This essay is from a talk I gave at a program called “Women Saints” held at the National Gallery of Victoria. I have always felt an affinity with the poet saint, Akkamahadevi. She symbolises intense spiritual passion and strong will which are needed to overcome suffering. Akka, as she is affectionately called, has many of the qualities of a modern feminist and yet she was completely surrendered to her Guru. This is perhaps an uncomfortable conundrum, nonetheless one she handled with wisdom and devotion.
Akka writes of her mortal life:
I love the Handsome One;
He has no death, decay nor form, no peace or side,
no end nor birthmarks. I love Him, O mother, listen!
I love the beautiful one With no bond nor fear,
no clan no land or landmarks for his beauty.
My Lord white as jasmine, is my husband.
Take these husbands who die and decay,
Feed them to your kitchen fires!
The beauty, strength, passion and spiritual determination of this poem are the signatures of one of India’s greatest mystics, Akkamahadevi (Akka,(elder sister). They indicate her spiritual genius, her resolve, her strength of will and mumukshutva, longing for liberation. In her short life, nothing swayed her from her spiritual inclination, her yearning to merge with Lord Shiva, the husband of her soul.
Akkamahadevi was born into the liberal environment of Veera Shaivism in the 12th century, in the southern state of Karnataka to pious and devout parents. At that time, Veera Shaivism was a reform movement. The leaders were political and spiritual radicals. They aspired to direct communion with the divine, refusing to accept intermediaries who tampered with their worship and devotion. They wanted no intercession between God and His devotee.
The Veera Shaivites dissolved the caste system in their satsang, and when they gathered, all were required to work, eat, study and practice together. They built their community outside of society and developed a strong spirituality that is alive today. Most remarkably, in their households, daughters were given some of the same rights as sons. They were taught to read and write and were allowed to study scriptures. The Veera Shaivites were in direct spiritual and political rebellion against the orthodoxy of the Brahmin priests who held religious power.
Shiva, specifically in the form of the Shiva lingam, is the presiding deity of Veera Shaivism. The Shiva lingam is a cosmic symbol of the energies of the masculine, Shiva, and the feminine, Shakti. A lingam, a phallus, rests comfortably in a receptive yoni, vagina or womb. There is no doubt that the Shiva lingam is one of the most mystical and powerful spiritual symbols of any religion or spiritual path.
In the same way the union between husband and wife creates the world of the family, Shiva, the transcendent power of the masculine, and Shakti, the dynamic feminine power, unite to create the entire universe. Even though the erotic symbolism is hard to ignore, the Shiva lingam’s commanding presence signifies the love, power and magnificence of Shiva and Shakti united in the ecstasy of creation. Not only do they birth the world but they also live within every human being as spiritual potential. Shaivism says that human beings can awaken to that potential. When these two powers are kindled within a person, life becomes magical.
By the age of nine, Akka had learned to read and write. She had learned the tenets of her faith from the family Guru. She would have been taught that God lived within her as a dormant spiritual power. It was possible to experience Him, know Him and realise Him, and dissolving all sense of separation it was possible to merge in Him. Her unique spiritual gifts were apparent and she quickly became attached to the Shiva lingam, Chennamallikarjuna, in the temple at Sri Shailam.
Shiva, the Lord of her poems, is referred to as “my Lord, white as jasmine” or “jasmine-tender” by two translators of her poems, A.K. Ramanuja and Vinaya Chaitanya. He is also called Consciousness, the Absolute, the Atman, the inner Self, or God. He personifies wisdom, love and creative power, a way to transcend the mundane and attain liberation. But her devotion was not only impersonal; He was the beloved of her heart.
The hagiography of Indian saints generally disregards, even erases, the personal history and struggle of its great beings. But in Akkamahadevi we find a spirit unafraid, determined to speak her mind, regardless what others may think of her. She has a modern sensibility; she left a record of her struggle. Her journal of over 300 vacanas (poems, ‘giving of words’), describes both her worldly life and her spiritual struggle. The revelation of her yearnings, likes and dislikes, passion, failures, triumphs, shame, doubt and tragedies, is testimony to her greatness of character and spirit, and renunciation.
From her early writings we learn that she had an experience of divinity at her initiation or soon afterward. It must have been then that she realized that she would never be content in householder life. Her awakening to knowledge of Shiva inspired a burning desire to live permanently in that experience. She shares that she tasted ecstasy; perfect love and then it vanished. In the losing and the yearning to reclaim it, the eluding and the seeking it, the Shiva lingam became deeply personal. It symbolized the husband and lover of her spiritual life, the divine energy working perfectly within her, and a doorway to unconditional love. Even though she was still a child, her spiritual intuition was that of an adult. She was doggedly determined to achieve resolution between her inner and outer life. Of her yearning she writes:
I look at the road for his coming.
If he isn’t coming, I pine and waste away.
If he is late, I grow lean.
O mother, if he is away for a night,
I’m like the lovebird with nothing in her embrace.
Even today many Hindu marriages are arranged, and back then there was certainly no room for personal preference. It was not unusual for women to speak of their longing and sorrow in erotic terms. They turned yearning for personal love towards God. Perhaps this is why we find so many different gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. There is a deity, a beloved, for every type of spiritual attitude.
Akka’s spiritual journey passed through various stages: devotional worship, pain of separation from God, meeting her Guru, awakening, sadhana, practices to overcome suffering and then realization of permanent oneness with Shiva.
To have the ecstasy of God’s love and then lose it is one of the most painful experiences in life. When Akka felt separate from God it hit her with full force. She recorded her torment with insight, humility and passion. Clearly she was an unusual soul. Commenting on the burden of pain and on karma, reincarnation, countless births and deaths she writes:
Not one, not two, not three or four
but through eighty-four hundred thousand vaginas have I come,
I have come through unlikely worlds,
guzzled on pleasure and on pain.
Whatever be, all previous lives,
Show me mercy, this one day,O Lord white as jasmine.
Her biographers say she was intelligent, charming and extremely beautiful. Legend tells us that one afternoon her parents took her to a parade and the local Jain king—or village chieftain—Kaushika, saw her and was besotted. He asked for her hand in marriage and she refused. In her mind she was already Shiva’s bride.
Akka’s writings show her to be willful, emotional and headstrong. Her parents were progressive thinkers and might not have been displeased by his pursuit. Though a Jain, he was rich and powerful. They may even have felt a desire, or a relief for her to be settled.
As Kaushika’s advances intensified she took refuge in the avenue that was open to her—writing. She refused his marriage suit and in response he threatened her parents. Since non-violence is one of the basic tenets of the Jain religion, Kaushika’s love for her must have been obsessive. When her parents confronted her with his demand, she acquiesced to marriage grudgingly, knowing full well how this union would affect her.
Thus began the most painful time in her life. She felt alone, abandoned and misunderstood. She was certain that only Shiva knew the depth of her despair and spiritual longing. For her there was only one husband, Him, no other. To make matters worse, Kaushika was not a Shaivite. But, if Shiva was everything then He was also the cause of her impending marriage, her destiny. She turned to her Lord but the sound of blame vibrates in her words:
The owl blames the sun for its blindness,
The crow blames the moon for its blindness,
The blind blames the mirror for his blindness,
All this is true.
While suffering the hell fires of becoming,
If one says there is no Shiva,
No liberation, it is all a lie,
Will Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Spare you the suffering of hell?
We do not know her exact age when she married, but we can assume she was between 13 and 16. She agreed on the condition that Kaushika made her three promises. If he broke them she would be free. She was clear-headed even at this young age. He agreed to allow her to spend time with her Guru and devotees, to allow her to meditate and to allow her worship of Shiva.
And so she married.
Being a Hindu bride she was required to leave the safe haven of her parents and live with her in-laws. Her husband desired her passionately but her spiritual nature is repelled. She was frustrated that she could not attain full communion with her husband. Perhaps if he had been a different sort of man they might have been able to live happily. Her husband’s family were also worldly and without spiritual inclination. In a short time Kaushika broke his promises. Appalled her husbands’ lustful advances she writes:
You came with no hesitation, O brother,
As the form was pleasing to your eyes.
You came deluded by a pleasure you heard of,
You came lusting after the female form.
Not seeing that it is only a tube from which piss drips you came,
O brother, blinded by desire.
Driving away supreme bliss by perverted intelligence,
Not knowing why this is so,
Mind not realizing this as the source of pain
You came, O brother.
Men other than Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Are brothers to me;
Off, get off, you fool.
Her love of God was no match for her husband or her in-laws. In a fit of anger and rebellion she took off all her clothes and headed for Kalyan, a long and dangerous journey for a beautiful woman on foot. Her nakedness was a public declaration of her determination to leave her life and never return. In Kalyan, a Veera Shaivite ashram called “the Halls of Spiritual Experience” was in full bloom. The famous Veera Shaivite Guru, Basava, was the Guru of the ashram.
As she arrived she immediately encountered Basava who questioned her renunciation. That she has covered her nakedness with her hair made her sincerity questionable. He thought that she might not have been a serious seeker. She pleaded her case saying that Chennamallikarjuna had already taken her as a bride and that she covered herself because she was afraid her nakedness would embarrass him. Basava recognized her spiritual genius and allowed her to enter the ashram. In him she found a mentor and Guru.
Here her biography becomes sketchy and we only have her poems to reveal her progress. Now the second phase of her journey—discipleship began. She entered the ashram determined to attain liberation while in her body. Her renunciation was remarkable. She was more than an intoxicated lover of Shiva, her intellect was as sharp as the razor’s edge. She was endowed with discrimination and an ability to determine the real from the unreal. She would have none of the pleasure, status or pride that came with wealth and worldly power. She was immune to mundane love and compelled by love of God to seek liberation.
The Shaivite Gurus have the ability to awaken the Kundalini, the dormant spiritual energy. Once awakening occurs meditation and spiritual practices become easier. It not only connects us to the experience of the inner Self, it sustains it as well. And so, Basava spiritually nourished her.
The willful young girl accepted her Guru’s discipline and settled down to yogic practice. In Basava she recognized a sage of the highest attainment. Discipleship to him would enable her to become established in the experience of Shiva.
It was like a stream running into the dry bed of a lake,
like rain pouring on plants parched to sticks.
It was like this world’s pleasure and the way to the other,
both walking towards me.
Seeing the feet of the master,
O lord white as jasmine, I was made worthwhile.
Sadhana, spiritual practice, the third phase of her journey began. She meditated, contemplated and studied scriptures. No longer a queen, she also did menial tasks. So far she had been projecting her love outward toward the lingam, or towards an impersonal God. The Guru taught her to take her longing and devotion inward, and use it to understand herself. She could no longer blame her husband, her parents and her in-laws. She had created a circumstance in which she must face the tendencies of her own mind:
Lord, see my mind touches you,
Yet doesn’t reach you;
My mind is troubled.
Like a toll-keeper at the city gates, My mind is unhappy.
It cannot become empty Forgetting duality.
Show me how you can become me,
O Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender.
Her sadhana did not always go at the speed she wanted. She was confronted by inner demons—anger, desire, fear and sorrow. Her determination was apparent. Her will to overcome ignorance drove her in her quest to realise the Atman, the inner Self, and she acknowledged how difficult she finds her path. Filled with self-hatred she lashes out at herself:
I the child born of the love between the possible and the impossible,
Have made a wager with the world;
I have chained by their feet
Desire, anger, greed, delusion, pride and strife.
Wafting the scent of the Guru’s grace,
Wearing devotion for a beauty spot I’ll defeat and kill you
With devotion to the auspicious one with sword.
Leave, let go karma, I won’t stop till I’ve slain you.
Do not get destroyed, listen to my words.
Buying the sword of devotion to Shiva, I’ll fight and slay you.
Breaking the fetters that Brahma bound,
Shoving aside the maya of Vishnu,
I will give battle; just wait till,
Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender, nods his head.
Aspiration to the divine is sacred. The crux of sadhana is to know oneself fully. To face the maya, the ignorance in oneself is painful. In meditation she discovered that the tendencies that block her relationship to the divine are within her, not outside of her. Attachment and aversion had played around her senses. The consequences of all of her actions lay buried in her unconscious. Basava helped her navigate the psychic realm of negative thoughts and feelings. He taught her to become conscious of how she contributed to her own suffering. She faced the inner enemies of lust, envy, desire, anger, fear, and depression. She observed their movement in her mind. In meditation she distinguished between negative emotions and the bliss of the Self. She learned to move away from negativity and not allow it to manifest in her inner world:
Till you’ve earned knowledge of good and evil
it is lust’s body site of rage,
ambush of greed, house of passion,
fence of pride, mask of envy.
Till you know and lose this knowing,
You have no way of knowing,
My Lord, white as jasmine.
As her sadhana progressed, she was less haunted by the sense of separation. She spent more time in communion with the Self and less in spiritual frustration. After a few years she went to Sri Shailam, the home of Chennamallikarjuna. It was there that she attained liberation and annihilated her sense of duality. She burned up all obstacles in the fire of her practice. She merged permanently with her ‘Lord, white as jasmine’.
Now her poems reflect her attainment. Looking back at her journey she saw that her desires bound her to suffering and always left a bitter taste. They kept her separate from the Self and stood in the way of her ultimate goal—unconditional love and communion with God:
I overcame the trouble of the body, through the worship.
Overcame the trouble of the mind, through wisdom,
Overcame the trouble of separation, through Shiva’s grace,
Overcame the darkness of the organs,
Clothing myself in light.
What your eyes see outside in the glow of youth
Is really the ash of the burnt god of desire-Kama.
O Lord white as jasmine, You killed Kama,
yet let himRemain mind born;
I have wiped out his destiny.
She has mastered her negative tendencies. Her understanding was transformed into wisdom for she had achieved the power to move away from desire and fear, the two enemies of Self-realisation. They were the cause of her sense of separateness. Guru’s grace had burnt them to seeds that could no longer sprout and cause her pain. Even if they occasionally played in her mind she was not tempted to fan their flames.
Akkamahadevi is an archetype. She represents the search for happiness, fulfillment and purpose familiar to us all. She struggled with her body, her personhood, her feelings and thoughts, her love of God, and her desire to be free of social and family obligations. She passionately sought union with the Absolute. In her realization she stands as a symbol of divinity and offers us a blessing and grace. She gives us the gift of her teachings in a body of work that we can study and contemplate.
When the pain our own mundane struggles hit us, she inspires us to turn our hearts and minds toward God. We can take refuge in the sublime teachings of the Sanatana Dharma. We can pray for the grace of God. We can turn to the great beings, sages and saints in our tradition. We can call on the compassion, power and wisdom of the Self.
When we turn away from fear and desire, we are able to, like the great mystic Akkamahadevi, uplift ourselves, our dear ones, and humanity.
Born in this world I follow the way of the world.
Possessing a form, I go with the form.
I am involved physically in this world,
But in my mind I have forgotten it.
Like a burnt rope, I still keep the form,
O my Lord Cennamallikarjuna,
Being one of the eleven,
I am like a lotus in the water.