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.
The first of this group of saints, Poygaialvar has for good reasons been connected with the early Tondaman chieftain of Kanchi by the name Tondaman Ilam-Tiraiyan who must have lived in the same generation coming very late in it as the great Chola Karikala. His work included in the Prabandham collection comes in for referenqe by later commentators, and they invariably group it along with very early classical poems. This Alvar is invariably associated with the two others that follow him immediately in the lists and rather indirectly with the fourth. All of them are associated with Kanchi and the part of the country dependent on it, that is, Tondamandalam. Each one of the first three is the author of one hundred stanzas (a sataka) in praise of Vishnu and these form part of the fourth section of the Vaishnava "Prabandham, Four Thousand." Bhaktisara, the fourth has similarly one hundred stanzas included in this group. He has also a poem of 120 stanzas included in the first "Thousand" of the same collection. This one among the four gives unmistakable evidence of acquaintance with all that was best in the Sanskrit literature of the time. It is possible also to trace in his works references to the Vaishnava agamas.1 A fugitive stanza is generally ascribed to him which states "we have learnt the religion of the Sakya, that of the Sramanas and examined the agama work composed by Sankara (Siva). But by our own good fortune, we have put our faith in the "Black one with red-eye" (Vishnu) and got rid of all that is evil. There is nothing that is beyond us hereafter." Whether he was actually the author of this verse or no, the same idea repeats in a modified form in one of his own verses, where he puts it in a somewhat modified form as follows:
1 Tiruviruttam, Stanza 17.
"The Sramanas do not understand; the Bauddhas are in a delusion, and those that worship Siva are unknowing innocents. Those that do not worship Vishnu are of low intelligence indeed." In another place he sums up his conviction by saying that "the God that exists as the Devas, and the arrangement by which he shows himself as "The Three" (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva) among the Devas, and his showing himself in other forms besides, all this is the manifestation of Vishnu. To those that do not know this truth, all that they learn is of no value." This shows that very early in the course of this movement the essence and the teaching of the orthodox school of hhakti had assumed the form of an interpretation merely, though a liberalised interpretation, of the orthodox creed of the North. So little that is historical is known about the life of these early saints that it is difficult to postulate anything definite about their position in society. The feature of their teaching however seems to be that the way of salvation was attainable even to the uninitiated according to the orthodox standards. It is this element and its teaching by these saints that gave them the ultimate ascendency among the people even as against the rival creeds of Buddhism, Jainism and to a certain extent even of the agamaic Saivism. It was said in the poem translated in an earlier part of this work that even the Vedic Brahmans of South India had to organise themselves for purposes of controversy to expose the hollow-ness of the teachings of seemingly Vedic religions. It would therefore be reasonable to infer that this movement, represented by the Vaishnava Saints, was a continuation of the orthodox development of the Brahmanism in the south liberalised in the manner already indicated. Among these twelve saints of the Vaish-navas as among the sixty-three of the Saivas, were men and women, women being perhaps not unnaturally the fewer. There were also people of all castes. The greatest among these twelve goes by the sacerdotal name, Nam-Alvar, and he was a Sudra. What is more he does not show in the very least that his having been of this particular caste was anyway matter for regret to him. One of them at any rate belonged to the class even of Paraiya. He goes by the name Yogivaha, as according to the traditional life of this Saint, a Brahman Yogi carried him on his shoulders into the sanctum of Ran-ganatha. The story briefly is this. Being a Paraiya he could not get into the temple. He used to come none the less every morning, have his bath in the Kaveri altogether aside of the bathing ghats of the higher classes, and used to offer his devotions to Ranganatha therefrom. The god was so delighted with the single-minded devotion of this man that he directed a Brahman ascetic Bhargava who was in his hermitage not far of, to carry him to the temple on his own shoulders, as the Paraiya kept out of the holy spot lest he should contaminate the holy ground by his unholy tread. His own name was Tirup-pan Alvar. The word Pan indicated a caste akin to the class of the Paraiyas whose usual profession was that of the wandering ministrel. That is the really liberalising part of this movement. This consisted in an effort, and an organised effort too, at uplifting those who must necessarily have been outside the circle of those admissible to divine grace, so long as that grace was attainable in the exact performance of an exceedingly difficult and elaborate series of ceremonial rites. The simplification of the process for the attainment of the divine grace was in response to the needs of the time, and one might even say was so recognised as very often one comes upon the statement that for the Kaliyuga more elaborate courses were impossible of adoption.
The Vaishnava hagiologists do not give any more information about Yogivaha, and it is only a work of 10 stanzas ascribed to him that is included in the Vaishnava collection. There is nothing by which to fix his age and the probabilities are that he was one of the later saints, when class or caste distinction needed to be smoothed, and a recognised compromise between the opposing principles of religion seemed called for. Following perhaps close upon the first four, who have all been ascribed to the earliest period of the Pallavas comes in Nam-Alvar by common consent, the greatest of the Alvars. He is pre-eminently the Vaishnava Saint and stands out of the group both by the eminent quality of his teaching and by the very volume of his work - Tirumangai Alvar's contribution to this collection is slightly in excess of that of Nam-Alvar. He is known anions: those that followed him in the field of literature as the one pre-eminently who rendered Vedic lore in Tamil. They even go the length of dividing his works and classifying them according as they relate to the one Veda or another of the recognised four Vedas. Of the details of bis life we know very little and if the hagiologists could be given full credit for their statements, bis life was absolutely an uneventful, and withal a comparatively short one. He was born of Kari and his wife. Kari was the Adhikari (officer) of the village Kuruhur and belonged to the Sudra caste as was already stated. The child from the moment of its birth declined to take any nourishment and conducted itself in a peculiar way without weeping, or otherwise having food, as babies do. The parents in their perplexity consigned the baby to the God in the local temple, and found it seated in what is generally described in the Yoga n udra pose (in the pose of one rapt in contemplation) for a period of sixteen years under the sacred tamarind tree in the temple. At the end of this period he received divine inspiration and began his teaching. Such as he was, an agent was required, through whom he could give publicity to his teaching. The one found was a scholarly Brahman, somewhat miraculously directed on this mission. This saint goes by the name Madhurakavi, probably a title. He was a Brahman of the top-knot community belonging to the Tinnevelly District and of the Sama Veda section. After finishing his schooling, he went on his pilgrimage, and was in Ayodhya(Oudh) at the time. Thinking of his own native country one evening, he looked in the direction of his native place and found to his surprise a huge column of light. Somewhat taken aback by this apparition, he set forward in the direction indicated by the light to investigate what it was, till he ultimately reached the temple and the tamarind tree under which Nam-Alvar was seated. When he set forward from there he found the light in the opposite direction and thus discovered that the place indicated to him was the temple where Nam-Alvar was in contemplation. After making an enquiry and obtaining an answer which satisfied him, he adopted the Alvar as his Guru (preceptor in religion) and put himself in the position of a disciple. He then took down all that was given out by the Alvar; and what was thus given out and recorded constitutes the principal work of this Vaishnava Saint. This is called by the Vaishnavas, Tiruvaymoli, which can be rendered literally as. "the word of the mouth." But the expression Tiruvaymoli has another significance for which there is classical literary authority and that is the Veda., for the good reason that it emanated originally by word of mouth from Vishnu, and Brahma received the inspiration. The Tamils of the classical age made the distinction between Vaymoli and Marai, the first standing for the Veda and the second standing for the Upanishads, which lie hidden in the Veda. It is this distinction that seems embodied in the name given to Nam-Alvar's work, Tiruvaymoli.