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MAHADEVI AKKA (1130-1166)

Mahadevi (called ‘Akka’ meaning big sister) was a poet and mystic of Karnataka. She belonged to the sect of the Virashaivas, or Lingayats, an important Shaivite Bhakti cult of the twelfth century in Karnataka. Her poems or vachanas in Kannada, mostly addressed to Shiva as ‘Chennamallikarjuna’, are intensely mystical and individual.

She was born to a religious upper-class Virashaiva family at Udutadi, a town then ruled by a Jain prince, Kaushika. Mahadevi was very beautiful, with exceptionally long shiny hair. The king, smitten by her beauty, sent a proposal of marriage to her parents, who practised the Shaiva faith of devotion to the god Shiva, a faith incompatible in many tenets with the teachings of Jainism. Mahadevi, fearful that if she refused him the king’s displeasure would come down upon her parents, renounced the world and fled to the Virashaiva headquarters at Kalyani in a quest for refuge and spiritual guidance. Here, with uncommon courage and a resolute will, she pursued her faith. Her mad appearance and her nudity, which was covered with nothing more than her long hair, evoked many comments and criticism. But when someone rebuked her for roaming naked she answered:

To the shameless girl
Wearing the white Jasmine Lord’s
Light of morning,
You fool,
Where’s the need for cover and jewel?

This poem is anthologised in A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (London: Penguin, 1973). Finally Akka Mahadevi convinced the Virashaivas of her spiritual purity and grasp of Shaivite philosophy, and was accepted into the group of saints, becoming an initiate of the poet and mystic Allamma Prabhu. In all she wrote about 340 vachanas or short poems.

After staying for some time at Kalyani, it is said that Mahadevi became impatient for complete union with Shiva, her elusive lover. Basaveshwara, the founder of the Lingayat cult, was deeply moved by the young saint’s spiritual purity and search for perfection, and blessed her. Taking leave of him, Mahadevi went to Srisailam, a sacred hill said to be the abode of Shiva in his manifestation of Chenna Mallikarjuna (meaning either white jasmine, or white Mallika’s Arjuna), a name that occurs in nearly all her poems to Shiva and is something of a signature mark. It is said that in 1166 at Srisailam, she realised God in His supreme form and experienced mystic union with the formless.

Mahadevi wrote in the Kannada language and is credited with the authorship of many lyrical compositions, including Yoganga-truvidhi, Sristhiya Vachana and Akkagal Pithike. The story of her life is narrated in the Mahadeviyakkana Purana. An idol of Akkamahadevi is worshipped at a temple at her birth-place, Udutadi.
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