‘gopi chandan’ on her forehead. With this attire she began to frequent the garden of Vipranarayana. Slowly, she drew the attention of Vipranarayana. Days passed. Vipranarayana whose mind and heart was bewitched by Deva Devi stopped visiting the Temple. He did not string his garden flowers into garland for the Lord. The service of flowers to the Lord had come to a complete stop. He remembered of only Deva devi and her home. Forgotten were his Lord [Ranganatha] and his service to Him.
What was Deva devi’s aim? It was to win the test. That was all. She had won; therefore, she threw Vipranarayana out of her home with the words, “Do not ever enter my home!”
But, Vipranarayana lay on the ‘pyol’ of her house and shed tears.
One day, (Lord) Ranganatha passed the home of Deva devi along with His Consort [‘Piratti’], while being taken on procession. Piratti pointing to Vipranarayana, lying in a pool of tears on the pyol of Deva devi’s house, pleaded with the Lord, “Oh, Lord! Look at Vipranarayana. At one time he knew nothing other than our Temple. He was serving our Temple. But, look at his state today!”
The Lord remained silent.
At once Piratti asked, “Why do you remain silent? Can’t you do something?”
The Lord pointed out, “The moment you have shown your concern he will stand corrected. Do not be anxious!”
That very night there was a knock at Deva devi’s door. She opened the door and found an extremely handsome youth. He bore the beauty of crores and crores of Manmatha (Cupid). Never was such beauty seen in the world. Such a handsome youth stood at the door holding a golden bowl in his hand.
“Who are you?” Deva devi asked him.
The youth replied, “I am a servant of Virpranarayana. You have thrown him out. Please do not throw him out. He has asked me to give this golden bowl to you.”
Handing over the golden bowl to Deva devi he left her home.
Early next morning when the doors of Lord Ranganatha’s Sanctum Sanctorum were opened the priests were shocked to find the golden bowl missing. The lock on the doors of the Sanctum Sanctorum remained intact. There was no sign of breaking in. If any robber had gone in, the locks should have been broken down and the doors open. But, it was not so. They remained as they had been left the night before. Further, no other article was missing. Everything else was in its place. Only the golden bowl was missing.
The matter was at once reported to the king. He sent out his soldiers to search for the golden bowl. The soldiers found the golden bowl in the home of Deva devi. On being questioned she blurted out, “Vipranarayana’s servant brought it to me.”
When the soldiers reported the matter to the king he could not decide on the case because no one seemed to have broken the lock of the Sanctum Sanctorum doors and stolen the golden bowl. How then did someone claiming to be Vipranarayana’s servant get hold of it? However, under the circumstance he was compelled to order the arrest of Virpranarayana. In those days kings were God loving and God fearing. They walked on the path of dharma. Therefore, the Lord appeared to the king in a dream and said to him, “Vipranarayana is not guilty of stealing the golden bowl. It is I who took it to Deva devi’s home!”
The king at once ordered the release of Vipranarayana. Soon, the news of the Lord appearing in the king’s dream to speak of the innocence of Vipranarayana spread like wildfire. It reached the ears of Vipranarayana, too. Vipranarayana was stunned. His head bowed down in shame. ‘Oh, how great is the Lord! For the sake of a devotee He has even gone to the length of knocking at the door of a dancing girl!’ The deeply struck Vipranarayana rushed to the Sanctum Santorum of Lord Ranganatha and cried out in agony. ‘I had been serving you, Oh, Lord! But I gave it up for the company of Deva devi.’
These words of repentance that fell out of the lips of Vipranarayana is known as ‘Thirumalai’—
‘Pacchai ma malai pol meni pavazha vai kamalachengann! Achuta! Amararere! Aayartham kozhunde ennum! Ichuvai thavira yan poi indira logam allum! Acchuvai perinum venden aranga ma nagarullane!’
The above is a verse of ‘Thirumalai’. He has sung wonderful, amazing 40 such verses, in deep devotion. It is an open cry of a devotee. Its greatness lies in the fact that it contains the Divine Names of the Lord. It is said, ‘Thirumalai ariyadar tirumalai ariyar’. ‘Thirumalai’ forms part of the 4000 Divya Prabandam. Vipranarayana became Thondaradipodi Azhwar.
He sings, ‘all these days when I lay in the dancing girl’s [dasi] home my friends advised me to leave her company. I did not pay heed to their words. My parents gave words of advice in vain. The people of the Town offered words of advice, which went unheeded. Some even criticized my behaviour but I cared not. But, today I stand here at Thy Holy Feet, oh! Lord! Do you know why? All those advices entered only my ears but the one given by Thee had touched my mind and heart—‘ podare enru solli putthiyil pugundu than-paal aadaram perugavaitha azhaganur arangamanro!’ You worked into my mind and heart.’
The words of a Guru and Mahans work in the minds and hearts of the devotee. Thus, their words of advice transform a person.
Would such a great devotee of the Lord [Azhwar] get caught in the net of a dancing girl? How does one explain this? One should not foolishly question the behaviour of a great devotee such as the Azhwar. This Lila of the Lord was performed not for the sake of the Azhwar but for our sake: for stressing a point to us. What is the message of the Lord to us, in this?—‘if you are deeply devoted to ME and happen to stray away, I will bring you back. I will never give up on you! ‘Shipram bhavati dharmatma!’. I will make you virtuous [‘dharmatma’].’
A mother walks on the road holding the child’s hand. If any stone or thorn lies on the path she would lift the child up and carry him. Wherever the child can walk she would put him down. If the child falls down she would once again carry him but after a time put the him down and make him walk. Those who move on the path of Bhakti have no fear of straying onto a wrong path. What is the reason for this? Just as the mother holds the hand of a toddler, so too, does the Lord hold their hands! The Lord is holding their hands! Since the Lord is holding their hands and leading them on the right path there is great pride in a person walking on the path of Bhakti – The Lord holds my hand! The Guru is hold and leading us! The deep faith that the Lord will never, at any time, lead us on a wrong path is exclusive to the path of Bhakti. This is the reason that Bhakti enjoys such great glory!
In Kali, Bhakti means singing the Divine Name of the Lord [‘Bhagavan Nama kirtan’], listening to Bhagavat stories (‘katha sravanam’), having darshan of the Lord in Temples. This is known as ‘Bhagavata dharma’. This is the reason that though great Mahatmas like Brahmendra, Jayadev, Badrachala Ramadas, Thiyagaraja Swami could see the Lord in their heart [‘hrudaya’] they advise ordinary people who cannot understand this (to see the Lord in the heart) to go to the Temple and worship Him. They advise, ‘or else do Nama kirtan’. These are the only two Dharmas that all Mahans have shown in this Kali viz. Temple worship and singing the Divine Names of the Lord [‘Bhagavan Nama kirtan].
The life history of Thondaradipodi Azhwar conveys this theme to us.