SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”
Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.
Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.
The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva
his front yard
is the true Benares,
we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.
But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.
Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.
You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?
Or peel away every strip
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?
Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:
who strips a tree of leaf
once the fruit is plucked?
who lies with the woman
you have left?
who ploughs the land
you have abandoned?
After this body has known my lord
who cares if it feeds
or soaks up water?
Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.