Akka Mahadevi was born at Udutadi in the Shivamogga District of Karnataka State, India to Sumati and Nirmalashetty, who were devotees of Shiva. They were the staunch followers of Trividhi philosophy of Guru, Linga and Jangama. As a child Akka showed great interest and devotion to religious practices. As an adult, she renounces the world and accepts the life of Sanyasin (Holy One/ saint). This was an unusual step for a women and she was questioned extensively by Allma. Allamaprabhu and Kinnari Bommayya. Both questioned her actions and her decisions but she explained and defended them fully. She later settles in Basavakalyan, called Kalyan that was the capital of the Western Chalukya dynasty at the time.
She is seen as representing the whole Vachana movement and she is clearly a major figure in the social empowerment of women.
Among her works we find these lines:
"I am without pride of caste
Without pride of resolute will am I.
I have cast away the arrogance of riches,
Of the pride of learning also I have none.
No manners of pride dare some near me,
For Thou hast blest me with Thy Grace."
Chennamallikarjuna as her husband
Right from her childhood unlike other young girls she chose the Beautiful Lord, Chennamallikarjuna, as her playmate. Her friends chose to play with dolls instead. She was never content in fulfilling the restricted role of a girl in the house. It was more interesting to hear the glories of the Lord. The urge to go beyond the average practice of Shaiva sampradaya was compelling. The limitations placed on women, in the pursuit of spirituality and otherwise, were unacceptable to her. This persistence facilitated her study in the local gurukula under a Guru, a rare happening for those days!
Her entire woman's life with many a harrowing experience is a testimony to the Power of Indelible Courage and Faith. She proved that a woman has every right and has all the wherewithal to pursue a life solely engaged in the exploration of the divine, while being deeply involved in none other the seeker herself!
Who was this Chennamallikarjuna for her? In the book of Mahadevi's path, as we flip the pages, we find that the image of Chennamallikarjuna changing. With time it merges into a higher and higher concept of the Divine.
Mahadevi was an extraordinarily beautiful girl with long tresses. This bodily beauty that she was blessed with was a liability for a long time in her short life. She calls this body as the site of dirt, lust, greed and rage. Her spirit belonged to space and not to her individual equipment. When she leaves her palatial home due to king Koushika, with only her hair to cover her, she reasons that when the Lord is omnipresent though hidden what then is there to conceal?
Intellectually too she was not like many other prominent saints of her time. The reformers, saints and Sharanas who gathered at the Anubhava Mantapa at Kalyana when she visited that place, had to accept her Individual Search for the Lord. Her answers to Allama Prabhu's questions were forthright and admirable. No wonder that the title Akka is given to her. The only others in that level are Basaveshwara who is Anna and Allama who is Prabhu to the Lingayata Sharanas. Here was a true Sharanu Sati- Linga Pati in its purest and tender form. The residents of Kalyana at the Anubhava Mantapa become appropriately, the bridal party, which sends her off to Shrishailam to join her very own Lord and Husband.
Travel to Kadali Vana (Srishailam Andhra pradesh)
Her travels come to an end when she finds the Kadali vana in the vicinity of the Shrishaila temple. Here she lives the rest of her life in a cave. She may have abandoned maya but Aadimaya has not abandoned her. Her former connections in the form of her parents and husband Koushika visit her even here. Her refusal to be manipulated by Maya is seen in the following song where she recognizes the Adimaya that follows everyone. It is the yogini for the yogi, the nun for the monk, the proclaimer for the saint. She dares in her proclamation that she will not be manipulated by the machinations of this Maya of the Lord as she belongs to Him and to Him alone.
Here in Kadali vana, Mahadevi matures in Nirguna upasana, ready for the final offering. She recognizes the Absolute in all of his creation. The Kalpavriksha is all trees. The Sanjeevani is all bushes. All places are Teerthas. Ambrosia is contained in all waters. All animals are the covetable golden deer. Every pebble glows as the Chintamani gem.
She recognizes the paradox of His being in her body, as her very breath becomes His Fragrance. His form becomes hers. Her life force is no different from His very own. No knowledge to acquire, as she now knows Him. Who is there to think, of whom, as individuality ceases to be? Only the waiting remained for the Final Dissolution sans the physical container!
This young, defiant and vibrant saint Akka Mahadevi attains Aikyastthala, the highest of the six states of Lingayathism in the vicinity of the temple to Chennamallikaarjuna and Bhramaraambika. In Kadali vana, the merging into the Great Void is achieved. 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.
"TAKE THESE HUSBANDS WHO DIE, DECAY, AND FEED THEM TO YOUR KITCHEN FIRES!" -- Akkamahadevi
Dialogue at Kalyana between Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi (from Sunyasampadane)
When Akka Mahadevi first meets with the Lingayata leaders at Kalyana, their holiest Guru, Prabhu, tests her.
Prabhu: Why have you come here in the prime of your youth? Our saints resent the sight of a young woman. If you can disclose the identity of your husband, you can join the fellowship of our saints, or else you can depart. A woman's company is like poison. Tell us, who is your husband?
Mahadevi: I was engrossed in penance for many years so that God might become my wedded lord! My own people wedded me to God by smearing my body with ashes and tying the marital bracelet to my wrist.... The entire world knows that the innumerable saints have been my parents. Therefore, O Prabhu, God is my lord; for me, there are no other husbands in this world.
When Prabhu scolds her first for her nakedness and then for covering that nakedness with her long hair, Akka Mahadevi responds:
It is not the condition of the body that counts but, instead, a pure heart which wins the favor of God....
I have covered my body with my tresses so that the sight of seals of love may not hurt you. Don't you tease, for I am abiding in God.
Prabhu questions whether Akka Mahadevi can be "one with God" when she still has human form (and, worse, a female body). She describes the superficiality of appearance, and of the leaders' reluctance to accept her:
Would the sandalwood cease its fragrance when it's cut into pieces? Would a piece of gold, even when cut and heated, lose its lustre? Would the sugar cane lose its sweetness when it is squeezed within a press and then heated?
When you search for my bygone sins and hurl them at my face, the deprivation is yours. O Lord, though you may slay me, I will never cease to love God.
Prabhu pays her his ultimate compliment: "Your body is female in appearance, but you mind is merged with God." The dialogue continues with each of the leaders praising her until she becomes embarrassed:
Because you are like water mixed with milk, I know not who the master is and who is the disciple, what is noble and what is not noble, and what is the antecedent and what is consequent. When you praise me out of your love, how can I attain divinity?
Akka Mahadevi eventually leaves Kalyana and wanders alone through a forest and then up a mountain, where she will be "united with God like hailstone melting in water, salt dissolving in water, and milk mixing with milk":
O parrots, cuckoos, bees and swans, have you seen my Lord? Tell me where he is. O God, Thou art the forest; Thou art the sacred trees, the birds and the beasts. When thou art omnipresent, why can't I see thyself?
I climbed the holy mountain... with the aid of the root of righteous deeds and along renunciation's stairs. O Lord, lift me by the hand. Shall I say that the space is God? I do not see Him when I walk through it. Shall I say that a mountain is God? I do not see Him when I climb and stand upon it.... Do not reject me, Lord, quickly take me into Thine arms!