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Akka Mahadevi was a prominent figure of the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century Karnataka. Her Vachanas in Kannada, a form of didactic poetry are considered her greatest contribution to Kannada Bhakti literature. In all she wrote about 430 Vachanas which is relatively fewer than that compared to some other saints of her time. Yet the term 'Akka' (elder Sister) which is an honorific given to her by great Veerashaiva saints like Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, Kinnari Bommayya, Siddharama, Allamaprabhu and Dasimayya speaks volumes of her contribution to the movement under that was underway. She is in hindsight seen as a great and inspirational woman for Kannada literature and the history of Karnataka. She is said to have accepted the god Shiva ('Chenna Mallikarjuna') as her husband, traditionally understood as the 'madhura bhava' or 'madhurya' form of devotion similar to how centuries later Meera, a 16th century saint, considered herself married to Krishna.
Born in Udutadi (or Udugani) near the ancient city of Banavasi (in Shikaripura taluk Shimoga district in 1130CE and lived until 1160. She worked for the welfare of women.
She is a prominent figure in the field of female emancipation and a person of mystical vision. A household name in Karnataka, she had said that she was a woman only in name and that her mind, body and soul belonged to Lord Shiva. During a time of strife and political uncertainty in the 12th century, she launched a movement that made her an inspiration for woman empowerment and enlightenment. It is commonly known that she took part in many gatherings of learned at the Anubhavamantapa in Kudala sangama to debate about philosophy and attainment of enlightenment (or Moksha, termed by her as "arivu").
In search for her eternal soul mate, she made the animals, flowers and birds her friends and companions, rejecting family life and worldly attachment. The time was marked as height of foolishness of varnashrama dharma which only supported the three upper castes of Hindu society in India and suppressed the shudras and women.
Akka was a revelation here in that she not only rose for emancipation but also has sung vachanas which are so simple but of the highest order. It is said that Mahadevi was married by arrangement to Kausika but later did not as the king disrespected some conditions set by her. There were immediate tensions, however, as Kausika was a Jain, a group that tended to be wealthy and was, as a result, much resented by the rest of the population.
Akka's poetry explores the themes of rejecting mortal love in favor of the everlasting love of God. Her vachanas also talk about the methods that the path of enlightenment demand of the seeker, such as killing the 'I', conquering desires and the senses and so on. She rejected her life of luxury to live as a wandering poet-saint, traveling throughout the region and singing praises to her Lord Shiva.
She went in search of fellow seekers or sharanas because the company of the saintly or sajjana sanga is believed to hasten learning. She found the company of such sharanas in Basavakalyana, Bidar district. Akka utters many vachanas in praise of them. Her non-conformist ways caused a lot of consternation in a conservative society and even her eventual guru Allama Prabhu had to initially face difficulties in enlisting her in the gatherings at Anubhavamantapa.
A true ascetic, Mahadevi is said to have refused to wear any clothing-a common practice among male ascetics, but shocking for a woman. Legend has it that due to her true love and devotion with God her whole body was protected by hair. All the sharnas of Anubhavamantapa, especially Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, Kinnari Bommayya, Siddharama, Allamaprabhu and Dasimayya greet her with a word "Akka". In fact it is here onwards that she becomes Akka, an elderly sister. Allama shows her the further way of attaining the transcendent bliss of ultimate union with Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna.
The dramatic situation of Kalyana Parva in Akka Mahadevi's life is an indication of the beginning of the third phase of her life. In the first phase she had renounced the worldly objects and attractions and in the second, discards the entire object based rules and regulations and in the third phase she starts her journey towards Srishaila, where her eternal lover Chenna Mallikarjuna's temple is located. Akka's spiritual journey ends at Kadali the nearby thick forest area of Shrisaila (Srisailam) where she is supposed to have experienced union (aikya) with Chenna Mallikarjuna.
One of her famous vachana 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 the entire world is the eye of the lord, on looking 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