Akka Mahadevi was born in Udutadi, near Shimoga in the Indian state of Karnataka. The year of her birth is believed to be around 1130. Some scholars suggest that she was born to a couple named Nirmalshetti and Sumati, who were both devotees of Shiva. Little is known about her life, however, it has been the subject of hagiographic folk and mythological claims, sourced both, in oral traditions, as well as from her lyrics. One of her lyrics, for instance, appears to record her experiences of leaving her place of her birth and family in order to pursue Shiva.
Tharu and Lalita also document a popular claim that a local Jain king named Kaushika sought to marry her, but that she rejected him, choosing instead to fulfil the claims of devotion to the deity Shiva. However, it is important to note that the medieval sources that form the basis of accounts of Akka Mahadevi’s marriage are themselves ambiguous and inconclusive. Elaborations on this account include a referral to one of her poems, or vachanas, in which she lays down three conditions on which she agreed to marry the King, including a complete control over the choice to spend her time in devotion or in conversation with other scholars and religious figures, as opposed to with the King. There is some dispute over whether the marriage did in fact take place: the medieval scholar and poet Harihara suggests in his biography of her that it did take place but was a marriage in name only, while other accounts from Camasara suggest that the conditions were not accepted and the marriage did not occur.
Harihara’s account, which suggests that a marriage did take place, goes on to provide that when King Kaushika violated the conditions she had laid down, Akka Mahadevi left the palace, renouncing all her possessions including clothes, to travel to Srisailam, believed to be the home of the god Shiva. Alternative accounts suggest that Akka Mahadevi’s act of renunciation was in response to King Kaushika’s threats following her refusal to marry him. It is likely that she visited the town of Kalyana, en route, where she met two other poets and prominent figures of the Lingayat movement, Allama and Basava. She is believed to have travelled, towards the end of her life, to the Srisailam mountains, where she lived as an ascetic, and eventually died. A vachana attributed to Akka Mahadevi suggests that towards the end of her life, King Kaushika visited her there, and sought her forgiveness.
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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 clothinga 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
Akka Mahadevi’s works, like many other Bhakti movement poets, can be traced through the use of her ankita, or the signature name by which she addressed the figure of her devotion. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she uses the name Chennamallikarjuna to refer to the god Shiva. The name Chennamallikarjuna can be variously translated, but the most well-known translation is by the scholar and linguist A.K. Ramanujan, who interprets it as ‘Lord white as jamine’. A more literal translationn would be ‘Mallika’s beautiful Arjuna’, according to Tharu and Lalita.
Based on the use of her ankita, about 350 lyric poems or vachanas are attributed to Akka Mahadevi. Her works frequently use the metaphor of an illicit, or adulterous love to describe her devotion to Chennamallikarjuna (Shiva). The lyrics place Akka Mahadevi as actively seeking out a relationship with Chennamallikarjuna (Shiva), and touches on themes of abandon, carnal love, and separation.
The direct and frank lyrics that Akka Mahadevi wrote have been described as embodying a “radical illegitimacy” that re-examines the role of women, not just as actors with volition and will, but in opposition to established social institutions and mores. At times she uses strong sexual imagery to represent the union between the devotee and the object of devotion. Her works also challenge common understandings of sexual identity; for instance, in one vachana she suggests that creation, or the power of the god Shiva, is masculine, while all of creation, including men, represent the feminine: “I saw the haughty master, Mallikarjuna/for whom men, all men, are but women, wives”. In some vachanas, she describes herself as both, feminine and masculine.
Akka Mahadevi’s works, like the works of many other female Bhakti poets, also touches on themes of alienation: both, from the material world, and from social expectations and mores concerning women.
Translations and Legacy
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). Kannada translator Vanamala Vishwanatha is currently working on a new English translation, which may be published as part of the Murty Classical Library.
Akka Mahadevi continues to occupy a significant place in popular culture and memory, with roads and universities named after her. In 2010, a bas relief dating to the 13th century was discovered near Hospet in Karnataka, and is believed to be a depiction of Anna Mahadevi.
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.