Āṇḍāl, also known as Godā (Kodai in Tamil), is one of the twelve āzhvārs of the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition of South-India. She lived somewhere between the 6th and 9th CE. She is the only female saint of the twelve, and occupies a very special place amongst the āzhvārs. The reason for the adulation is that she embodied the concept of madhura-bhakti or bridal mysticism. In short, she looked upon God as her lover. She vowed to wed the presiding deity of Śrīraṅgam, Lord Raṅganātha.
Apart from being venerated as the crest-jewel amongst the āzhvārs, Āṇḍāl is accepted to be an incarnation of one of the eternal consorts of Lord Viṣṇu, Nīlādevī. Tradition believes that the purpose of her earthly sojourn was to instruct mankind in bhakti (devotion) and kaiṅkaryam (service). Two works are attributed to Āṇḍāl – Tiruppāvai and Nacciyār Tirumozhi. The former is an esoteric work of 30 verses with profound allegorical allusions. The verses speak of a nombu (sacred vow) undertaken by Āṇḍāl in order to wed Lord Raṅganātha. In the process she goes from one house to another, awaking all her ‘mates’ to join her in her vow. Some commentators state that the mates she awakened were in reality the other āzhvārs. She is spoken of as surcharged with divine enthusiasm for kaiṅkarya that drove her to rouse human beings from the slumber of ignorance and sloth. She ignites the fire of love and passionate service to the Lord in the hearts of her followers.
What is special about the Āṇḍāl-avatāra is that she is a synthesis of an ideal seeker, and of the Supreme. Just as she awakens the devotee, she also awakens the Lord to the needs of his devotees. She thus forges and mediates a relationship between the Lord and the devotees – a role acclaimed as that of the consort of the Lord in the Śrīvaiṣṇava faith, and a role that came to be associated irrevocably with Āṇḍāl. The Śrīvaiṣṇava faith holds that one need only to appeal for Āṇḍāl’s intercession in order to attain salvation. It believes that Āṇḍāl is the embodiment of compassion whose appeal on behalf of mankind can never fail to succeed. She becomes the via-medium through which her devotees transcend their limited experience, replacing it with a reflection of her own experience – an experience that was alive with sublimated human-emotions.
Though Āṇḍāl is accepted to be an incarnation, her earthly sojourn is not animated by miraculous events, barring the one where she merges in the idol of her beloved Raṅganātha. She embodied the purported purpose of a bhāgavta-janmā (the life of a devotee), which, contrary to belief, is not dictated by a resolved indifference and passivity. Āṇḍāl sets the tone to an active and persistent spiritual endeavor. She is an exemplar of a life where rajo-sakti is sublimated and channelized towards a satvik end; a life where emotions and passions are refined to relish an alaukika-ānanda (bliss not of this world).
The central motif of Āṇḍāl’s life is thus enthusiasm (utsāha). Her pining for Kṛṣṇa was transmuted to steely will and determined effort. Every obstacle that came her way was met with the same steely resolve. Her will was indefatigable and her enthusiasm, unfaltering. She wielded the whip of discernment (viveka) to steer her away from the throes of lesser desires, and sublimated her emotions. In essence, she focused all that is human and raw in man, upon the object of her adulation, namely Kṛṣṇa. In the process, she transmuted everything human to a higher level of consciousness.
Unlike in the order of a renunciant, she did not deny emotions or the allures of creation. Instead, she saw Kṛṣṇa in and as all of them. The artist in her is alive to every blooming bud and passing cloud. Lurking behind every blue-hued bud is the countenance of the prankster who stole her heart. Every red-fruit is the coral-lips she ached to kiss. Every passing cloud was her messenger of love, and every cooing bird, her confidante and friend. She speaks now to the white-conch seeking to know what Kṛṣṇa’s honey-lips tasted like, and now to the parrot, bidding it go forth to bring Kṛṣṇa.
In bold strokes of imagination, she painted her little town of Puduvai in hues of Bṛndāvana, and the lake by the edge of the town, in those of the sweet Yamunā. She donned the role of Nīlādevī and transformed the damsels of her town to the Gopis. In a trice, Kali-Yuga was rewound to the Dvāpara-Yuga of Kṛṣṇa’s avatāra-days. In essence, she replaced the experience of the limited self with that of an ever-expanding consciousness that finds the Absolute in every nook and cranny of creation. Thus to her, everything was Kṛṣṇa. She dove into eroticism that is innate to man, but directed it towards not gratifying the self, but towards gratifying the object of her adulation. Hence is she glorified as Āṇḍāl – The ruler (of his heart). She offered flowers of Kṛṣṇa, but unlike any devotee who was yet conscious of his separate identity from the Absolute, she offered flowers that she herself donned. She did not see herself as separate from the Absolute in essence, and hence in any way inferior. She is hence glorified as ‘Sūḍikoḍutta-Nācciyār’ – the consort who made an offering after having relished (it herself). Āṇḍāl’s enduring admonishment to mankind is summarized in the following verse –
இற்றைப் பறை கொள்வான் அன்று காண் கோவிந்தா!
எற்றைக்கும் ஏழேழ் பிறவிக்கும் உன்தன்னோடு
உற்றோமே யாவோம் உனக்கே நாம் ஆட்செய்வோம்
மற்றை நம் காமங்கள் மாற்று ஏல் ஓர் எம்பாவாய்
Govinda! Not in order to win trinkets (have we endeavored). May we serve you, with all desire for other things obviated, for seven births to come, and then seven (and so on endlessly).
Thus, her message was not so much to annihilate desire, but rather to sublimate it by channelizing it towards the Absolute. May we resort to this peerless guru in our endeavor to experience the Absolute.
भोक्तुं तव प्रियतमं भवतीव गोदे भक्तिं निजां प्रणयभावनया गृह्णन्तः।
उच्चावचैर्विरहसङ्गमजैरुदन्तैः शृङ्गारयन्ति हृदयं गुरवस्त्वदीयाः॥
bhoktuṁ tava priyatamaṁ bhavatīva gode bhaktiṁ nijāṁ praṇayabhāvanayā gṛhṇantaḥ|
uccāvacairvirahasaṅgamajairudantaiḥ śṛṅgārayanti hṛdayaṁ guravastvadīyāḥ||
O’ Godā, great ācāryās suffuse their hearts with love with the poesy of your words, that sprang forth from the impassioned longing of your heart, driven as they were by the desire to relish the lord as you did.