– by Prajna Cauvery
Among the finest and fiercest devotees of Lord Shiva, stands Akka Mahadevi, the 12th-century woman saint and poet. A young girl who walked sky-clad only covered in her long tresses, Akka Mahadevi was a revolutionary of her times. An extraordinary nature poet, her works can inspire and shape many conversations around deep ecology by presenting a deeper approach to viewing existence and nature.
Born in the tiny village of Udutadi in Shivamogga district, Karnataka to devout Shiva Bhakta parents, she was initiated into Linga worship at a tender age and committed her heart and soul to Lord Shiva. From a young age, Mahadevi was in wonder and awe of her beautiful natural surroundings which later found expression in her Vachanas (poems) and made friends with the bees, butterflies, birds, trees, and animals. Smitten by her beauty, she is forced to enter a conditional marriage with King Kaushika in her youth, which she walks out of, even giving up her clothes, completely naked. She then enters ‘Anubhava Mantapa’, an institution with highly respected saints including the likes of Allama Prabhu, who tests her through a highly philosophical debate in which she displays extraordinarily incisive understanding and exhibits burning dispassion. She is then dearly conferred the title of “Akka” meaning elder sister.
Leaving her hometown and everything that belonged to her, she found her home in the lap of nature, amidst dense forests and flowing waters and in the company of wild animals without a care or concern for her life, with
Inherent nature-love in her Vachanas (poems):
Akka Mahadevi’s love for nature is deeply reflected in many of her vachanas which abound with visual details of nature from her journey through the forests, villages, and her conversations with the chirping birds, dancing peacocks and butterflies. The very word she used to address her beloved Shiva, whom she sought in Nature was Chennamallikarjuna, which meant one who is as radiant as the jasmine flowers, which is again inspired by nature.
Though completely alone, one does not feel her isolation while reading her vachanas as she converses with all the beings around her. In one of her Vachanas, she asks the parrots, cuckoos, bees, swans, and peacocks whether they have seen her beloved divine lover.
O prattling parrots, have you seen him or not?
O Cuckoos, singing in high notes, have you seen him or not?
O Darting, sporting and playing bees, have you seen him or not?
O Swan, playing next to the lake, have you seen him or not?
O Peacocks playing on hills and in caves, have you seen him or not?
Tell me, O Tell me if you have seen or not where my Lord Chennamallikarjuna is.
Just as Patanjali Maharishi describes one who is established in Ahimsa as one around whom all beings feel safe, Akka Mahadevi is completely at home amidst the wild animals in the thick forests. Her first biographer Harihara describes her thus as:
The flower-bearing plants were meant for Mahadevi’s puja
As if their faces had flowered in love and joy
In the streams, Among bamboos
In ponds, lakes,tanks and rivers
In hills and valleys
Among hoards of tigers and deers Among bears, wild elephants and bulls
She came walking
Remembering Mallinatha everywhere.
[Trans by H.S. Shivaprakash. Harihara. P.77.]
Akka’s Vachanas reflecting the Divinity in Nature:
To her, the mountains, the caves, the birds, the animals, the soil, and the very sky was throbbing with life and divinity. Located amidst dense forests and rivers, she reaches Kadalivana (plantain grove) in Sri Sailam, and being the true Yogini and Mystic she is, she experiences cosmic unity and the divinity inherent in every aspect of creation and nature and describes the experience as follows:
The entire forest is a wish-fulfilling tree
All the plants are life-restoring
Every stone is an alchemic stone
Every place is a holy place
All water is unageing nectar
And every animal is a man-like animal
Every stone you stumble upon is a wish-fulfilling jewel
As I went around observing the mountain dear to Chennamallikarjuna, I saw the sacred plantain-grove!
Her Austerity and Simple life
In high contrast to the modern materialistic mind, whose insecurities seem to increase even as wealth increases, Akka Mahadevi lived a highly austere life in complete surrender. She walked in nature, free, fearless and with zero insecurity. The following vachana is very similar in spirit to Swami Vivekananda’s Song of the Sannyasin, in which he says “Have thou no home. What home can hold thee, friend? The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed; and food What chance may bring, well cooked or ill, judge not. No food or drink can taint that noble Self Which knows Itself. Like rolling river free.”
When hungry, a bounty of alms in villages
When thirsty, lakes, streams and wells
To bathe, gurgling springs
To sleep, temple ruins;
And for a soul-mate, I have you,
O Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine tender.
In another one of her Vachanas, she alludes to the selfless nature of trees and likens them to the highest devotees due to their giving nature. She depends on plants and trees for her food while journeying through forests.
Akka’s message of coexistence and remaining stoic
Her poems are a compelling combination of her penetrative insights and life-lessons from nature and her own approach towards life and way of living. Following is a noteworthy poem in which beautifully weaves the idea of remaining unaffected by praises and blames in life with the message of coexisting with nature. In the very first line, she questions how one who builds a house on the mountain can be afraid of wild animals around it, and says that having taken birth on Earth, how can we be afraid of criticism and blame, and urges all to maintain a balance of mind amidst all circumstances. The concept of Samatvam Yoga Ucyate as said in the Bhagavad Gita is beautifully explained by Akka in her simple and profound style. In her own life, she was indifferent to her ravishing beauty, and the pleasures and pains that life offered her.
After building a house on the mountain, how can you be afraid of wild animals around it?
After building a house on the seashore, how can you be afraid of lofty waves?
After building a house in the shantytown (flea market), how can you be concerned with the noise?
Oh! Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna, listen!
While born and living in this world, if praise and blames (criticism) come along,
you have to face them without getting angry and maintaining the calmness of mind.
Intense as fire, her every life-breath was exploding with her deep desire to merge with her beloved Chennamallikarjuna, found expression through her vachanas with nature as its canvas. After meditating with unflinching devotion and single-pointed focus on Shiva in the caves of the dense forests in Kadalivana, she is consumed in a flash of light and attains aikya , merging with her divine lover.
Her keen observation of the intricacies of nature’s functioning and relating the highest philosophical truth through the seemingly simplest aspects in nature made her a wonderful nature poet. Along with her devotion to her beloved Chennamallikarjuna, her nature consciousness and her deep love for nature have been immortalized through her vachanas, making her one of the greatest nature-poets.