[ Transcribed from a lecture given by Sri Atmatattva Das ]
There were twelve Alvars who appeared in South India. Not all at the same time, but over a period of several centuries. They established the basis of the Krishna bhakti cult in the kali-yuga. The appearance of such great devotees in the Kali-yuga is predicted in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Srimad-Bhagavatam was spoken at the beginning of the Kali-yuga, and when Krishna left this planet then he took with Him dharma. The Vedic dharma at that point disappeared, or became invalid, and spiritual knowledge was also obscured. But it says in the same verse that Lord Krishna left the Srimad Bhagavatam for the people in Kali-yuga to get light out of.
Now still, the book Bhagavata was there but they also needed the person Bhagavata, or one who lives the Srimad-Bhagavatam. In other words, they needed the spiritual master. So in the initial stage of Kali-yuga, the first few centuries, these twelve Alvars appeared in South India, and actually established the basis of what would later on become the four Vaishnava sampradayas. The four sampradayas all had their origin in South India, and the founders of these sampradayas each in their own way drew, to a greater or lesser extent, from this tradition of the Alvars, especially in the Lakshmi sampradaya, but it is also there in our sampradaya too, and in the others. The Radha Krishna cult is the further development of the devotional tendency of loving God in close fellowship and in the spirit and relation of a woman to her husband or lover. This tendency is striking in the Prabandham of the Alvars. Goda, the famous woman Alvar, is said to have been married to the Deity Ranganatha of the Sri Rangam temple. Tondaredipodi Alvar (Bhaktanghri Renu in Sanskrit) expresses in his Tirup Palliyeducci (Paramatmar Jagarana in Sanskrit) that to serve and love God one’s spiritual body is the summom bonum of one’s service to God.
One of the Alvars was known as Bhaktisara. He was living at Sri Rangam, and he was living very, very simply, like a babaji. He would sit at Sri Rangam. Around the temple are 7 walls, and between the walls are some areas like streets where people would walk and live. So Bhaktisara would sit in that street area, or in the courtyard of the temple, and he would sit in the sun and sew his cloth. He wore old, old cloth, and he would sew it and maintain it until practically speaking it was unwearable, and only then he would he go and find some new old cloth. And because he purposely kept himself impoverished, he used to sew it with a broom-straw, this would be his needle. And on the end of it he would tie a thread. Then he would take his old torn garment and sew it. So he used to be seen often, sitting somewhere in the Sri Rangam complex sewing his cloth. One day Lord Shiva and Parvati were flying over the sky just above the earth. By flying like this, their shadow was cast upon the ground. So where ever this shadow would fall, naturally people became very enlivened in their material desires. But when the shadow fell on Bhaktisara, they stopped and observed him. Bhaktisara was sewing, and then he looked around and saw this shadow. He could understand that this shadow is inspiring one to have material desires. So thinking, “This is inauspicious,” he moved out of the shadow.
Parvati turned to Lord Shiva and said, “What is this? Everyone else is so eager that we may give benediction, that they rejoice if they catch sight of us or if our shadow falls on them. But this person is moving out of the shadow. What does this mean?”
Lord Shiva replied, “He is a great Vishnu bhakta. We have no business with him. He doesn’t need anything from us.”
Parvati said, “No, no, no. Everyone wants something from us. Everybody has material desires and wants them fulfilled. Let us go down there.”
So they went down there, Parvati and Siva, and they appeared before Bhaktisara, who was just sewing his cloth. Then Parvati, who was standing behind Lord Shiva said, “Offer him heaven.”
Lord Shiva said, “My dear devotee of the Lord, we have come down before you to give you a benediction, so I am offering you the svarga-loka, the heavenly world. You may go there.”
Bhaktisara didn’t even look up, he just kept on sewing and ignored them. So then Parvati said, “Offer him the post of Lord Brahma.”
Bhaktisara ignored this also, and continued sewing his cloth. Parvati was becoming more and more agitated, so she said, “Offer him a form just like yourself.”
Lord Shiva said, “So will you take a form or a position just like mine?”
Then Bhaktisara looked up and said, “You’ve already got enough trouble.” He was referring to the fact that although he was the great Lord Siva, he was still being pushed around by Parvati.
So then Parvati said, “He must ask something from us. So just tell him to ask for a benediction.”
Lord Shiva said, “All right, if you don’t want any of these things I am offering, then you pick something, because you must take a benediction from us.”
Bhaktisara said, “Well, you give me liberation from material existence.”
Lord Shiva said, “That’s one thing I can’t give.” Lord Shiva himself says “mukti pradata sarvesam Vishnu eva na samsaya.” One who wants mukti has to approach Lord Visnu. So he was caught in an embarrassing situation when Bhaktisara asked for that, something he could not give. “I’m sorry, but this is something that I cannot give.”
Bhaktisara said, “Then what is the use? What is the use of you and your benedictions?”
Lord Shiva said, “You must take something from us, because we have come to offer you a benediction.”
“All right,” Bhaktisara said. “While I sew, the thread is always coming off the needle, because that is only a broomstraw. So you please make some arrangement that this thread becomes attached to the back of the straw so I can finish sewing my cloth.”
At this, Parvati became enraged. “He’s insulting you! You can give him the universe, and he’s asking for such a minuscule thing. This is an insult. You must do something.”
So then Lord Shiva opened his third eye, and a tongue of flame came out towards Bhaktisara. Bhaktisara saw this tongue of flame coming, so he pressed his foot to the ground, and from where he pressed his foot an even greater flame came out, devoured that flame from Lord Siva’s eye, and started to pursue Lord Siva. Lord Siva was running around Sri Rangam temple with this fire following him. So he went before the deity of Ranganatha and prayed, “My dear Lord, I have made a great mistake today by offending your devotee. Please help me.” So the Lord instantly conjured a Vaikuntha cloud, and this was raining a kind of nectar. Because it was a Vaikuntha cloud, within a very short time the whole area of Sri Rangam was totally flooded. In this way the fire of Bhaktisara was extinguished, but the whole temple was covered, like a big lake.
Then suddenly Bhaktisara appeared on top of the lake, like a cork. He was just sitting on top of the water still sewing his cloth. Very quickly the water subsided. Lord Shiva appeared before Bhaktisara and blessed him. He gave him this name – Bhaktisara. Bhakti means devotion, and sara means essence. So this name means, “the essence of devotion.”
Lord Shiva said, “Your attitude and devotion to Lord Vishnu is the essence of devotion, because even if Lord Siva comes, you do not want anything from him, although all the materialists are desiring.”
Another time there was a shuktihara, a magician flying through the sky on his tiger. Bhaktisara was again sitting sewing his cloth. And then when he flew over Bhaktisara, his tiger couldn’t stay in the sky, it fell to the ground. He came down to earth, and he was wondering, “What is this? Why can’t we fly here?” And then he saw Bhaktisara, and he could understand, “Oh, it must be by the influence of this saintly person that my magic is rendered null and void.” The magician became pleased, because he could understand “He is very, very advanced. He is so pure that this kind of mystic jugglery I am doing does not function in his presence.” So being very pleased with him, he wanted to reward him. He took from his shoulders a very, very expensive ornamental cloth that he was wearing. You can just imagine, he’s a wizard so he’s got to be dressed really far out. It had gold sewn into it and diamonds and rubies and emeralds all over it. So he took it off, and he presented it to Bhaktisara, “You please accept this.” As soon as the cloth touched Bhaktisara’s hand, it was transformed into an old rag with holes, the type which Bhaktisara was accustomed to wear, something fit for Bhaktisara to wear. And then Bhaktisara took his cloth that he had been wearing, and gave it to this shuktihara, and as soon as the shuktihara took it, the cloth became like molten diamonds, like a diamond jelly. It was very valuable, and the shuktihara was very pleased to receive this.
[Bhaktisara, Bhakthisara, Alvar, Azhvar, Thirumizhisai]