AKKAMAHĀDĒVI twelfth-century bhakti (devotional) saint Akkamahādēvi, or "elder sister" Mahādēvi, was born in Udutadi, Karnataka. She became enamored of Shiva's icon in the village shrine when she was a young girl. Akkamahādēvi composed about 350 vacanas (spoken free verse hymns) in Kannada, a Dravidian language. The vacanas of Kannada bhakti saints (Shiva saranas) are scripture for the Virasaiva sect, which does not accept Sanskrit Vedas. However, the vacanas also reflect a blend of local Dravidian and elite Aryan cultures, a hallmark of the bhakti movement in South India. Akkamahādēvi was the first female sarana, and about fifty other women yogis followed her path. Akkamahādēvi's vacanas express her radical views on women's roles, caste, and Hindu ritualism, a testimony to this female mystic's spiritual struggles in a patriarchal society. Her verses end with her ankita (signature) line calling Shiva by the name Chennamallikārjuna, or the "Beauteous Lord of (Goddess) Mallika." It has also been translated poetically as "Lord as White as Jasmine" by A. K. Ramanujan.
Young Akkamahādēvi's beauty attracted the attention of the Jain king Kaushika, and she probably married him. However, soon realizing that she could not serve both Shiva and an earthly husband, she became an ascetic in search of Shiva, naked yet covered by her long hair. After many tribulations, including the unwanted attentions of lustful men, she reached Kalyāna where the Vīrasaiva saints Basavanna (1106–1167) and Allamaprabhu resided. To the sages' queries about her female methods of renunciation, she replied that it mattered little what happened to the body, that she was chaste as her soul belonged to Shiva, her true husband.
In this preoccupation with God as a divine lover, she resembles Āndāl (ninth century), and Mīrabai (sixteenth century), both of whom wrote hymns to Krishna vibrant with images drawn from nature. However, unlike these Vaishnava bhakti saints, Akkamahādēvi was a yogi infatuated with Shiva, the Lord of Dissolution-Creation. Some of her early vacanas describe Shiva's physical beauty, his shining red locks, and his even teeth (vacana 68). However, most poems have a searing quality. They are razor-sharp declarations of her desire for one without limitations of form and who transcended desire and illusion.
To probing male questions, this female mystic replied that worldly passions must be experienced before one discards them for spiritual goals (vacana 104). In other verses, she compares the triviality of rituals, caste, and worldly preoccupations with her love for Shiva.
Bhakti saints uniformly asserted that devotion was superior to Brahmanical ritual, and they composed hymns in their regional languages instead of Sanskrit. Belonging to many castes, they drew upon local traditions marginalized by Sanskritic Hinduism. One of the most radical challenges was posed by Basavanna, the Kannada saint. A Brahman versed in the Sanskrit scriptures, he is revered as the founder of the Vīrasaiva sect. Under his tutelage, Vīrasaivas rejected Hindu rituals and caste as well as Jainism, whose members were commercially dominant in the region. Vīrasaivas affirm a personal connection to Shiva by wearing an ishta lingam (favored icon of Lord Shiva) around their necks. Basavanna's egalitarian attitude encouraged Akkamahādēvi, who found a space for women yogis in the hermitage at Kalyāna. The four major Vīrasaiva saints were Basavanna, the weaver Dēvara Dāsimayya, Akkamahādēvi, and Allamaprabhu; their radical vacanas shaped the sect's ideology. Akkamahādēvi is believed to have finally entered a cave near Srīshaila. Meditating alone, she is believed to have gone through six stages before attaining Aikyas sthāla, the final point of yogic union with Shiva.
You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body's glory?
Or peel away every strip
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord's
Light of morning,
where's the need for cover and jewel?
(vacana 124; A. K. Ramanujan, transl.,
Speaking of Siva, 126–127)
Sita Anantha Raman
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