"Akka Mahadevi, a Śiva Śaranes, Virāśaivite Woman and Poet of the 12th Century Vachanakaras of Karnataka.
Fearless, courageous and with full of devotion, she stood up for her rights as a woman to follow her spiritual spouse (God) and journey in life.
Akka, our big sister, was seen as one of the greatest poets and influencers of the Kannada literature and history of her time.
A biography of a reformer, inspiring poet and illuminated Saintes."
Mahādēviyakka (ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ) – also called Akka Mahādēvi. Akka meaning elderly sister
Born: C.1130 - 1150/’60 in Uduthadi, Shimogga, Karnataka, India
Parents: Nirmala Shetty and Sumati
Profession: 12th C. Poet
Mahādēviyakka was born in Uduthadi, a small village located about 35 miles from Shimogga District of Karnataka state. She was the daughter of Nirmala Shetty and Sumati ardent Śaranes, worshippers of Lord Śiva.
Since her childhood, Akka remained reserved and silent, mostly preoccupied with the worship of her Iśtalinga possibly received during her initiation into Vīraśaiva by her Guru around the age of 10. Akka considered herself to be married with God, Lord Śiva, representing the divine super-consciousness, referred to as her lover Śri Chennamallikarjuna or Linga in her vacanas.
Following the path of devotion Akka Mahadevi attained a high degree of spirituality maturity by the time she was 16-17 years old. Although Akka may have had a Guru, it appears from her vacanas (poems) that she was largely steered by her own inner experiences and intuition and so emerged as a great mystic saint.
‘The arrow that is shot should penetrate so deeply
That even the feathers do not show.
Hug the body of the Lord so tightly that the bones must be crushed to crumble.
Weld to the divine until the very welding disappears.’
It was also around that age, when the Jain king Kauśika was smitten by Akka’s beauty and her life collapsed into a crisis. There are two stories about Akka’s marriage. The Śūnyasaṁpādane talks about Akka leaving the palace shortly after that the King refused to embrace the Śiva faith, which means she was never married to him. Other resources mention that kings Kauśika’s desire for her was so big he forced her parents and Akka into an agreement of marriage. If not she would put her parents at risk to be thrown into prison or even worse face death penalty. Here Akka agreed on three conditions being: 1) He should never come in the way of her devotion and sadhana. 2) He should never prevent her from meeting her Guru or other Maheśwaras. 3) He will let her live the way she wanted.
Shortly after being married she fled the palace, as King Kauśika had broken all promises and refused to accept her lifestyle. She left her village sky-clad only wearing her long tresses and renounced from the material world wondering around in search for her mystic lover, her husband Chennamallikarjuna, the Lord.
For about 800 km Akka travelled fearless naked by foot, enduring heat, cold, thirst and hunger to reach Kalyāna where she met Kinnarayya, whom on behalf of Allama Prabudēva, tested her spirit of devotion through before taking her to śarana Basavanna’s palace. There Mahādēviyakka’s long-cherised desire of meeting Basavanna was finally fulfilled.
Basavanna introduced her to Allama Prabudēva whom was a vacanakara Avadhūta or the one who has no guru, no place, no tradition or teachings but offering his insights into life and living. He was known as the Guru’s of the Guru’s, a great mystic whom already knew about Akka’s arrival before she had reached Kalyāna.
A dialogue took place between the two, where Allama sought for Akka’s spiritual insights to ensure she was pure of mind and clear of any doubts. These are recorded in the 15th C Śūnyasaṁpādane.
However the Mahādēviyakkana Purana (1550) written by Channa Basavankana mentioned that Akka was ceremoniously welcomed by Basavanna and his wife Neelambike into their home. Regadless the controversy of both texts, Akka came to seek blessings from the Śiva śarana and śaranes which she well received with honour and grace.
'When I didn’t know myself, where were you?
Like the colour in the gold,
You were in me.
I saw in You
O Lord of the Peaks,
The paradox of
your being in me
without showing a limp.’
Having proved her spiritual mettle within the society of saints, Akka passes some time at the Academy of the Śaranas where she was able to share her experiences with her fellowship śaranes whom prepared her for the consubstantial union.
She continued to grow in spiritual knowledge thanks to the help of Anubhava Maṇṭapa.
How long she stayed in Kalyāna is not clear but the tale tells she was about 25 years old when she left the mundane life and once again set off wandering without male protection or sanction.
She headed towards the plantain-grove Kadali instructed to her by Prabhudeva. There her journey ended in the holy plaintain-grove on Srīsaila Mountain where she attained the unitive state, śunya (aikya) and died in her early twenties (+-25 y/o).
Not much is known about her life at Srīsaila where she lived in a cave in a dense forest. Next to the Chunchurus tribes living at the foot of the hills, we presume that other sadhaka’s and yogi’s lived, too in the surrounding area’s pursuing their spiritual goal.
'Those who have known the essence of bliss,
possess the secret of the virtuous one enjoying it.
To those who enjoy the supreme bliss alone
can know what happens when the infinite meet the infinite.
O my Lord Chenna-Mallikarjunayya.
They who are already unite with the Linga,
only know the secret of union with Linga.’
(The above vachana proofs her spiritual inside and transcendental experiences.)
It is said that Saints often walk away from society and disappear without a trace, like a pebble thrown in a river. There are also instances where saints entering into what is called Jīva Samadhi, Jala Samadhi (sacred water burial) or Bhū Samadhi (underground burial).
After completion of life’s mission, a saint stops the functions of the body voluntarily by uniting the individual mind with the Lord’s. The body is then buried. It is believed that such place around a Jīva Samadhi has very high spiritual magnetic forces. The death of Akka remains a mystery but it may be that she sought just like Basavanna, Jala Samadhi in the river Krishna.
Through her poetry directed to her divine lover, we are able to connect with Akka’s deepest feelings and inner experiences and understand the different stages of her spiritual voyage towards mokśa or liberation.
A journey of a bhaktin whom surrenders to the Divine will, a life-altering experience of the devoted sadhaka, in search with struggles and agony until all comes to an end and finds herselves in a fulfilled state of serene tranquillity.
Today she may be seen as the greatest leaders of the Vīraśaiva sect, though in actuality she was not. She did not have a Guru nor did she become one for others. She didn’t care for belief and rituals. Her Bhakti was her path, her inner voice her Guru and she swiftly moved from Bhakti (devotion) to Arivu (spiritual insight, knowledge and wisdom).
A brief history on religious traditions and woman saints during Akka's time:
During the Vedic Period until about the 6th BCE woman enjoyed the freedom and had access to all religious activities wherein we find great female philosophers. In the following period until about 6th CE woman lost all their rights and became victims of obnoxious practices such as child marriages, sati …
The Dharmaśāstras and the Sm.rti ordered woman obedience, chastity and surrender to the male, be it father, husband or son. As a result male oppression and sexual exploitation which characterized the condition of woman in traditional India took lead. There was no freedom or scope for creative dialogue or meaningful experiences. Woman seers were conspicuous by their absence.
The period following after lasted until 1600, in response to the oppressions of the preceding era, Akka Mahadevi and other female (and male) seers and saints such as Gangasati, Andal, Brahmavadini Maitreyi, Meera Bai, Avvaiyars of Tamil Nadu … emerged.
Akka Mahadevei thus lived in a time when spiritual renaissance took place. With the two leading figures, mystic Alla Prabhu and Basaveswara, religious and social reformer whom vitalized and reshaped the Vīraśaivism and established the Anubhav Mantap Acadamy.
The Vīraśaivas strongly argued for the equality of all human beings and were against all Brahmanical ideas about caste and the treatment of woman. They didn’t believe in rites and rituals and introduced a new method of worshipping of God in the form of Iśtalinga.
Akka’s Vacanas & Work:
It is believed she was one of the first woman to write vacanas (verses) in Kanada literature. She wrote round 360 vacanas, which were rich in lyrical quality and high thinking. It is also said that the vacanas she sang on the way to Śrīśaila and at Śrīśaila are apart from exquisite lyrical beauty, gems of mystic utterance.
According to the Śūnyasaṁpādane, Akka Mahadeviyakka has authored the following works:
Other articles also mention:
"In praise to Akka and all woman saintesses. The spiritual path isn't a easy path filled pleasures and enjoyments. It is a tough one, one to be lived with lots of obstacles and challenges and the higher one reaches out for, the worse it gets. Akka for sure inspired me to not give up this immortal blissful journey of infinity." ~ Mata
Boek: “Sky-Clad” by Mikunda Rao – the extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi (p10-11, p22, p 59-65, p 68-69, p73)
Boek: “Spiritual Spous Akka Mahadevi” by Linga Raju (p14-15, p 57, p73, p161)
Boek: “Śūnyasaṁpādane” Vol. IV by Professor SS Bhoosnurmath Chapter 16 (p 261-275): reference check on the discussion of Allama Prabhu as noted in the book Spiritual Spous Akka Mahadevi by Linga Raju.
Boek: “Woman writing in India” - Edited by Susie Tharu and K.Lalita, Vol. I: 600 B.C to the Early 20th Century (page 77-82)
Boek: “Encyclopaedia of Gender Equality Through Women Empowerment” By Maya Majumdar (pages 13-14)
Article: The Hindu (ref: TH 26092006): “Biography of a mystic poet” - Author: Sarojini Premchand, dated 26 Sept 2006 – stated her work
Article: JSTOR vol 112: “Śiva's Warriors: The Basava Purāṇa of Palkūruki Somanātha” – Author: Velcheru Narayana Rao, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 112, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1992), pp.172-173, Review by: Sanford Steever
Article: JSTOR vol 103: “Women of the Śūnyasaṃpādane: Housewives and Saints in Vīraśaivism” - Author(s): R. Blake Michael, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1983), pp.361-368, Published by: American Oriental Society
Article: JSTOR vol 87: “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India.” – Author: Ramaswamy, Vijaya - Anthropos, vol. 87, no. 1/3, 1992, pp. 133–146. Article related to Indian history on the spiritual freedom of woman during the medival times.
Article: Religious Experiences of Hindu Woman”: A study of Akka Mahadevi” – Author: Chandra Y Mudaliar – Source Mystics Quarterly Vol 17, No 3 (September 1991) – Published by: Penn State University Press (p137-138)
Thesis: Shodhganga 09 Chapter 3: “Mysticism in Akka Mahadevi” - Author unknown
Thesis: Shodhganga 11 Chapter 4: “Akka Mahadevi A Critical Study” - Author: unknown (p157 11-4 Shodhganga)
Thesis: Shodhganga 11 chapter 5: “Śūnyasaṁpādane - Vīraśaivanism” (p8 initiation)