This section is from the book "Some Contributions Of South India To Indian Culture", by S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar. Also available from Amazon: Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture.
1 Stanzas 8 and 9 of the poem ascribed to Madhurakavi.
It was already pointed out that to the Vaish-navas Nam-Alvar is the type of Alvars and stands pre-eminently as the representative of the whole group and their teachings, so much so, that in the daily recital of the Vaishnava creed, Nam-Alvar alone is counted among the section of "Holy Preceptors," proceeding from the actual preceptor of the individual backwards to Vishnu himself, among the Alvars. This acknowledged pre-eminence is owing entirely to the character of Nam-Alvar's works as it is acknowledged to embody the whole essence of Vedic teaching. So much is clearly stated to be the case by Madhurakavi.
One other point that comes out clearly from what little we know of the life and work of Nam-Alvar is the emergence of a preceptor (guru) as essential to the attainment of salvation by the individual. The whole burden of the teaching of Madhurakavi in the short poem ascribed to him amounts to this and no more. Madurakavi states clearly that having found the preceptor in the Alvar, his salvation was as good as guaranteed to him. This notion of the essential need of the preceptor comes out in another poem included in the Prabandham 4000, where a disciple of Ramanuja's chief follower Kurat-talvan, by name Amudan of Srirangam, makes a confession of his faith in this creed of his own salvation being the responsibility of his preceptor so long as he had taken the pains to discover the suitable one and put his faith in him. The idea of the need of a preceptor could not be said to have been non-existent at any stage of this kind of development of the teaching of the bhakti school, whether Saiva and Vaishnava; only at this particular stage in the history of Vaishnavism it emerged into greater prominence as it does in regard to Saivism in the case of Manikkavasagar. The importance of this development consists in this that bhakti or devotion as the means to attain salvation develops certain prescribed methods for prosecuting this work of devotion to God which become essential. The approved method begins at first to be simple, but as various influences come to bear upon this personal devotion to God it gets modified in the attempt at effecting a compromise with other lines of thought. A methodised and formal system of worship emerges as the result of the compromise, the adoption of which in the rough and tumble of ordinary life becomes impossible to a great many people. At this stage it becomes necessary that a class of people take up the actual and unerring performance of these acts of worship, and leave the bulk of the people to proceed in the simple style of the earlier and the more primitive form of personal devotion. This naturally develops into each man or woman finding a suitable preceptor whose duty it will be to direct the individual in his daily life and take the responsibility for the attainment of his salvation. Prom out of this ultimately develops the doctrine of self-surrender that one puts his faith in God, and places the burden of his salvation upon Him through one of His instruments on earth in the character of a worthy and accredited preceptor. This emergence of the Guru and the doctrine of self-surrender, which is implied in the idea of the preceptor, becomes an essential portion of the creed hereafter and develops more fully as we advance from the age of the Alvars into that of the so-called Acharyas of the Vaishnavas.
Nam-Alvar was followed in the course of centuries by the six others of whom Kulasekhara, a king of Travancore, is a representative of unalloyed devotion. There is one sloka of his Sanskrit work Mukundamala which summarises his unlimited devotion and faith in the saving character of God. As a free rendering, ' he has no ambition either for the acquisition of merit (l)harma) or for wealth; nor for the enjoyments of this world or other. He would let things take their course shaped by his previous deeds. He would only make one prayer and that is that, whatever may be the number of his births to come, in all of them his devotion to the feet of God may remain unchanged and firm'.
Periyalvar and his daughter Andal, each one shows this devotion with a peculiarity all their own, and the last of them Tirumangai Alvar brings this group to an end chronologically. He was, according to the traditional account, an official of some importance in the Chola kingdom, and had his place of birth and office in the Tanjore District. He got his inspiration in a very peculiar way in the act of committing robbery upon a Vaishnava bridal party said to have been composed of no other than Vishnu himself and his followers, and thereafter he gave up secular life and devoted himself entirely to works of service to Vishnu and the Vaishnavas. This aspect of his life is indicated in the arrangement of his works which begin with 10 stanzas, each one of which ends in the refrain where he breaks out into the declaration that he had discovered the saving truth in the name Nara-yana. His works constitute the largest portion of the Prabandham, and count more than 1,300 stanzas out of the 4,000 of the total. They are far more elaborate in their mode and matter, and are considered by the orthodox to be more or less an elaborate commentary upon the teachings of Nam-Alvar in particular. If tradition preserved by the Vaishnavas could be relied on, he organised the teaching of Nam-Alvar to the extent of celebrating annually a festival in honour of this Saint, where Nam-Alvar's works were recited in extenso. This is what continues to be done to-day, though after a break between Tirumangai Alvar and the first Acharya Natha-muni in the so-called Adhyayana Utsavam in Srirangam in the month of December-January. There are references in his works to some contemporary kings among the dynasty of the great Pallavas which enables the inference that he was probably a contemporary of the great Pallava Nandivarman I, who was himself a Vaishnava probably, and that gives us the age of this Alvar to be the latter half of the ninth century. It will thus be seen that the age of the Vaishnava development represented by the Alvars and their works could be brought into the six centuries extending from A. D. 200 to A. D. 800 approximately, by tradition alone which happened in this particular case to be confirmed by various other items of circumstantial evidence. The teachings of the Alvars must have been of the same character as the teaching of the Saiva Adiyars, and required to be organised for the effective creation of a school of that teaching to come into existence. What was said about the effort of Tirumangai Alvar to set up an annual festival and get people to recite the works of Nam-Alvar in Srirangam indicates that the need for organising it had already begun to be felt, but the organisation thus created seems to have fallen early into desuetude and remained for sometime so, so that when the first Acharya started active work the whole of Nam-Alvar's works had so far got into neglect as to have been forgotten. It is by a revival of the teachings of Nam-Alvar and by a provision against a similar neglect afterwards that the succession of Acharyas came into being. This "Acharya Parampara" of the Vaishnavas begins with Nathamuni, and continues in an unending series down to the present time, each section of the Vaishnavas having its own list; but all the Vaishnavas however have a certain number of names in common and they cover the first eight or ten generations of these preceptors.