obscure poets: ‘the only way out is through’ — the life and poems of akka mahadevi

by Kristen McHenry

Akka Mahadevi was a 12th-century Indian poet, mystic and saint who lived an unconventional life in every sense of the word. She was born in approximately 1150 A.D. in the southern India state of Karnataka to parents who were deeply devoted the Veera Shaivism movement.

Veera Shaivism was a radical spiritual and political movement that opposed the religious power and interference of the orthodox Brahmin priests and instead sought to worship through direct communion with the divine. They formed their own community, dissolved the caste system and lived, worked and prayed together in satsang. Females in the Veera Shaivism community were granted some of the same rights as men, such being taught to read, write and study scriptures, as well as having access to the gurus.

It appears from her writings that in her early teens, Mahadevi received a spiritual initiation and experienced a moment of oneness with the Divine. From that point on, her entire life became a fervent search to return to oneness with God. In her short lifetime, she wrote over 400 poems (in the form of vacanas*), chronicling her chaotic spiritual and emotional journey.

Far from being the remote and impersonal songs of worship that characterized of many of the vacanas of that time, Mahadevi’s poems reflect a deeply personal expression of her struggles and feelings. She wrote of her own rage, despair, feelings of abandonment, longing and even sexual frustration. The pain of separation from the divine, Chennamallikarjuna (translated as “Lord White as Jasmine”), was so painful for her she thought of nothing else but union with him:

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.

Some of her poems are directly addressed to her husband, Kaushika, a non-Shaivist royal whose proposal she initially rebuffed but was forced into marrying when he threatened violence to her family. Mahadevi considered herself spiritually wed to Chennamallikarjuna, and it’s unclear if her marriage to Kaushika was ever consummated. In her poem “You Came with No Hesitation,” Mahadevi chastises Kaushika and tells him that she is in love only with God:

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 Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Are only brothers to me;
Off, get off, you fool.

Her poem “I Have Maya for Mother-in-Law” reveals her how constricted she felt living with Kaushika and his family:

I have Maya for mother-in-law,
the world for father-in-law;
three brothers-in-law, like tigers;
and the husband’s thoughts
are full of laughing women;
no god, this man,
And I cannot cross the sister-in-law.
But I will give this wench the slip
and go cuckold my husband with
Chennamallikarjuna, my Lord.

After only a short time with Kaushika, Mahadevi renounced all of her possessions and ran away — in a quite dramatic fashion! She stripped naked as a symbol of her asceticism and began journeying with no provisions throughout Southern Indian, singing her poems and praying to Chennamallikarjuna, accepting food and shelter at the mercy of strangers. Although it was common for male ascetics to reject clothing, this behavior was shocking for a woman, and to travel alone was extremely dangerous:

Don’t despise me as
She who has no one.
I’m not one to be afraid,
whatever you do.
I exist chewing dry leaves,
My life resting on a knife edge.
If you must torment me,
Chennamallikarjuna,
My life, my body
I’ll offer to you, and be cleansed.

She eventually made her way to an ashram that was run by a renowned Shaivite guru named Basava, where she began a life of discipleship and continued writing poems. But her struggles were far from over as she settled into a new life of self-reflection and discipline.

During her time in the ashram, her poems tell the story of her journey to self-awareness; coming to understand the internal factors that contributed to her own unhappiness, and going through the painful process of accepting, loving and releasing them. As I read the poems Mahadevi wrote during this time, I was struck by how contemporary and relevant her struggles felt to me. For example, she speaks in her poem “Show Me” of the suffering that her worldly attachments cause her:

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.

In “’Til You Know,” Mahadevi speaks of the necessity to fully enter the emotional experience in order transcend it:

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’ve no way
of knowing
my lord white as jasmine.

Ma Devi, in “Riding the Blue Sapphire Mountain,” says, “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.” Akka’s commitment to her path never wavered, and she used all the tools at her disposal (charm, intelligence, anger, and I suspect a fair bit of duplicity) to circumvent societal norms and follow her passion.

What eventually happened to Mahadevi is unclear. Historical records indicate that she died in her mid-20s, although there is no verifiable proof of this. The prevailing story is that she spent the last months of her life away from the ashram in various caves, completing her process of enlightenment. She is believed to have disappeared in the banana groves at Shreeshail in Andhra Pradesh while in divine union with God. It is said that she burned up in a flash of light, leaving only her poems behind as a chronicle of her spiritual journey.

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,
I burn
desiring what the heart desires.

I was unable to find a single definitive source for all of Mahadevi ’s poems, but you can read a selection of this courageous poet’s work at: Poet Seers.

There are also several anthologies of Indian poetry that contain Jane Hirshfield’s translations of Mahadevi’s work.

* Vacanas are a form of writing that evolved in the 12th-century India as a part of the Veera Shaiva “movement.” Vacanas literally means “that which is said.” Vacanas are brief poems, and they end with one or the other local names under which God is invoked.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

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9 comments to obscure poets: ‘the only way out is through’ — the life and poems of akka mahadevi

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