Profuse in her bhakti to Narayana, Andal is one of the 12 Alvar saints of South India.
Andal is to the South what Mira is to the North. They belonged to the top league of Krishna devotees and loved him with an ecstasy that is evergreen. The only difference: Andal praised Krishna in words, whereas Mira not only composed bhajans but also danced in front of her Girdhar Gopal. The saint-poets were separated by a few centuries, but the fervour of their devotional poetry has not diminished with the passage of time. Their compositions have inspired millions of Krishna worshippers to revere him all the more. Andal’s murti is to be found in all Srivaishnava mandirs, as she is revered as an avatar of Sri (Lakshmi), Vishnu’s consort, along with other Alvars. She is the only female among the 12 Vaishnava saints called Alvars (also written as Alwars). Alvars were saints who were ‘immersed in the love of God’.
The Alvars are supposed to be of hoary antiquity; the ancient (first group) of saints going back to the 5th millennium BCE and coming down to 2706 BCE. Vaishnava tradition sticks to this time frame. Dr R.G. Bhandarkar, however, dismisses these dates as of unlikely early antiquity. The generally accepted dates are between 700 CE and 900 CE
The Alvars composed pasurams (verses) in praise of Narayana. They are called Divya Prabandhams (divine compositions). There are in all 4,000 verses. The philosophy propounded by the Alvars runs something like this: the forms of moksha are bhakti (devotion), prapatti (total surrender), and kainkarya (service to God in his various aspects). These Prabandhams contain effusive praise of incarnations like Rama and Krishna, as well as deities in mandirs like Tirupati and Srirangam, which are considered fully conscious archavataras (murtis). Set to music, these verses are chanted daily during the month of Margashira (Maghshar) in Srivaishnava mandirs. They constitute an important part of the devotional literature of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The 4,000 verses are divided into four parts, each approximately of 1,000 verses. That is why they are called Nalayiar Divya Prabandhams (nal: four, ayiar: thousand). The first 1,000 verses contain songs by Vishnuchitta Alvar and his adopted daughter, Andal (Andal means ‘One who attracts’). Andal is also called Godadevi and Kodai which means ‘One with the beautiful hair’. Vishnuchitta wrote Tirupullayedu and Periyalvar (the Great Alvar) penned the Tirumoli. Tiruppavai (Holy Vow) and Nuchhiyar Tirumoli were composed by Andal. Tiruppavai occupies an important position in Vaishnava devotional literature. Ramanujacharya enthusiastically propagated it. Therefore, he is called Tiruppavai Jeer (Tiruppavai pontiff). He is also acclaimed as Godagraj (elder brother of Goda). It is said that when he fulfilled a vow by visiting Villiputtur, Goda appeared before him as a young girl; hence the name. According to tradition, she said, “The elder brother has fulfilled the wish of his younger sister by giving the naivedya (offering) of butter and sweet rice (cooked in milk) to Bhagwan.’’
The compositions were not written down during the lifetime of the Alvars. It was felt that some of the pasurams (verses) ran the risk of being forgotten or faced the threat of misrepresentation. To obviate this danger, the first Srivaishnavacharya, Srinathmuni (824-924 CE), put them in writing after strenuous efforts. He and Ramanujacharya gave the Prabandhams an exalted status in the Vaishnava Sampradaya. They are also called the Dravida Veda.
Andal came into this world in a miraculous manner 1100 years ago in the Pandya kingdom of ancient Tamil Nadu. King Vallabhadeva was the ruler and Madurai, the seat of Tamil sangams, was the capital. Infant Andal was found lying in a box. Vishnuchitta was an ardent Vishnu bhakta. Once, while he was tending to his tulsi plants with a spade he struck something that gave out a metallic sound. When he dug deeper he was surprised to find a box in the ground. On opening it, he found a beautiful female child. Vishnuchitta accepted the child as a gift from God and brought her up with loving care. According to another account, Vishnuchitta handed over the baby to his wife and both of them jointly reared Andal.
Thus, Vishnuchitta, whom Andal succeeded as the seventh Alvar, was not her biological father. Vishnuchitta lived alone in a hut. He used to spend his time in making garlands for and worshipping Vatapatrasayi, (infant murti of Krishna or Balamukunda lying on a banyan leaf), which is the chief deity of the local mandir.
SIGNIFICANCE OF NAME
Since Andal was found inside the earth she was also named Goda: ‘Go’ means ‘earth’ and ‘da’ stands for ‘given by’). It was an apt name as Vishnuchitta found the child from earth. Both father and daughter subsisted on mandir prasadam as there was no one to cook food at home. Vishnuchitta, spent all his time in worship. He had no time left for anything else. Goda would lovingly join Vishnuchitta in tending the garden, and weaving garlands and offering them to Bhagwan. As she was growing up Goda stopped going to her father’s tulsi garden but stayed at home and wove tulsi garlands which her father offered to the murti of God. This intense love grew with each succeeding day and is reflected in the Tiruppavai.
One day a strange thing happened, which changed Goda’s life. She thought, “Why not try on the garland woven for the Lord? I love him so much.” Thinking thus, she put on the garland and stood before a mirror to see how she looked. She liked the look of it; so she started wearing the garland regularly and then would take it off. Not knowing what was going on behind his back, Vishnuchitta would take the garland and offer it to God. Once, the father happened to notice what his daughter had been doing. He mildly chided Goda and pointed out to her the impropriety of her action. He did not offer the garland that day to God. But Krishna appeared to Vishnuchitta in a dream at night and told him he would like to wear the garland that had been worn by Goda, and this clinched the issue. This showed how Krishna appreciated and accepted her devotion for him.
It is said that King Vallabhadeva became an ardent Vaishnava after Vishnuchitta defeated a Shaivacharya in a debate arranged by the king. The monarch accepted Periyalvar as his guru. At first Vishnuchitta was reluctant to go to Madurai to participate in the debate as he had doubts about his intellectual competence to take on learned scholars whom the king had invited to the assembly. For, Vishnuchitta was good only at worshipping Narayana and was not versed in the Vedas. But the result of the debate showed that his fears were entirely unfounded. Vishuchitta won with flying colours and was conferred the title of pattharpiran, chief priest, by Vallabhadeva.
It was after his triumphant return from Madurai that Vishnuchitta found the infant Goda in his garden.