Sharana Movement and Akkamahadevi: In Conversation with Dr Veeranna Rajur

Sharana Movement and Akkamahadevi: In Conversation with Dr Veeranna Rajur

in Interview
Published on: 25 October 2018

Varsha Nair

Varsha is a student of Political Science, having completed her Master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interests lie in the intersections of culture, religion and politics.

Kavitha Nagasampige in conversation with Dr Veeranna Rajur (October 17, 2017)


Dr Veeranna B. Rajur is a writer and retired Professor of Kannada, Dr. R.C. Hiremath Institute of Kannada Studies, Karnatak University, Dharwad. Here he talks about the Sharana movement, its philosophy and the place that Akkamahadevi’s literature occupied in it. 


Kavitha Nagasampige: How have the vachanas become synonymous with the 12th century Sharana movement?


Veeranna Rajur: Vachana literature is a distinct genre within Kannada literature. The latter has a tradition spanning about 1000 years. In the beginning there was Champu sahitya, which honoured and revered kings and pandits. It did not touch the ordinary people. Vachana literature introduced a new dimension, a new drive, a new awareness and a new thinking to this kind of literary tradition. It did not arise with the intention of becoming a literary form. 


What was its intention then? The existing environment, society, and people’s way of life during that period—all needed a change. The sharanas brought about a movement with the intention of bringing about such a change. This movement was a socio-religious movement. It is not possible for Indians to leave religion and they will not believe in anything apart from religion. Hence, it was with this intention of constructing a new society upon the base of religion that the sharanas began this movement. This social change needed a medium, right? The vachana form was created to become this medium. 


Older literature was Sankrit oriented…Sanskrit textured. Vachana in ordinary understanding means speech. But here, vachana is not merely speech as we understand in its ordinary meaning. There is another unique and distinct meaning to it. Now, we say vachana kodu (give vachana). It means give a promise, i.e., it is atmasakshiya nudi (the word of conscious), meaning conscientious speech. If such a speech must have value, it requires two kinds of behaviour: nade and nudi (action and word). Both word and action have to be one. Hence, not everyone’s word becomes a vachana. Sharanas first acted and then spoke. Hence, we call it vachana.  


The intention of these vachanas, as mentioned before, was to bring about social change. But prior to that, there is a need for change in the individual. Both, the individual and society were in need of improvement, refinement and saving. Both required a new culture. It is with this intention that they began the reform of the individual. It is called atmanireekshane (self-examination). One needs to look into oneself. One needs to confront one’s weaknesses. They need to be corrected. After that comes social change. It is regarding this that the sharanas talk about antaranga shuddhi and bahiranga shuddhi. Basavanna says: Kalabeda, Kolabeda, husiya nudiyalubeda…


Within this, there are two kinds of purification of the individual that must take place. One is antaranga shuddhi and the other is bahiranga shuddhi. In this vachana of Basavanna, kalabeda (do not steal) does not merely suggest the action of stealing, but even the thought of stealing must not appear in the mind. This is antaranga shuddhi. Before one performs the action of stealing, murdering, lying, one has thoughts regarding the same. Even these thoughts should not appear. This is antaranga shuddhi. And these thoughts should not be brought into one’s actions. This is bahiranga shuddhi


They attempted to build the individuality around antaranga shuddhi and bahiranga shuddhi. Once the individual has reformed, they can begin involving in the reform of their environment. Sharanas first reformed themselves and then began social reform, i.e., first antarangada nireekshane (inward examination) and then, bahirangada shuddhi (outward purity). Vachana literature was born out of these two reasons itself. One was vyaktitva shuddhi (individual purity) and the other, samaja shuddhi (social purity). 


How was the society prior to the 12th century? It was a graded system of society: one, there was class difference, then there was caste difference and then there was gender difference. We had a system with these three differentiations. In varga bheda (class difference), prabhu (king) was at the top, purohita (priest) below, and praje (ordinary citizen) at the bottom. So, there were three statuses in society. Rank and position of the prabhu was different from that of purohita and that was different from the rank and position of the praje. They also had different privileges and obligations. This was one existing hierarchy. 


Then there was varna bheda (caste differentiation): Brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra and a fifth  category as well. Here too, the duty and work of each caste was seen to be different. This graded system must have been accepted, but there was exploitation in it. Linga bheda (gender differentiation) also existed. Here too, the rank, duties and obligations of men and women were seen to be different. Because of these reasons the existing culture was one of difference, one of discrimination. There existed no equality. They (sharanas) saw before them a system of inequality. 


Basavanna was born within the Brahmin community and when he came of age for the thread ceremony, he opposed it saying it had not been performed on his sister: why should a culture that did not exist for his sister exist for him? So, it had to be corrected.


Mole mudi bandare hennemburu

Gadda, meese bandare gandemburu

Naduve suliva atmanu 

Hennu alla gandu alla kaana 


(If they see

Breasts and long hair coming

they call it woman,

if beard and whiskers

they call it man:

but, look, the self that hovers 

in between 

is neither man

nor woman

O Ramanatha 

-  Jedara Dasimayya (Tr. A.K. Ramanujan)


Based on appearances we determine male and female—male as noble and female as lower-most. That sort of system and thinking is present in us. The sharanas realised that this had to be broken. The soul that exists within one does not have mole (breast), mudi (hair), gadda (beard), or meese (moustache). The soul is nirakara (formless). When the soul is one, why should we differentiate based on outer appearance. This was the reason that the woman had the status of shudra in that society. 


The sharanas who witnessed all these discriminations based on varga, varna and linga chose to break it and hence, their first and immediate task was to bring forth equality. This is the reason they began such a movement and first, attempted to bring about equality. Second was freedom. All types of freedom should be available to all people: freedom for women, freedom of expression, freedom of religion—these freedoms were not available equally to everyone. 


Man has one soul. Hence, he should live together and experience everything together. All privileges must be experienced equally. The effort was to break away from this culture of discrimination and difference. This is all that is present in the vachanas. Establishing a beautiful society of complete equality was the main aim of the sharanas. This was the reason for beginning the movement. Creating literature was not their intention. This is also the reason for the existence of someone like Akkamahadevi. She was not alone. Many such sharanas came together at the Anubhava Mantapa (Hall of Experience), sat together equally, discussed, argued, and placed their opinion equally. In several instances, men were initiated into reform (by women). That was the kind of freedom the sharanas introduced. 


But why then do we call it literature? There are many characteristics to literature. In vachanas, there is no metre. In older literature, they wrote in the form of Champu kavya even in Kanda and in Tripadi (These are various genres of literary compositions in Indian literature). So literature was being created within the form of the metre. Vachanas rejected all of it. This was similar to their attempt to mobilise the social system. Literature too had an established and fixed system. One could only find champu kavya then. Everyone was writing that—Pampa, Ranna, everyone was writing the same. They kept champu as the form, picked some story from the Ramayana or Mahabharata and then composed poetry based on their own understanding. Along with that, if I were to put it in one line: Sthavara kalivuntu, jangama kalivilla


This means, what is fixed will always decay. For instance, a fixed bell will not stay strong. Without movement, it will break and will cause its ruin. There is no future for it. Only that which will change and grow has a value. Jangama means to move, it is movement, it is change. Keeping this as their main practice, wherever the system had become fixed, the vachana poets attempted to bring in a movement, introduce new changes and improvements. Such a system has to be taken into the path of development and pushed forward. 


These vachana poets did it within religion, literature and society too. What they did within literature was that they left the material of older literature. There is no Ramayana, Mahabharata or any other fictional story within their vachanas. What was present was our life, they began speaking about the difficulties of life—this could be an inward or an outward pain, it could also be societal disarray or weaknesses within the individual. So they did not speak about the stories of old, but rather stories about living and life. 


Whom were they telling these stories to? It was to the ordinary people. They wrote verses in order that people live their life. During that period, literature predominantly contained veera maulya (heroic value). This was because that was the period of war, of Kshatriyas, of war and attack. Alongside this environment, the poems also valorized this value of veera maulya. But, vachanas did not contain it. Since it arose with the intention of touching ordinary people, these vachanas adopted the ordinary language familiar to the people. It was not the standardised language, rather what we call the aadu-nudi of the common people, i.e., the spoken language. 


Also, the vachana poets, themselves, were composed primarily of ordinary people. They belonged to what are called the lower rungs of the society: they were mostly Dalits and working class people. Their main aim was to make people more literate, aware and bring about wisdom among these people they were addressing. Since they began this movement, their language also became the medium. Hence, their own language became the medium for this form called the vachanas. Similarly, their difficulties, predicaments, and ways of life, all became the material for this form. 


There is a line that Basavanna says which means, ‘I shall speak as per my understanding. You could be praising Kudalasangamadeva. But my praise will not cause you any harm. I will sing these praises as per my understanding.’ Today, they speak of freedom of expression. Basavanna spoke about it back then. He said, ‘the words I speak shall not cause any harm to the society’. Therefore, they spoke with two intentions: One for the social fight and the other for freedom of expression. 


The aim of the vachana poets was to touch the lives of people. Hence, the vachanas had to be within their language itself. They used the proverbs of their particular region; whatever was present before their eyes became the content, form, and symbols within their vachana. These were new symbols and new content. Madara Chennaiah, who was a cobbler by profession, used his chappals as symbols in the vachanas he composed. Ambigar Chowdiah, who was a ferryman, used the symbols from his profession. They brought within their vachanas various terminology, symbols and language whose source was their profession. 


Because of the freedom brought in by the sharanas, a never before seen amount of women participated in the creation of literature. Among them, the figure of Akkamahadevi stands tall. Among all the vachana poets she stands distinct—in terms of the quality itself it was very focused. 


K.N.: What do we know about Akkamahadevi’s life?


V.R.: Within Akka’s vachanas, we are able to find some sources about her life, although very little because none of the vachana poets spoke about their own life. But here and there we find some words as a source and we have tried to tie them together. Akkamahadevi was born in Uduthadi village of Shimoga district. From the very beginning she seems to have been quite spiritual. Her parents were Nirmala and Sumati. But these seem to have been symbolic names and their real names are unknown. She was born to them as Mahadevi. Akka as a prefix was added later. Their house had a spiritual atmosphere and she grew up within that. So, at a young age itself she turned to spirituality. 


When she came of age, her parents wished for her to be married. But she was not one of worldly pleasures. Her mind was into asceticism. The story goes that one day, the local king Kaushika, while out on a visit, saw her and was attracted towards her. There is not much detail regarding either the real names of this King or her parents. He places before her parents his interest in marrying her. Although the family remains confused at the beginning, possibly because he was a Jaina, they eventually wish for her to agree. 


Due to his persistence and in order to not disappoint her parents, Mahadevi relents but only after placing a few conditions for marriage, such as she would not be interrupted in her devotion to Channamallikarjuna, as well as she would be allowed to continue her service to his devotees. He agreed to these conditions. But after marriage, out of his worldly human desire Kaushika approached Mahadevi and disrupted their agreement. This made Akka walk out of the marriage. The story goes that he pulled on her sari and she walked out into the world naked. But this did not actually happen, rather she walked out wrapped in a blanket symbolic of ascetism.


Akkamahadevi was not interested in worldly pleasures or riches. She strongly believed that Channamallikarjuna was her husband and pursued her life grounded in this deep faith. It is with this understanding that she leaves Kaushika’s abode and reaches Kalyana. Here, in the Anubhava Mantapa, the sharanas put her through numerous examinations. Prabhudeva, the head there, insists that if the sharanas were to see a woman like her, they would be distracted and be affected. Hence, he asks her to reveal the name of her husband or to take leave from their assembly. 


To these examinations, Akkamahadevi stated her faith that Channamallikarjuna was her only husband. Through her arguments, Akkamahadevi convinced the sharanas and their respect for her grew to such an extent that they gave her an important place within the Anubhava Mantapa. She remained there for a while and expressed many of her opinions during the discussions. From here, she is said to have moved towards Kadali in Srisaila and is said to have united with her lord. This is her brief life story. 


Akkamahadevi produced a few different types of literature. This includes vachanas, swara vachanas (songs), Srstiya vachanas and Tripadis. So, she has produced around four types of literature. She has written more than 350 vachanas keeping Channamallikarjuna as her signature. Srstiya vachanas talk about the question of origin similar to what other vachanas poet have also written. She has also written Yoganga Trividhi, which discusses about Shiv Yoga. 


The main subject of Akka’s vachanas is distinct from other vachana poets. For instance, Channa Basavanna’s vachanas have more of philosophy, Basavanna focuses on the social aspect and Allama Prabhu emphasises mysticism. Within Akka’s vachanas, we see what is called Sati-pati bhava, i.e., madhurya bhava—the wife-husband relationship between herself and Channamallikarjuna, the feeling of separation, concern, love and happiness in the ultimate desired unity. All the emotions existing between a husband and wife are seen overflowing in her vachanas. Her language is one of madhurya, very intimate, it is simple, rhythmic and sweet. Her vachanas are not too concerned with the society. Her thoughts are constantly concerning Channamallikarjuna. 


Her life was one of immense conflict. She primarily faced two conflicts: One was the conflict within herself, of having control over one’s senses. The other was the conflict with the world outside that constantly put her through tests and harassed her through unwanted looks and thoughts. She faced both these conflicts with immense strength and hence, is held in high esteem. 


K.N.: What is the language within her vachanas?


V.R.: There were many women vachana poets. Hadapada Lingamma uses a language different from that of Akka. Similarly, Molige Mahadevi has a completely different language. Akkamahadevi, on the other hand, only spoke to Channamallikarjuna in her vachanas. She was not speaking to the society. Therefore, the language is primarily one of anubhaava and aadhyatma, i.e., mysticism and spirituality. The main feature here is madhurya or madhura bhakti. Accordingly, the language is smooth, simple and beautiful.


There are six types of devotion within the sharanas. The first is shraddhe or faith or diligence, placing faith in the linga deva. Second is nishte or loyalty towards one’s chosen god. Third is awareness. Fourth is the need to live with equality. Fifth is ananda or the happiness accompanying the harmony between the linga and anga (body). Sixth is samarasa or harmonious devotion. The sharanas do not see any difference between the anga and the linga as they belong to the same superior entity. It is from the linga that the anga has come apart. 


This world has malathrayas (such as delusion, karma, arrogance etc.), which are responsible for the ignorance of the anga or the body. To bring the anga out of its ignorance, one requires the mercy of the Guru. For the anga to realise its complete form and become one with the linga, it has to do away with these malathrayas. This requires the ashtavaranas or eight virtues that protect one from worldly desires. These include guru, linga, jangama, padodaka, prasada, vibhuti, rudraksha and mantra. To become one with the source or the supreme, there are several steps or phases, referred to as shatsthala. The phases are, bhakta, maheshwara, prasadi, pranalingi, sharana and aikya. Each phase is assigned a different type of Bhakti or devotion. 


In Akkamahadevi’s vachanas, one sees ascension along these six steps of shatsthala. Her effort was to achieve unity with Channamallikarjuna. Her focus is less on society or philosophy, and more on mysticism—inward growth or the advancement of the soul. This is not achievable for everyone and requires complete devotion of the self. Thus, Akkamahadevi’s vachanas are seen to be distinct from those of other vachana poets. She does not engage extensively with the criticism of society. Rather, she engages with self-criticism in order to wash away all her weaknesses and thus, attain unity with Channamalikarjuna. She ultimately reaches this point of harmony, she returned to that which she had come from. 


K.N.:  How many of these vachanas have survived across the centuries?


V.R.: The vachanas written within the Anubhava Mantapa were preserved within a library there, under the supervision of vachana bhandari, Shantarasa. He wrote down and collected all the vachanas of the sharanas and kept it safe within the Anubhava Mantapa


The sharanas were not merely involved in a social or religious movement, rather they had brought about a socio-religious and ideological revolution. This, as you know, had led to a strong upheaval in Kalyana and their progressive ideas were sought to be destroyed. Hence, many sharanas were killed and many others had to finally flee Kalyana. 


In such a situation, they did not attempt to protect any of their belongings, but chose to flee with their valuable vachanas. This way the vachanas became scattered in different places. It was only in the 15th century that Proudadevaraya of Vijayanagara collected and compiled together these scattered vachanas. Hence, what we presently have are not the direct copies of the 12th century vachana poets. They are mostly the ones published and compiled by a secondary source. We must have lost innumerable vachanas this way. Whatever we could find have now been collected and published.