Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life Of Akka Mahadevi, Kannada Woman Saint Poet [#BookReview]

Posted: May 11, 2018

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.

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up Sky-Clad: The extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi by Mukunda Rao, use our affiliate links: at Flipkart, at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.

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Top image via Twitter, and book cover via Amazon

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Shruthi Rao is a writer and editor.

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