Alvars and Religious Pluralism

Alvars and Religious Pluralism

The aim of the present book is to explore relevant insights for a ‘life sustaining pluralistic perspective’ from, ‘the response to religious pluralism in the bhakti tradition of Ālvārs’, using textual-historical and analytical method.  Although the texture of Nālāyiram was religious mobility and its purpose was to defend the greatness of Vaisnavism and superiority of Visnu, there are challenging aspects, which indeed can inspire the contemporary Christian theology of religions.
The Ālvārs propounded prapatti, which people of all class and grade could practice, in the place of bhakti, which is confined to caste hierarchy and strict religious observances.  In spite of its openness, the bhakti tradition of Alvarsconstantly maintained that, the ultimate reality is one and that is Tirumāl.
Vaisnavites and Śaivites were united with one accord in their struggle against the Buddhists and the Jains.  Otherwise, the response of Alvars to Śaivism was no way different from their response to Buddhism and Jainism.  The traditional understanding is that the revival in Hinduism in the form of Alvars and Nāyanārs was responsible for the decline of Buddhism and Jainism in south India.  But there are other reasons like the atheistic tendency of these non-Vedic religions, strict rules and regulations prescribed for the adherents and above all the lack of royal patronage.
The Ālvārs’ epoch was preceded by the Cańkam and that was evident in the poems of Alvars and their response to religious pluralism.  The Alvars used the Cańkam poetic principle called akam in their poems to express their intense relation with God.  Their radical attempt to use Tamil in the place of Sanskrit was unique in that they did not make a complete departure from Sanskrit but used Tamil and Tamil poetical skills to convey the content of Sanskrit religious texts.  The religious tolerance prevailed in the Cańkam period was reflected in the response of the first three Alvars to people of other faiths.
The general characteristics and the life accounts of Alvarsreveal a constant struggle between the Vaisnavites and other religions, philosophies and sects for religious supremacy.  The life accounts are written by Ācāryas who succeeded the Ālvārs.  The Ācāryas had taken maximum efforts in presenting the Alvarsas distinctive devotees of God Visnu.  For them the Alvarsare not ordinary human beings, because they were not born of ordinary human parents.  They are the incarnations of Lord Visnu’s weapons, ornaments and vehicles.  Thus they are the descent of the parts of Visnu.  But Nālāyiram, the composition of the Alvarsreveals them as ordinary human beings who came under the control of divine grace, by the grace of God alone, and never wanted to depart from that grace.  The delight of their intense relation with God and the unbearable pain of even the accidental separation from Him are forcefully expressed in Nālāyiram to convey the greatness of Visnu and Vaisnavism.  The life account of each Ālvār is portrayed in a way to communicate the superiority of Visnu over other deities.
In order to present the superior nature of Ālvārs, the Ācāryas had attributed them mythological dates, which in no way correlate with the historical dates given by the modern critical scholars.  There is also no agreement between the mythological dates and the life incidents of Ālvārs. 
The presence of a woman and people from different caste groups in the band of Alvars are radical reformations in their response to religious pluralism.  These have a lot of implications for a contemporary Christian theology of religions in India where discriminations on the basis of caste and gender are prevalent.
The Ācāryas popularized the Nālāyiram.  They wrote commentaries on the works of Ālvārs.  These commentaries are written from the point of Visistādvita.  Through these commentaries, the Ācāryas once again brought Sanskrit into prominence.  The once ignored caste discrimination, again began to influence Vaisnavism.
The Ācāryas were responsible for the significance of Nālāyiram in the religious life of Vaisnavites.  Certain commentaries have become foundation for Vaisnava theology.  The Ācāryas introduced the practice of placing the images of Alvarsalong with other major deities and offering worship to them.
The entire collection of Nālāyiram represents Tirumāl as the Supreme God. The Ālvārs’ preference for prapatti in their response to religious pluralism enabled it to be more people-oriented and simple to be practiced.  They have prescribed several forms of religious practices of which the devotee is free to choose the convenient one, which will enable him/her to achieve the spiritual goal.
The poems of Alvars are not philosophical treatise.  They are the spontaneous out-pouring of their passionate religious experience.  The Ācāryas attributed more philosophical interpretation to the hymns.  Even otherwise, the Alvars never failed to establish the fact that the ultimate is one and that one has manifested in various names and forms.
The internal evidences in the Nālāyiram testify that the Alvars mainly focused on Śaivism, Jainism and Buddhism except for the random references to other philosophical schools, in their response to religious pluralism.
In their response to Śaivism and other Hindu religious sects, the Ālvārs’ stand was not static.  They present Śiva and other gods as subordinate to Tirumāl.  For them Tirumāl created Śiva, Brahma and other gods.  He protects them.  They worship Tirumāl, and they cannot fully understand Him.
In some places Tirumāl is presented as the indweller of these gods.  At other places other deities are said to live in the body of Tirumāl.  At the same time there are hymns, which present Tirumāl and Śiva as equal in the form of Hari-Hara.  The most significant strand of response comes in the form of presenting Visnu, Śiva, Brahma and other gods as the different manifestations of Tirumāl to fulfill various purposes.
The response of Alvars to Jainism and Buddhism was a little harsh.  The Alvars accused them of people who are living outside the purview of the Vedas.  They were presented as people who hate the knowledge of Vedas and disrespect the Vedic gods.  Their practices are criticized as base and immoral.  They have no dignity of life.  Their arguments are unfounded.
The number of direct references against the Jains and Buddhists are handful and they suggest that the Vaisnavites’ main concern was to strengthen Vaisnavism against the prominence of Śaivism.  Among the very few direct references against the Jains and Buddhists, few are positive in tone.  Nammālvār mentioned that the Jains and Buddhists worship gods who are in fact none other than Tirumāl.  And Tirumāl is the one who bestows the requests of all who approach God through various religions.
The response to religious pluralism in the bhakti tradition of Alvars was even towards Śaivism on the one hand and Buddhism and Jainism on the other.  It is not possible to bring the response of Alvars under any single perspective.  Sometimes each Ālvār has represented more than one line of response to people of other faiths.  In other words, there is scope for exclusive, inclusive, relativist and pluralist perspectives in the bhakti tradition of Ālvārs.
As the author followed textual and historical method, it may be accepted that the pluralist perspective present in the bhakti tradition of Alvarsin the form of ‘one-many’ paradigm is relevant for a contemporary Christian theology of religions.
It is relevant because, Indian people have a tendency to accept the various names and forms of God as the manifestation of the one supreme reality, which cannot be fully comprehended by humans.  Each religion is a process in understanding the ultimate, which is a mystery.  Accepting the ultimate as mystery solves the issue of many religions on the one hand and binds people of different faiths together for one purpose.  The realization of common ontological pedestal demands that, people express their ontological oneness in the midst of several forms, through participation in the struggles of life.
The analyses of Nālāyiram, using textual and historical method reveals that the texture of the text is multi religious and it was the response of Alvarsto religious pluralism.  In the response of Alvars to religious pluralism there is scope for a life-sustaining pluralist perspective.
This is evident from the Ālvārs’ insistence upon the importance of spiritual foundation for any transformation, their concern for human dignity, the liberative motives in the poems, their disregard for caste discriminations, their respect for the concerns of woman, their religious use of the beauty of nature, their use of regional language and their use of inclusive liturgy for God.  These are evidences to affirm their commitment to the ultimate mystery in the form of Visnu and the response of their commitment in the form of life concerns.
An evaluation of the Christian theology of religions too echoes that a contemporary Christian theology of religions can be anchored on the ultimate mystery, through various channels.  The movement of the Alvars in spires theology of religions that the consideration of the ultimate as mystery and all faith traditions revolves around that same mystery, in the form of ‘one many’ paradigm.  The commitment to the mystery should be expressed in the forms of involvement in the struggles of life.  Thus, what is relevant today is, a life sustaining pluralist perspective.
Life sustaining pluralist perspective is the need of the hour because, today, religions are used to destroy life rather than preserving it.  They are also used to exploit the innocent religious sentiments of people.  Further life is threatened from various levels through human-made calamities.  The main tasks of theology of religions will be to save religion from its misuse and to use the potentials of religions for strengthening and protecting life in all possible ways.  This is possible only through a strong commitment to the ultimate mystery, which all humanity is striving to comprehend.
Life sustaining pluralistic perspective is reflected in the life of Jesus.  He was committed to the ultimate mystery and addressed it as father, even though he did not know fully well the secrets of God about His coming into the world.  Jesus, because of his commitment to the father became life centered.  That is, his mission was to save life from all forms of peril.  He wanted religion and religious observances to be sources of strengthening life, but not disregarding life.
The insights drawn from the response of Alvars to religious pluralism are relevant for a contemporary Christian theology of religions, which is life sustaining pluralistic perspective.  The foundation for such an approach is the result of accepting different forms of religions as various attempts to comprehend the mystery.
The commitment to the mystery provides the common meeting point of all and it binds the differences together.  This commitment calls for a genuine spirituality among people of all faiths.  Unless there is a strong spirituality, the present maladies of the world will not be solved.  Genuinely spiritual and spiritually matured people alone will be able to effect the required change in the world.  This change is needed in all religions.  In this process, theology of religions may play the role of a facilitator.  Unless theology of religions is grounded on sound spirituality, it will not be successful and may not achieve the objectives.  Thus the primary requirement for a relevant contemporary theology of religions is a sound spirituality.  Only genuine spirituality can help religions escape from the various forms of abuses.
The second main requirement for a theology of religions is its commitment to the concerns of life in the world.  Unless theology of religion is directly involved in the concerns of life it will not be relevant for the present situation.  It involves the efforts of theologians of religions in motivating all faiths to join hand to protect life from all possible threats.
The third lesson is that the theology of religions should be committed to fight against all forms of oppressions and discriminations.  This is inferred from the efforts of Ālvārs to eliminate caste hierarchy.  It is not just fighting against the oppressions and discriminations but to emancipate the victims from their enslavements.  This is apparent from the presence of a woman and saints of all castes in the band of Ālvārs.
The Alvars have revealed the inherent riches and divinity of nature in their poems.  Besides accepting the divinity of nature it was used to convey their intense relation with God.  There was close relation between religions and nature.  The present situation forces itself to be away from nature, which is an alarming process.  Religions, which are in the process of comprehending the ultimate mystery, may show their commitment, by coming closer to nature in order to save life.
Another significant element is that the theology of religions should reach the common people in order to be effective.  This is a drawback in most theologies.  But it is learned from the response of Alvars to religious pluralism that, theology of religions to be effective, it should take into account the richness of local traditions like language.
It is also learned from the Alvars that, an inclusive liturgy is needed for the contemporary theology of religions in order to recognize the different potentials in theology of religions.  A comprehensive and inclusive language can create smooth relationships and convey dignity and recognition to all members.  These are the possible insights that the contemporary Christian theology of religions might draw from the response of Alvars to religious pluralism.  These insights may change according to the context.  Therefore, theology of religions may not be always static, and it shall be open to new challenges.
            The uniqueness of life sustaining pluralist perspective is that it accounts for the many religions in the quest for the ultimate mystery.  The ultimate mystery binds all religions and differences together so that all feel an ontological uniting point to actively engage in the struggles of life, to sustain life in all possible ways.  In it, the problem of ‘one-many’ is solved on the one hand and the liberative role of religions is realized and put into action on the other.  In other words, in it, the spiritual and social converge without each missing its specific role.  In practice, the spiritual takes precedence and the social emerges from the former.
It is also in line with the present theological developments that more attention may be given to realities of life rather than debating on inconclusive and controversial dogmas and doctrines.  It is not foundationless spiritual utopia but affirmation of deep commitment to the mystery in the forms of participating in the struggles of life to sustain it in all possible ways.  This is the justification for the existence of many religions around the one mystery and the many struggles of life that concerns everyone.
Life sustaining pluralist perspective is the need of the hour because it is time that every religion realizes that adding number is not the prime need but allowing and empowering religions to enhance life.  At the same time committed endeavors of the theology of religions should not be dubbed as efforts of conversion.  It is time that the theology of religions makes it clear that it is striving to respond to the misuse of religions -fundamentalism, politicization, terrorism etc., and not otherwise.
For the Christian theology of religions, life sustaining pluralist perspective is relevant for the contemporary situation.  It affirms commitment to the mystery through Jesus on the one hand, and actualizes the response to such commitment in the form of continuing the discipleship to carry out the life and mission of Jesus to the world on the other.  Thus the missionary task of theology of religions is very demanding and challenging.
As the book is limited to the study of the response of Alvars to religious pluralism, there is need for further research to investigate the impacts of their theology of religions at various levels.  The main reason for such an enquiry is that there was a great shift of emphasis from the time of Alvars to the Ācāryas who succeeded them.  It is proposed under the assumptions that the Ācāryas were keener on philosophy rather than real life. The once ignored caste hierarchy persisted again in the form of Vatakalai and Tenkalai.  The emancipatory insights and the admiration for the divinity of nature might not find place in the philosophical language of the Ācāryas.  The dramatic change was obvious in the preference for Sanskrit or mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil in the place of Tamil.
These preceding findings testify that the scope of the Christian theology of religion is very broad.  It is not a concealed means for narrow religious ends, like increasing the number of adherents in a particular faith tradition.  Rather, it is committed to perceive religions from the point of pluralism and explore the possibilities of inter-religious relations for the sake of life, which is common to all.  The consideration of the elements drawn from the bhakti tradition of Alvarsfor a contemporary Christian theology of religions can be beacon to many more similar attempts.


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