Akka Mahadevi is one of the foremost feminist and spiritual icons in Indian history. Her powerful vachanas, written in twelfth-century Karnataka, trace a radical journey. Unlike other women bhaktas, Mahadevi worked within the female body, not around it - eventually walking naked, 'breast to breast with the cosmos', and moving beyond all binaries, including male-female, devotee-God. Steered by her own inner experiences, Mahadevi cut loose from religious initiations. Her bhakti was the path, her inner voice the guru.
Sky-clad is a radical new reading of Akka Mahadevi's story, one where the body is seen not as the prison of the mind or soul, but as the ground of intelligence, creativity and enlightenment.
MUKUNDA RAO is the author of six books of fiction, two plays: Mahatma - Khuda ka Hijra (1988 and 2009) and Baba Saheb Ambedkar (2008 and 2014), staged in different parts of Karnataka and much appreciated, and six insightful philosophical works, among which The Biology of Enlightenment is a much-read classic that has become a cult book amongst spiritual aspirants. After his retirement in 2010 from teaching service in a college, he lives with his wife on a farm outside Bengaluru.
WE DON'T NEED a philosopher to tell us that our life is a compound of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and agony, birth and death, and that we cannot opt for one and reject the other, for they always come in twos, like two sides of the same coin. Love offers great pleasure, joy, ecstasy and a sense of security, but when love is absent or denied, there is pain, hate and living can become miserable. Success and failure, laughter and tears follow each other, like the tail follows the monkey. This has been our lived experience, yet we refuse to come to terms with this supreme fact and deal with it squarely; instead, we seek various forms of escape from pain, desperately hoping against hope that we can remain in a permanent state of laughter, joy and security. This is not possible and that is the conflict, the dukkha. And this dukkha, which is actually more than just pain and sorrow, more than suffering and grief, drives us to not only seek more and more pleasure and security, but also sets us up on the path or inquiry.
Somewhere along the evolutionary line, it seems the primordial, unitary consciousness ruptured and the human experienced separation from nature, from the totality of life. There are scientific theories to explain how and why this separation might have taken place due to some genetic mutation and as a self-protective measure in humans, and here are fascinating stories or myths of creation in all cultures that attempt to recount this separation of the human from the totality of life.
Whatever the origin of this separation, which appears to mark the birth of the self – the ‘I’ consciousness - it also marks the beginning of lack, a sense of incompleteness, sorrow and fear in the human heart. And our constant striving - what the Buddha called the wheel of becoming - is geared towards filling that gap, to overcoming that sense of lack, that fear, which seems like a bottomless pit.
Expressing this profound dilemma, agony and struggle in another way, Aldous Huxley wrote: 'We love ourselves to the point of idolatry; but we also intensely dislike ourselves - we find ourselves unutterably boring. Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence,"
Indeed, this urge to self-transcendence is the spiritual quest in us. This spiritual quest may take on different forms, different expressions, such as faith in and worship of God, belief in religious creeds and rituals. It may lead one on to the path of jnana or karma or bhakti. There are many such paths, each one offering a way out of pain, of sorrow, a promise to steer the follower to the shore of happiness and love, to transcend the sense of separation and come upon the state of being where there is no sense of lack or fear or anxiety, which is the state of tranquillity, or unitary consciousness.
This narrative shall focus on bhakti as a path to liberation. And the task here would be not so much to historicise bhakti culture - though that may be necessary to an extent - as to understand the way(s) of bhakti and its adherents, particularly Akka Mahadevi, the protagonist of this narrative.
While narrating Akka Mahadevi's story and discussing her vachanas, prose-poems, it was necessary to talk about Mira Bai, Andal, Avvaiyar, Karaikalammaiyar and Lalleshwari, if only to appreciate the varieties of bhakti, and to mark the similarities and differences in their approaches and expressions. And then, of course, to recount in detail the lives of Akka Mahadevi's contemporaries: Allama Prabhu, Basavanna and other men and women saranas, devotees. Also, to consider the twelfth-century Virashaiva movement in some depth, in order to understand and appreciate the revolutionary spirit of the period. For it was during this period of great spiritual ferment and adventure that Akka Mahadevi walked naked, seeking the truth, composing, probably even singing, her vachanas of agony and love and unitary experience.
BHAKTI AS A way of invoking, appeasing and seeking blessings of God(s) may be traced to the vedic culture, but it's only in the Bhagavad Gita (100 CE) that bhakti as a mode of worshipping, surrendering and reaching God gains prominence. In hindsight, however, it appears that the trigger lay in the first and second century CE, when, with the elevation and adoration of Gautama Buddha as Transcendent Being, as Supreme Deity, idolatry set in in South East Asia. Bhakti, or devotion, became a popular mode of religious practice.' A couple of centuries later, following in the footsteps of devotional Buddhism, came Hindu devotional narratives on Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, such as Vishnu Purana, Linga Purana and Bhagavata. But then again, scholars may argue that, on the ground, it is only in the sixth and seventh century CE that the bhakti culture took concrete shape and started to spread widely across India among Hindus of various sects, especially in the south, and then it moved upwards to north India. And for the first time in Indian history, women, cutting across caste and different economic strata of society, made a spectacular appearance in this mass movement.
This is not to say that spirituality, or the search for God, or search for answers to the deeper questions on life and reality, had been the domain of men alone until the emergence of the bhakti movement. In fact, centuries before bhakti became popular, during the Upanishadic period (500-400 BCE), we do come across women taking to the path of jnana or knowledge and asceticism, but they are hardly remembered today. They were women who, giving up the pleasure and security of married life, took to philosophical study and sadhana, and a life of asceticism. They were called brahmavadinis. Gargi Vachakavi, Vadava Pratitheyi, Sulabha Maitreyi, Romasa and Lopamudra were some of the notable brahmavadinis during the Upanishadic period.
For instance, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we read about Gargi, a spiritual seeker in her own right, testing sage Yajnavalkya's understanding of Brahman in an open court. In the same text, we also meet Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya's wife, who rejects her share of property when he decides to offer it to her, before renouncing samsara and embracing the ascetic life. Instead, she asks him to share the knowledge by which one can attain immortality.
This tradition of women taking to the path of spirituality, we gather, gained considerable momentum during Mahavira's time (599-527 BCE). Indeed, he deserves credit for bringing a large number of women into the spiritual fold. At the time, it is said, hundreds of women renounced the worldly life to become nuns. Chandana, Mahavira's aunt, is believed to have been the head of the Jain order of nuns. Years later, when Jainism split into two sects, namely, Digambara (sky-clad) and Svetambara (white-clad), the Digambaras decreed that women could not attain Nirvana and so they barred women from the order. But the Svetambaras made no such distinction between men and women aspirants and admitted both into their order, a tradition that continues to this day.
The Buddha (486 BCE), according to the Pali texts, was at first reluctant to admit women into the sangha. One day, Ananda, his cousin and constant companion, challenged the master thus: '0 Lord, tell me, are women capable of attaining Nirvana?'
The Buddha said, 'Women are capable of attaining Nirvana. With regard to Nirvana, Ananda, there's no difference between men and women.' Thus cornered, he is believed to have asked Mahaprajapati Gautami, his stepmother and ardent devotee, who had been very keen to join the sangha, to go ahead with the initiation. That is how, along with Mahaprajapati Gautami, five hundred women are believed to have renounced worldly ties to undergo initiation and form the first Buddhist order of nuns - the Shakyadhitas, or 'daughters of the Shakyan'. But the nuns ranked below the monks. They had to follow eight additional rules, receive instruction from monks and serve the community of monks. However, Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns, composed probably during the Buddha's years or after his death and centuries later put to writing in the Pali language, is arguably among the most ancient women's writing in the world. This anthology of seventy-three poems, considered to be the first bhakti work in Buddhism, renders with heart-breaking honesty and beauty the trials and tribulations of women and their ultimate escape from conflict and pain into the attainment of tranquillity. In it, we encounter outstanding women, such as Mahaprajapati, Kisa Gautami and Supriya, to mention only a few, whose lives, utterances and spiritual attainments can in no way be ranked below that of the monks."
For several centuries thereafter, we hardly get to hear of women in the spiritual narratives of India. The Buddhist order of nuns petered out for the lack of support, the Jain order of nuns survived on a small scale, with a marginal presence. On the ground, in the Hindu world, the voices of women fell completely silent. The lone exception is the voice of Ubhaya Bharati in Madhava Vidyaranya's Sankara Digvijaya, a fourteenth-century biographical and philosophical narrative on Adi Shankara. We are told that when Adi Shankara challenged Mandana Mishra, an authority on Karmakanda, Vedic rituals, to a philosophical debate, it was Ubhaya Bharati, Mandana Mishra's wife, who was asked to be the judge. She delivered a verdict in favour of Shankara, but later challenged him to a separate debate with her. Shankara was stumped by her questions on the nature of sexuality and sought time to acquire new knowledge, finding which he matured into a jnani - the enlightened one.
Manu Dharmashastra or The Laws of Manu (100 CE) was composed nearly 600 years after the Buddha's passing and 700 years before the arrival of Shankara. It is difficult to say with any certainty if The Laws of Manu, which denied women, along with the shudras, access to brahmavidya, or spiritual knowledge, and condemned them to a life of submission and subservience to men in the name of stridharma, or wifely duties, was the cause of the oppression of women. It could be that the text only reflected and strengthened the already existing and growing 'patriarchal' trend that marginalized women's place in family and society.
Wendy Doniger says 'Manu Dharmashastra attracted no fewer than nine commentaries, attesting to its crucial significance within the tradition ... In the realm of the ideal, Manu Dharmashastra is a cornerstone of the Brahmin vision of what human life should be.' And she contends that the Dharmashastra deeply infiltrated Hindu culture, building into it sharply restricted freedom for women and the lower castes, regulating their behaviour and blocking their access to knowledge, to social and political power." So it's quite likely that through the Dharmashastra, the 'brahminical' structure was put on a firm footing and in command.
The bhakti movement (sixth-fifteenth century CE) was, in part, a rebellion against brahminical ideology and structure. To a large extent, the voices against the privileging of Sanskrit as divine language and the source of unquestionable spiritual knowledge, or jnana, had prepared the soil for the emergence of bhakti as an alternative way to God and liberation. These same voices also opposed the claims made by vedic and brahminical authorities on matters spiritual as being absolute and indisputable. Although this revolt came from within Hindu traditions, it must be admitted that, in part, it was inspired by the Buddhist and Jain challenges to brahminical structures and epistemologies.
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