The Bhakti movement that flourished across various literary cultures, gave rise to a distinct genre of expression in Kannada. This was the vachana, loosely understood as free verse poems or sayings, which arose within the Kannada literary tradition during the 12th century sharana movement. Although it did not develop with the exclusive intention of turning into a literary form, the language used by the sharanas, the content of their vachanas and the people they addressed through these vachanas, broke with the existing literary canon in Kannada and consequently, brought about a defining turn in Kannada language and literature.
While the vachanas reflect various aspects of Bhakti, the vachana poets lay great emphasis on the unity of speech and action. This unity, they stressed, is central to the worship of Shiva. Thus, vachanas—these passionate dialogues in pursuit of union with the ishtadevta (sharana’s chosen form of Shiva for worship)—not only break with the existing literary tradition, but also reject social divisions, hierarchies, formal structures of learning and worship, and pursuit of worldly pleasures. Here, the unity between what one says and how one acts is central to aikya (union) with the Lord.
It is under the Lingayat saint-poet Basavanna that the sharana movement grew expansively, turning the city of Kalyana into an important center of interaction and dialogue for the sharanas. At Kalyana, Basavanna set up the anubhava mantapa (hall of experience) with the intention of attracting the sharanas to hold important discussions around social, spiritual and political issues. Thus, it is no surprise that this period witnessed the flourishing of vachanakaras (vachana poets).
Even though there existed a broad similarity amongst the sharanas, each had their own spiritual experience and way of communicating their devotion, love, angst, struggle and journey to be one with the ishtadevta. As we swim through the vachanas of Basavanna, Allama Prabhu, Akkamahadevi, Jedara Dasimayya, Molige Mahadevi, Chennabasavanna and the numerous other vachana poets, one is struck by the vast differences in their pathways and the absence of a rigid religious doctrine in many instances.
Each had their own language of intimation while reflecting on the social and spiritual realities. For instance, Basavanna’s vachanas are strong commentaries on the socio-political realities, while Allama Prabhu is mostly mystical in his vachanas and employs an esoteric language. Akkamahadevi’s vachanas are astounding in their lyrical expanse and the force of devotion in them sways one. Such distinct expressions are visible among the 200 or so vachanakaras whose vachanas are now available to us. It is important to note that although these vachanakaras came from all sections of society, the vast majority of members were those marginalised along the lines of caste, class and gender in 12th century Karnataka.
Scholars have attempted to recognise patterns within these distinct voices and classify vachanas in many ways (Tr. Chandrashekhar 2005). One such classification is based on the theme or content of the vachanas. These range from theological, mystical, devotional to socio-political. Similarly, vachanas are also categorised as sarala and bedagina. Sarala refers to vacanas communicated in simple language unlike the bedagu form that employs a complex language of ‘paradoxes and inversions’ to most often communicate mystical experience (Shivaprakash 2010).
In terms of structure, the vachanas were distinct from other religious literature and literary forms. They did not adopt a metre form such as the champu or tripadi, which were the dominant forms then. The vachanas also stand distinct from other religious scriptures as seen in their opposition to both the agamic and vedic traditions. The vachanakaras restrained themselves from purely otherworldly spiritual explorations and chose to expound a devotion grounded firmly in the philosophy of kayaka or labour. This had a lot to do with the large number of members who came from the labouring classes, such as Chowdiah, the ferryman; Madivala Macayya, the washerman; the barber Hadapada Appanna; Ketayya, the basket maker and so on.
It is not surprising then that a significant number of women were a part of this 12th century shaiva movement, creating a fertile ground for the emergence of many women vachana poets. The anubhava mantapa was a space where women came forward in discussion and debate and in the process gave birth to vachanas that present an account of their own spiritual struggle.
There are around 35 sharanes (term for women in the sharana movement) whose vachanas are now available to us. Speaking about these shivasharanes in the vachana movement, Vijaya Guttal states:
‘The shivasharanes speak their minds freely and confidently. They criticized personal and social hypocrisy, corrected even their own husbands and in a sharane like Akka Mahadevi, we come across an intellectual and spiritual peak of the movement… These vachanas are a proof of the ability of the women writers to think and to conceptualize. The Shivasharanes argued that the path of the mystic is the same for both male and female.’ (Guttal 2012)
It is impossible to miss this message in the vachana of a sharane like Goggavve:
One who grows breast and braid of
Hair is called a female.
One who grows moustaches and beard
Is called a male.
Is the knowledge in either
Female or male,
(tr. Yaravintelimath 2003:167)
Undoubtedly, the luminous figure of Akkamahadevi stands out from amongst all the sharanas and captivates us today as much as she captivated her contemporaries in the 12th century. Despite the numerous myths and legends surrounding Akkamahadevi, it is through her vachanas that we gain insights into her journey from her birthplace Uduthadi, to Kalyana and finally to the forests of Kadali in the Srisailam hills. This poet, saint, wanderer, mystic and seeker impresses both, in terms of the sheer volume of vachanas she gave us (close to 400) as well as the intensity of the experience contained in them. She writes:
Born in this world I follow the way of the world.
Possessing a form, I go with the form.
I am involved physically in this world,
But in my mind I have forgotten it.
Like a burnt rope, I still keep the form,
O my Lord Cennamallikarjuna,
Being one of the eleven,
I am like a lotus in the water.
The lyrical unfolding of Akkamahadevi’s devotion to her Lord, Chennamallikarjuna, becomes one of the fiercest voices of dissent even centuries after the flourishing of the sharana movement. Hence it is, important to attempt to grasp the capacity of her vachanas to pull us in; the absolute freedom and joy we experience while wandering along in her footsteps, despite the fact that she evades every rigid category we place to fathom her devotion, in pursuit of aikya (union) with her Lord Chennamallikarjuna.
Being gentle, I pour water for your birth.
Being calm of mind, I worship you.
With mutual love I sing to you,
O Sir, Cennamallikarjuna.
Such a worship as shall never
Separate me from you become mine.
Apart from her vachanas, there are almost no other resources to historically ascertain the events of Akkamahadevi’s life. Hence, many myths and legends have accumulated over the years surrounding various episodes in her life. Although her journey is well traced by many of her hagiographers and anthologists who compiled her vachanas, these happened from the 13th century with a very definite political purpose to develop the Virashaiva faith (Tyagi 2014). Her earliest biographer was Harihara who penned the poetic, Mahadeviyakkana Ragale.
Akkamahadevi was born as Mahadevi in Uduthadi to parents who seem to have already been ardent devotees of Shiva. Akka or sister was later added to depict the respect and sense of endearment with which the sharanas held her. Accounts suggest that a Guru, who blessed her with the Istalinga, introduced her to the worship of Shiva at a very young age. Thus, shunning the material world and its worldly men, she adopted her chosen god, Chennamallikarjuna, as her husband.
Regarding her marriage, there are disagreements among her numerous hagiographers. Some scholars, including Harihara, hold the opinion that she caught the attention of the local King Kaushika and was forced into a marriage with him but on the condition that he would not disrupt her religious practice. Other scholars insist that she never married anyone except her divine lord Chennamallikarjuna. As per popular legend, the marriage did take place but as A.K. Ramanujan put it, the rivalry between the divine lover and the human love seems to have come in the way (Ramanujan 1973).
Akkamahadevi was unable to reciprocate Kaushika’s worldly desire for her as she considered herself betrothed to Lord Chennamallikarjuna. Kaushika’s advances towards her seem to have come in the way of her worship and hence, she is said to have walked out of the marriage. Many oral retellings and legends suggest that she walked out naked, renouncing all worldly desires, including her clothes, while others suggest that her hair grew out suddenly to protect her from the advances of Kaushika. Thus began her journey as an ascetic-wanderer in pursuit of her divine lover Chennamallikarjuna.
Although Harihara’s account finishes here, other accounts suggest she reached Kalyana and spent an important period at the anubhava mantapa. The interactions that took place here are compiled in the 15th century anthology of vachanas called Sunya Sampadane. This text, ‘which gives a poetic account of the spiritual deliberations held in the Anubhava Mantapa by the Sharanas, provides a moving description of how Akka Mahadevi was put to an acid test by the Sharanas before accepting her into their fold (Guttal 2002).’
Her exchange with Allama Prabhu is deeply insightful, not merely regarding her spiritual status, but also regarding her absolute surrender to her beloved, Chennamallikarjuna. Her entry into the anubhava mantapa is preceded by a series of questions by Allama Prabhu (Tyagi 2014):
Why come you hither, pray,
O woman in the lusty bloom of youth?
At the word woman our sharanas
See red! If you can tell
Your husband’s identity, come sit;
Else pray, be gone!
If you desire the joy of fellowship
With our Guheshwara’s sharanas,
Tell who your husband be,
(tr. Bhoosnurmath and Menezes 1970, vol 1V: 293)
Further, Allama questions her state of consciousness and attachment to the sense world:
What does it mean:
That God loves you and you love God?
Shedding your garment when your spirit is pure,
Why do you cloak yourself in hair?
This shame that lurks within your heart
Thus shown outside: it will not please
Akkamahadevi’s response to these accusations establishes her detachment from the world of desire. When Allama tries to ascertain why a woman who claims to have reached a state of union with the Lord would be conscious of covering her body, Akkamahadevi’s response is one of absolute rejection:
Unless the fruit is ripe within,
The outer peel will never lose
Its gloss… I covered myself
With this intent:
Lest sight of seals of love
Should do you hurt (your sensibilities)
Is any harm in this?
Pray do not tease me who am
In Cennamallikarjuna, God of Gods.
As Vijaya Guttal states:
‘The unique feature of Akka's spiritual attainment is her supreme self-abandonment, tearing all veils and walking naked into the Light of Truth. If this is a signifier, on the one hand, of the supreme surrender to the divine will, on the other hand, it stands as a signifier of the utmost defiance of all social conventions as well.’ (Guttal 2012)
It is impossible to escape the power of her realisation:
What if the body is dark and withered, O Lord
What if the body is glowing and glittering, my Lord
After the inside is pure,
O Lord Chennamallikarjuna
What matters if
How the body you love is?
(Tr. Chandrashekhar 2005:16)
Hearing the humbling response of Akkamahadevi must have brought about a change of heart in the sharanas who then allowed her entry into the anubhava mantapa. Basavanna, Allama Prabhu and Chennabasavanna also go on to honour the heights of her spiritual attainment and the brilliance of her words in their own vachanas. Even with this acceptance and respect she eventually received amongst the sharanas, Akkamahadevi pushed forth in her journey. Emerging out of Kalyana, Akkamahadevi continued her journey in search of the divine and is finally said to have found union with her Lord Chennamallikarjuna in the dense forests of Kadali in the Srisaila mountains of Andhra Pradesh.
It is rightfully stressed that Akkamahdevi’s vachanas transfix us with the element of bhakti or devotion she expresses towards Chennamallikarjuna. Often, there is an attempt to explain this element of bhakti through the expression sharane sati linga pati (Sharna as the wife and Linga, the husband), highlighting the madhurya bhava. But this remains true of most poets within the sharana tradition, both male and female. Akkamahadevi envisions her relationship with her lord beyond the terms of such an expression. Absolute surrender to the divine, spontaneity of her love, pain of separation, urgency of its expression, angst of being stuck in this profane world, and the joy of self-abandonment are all beyond the limits of what can be captured within the madhurya bhava. For instance:
O father! The hell of knowing you is really salvation.
O father! The liberation of not knowing you is really hell.
O father! The joy without your love is really misery.
O father! The misery with your love is really joy.
O father Chennamallikarjuna!
I live on,
As if the bond you tied me down with is no bond.
In another instance, she makes it clear to the world that there is only one man for her, both in this world and in the other:
Should there be one husband in this world
And another in the other world?
Should there be one husband for worldly purpose
And another for spiritual purpose?
My husband is none other than
All other gods are like puppets hidden in the sky.
The urgency of her journey, this pursuit of aikya with the Lord is brilliantly captured in the vachana below. It also expounds on her journey through the profane world and all the weaknesses that creep up as a consequence of worldly needs:
Hunger, you keep away
Thirst, you keep away
Sleep, you keep away
Lust, you keep away
Anger, you keep away
Delusion, you keep away
Greed, you keep away
Arrogance, you keep away
Jealousy, you keep away
Things moving and unmoving stay away
I am carrying an urgent letter to Chennamallikarjuna.
Salutations to you.
(Tr. Chandrashekhar 2005:12)
Bhakti that is an important part of attaining spiritual transcendence cannot be achieved merely in the sweet joy of love. It requires a surrendering of the self to the divine, a love that bleeds out from the self that seeks to merge with the divine:
Like a silk worm weaving its home in love
Out of its own secretion
And dying encircled in its own thread
Craving whatever comes to mind
I burn O Lord
Blot out the greed of my heart
And lead me towards you O Chennamallikarjuna.
Akkamahadevi does not merely wait for the desired union, but calls on Chennamallikarjuna to test her love. The urgency of her vachanas not only captures the pain of her longing, but also communicates the desperation inherent in this longing.
Make me go with hands outstretched
Begging from house to house O Lord
When I beg, make them not give O God
Even if they give, O Father,
Make it fall to the ground
And when it falls, Lord
Make the dog pick it up
Before I pick it up O Lord Chennamallikarjuna
Unmistakably, she not only pursues aikya, but many of her vachanas suggest she had already experienced the love of the divine and become one with the Lord. This attainment of mystic love is seen in many of her vachanas such as:
Does the barren woman know the birth pang?
Does the stepmother know the cure?
The pain of the afflicted
Where do the unaffiliated know?
The blade pierced by Lord Chennamallikarjuna
Breaks inside and twists round-
That pain, oh mothers, where do you know?
Similarly, in another instance we hear her say:
Why make me talk, the one
Whose head is disheveled,
Whose face has faded, whose body has melted?
Why make me talk, O Fathers,
Who has become caste-less
By merging in Cennamallikarjuna,
After having become a devotee
With no strength of body,
With no taint of birth, and
With no strength of mind.
Significantly, Akkamahadevi, unlike many sharanas, sees men as posing a hindrance to the path of enlightenment and a challenge that she must overcome. This is important as many sharanas see only women as maya, an illusion to be distanced from in the path to spiritual transcendence. Akka presents a different picture without singling out either of them:
To a true woman, man becomes impure.
To a true man, a woman becomes impure.
If the impurity of mind is mitigated,
Will there be any room for the impurity of body?
O Sir, the world became mad of the impurity that never existed.
To my Great God Cennamallikarjuna,
The whole world became a woman,
Look, O Sir!
Maya haunts the ego of a man
In the form of a woman.
Maya haunts the ego of a woman
In the form of a man.
To this world of Maya
A Sharana’s madness seems like Maya.
For a Sharana who has the love of Chennamallikarjuna,
There is no Maya, no madness, no ego.
(Tr. Chandrashekhar 2005:6)
Akka’s vachanas are a haunting experience for those choosing to read through her journey. It is also a visual delight in equal measure. As H.S. Shivaprakash puts it, ‘…Akkamahadevi's vachanas are full of images of a journey through villages, towns and forests. Her keen sensitiveness to sights and sounds of nature make her one of the most magnificent nature-poets in the language… Her vachanas are her dialogues on all these planes with her beloved lord, men, women, animals, plants and objects (Shivaprakash 2010).’
You are the whole forest
And all the divine trees in it
You are all the birds and beasts
Playing in and around the tree.
Why don’t you show yourself to me
Who are contained in everything
Chirping parrots, have you seen, have you seen?
Koels singing in high notes, have you seen, have you seen?
Sporting and playing bees, have you seen, have you seen?
Swans playing next to the pond, have you seen, have you seen?
Peacocks playing on hills and in caves, have you seen, have you seen?
Tell me, if you have seen or not where
(Tr. Chandrashekhar 2005:13)
It is impossible to be amidst the vachanas of Akkamahadevi and not experience the physicality of her words. The impact is almost tangible. It is no surprise then, that even today, writers in Kannada and beyond, especially women including those who do not write, attempt to draw her journey into their own lives in order to make sense of the incommunicable.
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—— tr. 2010. Introduction to I Keep Vigil of Rudra. India: Penguin Books.
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