Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi

Sky-Clad

The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi,

by Mukunda Rao, was published by Westland Publications, Chennai,

was launched on 15th April 2018.

 

 

Inner voice was her guru

DEEPA GANESH

APRIL 12, 2018 16:23 IST

Speaking of his recent work Sky Clad on the 12th century saint poet Akka Mahadevi, author Mukund Rao says it is more an intuitive response to this extraordinary figure than a historical narrative

“Among the 12th century Shiva Sharana poets, I always have been moved and fascinated by Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi. If Allama quickened my understanding of advaya or non-dual philosophy, Akka had me wishing I was born a woman,” writes Mukunda Rao, the author of “Sky Clad: The extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi”, in his Preface. To Akka Mahadevi, he further says, the body was a fundamental truth unfortunately ignored in most narratives on spirituality.” His earlier book, “The Buddha: An alternative narrative of his life and teaching”, also emphatically argues that “the concept of the body is altogether missing in the discourse of spirituality”. Continuing from there, this work on Akka brings body to the centre of his narrative, yet again. With two plays, two novels, a reader on the most influential thinker U.G. Krishnamurti, Mukunda Rao has written eight books in all.

Excerpts from an interview with the author:

In the huge pantheon of Vachanakaras, you chose to write about Akka Mahadevi. What drew you to her?

She is the most compelling figure, not only because she walked naked, ‘breast to breast with the cosmos’, but also because she opened up a radically new dimension to our understanding of spirituality, which, unfortunately, has been lost in traditional translation. To Akka body was not a prison of the soul, rather, it was the seat of Divinity, the crucible of truth. This should make us review our traditional religious discourses where the body is seen as an enemy of spirituality.

And, I must also point out that, although the vachana movement forms a compelling background of her life. We also need to see her outside the framework of vachana movement to be able to appreciate her extraordinary journey, which, according to me, puts her up there on the spiritual map of the world.

The body is central to Akka Mahadevi’s spiritual quest. As you write, she doesn’t live in a denial of her body, but celebrates it. How did the other spiritual traditions respond to the idea of body as a seat of spirituality?

With the exception of certain streams within Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the Tantra school of thought, almost all the religious/spiritual discourses—including Christian and Islamic traditions—are hopelessly caught in the dichotomy or dualism between spirit and matter, body and soul, soul and God, male and female (wherein the male principle is privileged), spirituality and materialism and so on.

In these religious discourses the body is seen as a sort of ‘enemy’, a dangerous customer, who needs to be controlled and disciplined in one’s spiritual enterprise. However, the attempts made either in the past or in the present to overcome this duality, to remedy this defective view, have been unfortunately subsumed under discourses which were and are mainly framed in psychological terms, so much so that the body continues to be regarded as an obstacle to be overcome in one’s spiritual quest. This must change. But I tell you, when you knock off these dualities or binaries—which produces false consciousness — most of these religions or spiritualities would collapse and the religious gurus would be unemployed.

There were 30 other women Vachanakaras during her period, and those like Bonta Devi who were considered to be on par with Allama. What made Akka so special?

Unfortunately we don’t know much about Bonta Devi and other women saranas of the times, certainly not as much as we know of Akka. However, in hindsight, we might say that she was the most remarkable one among the Shiva saranes, who blazed a path all her own. She was the kind of light you could not hide under a bushel!

Akkamahadevi was born with an instinct for the absolute, and her entire life’s journey, if one may say so, is a movement towards attaining it. Often, we tend to read Akka as a rebel against patriarchy, as a radical feminist etc. Are these readings complete?

Yes, she had an instinct for oneness, unitary consciousness. And she was certainly a rebel of an extraordinary order and there’s no problem in calling her a radical feminist. A genuine spiritual person is the ultimate rebel! For she rejects all man-made social norms, even the cumbersome clothes. Patriarchy is not only oppressive of women, it has been the source of fictitious binaries that divide up life into almost irreconcilable conflicts. It continues to be the bane of humankind. Patriarchy is rank bourgeois and radical feminists identified it as such. Akka knew it in her bones, as it were, and challenged the monster by walking naked. And, eventually, went beyond gender.

What does the term “brahminical order” encapsulate?

By the term ‘brahminical’ we don’t necessarily refer to Brahmin caste or those born in Brahmin family. That would be silly and incorrect. It only means an ideology, such as, for instance, the terrible caste system, pancha-sutakas, or the five kinds of pollution or impurities associated with women, temple worship and priestly class, and spiritual authority linked with Brahmin caste and the Vedas. Over several centuries, kings, rulers, and even people cutting across all castes have been aggressive supporters of this ideology.

Is God as husband belief very typical of Veerashaivism?

It is typical of the way of bhakti. Even men bhaktas take on feminine roles, speak through female personae and yearn for their male god as women do for their lovers. The strong sexual imagery in their compositions — of both men and women — is actually indicative of the deep yearning for mystical union, the great urge to self-transcendence in physical terms. The physical becomes the soul of the ‘metaphysical’. In the way of bhakti, the poet joins the bodily experience with the transcendental so that the spirit speaks through the ‘flesh’.

Women saints perhaps occupy a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they reject patriarchal values, but within their spiritual quest they seem to pursue them. For instance, they call themselves sharana sati, or the brides of God etc. But there is also a point where they cross this binary. In saints like Akka and Meera you can actually miss this transcendence. Akka writes in worldly language, as in “Ganda Neenu Hendatiyaanu Mattobbarillayya” and with equal intensity writes of surrender and aikya, as in “Teraniya Hula”. Would you explain this process from the bhava to the anubhaava?

Tradition talks of varieties of bhakti, but mainly there are two strands to it: seeking and being with God within the circle of bhava. It is a devotional relationship between devotee and God and remains so till the end. The bridge is never crossed, the relationship is never transcended, although there may be sometimes a flash of an urge to transcend the separation.

Mira, Avvaiyar, the Alvars, and the Dasas are good examples of such bhakti immersed in smaranaarchana and sakhya. Then there is the other kind of bhakti, what you call seeking and becoming God. This may start as intense love for a personal God, characterised by viraha, forlornness, or an acute sense of separation, which eventually ends in absolute surrender, and finishes in the dissolution of the relationship and realisation of oneness. Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Lalleshwari and Kabir exemplified this kind of transcendental bhakti. In short, it is the journey from bhava, emotions, relationship, to anubhaava, unmediated vision of reality or truth, where there is no more seeking, no separation, and duality disappears. We don’t know how exactly this happens and therefore, you can never explain this phenomenon in definite terms.

As regards women saints rejecting patriarchal values and yet pursuing them does appear to be a paradoxical situation.

You have to live and move in a society shaped by patriarchy. But render patriarchy toothless, it can’t bite you anymore, because you are inwardly free of it. Akka and Lalleshwari are typical examples here, and eventually they moved beyond all binaries.

So much has been written about Akka in Kannada. What were your fears when you set out writing this book?

Writing about someone who was an embodiment of fearlessness, I could not afford to be bothered by any kind of fear or anxiety. I have taken firm positions; for instance, I do not think you would want to see Akka as belonging to Virashaiva faith.

Like Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi, too, just cut loose from religious initiations and stages of becoming and came upon that which has no name and form. Her bhakti was the path, her inner voice the guru, and she promptly moved from bhakti to arivu – awareness that all is one. To read and narrate the story of Akka Mahadevi within the framework of Virashaivism, therefore, would be analogous to writing about Gandhiji within the framework of the Congress Party.

By the way, Basavanna didn’t call himself or his fellow bhaktas as Virashaivas or Lingayats. The term ‘Virashaiva’ was first used by Bhimakavi in his Basava Purana, a 14th C text, and then later by the authors of Shunya Sampadane. And the name stuck.

Your research is exhaustive… how long did it take to complete the book?

I had to of course read several books in the original, in Kannada, especially the different versions of Shunya Sampadane. But I am more an intuitive writer than one steered by the study of books. It took a long time to finish the book. Sky-Clad is more an inspired narrative than a studied historical work. There was joy, and agony, too, because you wanted to get under the skin of Akka and become her.

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A book on Akka, as Lingayat row rages

Rajitha Menon, Apr 13 2018, 19:03 IST

Bengaluru-based writer Mukunda Rao’s latest book ‘Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi’, tells the story of one of the foremost feminist and spiritual icons of Indian history.

It is a comprehensive new reading of her story, “one where the body is seen not as the prison of the mind or soul, but as the ground of intelligence, creativity and enlightenment.”

Mukunda Rao, who taught English at a college in Bengaluru for about three decades, has written novels, plays, and books on Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Buddha and philosopher U G Krishnamurthy.

Ahead of his book launch on Sunday, Rajitha Menon asked him about the subject of his latest book.

Why Akka Mahadevi?

Akka was a fascinating person. Unfortunately, not many people know about her outside Karnataka. Her life, her journey and the potential she was able to realise are remarkable.

Which books provided the material for your novel?

Many, some dating back to the 15th century. A more important source is ‘vachana’ poetry, which gives you a sense of the kind of person she was.

Akka is worshipped and revered by the pious, and at the same time seen as a symbol of rebellion and defiance…

Many like Akka and Allama Prabhu, even Ramana Maharshi, continue to be put in the religious frame. Within that, there is very little you can understand about them. Their writings indicate the possibility of realisation of great human potential. That is how they should be approached, and not through the confines of religion.

How do you separate myth from history when it comes to Akka?

The so-called history is also largely fictional (laughs). There are different perspectives on history. When you look at it that way, this question doesn’t arise.

Which of Akka’s vachanas do you like the most?

There are so many, I can’t pinpoint any unless I open a book and read. Her vachanas show her evolution; there is bhakti, love, a sense of wonder, and ultimately you see her going beyond the binaries.

What about the 12th-century poet would you say is relevant to today’s young people, especially the millennials?

Relevance is also politicised from time to time. Human beings have been the same for thousands of years, everywhere in the world. I think these writings speak to us even now. An Akka Mahadevi, Buddha or Ramana are more relevant today than some of our cultural and political leaders. Religion has become dictatorial, it is spirituality which is democratic and pluralistic.

What challenges did you face while writing your book?

Most of the old texts are hagiographies; they put their subjects on a pedestal and make them totally irrelevant to your life. This disconnect should be overcome and we must look at them as human beings – what they tried to achieve, what their aspirations were, what they experienced, what kind of life they led.

What is your take on the separate religion status for Lingayats, since Akka is one of the leading lights of the faith?

This is controversial. In the vachanas of the 12th-century vachanakaras, you don’t see any mention of the terms ‘Veerashaiva’ or ‘Lingayat’. I believe a group called ‘Veerashaiva’ existed at the time of Basavanna; he didn’t have a very high opinion of them as they accepted the authority of the Vedas. I asked an elderly woman born in a Lingayat family what she thought of the controversy, and she said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything to me; I am a Shiva devotee’. That’s how the vachankaras saw themselves.

Poetry of intensity

Akka Mahadevi is a revered figure in Indian literature. She lived in the 12th century and wrote vachanas, spontaneous mystical poems that defied literary and social conventions. She was one of the most inspiring voices of the bhakti movement led by Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. Akka shunned clothes and celebrated her body as a seat of divinity. Her poetry is intensely lyrical, and she is studied across the world for her radical approach to life and spirituality. Her poetry is available in English translation. A K Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (Penguin) features lovely translations of some of her verses. Mukunda Rao’s Sky-Clad is a rare attempt to tell her story in English. Women poets in languages across India cite Akka as a prime inspiration.

Launch on Sunday

Film director Kavitha Lankesh releases the book ‘Sky-Clad’ at 10.30 am on April 15 at Ranga Shankara. The book is priced at Rs 299 and is also available online.

 

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Mukunda Rao’s book Sky-Clad is an extraordinary tribute to one of the greatest women saint poets in Kannada, Akka Mahadevi. 

Growing up in a Kannada-speaking home, it would have been nearly impossible for me not to have heard of Akka Mahadevi, even if it was only through Pt Mallikarjuna Mansur’s mellifluous rendering of her vachanas. But if anybody had asked me who exactly Akka Mahadevi was, I would have given you just the standard, obvious answers. A 12th century sharane (devotee). The composer of lyrical vachanas (prose-poems). A spiritual icon of the bhakti movement.

But now, thanks to Mukunda Rao’s Sky-Clad: The extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi, I have a much deeper sense of Akka Mahadevi. She was much more than I thought. A rebel. A radical feminist. A free spirit who broke with tradition, challenged existing notions, fought against patriarchy and walked her own, blazing path.

Engrossing and well-written, the book takes a close look at Akka Mahadevi’s life and times. It sees her not as just an icon, but as a person — an extraordinary one, perhaps, but still human.

The author Mukunda Rao, a former teacher, is the author of acclaimed books of fiction, philosophy, and plays. In his introduction, he says that while working on his book In Search of Shiva, published in 2010, Akka Mahadevi gripped him and wouldn’t let him go until he wrote a full-length book on her. Sky-Clad is the result.

Akka Mahadevi was born around 1130-1150 CE, in Shivamogga district of Karnataka. She was a beautiful woman, who, very early in life, had discovered spirituality and had “chosen” Lord Chennamallikarjuna as her husband. But King Kaushika, besotted with her, forced her into marriage, threatening her family with dire consequences if she refused. She agreed, on certain conditions – that he wouldn’t stop her from living as she wished to. When Kaushika broke his promise, Mahadevi shed her clothes, and walked out of the palace, naked, in search of spiritual realization. She walked 800 kilometers through forest and villages to Kalyana, the home of the Shiva Sharanas, including stalwarts like Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. She was welcomed, and she participated in the “Anubhava Mantapa”, an open platform to discuss and share experiences – caste and gender no bar. Around this time, she started being referred to with the honorific “Akka” – elder sister.

Later, Akka Mahadevi went to Srishaila, and there, she attained aikya (oneness with Chennamallikarjuna) in the hill-caves of Srishaila.

In the book, the author traces Akka Mahadevi’s journey, and her life and outlook, in the background of the spiritual movement of that period, a time of great ferment and revolution, which provides a context to Akka Mahadevi’s life.

Akka Mahadevi’s spirituality was unique in that she wasn’t influenced by anyone, and nor was she a mentor to anybody else. Her spiritual journey had always been her own, it had come from within her.

She composed about 355 vachanas in praise of her Lord, and they are considered to be one of the finest examples of lyrical poetry in Kannada. The author traces Mahadevi’s spiritual journey through her vachanas.

For instance, the author points out that some vachanas speak about her Lord in physical terms – “white teeth and small matted curls” implying that she saw him as “saguna” (with form). And then, it moves on to formlessness (nirguna).

Like the colour in the gold
weren’t you in me?
I saw in you,
O Lord Chennamallikarjuna,
the paradox of your being in me
without showing a limb.

Finally, some of her vachanas imply that she started seeing herself as one with the Lord, and she has no words to describe that state.

I do not say it is the Linga.
I do not say it is oneness with the Linga.
I do not say it is union,
I do not say it is harmony.
I do not say it has occurred.
I do not say it has not occurred.
I do not say it is I.
I do not say it is Thee.
I do not say anything,
for there is nothing to say.

Sky-Clad is not just the story of Mahadevi. The author has also delved deeply into the Bhakti movement, and about Bhakti as a path to liberation. He speaks about Bhakti itself, the devotion and the surrender, and the different forms of Bhakti. For instance, devotional Bhakti, the kind that Mirabai, Avaiyyar and others practiced. On the other hand, there is transcendental Bhakti – where the seeker becomes one with the Lord, there is no duality, as practiced by Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, and Kabir.

There is also a wealth of information about the adherents of the Bhakti movement – Allama Prabhu, Basavanna, Avaiyyar, Kabir, Lalleshwari, and many more. He compares and contrasts their lives, and their beliefs, the nature of their Bhakti and how they approached life. It is an enlightening account and gave me a very clear picture of the Bhakti movement, one that I had never had before.

The book also answers the question that I always had about Akka Mahadevi. Why did she shed her clothes? Why was she “sky-clad”?

The author deals with this in fascinating detail, but in short, Akka Mahadevi believed that the body wasn’t shameful, not the prison of the mind or soul, but a source of creativity. This, says the author, throws open a new dimension to the understanding of spirituality, which usually implies that the body is the enemy, that it comes in the way of achieving spirituality.

The book leaves us with the translation of a few of Akka Mahadevi’s vachanas at the end, and I’ll leave you with one myself, taken from the book. This vachana is one of her more popular ones, the advice in which, says the author, she likely followed herself as she walked naked among villages and forests.

Having built a house on mountain top
can you be scared of wild beasts?
Having built a house on seashore
can you dread the waves and froth?
Having built a house in the market place
can you fight shy of noise?
Listen,
being born in this world
when praise and blame follow,
shunning anger
one must keep one’s calm.

Shruthi Rao

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