Inspirational female saint of 12th century Karnataka

This love expressed itself through about 350 vachanas or poems in Kannada.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express

Three mediaeval women saints stand particularly tall in the Indian faithscape. The one who came last of the three (Mirabai, 16th century) is the most famous across modern India. The first two, Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka (early 12th century) and Lal Ded of Kashmir (mid-14th century) were like Mira, subject to the super-strict patriarchal rules that dictated everything about a woman’s life: her clothes, food, body language and every marker of her identity.

I would like to talk about Akka here. She was born at Udutadi in present-day Shimoga district. She was a Shaiva, married to a local chieftain, Kausika, a Jain. The Jains were a prosperous community and Akka was expected to live the life of a mediaeval ‘corporate wife’—dress well, bear her husband sons, play her part with grace and a proper sense of status. Instead, Akka ran away. Worse, she cast off her clothes, perhaps influenced by the Digambara or ‘sky-clad’ sect of naked Jaina ascetics and wore her long hair as her only covering.

What haunts us is: what could have made a very young, gently bred girl reject her protected life and wander boldly alone into the aggressive, jeering world of men? Though the details are missing from mediaeval gossip, Akka seems to have experienced a powerful emotional-erotic transference to Lord Shiva as ‘Chenna Mallikarjuna’, a name beautifully translated by the late A K Ramanujan as ‘My lord white as the jasmine’. (Speaking of Shiva, Penguin, 1973). This love expressed itself through about 350 vachanas or poems in Kannada.

Akka, moreover, had a plan. She sought to join a community, the Virashaivas, who were a new and radically democratic group of Shaivas in that region. Akka made her way to their gathering at a place called Kalyana and asked to be one of them.

Scandal had preceded her and she must have presented a strange, unsettling figure: young, passionate and naked. The Virashaiva community leader, Allama Prabhu, was caught between basic empathy as a true Shaiva with ‘all creatures’ and this severe test of belief: did ‘all creatures’ include a wild woman who broke all the male rules?

Allama Prabhu’s test questions, despite his great saintliness and impeccable credentials in the spiritual democracy department, betray that this democracy did not automatically include women. Instead there is the overpowering need of the male mind to construct a socially acceptable context for Akka’s wildness, to conventionalise her as ‘God’s wife’ if not man’s. Nor can we blame him for it, given the family was and is the unit of Indian society and it is only after the Constitution came into being that single women became gradually normalised in society outside a religious identity.

Allama Prabhu asked, “Who is your husband?” Akka answered, “I am married forever to Chenna Mallikarjuna.” Allama Prabhu then cut to the chase: “Why do you roam around naked as though illusion can be peeled off by mere gestures? Yet you wear a sari of hair? If the heart is free and pure, why do you need it?” Said Akka, with shattering honesty: “Till the fruit is ripe inside, the skin will not fall off.” Melted by her sincerity and lack of ego, Allama Prabhu accepted her into the Virashaiva fold. Akka’s view of herself may be found in this poem: 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/ O lord white as jasmine, when do I join you, stripped of body’s shame and heart’s modesty?

But after a while, her restless spirit grew sated with community life. Where was Chenna Mallikarjuna, the only being who mattered? She could sense him everywhere but, like the Sufis, she wanted him now. Tradition says she wandered off towards holy Srisailam in current Telangana and entered mahasamadhi (died a yogic death). The hagiographic ‘flash of light’ is said to have occurred, nor was her body ever found. Akka was merely in her twenties.

Her love for Chenna Mallikarjuna is found in verses like this, translated by A K Ramanujan: I love the Handsome One: he has no death, decay or form, no place or side, no end nor birthmarks/ I love him O mother. Listen/ I love the Beautiful One with no bond nor fear, no clan, no land, no landmarks for his beauty/ So my lord, white as jasmine, is my husband.

Her deep sense of viraha or separation from the divine Beloved is expressed through such poignant verses: Like a silkworm weaving her house with love from her marrow, and dying in her body’s threads/ winding tight, round and round/ I burn desiring what the heart desires/ Cut through, O lord, my heart’s greed, and show me your way out, O lord white as jasmine.

This love gradually transforms into a recognition of ‘God within’, of being part of an all-pervasive divinity, and an affirmation that God is in all things and all things belong to God. We see this in Akka’s poem: You are the forest, you are all the great trees in the forest/ you are bird and beast playing in and out of all the trees/ O lord white as jasmine, filling and filled by all/ why don’t you show me your face?

Soon after this, she disappears. She represents the profound transformation that occurs with hard-won self-knowledge. The Mundaka Upanishad (2:2:8) describes it as: Bhidyate hridaygrantish chhidyante sarva sanshayah/ Kshiyante chaasya karmaani tasmin drushte paraavare, meaning ‘The knot of the heart is cut away, doubts vanish and struggles cease, when That, the Truth, is seen.’ Akka’s words are witness to her soul-progression from fierce longing to deep awareness and remain a message for us that we are all interconnected.

(Views are personal)


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