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Re: Regarding Thirumangai Alvar ...

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_alum.calberkeley.org)
Date: Tue Oct 03 2000 - 17:09:13 PDT

Sri Jaisimman wrote:
> I recently read of Thirumangai Alvar's prior acts before he obtained the
> darshanam of Lord Narayana.
> A doubt came to my mind.
> The narration is as follows :-

The account as presented of the traditional life of Sri Tirumangai Alvar
makes the saint out to be a cold-blooded killer. What is worse, the
author of the paragraph implies that Sri Vaishnavas today encourage
murder and assassination as long as it serves a religious purpose.

These implications stem from several problems.  First, the account is
a poor retelling of the traditional story, with significant errors and
omissions. Second, the account assumes that the legend is meant to
teach Sri Vaishnavas about morality, when in fact the whole purpose
is simply to impress upon the reader the saint's complete dedication
to Lord Sri Ranganatha, much like a comic book hyperbolically states the 
exploits of a superhero.  I have not met a single person who feels that 
Sri Vaishnavas are to imitate the legend, instead of listening to the 
teachings of the Alvar as expressed in his poems and elaborated by the 
pUrvAcAryas in their commentaries.

Let me first go through some of the basic errors, and then discuss
the status and origin of these and other legends.  The author of
the "biography" has unfortunately not studied the original material
and has relied on third-hand, unscholarly sources.  

First, Tirumangai Alvar is traditionally dated in the hagiographies
to 2800 B.C.  Scholarly opinion is that he lived circa 9th century
C.E.  It is Sri Ramanuja who was born in 1017. 

Second, the saint renovated the Great Temple at Srirangam much *after*
his beatific vision of Sriman Narayana, in which he received the holy
ashTAkshara-mantra.  According to all traditional accounts, he first
finished his pilgrimage of the sacred sites throughout India and then,
seeing the Srirangam kOyil in disrepair, sought to repair it.

Third, the saint's life of highway robbery happened *before* his 
full conversion as a Vaishnava. The account is that he robbed the
rich so that he could keep the promise made to his wife to feed 1008 
Vaishnavas daily.

To gild the vimAna of the Great Temple, Tirumangai Alvar is said to 
have taken melted a golden image of Buddha at Nagapatnam after a
great deal of effort.

Fourth, regarding the killing of the robbers. This account is not found
in many manuscripts of the early biographies, which throws the episode
itself in doubt. In fact, his four "partners in crime" are also not 
mentioned in the early manuscripts. Be that as it may, these episodes are 
in many subsequent biographies, including the Divya Suri Charitam, so it 
has become part of the story of the Alvar.  What the author of the paragraph 
below has missed is that as the story goes, each and every one of the 
robbers who drowned was immediately given moksha and bore no ill-will 
toward Tirumangai. This may sound like unneeded apologetics, as killing 
*is* killing. But we are dealing with a hagiological legend here, and it 
has to be quoted properly to understand the context.

The main problem is confusing these colorful accounts with morality
tales.  It is worth pointing out that not a single pUrvAcArya mentions
this killing episode, nor does anyone teach that the more interesting 
episodes of the Alvar's life are worth emulating.  Even today, the 
charitram of this Alvar is mentioned more for entertainment value than 
for meaning-making. We have to accept them for what they are -- stories
for the purpose of elaborating on the intensity of the Alvar's affection
for Lord Ranganatha. A good comparison here would be the story of 
Krishna.  I am sure all of us are agreed that we are not kill our
own uncles like Krishna killed Kamsa, no matter how evil they may be.

For the best possible picture of the lives of the Alvars, we should rely on 
the following, in order of priority:

   (1) The Alvars' poetry 
   (2) Inscriptional evidence
   (3) Statements by the early acharyas (pUrvAcAryas)
       in their commentaries and stotras
   (4) Traditional hagiologies and verse biographies, taking note
       of later interpolations
   (5) Popular belief

We find that (4) and (5) are very often thought of as being indisputable
facts, when in reality, the pious imagination of generations has embroidered
what little can be definitively said about the Alvars.  There is no way
of knowing for certain whether all that has been attributed to the Alvar
actually occurred.  He may have done it all, he may have not.  The problem
is exacerbated by the fact that popular beliefs quickly morph from generation 
to generation, eventually finding their way in the form of interpolations into 
the hagiologies themselves, which are already exaggerated accounts. This 
phenomenon is not unique and can also be seen in life histories of saints who 
lived as recently as this century.

Let us see what we can gather from each of the sources.

(1) The Alvars' poetry give us only basic details of their life stories.
They do not indulge in autobiography. For most of them, we are lucky to know 
their name, place of birth, and social class, thanks to signature stanzas 
which occur at the end of each set of verses.  We also gain occasional insight 
into their character from their expressions of regret and self-condemnation.  
In Tirumangai's case, by his own admission he led a life of debauchery and 
indulgence before he was gifted the sacred eight-syllabled Narayana mantra,
the ashTAkshara. We also know from his poetry that after receiving the 
ashTAkshara, he was totally immersed in devotion to PerumaaL, travelling
on a pilgrimage of holy sites that literally circumambulated the subcontinent.
His travels took him to Tiruppiriti and Badari in the north and ended at
Tirukkottiyur in the south.

This is all we can gather from Tirumangai's own words, so this is all 
we can say *for sure* is true about the saint's life.

(2) As far as I know, we are not left with any inscriptions contemporaneous
with Tirumangai, so we are out of luck here.

(3) The commentaries on the Prabandham are reliable in that they are 
relatively free from interpolation. We also find that they are unusually
free of the hyperbole that characterizes the hagiologies and verse
biographies.  But the pUrvAcAryas tend to avoid excessive biography,
sticking mostly to interpreting the Alvar's mind.  Perhaps this is
because they realized that the life stories as they knew them were 
already a hard-to-separate mix of fact and fiction.

With respect to Tirumangai, we have one verse from Sri Parasara Bhattar's
"SrI rangarAja stavam" which describes the Alvar's involvement in the
Srirangam temple: 

   We prostrate before the many rampart walls
   and bejewelled halls constructed by the poet
   Parakala [Tirumangai Alvar] in Ranga's city,
   as if making Vedic even the jewelled images
   of the Jains and others outside the Vedic
   tradition, who were defeated!

   jita bAhya jinAdi-maNi-pratimAH 
     api vaidikayan iva rangapure |
   maNi-maNTapa-vapragaNAn vidadhe 
     parakAla-kaviH praNamemahi tAn ||  (1.36)

>From this we can gather that it was understood in Bhattar's time
that Tirumangai Alvar had taken precious Jain and Buddhist images 
and had used their material for decorating Srirangam. We do not
know how the Alvar procured the images.  The verse says that the
Jains and others were defeated, so perhaps it was in debate, but
he very well may have stolen them.

(4) The important hagiological source for Tirumangai Alvar's life, upon
which all other accounts are based is the 13th century classic, the 
"guru paramparA prabhAvam" (GPP) by pinpazhagiya perumAL jIyar. Even
this text is heavily interpolated, but even so, we learn the following 
from the original account:

  Tirumangai was born was born near Tiruvali-Tirunagari at place called
  Tirukuraiyalur.  A baby of beautiful, dark complexion like baby
  Krishna himself, he was given the name Neelan or 'the Dark One'. He belonged to
  a martial clan and was promptly trained by his father in all the military arts.  
  As he came of age, his valour was recognized by the Chola king and he was 
  appointed chieftain of a section of the kingdom and given an army to command.

  Time passed in this manner. One day, he saw a maiden named Kumudavalli
  and instantly became infatuated with her.  He immediately collected all
  manners of jewelry, garments, and other gifts, and approached her
  parents for her hand in marriage, to which they were willing. Upon asking
  the maiden, however, she refused, saying she would never marry one who
  was not a Vaishnava bearing the marks of Sankha, cakra, etc.  He immediately
  went to Tirunaraiyur and requested the Lord himself to perform the needful.
  Having secured the holy marks of a Vaishnava, he returned, but Kumudavalli
  further demanded Neelan agree to offer meals daily to 1008 Vaishnavas,
  eat the remnants of their food, and purify himself by sipping holy water
  obtained by washing their feet; only then would she accede to his request.
  Neelan once again immediately agreed, and the marriage was conducted with
  great pomp.

  True to his word, Neelan began feeding countless Vaishnavas every day.
  He slowly drained all the wealth he had acquired, and resorted to highway
  robbery to keep his promise.  One day, PerumaaL and Thaayar decided
  to bestow their grace upon this servant of Vaishnavas, so they donned
  the robes of a rich couple and strode through the woods which Neelan was
  known to rob.  Neelan sprang upon the couple and one by one removed all their
  jewelry and riches and placed them in a bag. As he was about to make his
  getaway, he found himself suddenly unable to lift the bag. He indignantly 
  asked the rich man what "mantra" he was using to make it so heavy.  PerumaaL
  said he would tell the bandit, whom he addressed as 'Kaliyan', only if
  he would show him his right ear.  Kaliyan did, and to him was revealed the 
  mantra of all mantras, the essence of all the Vedas, the ashTAkshara 
  mahA-mantra.

  The Alvar now was overcome with divine grace and broke forth in poetry,
  describing his inner experience.  He composed six works beginning with
  the Periya Tirumozhi and went on a pilgrimage of sacred sites through
  the country, singing benediction to Sriman Narayana in each place.

  Upon his return to Srirangam, he noticed that the temple was physically
  in very bad condition.  With great difficulty and some verbal sleight,
  he managed to steal a golden image of Buddha from Nagapatnam.  He melted
  the idol and used the proceeds to renovate the gopura-s and build new
  ramparts for the Great Temple, carefully working so as to not disturb
  Sri Tondar-adi-podi Alvar who was resident there at the time. 


Many later aspects of the legend are absent here, though they are present in 
some interpolated versions of the GPP.

aDiyEn rAmAnuja dAsan,
Mani

[ tortured account posted earlier follows: ]

> "TIRUMANGAI ACARYA: In  AD 1017 along with his disciples Tola Vazhakkan,
> Taluduvan, Nizhalai Mithippan and Nirmal Naddapan he (Tirumangai acarya)
> arrived at the temple of Lord Ranganatha. Seeing the temple to be in a
> state of total disrepair, "dilapidated and full of bats" he decided to
> build an opulent temple to Ranganathji, but there was no money. He
> approached every rich man in the vicinity for help, not only did they
> refuse to give him "even a small coin" but blasphemed him as well. Finally,
> Tirumangai called his disciples to him, "Now then," he instructed, "let us
> rob these rascals and use their money for building a temple and feeding the
> poor." With the assistance of his disciples, Tirumangai soon became the
> leader of a large gang of robbers. For sixty years he raided the
> countryside in order to accomplish the building of Sri Rangam, After the
> temple was built, the robbers approached Tirumangai acarya (who had managed
> to stall them all that time) asking for their share of the loot. In
> consultation with his disciple Nirmal Naddapan (who could walk on water),
> they planned an assassination. Pretending to lead the robbers to a hidden
> stash of wealth, the cunning Naddapan took the thieves out to sea and
> drowned them all. Does the building of Sri Rangam, justify the activities
> of Tirumangai acarya? Pilgrims to Sri Rangam and those who worship in the
> Ramunajacarya line, think that the acarya's association/murder of the
> thieves justified the means to an end."


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