A Review of Songs for Siva: Vacanas of Akka Mahadevi, translated by Vinaya Chaitanya (2017).
A small hardcover volume filled with poems seeking to move from duality and separation into divine union ― Songs for Siva is a new translation by Vinaya Chaitanya of the 12th century poet, Akka Mahadevi. She was known as “sky-clad” (digambaras), as she was of the tradition of the wandering saint, clad only with the hair she was given.
If the cloth that covers them slips,
Men and women become shy.
If you, lord of life,
Envelop the whole world,
What is there to be shy of?
If Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Sees with the whole world as eyes,
What shall you cover and hide, O man? (145)
The foreword by H.S. Shivaprakash describes Akka’s writing as “poetic without being poetry, spiritual without being religious or scriptural,” (vii). Transcending duality, Shivaprakash further states that Akka’s pathway of Siva is “where heaven and hell become one in the clear understanding of continuous awareness, turning nectar and poison into each other,” (viii).
You grasped the space within the space
That no one knows
And handed it to me,
O Guru Channamallikarjuna, jasmine tender (92)
Translator, Vinaya Chaitanya, provides an informative and intriguing introduction to Akka Mahadevi. Chaitanya draws parallels between the 12th century Virasaiva movement that Mahadevi was part of, and the translator’s own wisdom lineage of Narayan Guru: speaking out against discrimination and oppression based on separation and difference such as “caste, sex, language or dress,” (xvi). Chaitanya quotes Narayana Guru, “Humanity is of one caste, of one religion and of one God,” (xxix). As well as looking forward to the present, Chaitanya also looks back to the past, describing the Virasaiva movement as a continuation of the pre-Aryan, pre-Vedic “older, more contemplative tradition associated with Siva,” (xxiii). This movement accorded equal status to the sexes and there are “thirty-three vacanakartis (women writers of vacanas)” whose poems are known, (xxiv).
I saw the divine form…
I saw the great one
Who makes all the males female.
I saw the supreme guru
Ever united with the primal Sakti.
Seeing him, I am saved. (141)
One of the fundamental human differences that is frequently a basis of discrimination is male and female. Chaitanya writes, “It is the dialectics between male and female that makes for the creative evolution of the world. When these opposites are united in harmony, there is peace and contentment; when the balance between them is lost, there is suffering,” (xii). The longing for union that Akka Mahadevi expresses toward her Lord Siva, whom she calls Channamallikarjuna, goes beyond the union of male and female, which is still a form of separation and dualism, to a state of mystical union with the Divine. A.K. Ramanujan translated Channamallikarjuna as “jasmine-white Lord,” in his translations of the 1970s, whereas Chaitanya chooses a slightly different translation, “jasmine-tender,” and continues to use the original in the poems as well, Channamallikarjuna (“Channa means ‘beautiful’; mallika is jasmine; arjuna meaning ‘bright’ or ‘white’”).
My mind is unhappy.
It cannot become empty
Forgetting the two.
Show me how you can become me,
O, Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender. (10)
Like another Bhakti poet, Mirabai, Akka Mahadevi was married to a husband, but considered herself married to God, in Mirabai’s case Shyam (Krishna) and for Mahadevi, Śiva. The poems are called vacanas, meaning “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise or commitment,” (xxiii).
Like treasure hidden by the earth.
Like taste hidden by the fruit…
Hides as the being behind becoming;
No one knows him. (9)
Aside from the timeless beauty of these poems, which express the ancient mystical longing to transcend dualism, these vacanas are topical today ― when we live in such a time that focuses so very much on walls and borders, differences and separation. We need reminders of our human unity and of the sacred and divine Oneness that transcends and swallows all our differences into the vast Cosmic Ocean of Being, out of which all this becoming arises.