Akka Mahadevi (ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ) (c.1130-1160) was one of the early female poets of the Kannada language and a prominent personality in the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century. Her 430 extant Vachana poems (a form of spontaneous mystical poems), and the two short writings called Mantrogopya and the Yogangatrividhi are considered her most notable contribution to Kannada literature. She composed relatively fewer poems than other saints of the movement. Yet the term Akka ("elder Sister"), which is an honorific given to her by great Veerashaiva saints such as Basavanna, Siddharama and Allamaprabhu is an indication of her contribution to the spiritual discussions held at the "Anubhava Mantapa". She is in hindsight seen as an inspirational woman for Kannada literature and the history of Karnataka. She is known to have considered the god Shiva ('Chenna Mallikarjuna') as her husband, (traditionally understood as the 'madhura bhava' or 'madhurya' form of devotion).
She is considered by modern scholars to be a prominent figure in the field of female emancipation. 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 chose spiritual enlightenment and stood by her choice. It is commonly known that she took part in many gatherings of learned such as the Anubhavamantapa in Kalyana(now Basava Kalyana) to debate about philosophy and attainment of enlightenment (or Moksha, termed by her as "arivu"). In search for her eternal soul mate, Lord Shiva, she made the animals, flowers and birds her friends and companions, rejecting family life and worldly attachment. Bhakti recorded a rethinking of the ashrama dharma which suggested a stages-of-life approach that began with the pursuit of education and ended with the pursuit of moksha.
Akka was a revelation here in that she pursued enlightenment recording her journey in vachanas of simple language but great cognitive rigor.
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 favour 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, travelling 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
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
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
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.
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
A. K. Ramanujan who first popularised the vachanas by translating them into a collection called Speaking of Siva. Postcolonial scholar Tejaswini Niranjana criticised his translations as rendering the vachanas into modern universalist poetry ready-to-consume by the West in Siting Translation (1992).
Akka Mahadevi describes her love for Lord Shiva as adulterous, viewing her husband and his parents as impediments to her union with her Lord. She talks about cuckolding the husband with Shiva and taking her lord (shiva) as her husband. Terming relationship with mortal men as unsatisfactory, Akka Mahadevi describes them as thorns hiding under smooth leaves, un-trustworthy. About her mortal husband she says "Take these husbands who die decay, and feed them to your kitchen fires!". In another verse, she expresses the tension of being a wife and a devotee as
Husband inside, lover outside.
I can’t manage them both.
This world and that other, cannot manage them both.
- The Hindu : Karnataka / Mysore News : Fresh controversy courts spiritual leader Mathe Mahadevi
- The Hindu : Book Review / Language Books : Biography of a mystic poet
- The Hindu : Karnataka / Shimoga News : A pleasant surprise for the people
- Chakravarty, Uma (1989). "The World of the Bhaktin in South Indian Traditions - The Body and Beyond" (PDF). Manushi. 50-51-52: 25. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
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