Akka Mahadevi was a twelfth century Kannada poet, saint, and mystic (c. 1130-1160), who followed the Virashaivaite bhakti tradition. She was born in Udutadi, Karnataka to Nimalshetti and Sumati. With few existing records of Akka Mahadevi’s early childhood life, most of what is known today is pieced together from her poems and vachana, a form of rhythmic writing.
The Virashaivaites (Shiva devotees) were bold, revolutionary, and socially forward for their time. They disagreed strongly with certain orthodox Hindu practices such as caste practices, or the need to pray at a temple. They communicated their perspectives on these and other matters through vachana.
Akka was the first woman to have written vachana in Kannada, and wrote them with great spiritual depth and passion. Her vachana continue to inspire many women today. Through her singing, she memorialized her views against women’s traditional gender roles, the prevalent caste practices of the time, Hindu orthodoxy, and the lack of recognition for female mystics within her patriarchal society. For these reasons, other Virashaiva saints like Basavanna and Siddharama bestowed upon her the title of “Akka,” meaning elder-sister.
Akka Mahadevi’s devotion to Lord Shiva began from a very early age. As her devotion grew, her worship of Lord Shiva took on a madhurya form of devotion, where she saw the Lord as her only true love. She named him Chennamallikarjuna,, meaning “Lord As White As Jasmine.”
Akka Mahadevi was known for her stunning beauty, and described as having long black sensual tresses of hair. According to one popular and widely-accepted legend, she soon caught the eye of a local Jain king, Kaushika. When approached by King Kaushika for her hand in marriage, Akka Mahadevi reluctantly accepted, but only after the king agreed to her conditions of not interfering in her devotion to Lord Shiva or touching her in any way without her permission. Unfortunately as time passed, King Kaushika was unable to bear that his wife was devoted to another man (Lord Shiva) and angrily declared that he would not permit this anymore. Akka Mahadevi immediately left the palace grounds renouncing any material wealth that she had ever received by the king. She declared that Lord Shiva is her one and only husband. She discarded all her jewelry and clothes and proceeded in the nude to Srisailam, the place believed to be Lord Shiva’s abode.
Enroute to Srisailam, Akka Mahadevi was said to have stopped in the city of Kalyana, home to many learned poets and saints such as Basavanna and Allamaprabhu. Here, at the Anubhavamantapa, she took part in many spiritual discourses about philosophy and the attainment of moksha (enlightenment). Although she chose spiritual enlightenment and abandoned any worldly attachments, she did not achieve the respect of her male spiritual peers. They questioned her nakedness as a woman, even though it was normal for male ascetics. Her non-traditional, non-conformist ways were not easily accepted, but as time went on, her rebellious passion, rigorous devotion, and strength led her to being recognized as one of most prominent figures for female emancipation.
She eventually left Kalyana towards Srisailam, reciting the following translated vachana:
Having vanquished the six passions and become
The trinity of body, thought and speech;
Having ended the trinity and become twain – I and the Absolute
Having ended the duality and become a unity
Is because of the grace of you all.
I salute Basavanna and all assembled here
Blessed was I by Allama my Master-
Bless me all that I may join my Chenna Mallikarjuna
Akka Mahadevi is said to have ended her journey at Kadali, a thick-forested area in Srisailam where she finally achieved her dream and experienced her spiritual union with Lord Shiva, whom she lovingly named Chenna Mallikarjuna.
One of her famous vachanas sung at Srisailam translates as:
People, male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame comes loose
When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?
When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?
Her poetry exhibits her love for Chenna Mallikarjuna, harmony with nature and simple living:
“For hunger, there is the village rice in the begging bowl,
For thirst, there are tanks and streams and wells
For sleep temple ruins do well
For the company of the soul I have you, Chenna Mallikarjuna”
Akka Mahadevi is often compared to Mirabai. Both Akka and Mirabai struggled to overcome their customary gender roles in order to unite with their divine lovers. Akka’s vachana define her fierce spirit and bold stake against the establishment of male superiority. She is seen today as a blazing social reformer, foremost to being a mystic and a poet. In her birthplace of Udutadi stands a statue of Akka Mahadevi, with long beautiful tresses of hair covering her body. Her eyes, soft yet filled with determination and a focused gaze, continue to inspire many women and girls today to stand up for their beliefs and not be silenced by society’s narrow-minded views towards women.