The trial of Indian history’s foremost feminist and spiritual icon

Akka Mahadevi’s vachanas are considered to be some of the finest forms of poetry in Karnatala. In ‘Sky-clad’, author Mukunda Rao documents the life of the 12th century bhakta and her radical journey

Mahadevi’s Trial
Here is a brief account of the dialogue that took place between Allama Prabhu and Mahadevi, adapted from the four somewhat different versions of the fifteenth-century text Sunya Sampadane, literally, attainment of the void.

Allama knew about Mahadevi and her controversial background. The news of her arrival had reached Kalyana much before she appeared at the Anubhava Mantapa. Legends say Allama had to interrogate her not so much to clear his misgivings about her spiritual maturity, but rather to dispel the possible doubts of the other saranas. Or could it be that Allama was in doubt himself?

Allama: What is all this fanfare about? Why have you come here instead of going to your husband’s house?
The saranas were stunned by Allama’s sudden, baffling offensive. So this is it, thought Mahadevi, and braced herself to answer the question. It was the hour of truth. It was Mahadevi’s hour of truth.

Mahadevi: Prabhu, you ask a strange question. Nevertheless, if I have to answer it, I would say that I have come here as the daughter-in-law of this house.

Allama: Daughter-in-law? But, tell me, who is this husband of yours?

Though most of the saranas sat tight-lipped, puzzling over the cruel yet intriguing ways of Allama, a few could not help giggling. Unflustered, Mahadevi answered.

Mahadevi: What use have I of husbands who die and decay? Throw them into the kitchen fires. The One with no bond nor fear, no clan nor land, no birth nor death, no place nor form, my Lord Chennamallikarjuna, He is my husband.

Allama: Ah, you speak well! The whole world can see that you are quite young, and beautiful, too. Umm, a mere little girl, and you speak of Chennamallikarjuna and Kadali in your vachanas! Tell me, what do you know of Kadali? What is your experience?

Distressed and angry, Chenna Basava rose in defence of Mahadevi. ‘Prabhu,’ he cried out, ‘You know pretty well that age has nothing to do with anubhaava. Age or growing old does not automatically bestow wisdom on anyone.’

‘Well said, Chenna Basava,’ exclaimed Siddarama from his seat. ‘We can gauge the age of timber, but can one measure the age of arivu?’

Allama: Let her answer.

Mahadevi: Prabhu, are you really troubled by my young age and body? And don’t you know what Kadali is? Kadali is this body, this mind and five senses. Kadali is this dense world and impenetrable forest. I have penetrated this forest and triumphed over this world, and in every pebble and every leaf I have seen the face of my Lord Chennamallikarjuna. I am nothing but His now, lodged in His lotus heart.

Sounds of approbation burst forth from the gathering of the saranas. Impressed by Mahadevi’s answer, Basavanna smiled and was about to rise and welcome Mahadevi formally amidst them, but on seeing Allama raise his finger, he slid back. When Allama opened his mouth, nobody spoke. Seated on the Sunya Shimasana, he was the king in command.

Allama: Do not think I’m impressed by your clever words. You still have not answered my question. The whole world knows that you were married to King Kaushika, that you betrayed his trust in you and ran away. You think our saranas here will be impressed by a woman like you?

This was too much, many saranas thought. How could he be so direct and cruel? On what grounds was he assuming they were all critical of Mahadevi when none of them had spoken a word about her? And he was not even offering Mahadevi a seat!

It was a trial through fire. How strange, Mahadevi thought, even in this gathering of spiritual masters, the onus of proving her innocence, her integrity, was entirely on her.

Mahadevi: I did not betray Kaushika. In fact, he betrayed my trust in him. He broke his promise. While I was immersed in my prayers, breaking his word given to me, he came in and pulled at my sari. And I walked out. You may think it was a small mistake on the part of Kaushika. It was not. We had agreed that if he were to break his word of honour, I would be free to leave. So I walked out free. This is my story and this is the truth.

She paused, wondering if there was anything more she could add to clear Allama’s doubts. She looked around and saw a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on her. Let it be, she thought, let everything come out and be cleansed. She continued:

Men and women blush when a cloth covering their shame comes loose. But when the entire world is the eye of the Lord, overlooking everything, what can you cover and conceal?
Prabhu, there is nothing that I can call my own. Absolutely nothing, not even this body. Everything is His. And when everything is His, what is there to hide? When this body, cleansed of all impurities, has become one with the Lord, what does it matter how it looks?

Allama: Clever, very clever. You say you are nothing and speak as if you have gone beyond the consciousness of your body. Why then have you covered yourself ? If there is nothing to hide, why then do you hide your body behind those tresses of yours?

This is quite unwarranted and too indecent, murmured even the senior saranas. Siddarama, unafraid, expressed his disapproval. ‘Prabhu,’ he said, ‘is it necessary to hammer what is already pure gold to test its purity?’ ‘
It is necessary and you’ll soon know why,’ snapped Allama and turned his attention to Mahadevi again.

Mahadevi: Prabhu, I cover myself for the sake of the world, lest people see in my body what is not there. And it is to protect others and not myself, nor to hide anything. Does that trouble you, Prabhu? Are you still not satisfied with my answers?

Allama: No, I’m not convinced. You speak as if you don’t have a body, as if you don’t exist. It is like a dead body declaring itself dead, like curdled milk claiming sweetness. Is that possible?

Mahadevi: But, Prabhudeva, when one wakes from a dream in which one has died and talks about it, isn’t it like a dead one speaking of one’s own death? When curdled milk is boiled, isn’t there sweetness in it? Should this matter be argued further, Prabhu? But then I have nothing more to say.

And she bowed her head as if to say she was finished and fell silent. Suddenly, up on his feet, now smiling, Allama declared:

Allama: There are no more questions to be asked. You have solved the unsolvable, answered the unanswerable. You may be young by years, but in your maturity and vision, you are our elder sister, our Akka.

Shedding your corporeal traits
you have become united with the Linga.
Peeling the senses of the self and other
you are now one with the Linga itself.
You have become yourself, the supreme light,
O Akka Mahadevi.

Now rising from his seat, beaming an endearing smile, Basavanna said:
Does one who has loved
the one without form
have need of body?
Does one who has loved
the one without mind
have need of shame?
Does one who has loved
the sky-clad one
have need of a girdle-cloth?
A sarane like Mahadevi Akka
needs no encumbrances at all.
O, namo, namo, Mahadevi Akka!

'Akka, Akka, Akka Mahadevi…’ Cries of joy burst forth in the hall, like a sudden rain pattering down from the heavens. Since then, Mahadevi was always referred to with the honorific title Akka: Akka Mahadevi.

(Extract published from Mukunda Rao's Sky-clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi with permission from Westland Publications Pvt Ltd)

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