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The Naked Saint
|by Shernaz Wadia|
When scantily clad women of the 21st century are frowned upon, she dared to go around naked in the 12th century!! Who was this dauntless woman? This was the young, defiant, vibrant, one and only “Akka” - respected elder sister of the world – Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka.
She was liberated by her unstinting devotion to and love for her Cenna Mallikarjuna, Lord white as jasmine, Lord Shiva. Staying nude was a common practice among male ascetics in those days, but for a woman it was considered nothing less than sacrilegious and shameless. Legend has it though, that her nudity was totally protected by her beautiful, long hair. Her statue too, installed in her birthplace, stands thus today.
Akka Mahadevi lived during the 1100s in Karnataka, a region on the southwest coast of India. She was born in Udatadi of Banavasi, in a pious Shaiva family. According to Shaiva literature her parents were Nirmala and Sumati, themselves steadfast devotees of Lord Shiva.
That was the time of liberal Veera Shaivism, a reform movement. Its leaders - political and spiritual radicals ¬¬ aimed at direct communion with the divine, rather than through meddlesome mediators. The satsangs of the Veera Shaivites had no room for the caste system. At their gatherings all were required to work, eat, study and practice together. Rituals were reduced to the barest minimum. Their community thrived outside of society and developed a strong spirituality alive till today. Outstandingly, in their households, daughters were taught to read and write and were allowed to study scriptures, putting them on par with the men in these respects. Theirs was a direct spiritual and political rebellion against the orthodoxy and religious sway of the Brahmin priests.
"Listen, oh, Mother! I love Him,
One day, when the constrictions of household life became too claustrophobic, she ran away rather dramatically from her husband’s house. With the rejection of family life and worldly belongings, she shed her clothes too as a symbol of her asceticism. She roamed free throughout South India, singing her songs and worshipping her Lord, eating and sleeping as and when the mercy of strangers permitted it. Her act was considered a defiance of the varnashrama dharma which suppressed the shudras and women. She proved that a woman has every right and has all the means to pursue a life exclusively engaged in the exploration of the divine. She is even believed to be a major figure in the social empowerment of women. one of the first feminists and to date she inspires those fighting for women’s emancipation.
Other men are thorn
white as jasmine.
I love the Handsome One:
So my lord, white as jasmine, is my husband.
Take these husbands who die,
Later she wished to join a community of Veerashaivas (a new and radically democratic group of Shiva devotees), and many of her poems are from the report of her successful attempt to prove to the male Veerashaiva leaders gathered in the city of Kalyan that she was worthy to be part of their community.
Finger may squeeze the fig
Take me, flaws and all,
At the ashram here she met the famous Veera Shaivite Guru, Basava. He doubted her sincerity as a serious spiritual seeker. Her nudity covered by her hair was questionable to him, but when she argued that she did it to spare him embarrassment, he recognized her genius and she entered his ashram as his disciple.
“It’s only when the fruit is ripe within
She attended many gatherings of the learned at the Anubhavamantapa in Kudala sangama to debate about philosophy and attainment of spiritualism
"Seeing the feet of the master,
O lord white as jasmine,
She is believed to have died in her 20s, supposedly disappearing in the banana groves at Shreeshaila, in Andhra Pradesh while in ecstasy entering mahasamadhi (divine union) with a flash of light. This merging of hers into her Lord white as jasmine is thus described by Vasanti Mataji -
“The bee that was engaged all along in drinking the nectar from the white jasmine is consumed totally in that very process. Not even the Symbol remained”
Some more of her beautifully enlightening vachanas, below.
Like a silkworm weaving
*Like treasure hid in the ground, like flavour in the fruit, like gold in the rock and oil in the seed, the Absolute is hidden in the heart.
Don’t despise me as
My life resting on a knife edge.
“I am without pride of caste
“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”. – Ma Devi Saraswati
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