Akka Mahadevi

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An murti of Akkamahadevi consecrated in temple at her birthplace, Udathadi
A popular vachana (poem) composed by Akkamahadevi

Akka Mahadevi (ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ) was a prominent figure of the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century Karnataka.[1] Her Vachanas in Kannada, a form of didactic poetry, are considered her most notable contribution to Kannada Bhakti literature.[2] In all she wrote about 430 Vachanas which is relatively fewer than that compared to some other saints of her time. Yet the term 'Akka' (elder Sister), which is an honorific given to her by great Veerashaiva saints like Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, Kinnari Bommayya, Siddharama, Allamaprabhu and Dasimayya, speaks volumes of her contribution to the movement that was underway. She is in hindsight seen as a great and inspirational woman for Kannada literature and the history of Karnataka. She is said to have accepted the god Shiva ('Chenna Mallikarjuna') as her husband, traditionally understood as the 'madhura bhava' or 'madhurya' form of devotion.

Born in Udutadi (or Udugani) near the ancient city of Banavasi (in Shikaripura taluk Shimoga district).[3] She was born in 1130CE and lived until 1160. She worked for the welfare of women.

Mythology[edit]

A statue of Akkamahadevi installed at her birthplace, Udathadi

She is a prominent figure in the field of female emancipation and a person of mystical vision. A household name in Karnataka, she had said that she was a woman only in name and that her mind, body and soul belonged to Lord Shiva. During a time of strife and political uncertainty in the 12th. century, she launched a movement that made her an inspiration for woman empowerment and enlightenment. It is commonly known that she took part in many gatherings of learned at the Anubhavamantapa in Kudala sangama to debate about philosophy and attainment of enlightenment (or Moksha, termed by her as "arivu"). In search for her eternal soul mate, she made the animals, flowers and birds her friends and companions, rejecting family life and worldly attachment. The time was marked as height of foolishness of varnashrama dharma which only supported the three upper castes of Hindu society in India and suppressed the shudras and women.

Akka was a revelation here in that she not only rose for emancipation but also has sung vachanas which are so simple but of highest order.

It is said that Mahadevi was married by arrangement to Kausika but later did not as the king disrespected some conditions set by her. There were immediate tensions, however, as Kausika was a Jain, a group that tended to be wealthy and was, as a result, much resented by the rest of the population. Akka's poetry explores the themes of rejecting mortal love in favor of the everlasting love of God. Her vachanas also talk about the methods that the path of enlightenment demand of the seeker, such as killing the 'I', conquering desires and the senses and so on.

She rejected her life of luxury to live as a wandering poet-saint, traveling throughout the region and singing praises to her Lord Shiva.

She went in search of fellow seekers or sharanas because the company of the saintly or sajjana sanga is believed to hasten learning. She found the company of such sharanas in Basavakalyana, Bidar district. Akka utters many vachanas in praise of them. Her non-conformist ways caused a lot of consternation in a conservative society and even her eventual guru Allama Prabhu had to initially face difficulties in enlisting her in the gatherings at Anubhavamantapa. A true ascetic, Mahadevi is said to have refused to wear any clothing—a common practice among male ascetics, but shocking for a woman. Legend has it that due to her true love and devotion with God her whole body was protected by hair.

All the sharnas of Anubhavamantapa, especially Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, Kinnari Bommayya, Siddharama, Allamaprabhu and Dasimayya greet her with a word “Akka”. In fact it is here onwards that she becomes Akka, an elderly sister. Allama shows her the further way of attaining the transcendent bliss of ultimate union with Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna. Akka leaves Kalyana with this following vachana:

“Having vanquished the six passions and become The trinity of body, thought and speech; Having ended the trinity and become twain - I and the Absolute Having ended the duality and become a unity Is because of the grace of you all. I salute Basavanna and all assembled here Blessed was I by Allama my Master- Bless me all that I may join my Chenna Mallikarjuna Good-bye! Good-bye!”

This dramatic situation of Kalyana Parva in Akka Mahadevi’s life is an indication of the beginning of the third phase of her life. In the first phase she had renounced the worldly objects and attractions and in the second, discards the entire object based rules and regulations and in the third phase she starts her journey towards Srishila, where her eternal lover Chenna Mallikarjuna’s temple locates. Also it is the holy place for devotees of Shiva since before the 12th century. Akka’s spiritual journey ends at Kadali the nearby thick forest area of Shrisaila (Srisailam) where she is supposed to have experienced union (aikya) with Chennamallikarjuna.

One of her famous vachana translates as

People,
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
comes loose

When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?

When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?

Her poetry exhibits her love for Chenna Mallikarjuna and harmony with nature and simple living.

She Sang:

For hunger, there is the village rice in the begging bowl,
For thirst, there are tanks and streams and wells
For sleep temple ruins do well
For the company of the soul I have you, Chenna Mallikarjuna

Recent work on the period[citation needed] suggests that understanding Akka Mahadevi as an inspiration for 'women's empowerment' is a deeply anachronistic reading. Such readings it is argued[citation needed] were products of the colonial schemes of interpretation that initially took great interest in Virasaivism, for its declarations about Shiva as the Supreme God. These fervent declarations of love and devotion were taken[citation needed] to be philosophical arguments for Monotheism by the British (Orientalist) historians.

It was A K Ramanujan who first popularized the vachanas by translating them into a collection called Speaking of Siva. But his translations render the vachanas into modern universalist poetry ready-to-consume by the west. This is critiques by postcolonial scholar Tejaswini Niranjana in Siting Translation (1992).

References[edit]

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