Westland Publications, 2018
Mukunda Rao, author of Between the Serpent and the Rope, presents the extraordinary life-story and message of one of India's most charismatic female saint-poets, Akka Mahadevi.
I asked the author about these and other topics of interest covered in Sky-clad. Here are excerpts from the email interview with Mukunda Rao:
MR: Dates or 'origins' are always controversial. However, the truth of the matter doesn't necessarily get enhanced because it's older. I am not a scholar, nevertheless I do necessary research and try to be careful in what I say. The Mahabharata was in oral form for centuries before it was written down. The time frame traditionalists offer is suspect; Mahabharata, I think happened after the Buddha period, also its composition. Statues, figures and paintings of the Buddha and Mahavira seemed to have appeared centuries before the Hindu temple culture grew and spread widely. Perhaps 'Linga' was much older, not Lord Shiva with a crescent moon in his hair. Anyway, I don't want to hold on to these dates; tomorrow there may be new findings and we stand open to corrections.
2. Regarding Meera's bhakti there is mention of viraha - the pangs of separation, which is expressed in her numerous songs. You have written that in this type of bhakti, the bridge of separation between the devotee and deity is never crossed. However, according to the recorded biography of Meera, she is said to have merged into the image of Lord Krishna in the temple at Dwaraka. Meera's sari is said to have appeared on the Lord's idol, indicating the final union. Can this then be taken as proof of the ultimate dissolution?
MR: It is said even Andal merged with the deity. This only indicates the intensity of their bhakti. Bhakti is relational, thought it has within it the great urge to transcend the duality. Only a few lucky ones cross the bridge. This is not to privilege some bhaktas over others, but only to point out the nature of bhakti and its spiritual consequences. I have tried to follow more their poems rather than legends.
3. In the sections on bhakti, and body and gender, you mention about gender issues and feminine beauty as impediments to spiritual progress. While the Freudian theory of penis-envy has been rejected by later day female psychotherapists, I was wondering if there could be an opposing theory at play in male sharanas who identify their gender as feminine when it comes to expressing bhakti towards the male God. Could the male spiritual aspirants be envious of women's Janani status, and therefore yearn for fulfilment from a higher male power? It is also interesting to note (from the book referenced below) that Maya, the evil that separates the devotee from the deity is mostly construed as female by almost every seeker, but Akka Mahadevi has described it in the masculine gender in one of her verses (ibid.).
MR: You have a point and an interesting one. Sexuality and its experience seem to play a significant role in shaping the language of bhakti. Male bhakta could be envious of female bhakta. Vagina is a receiver, so male bhakta may want to be that receiver receiving love, grace and jnana!
4. We tend to have a hypocritical attitude towards matters of sex, in that we act as though it does not exist, and brush all matters related to sex under the carpet, even though our growing population suggests otherwise. Sex is certainly considered to be an impediment to spiritual progress by almost all religions. In this context, it is very interesting to note the explicitly sexual connotations that are present in Akka Mahadevi and her fellow sharanas/sharanes' poems. Akka talks about going "cuckold my husband with Hara" and "fornicating with Shiva" (ibid.). Are these sexual connotations to be taken literally? Did the bhaktas really aspire to have actual physical contact with their chosen deity? Are the erotic carvings on some of our temple walls giving us a message of some sort, perhaps relating to the importance of sex in spirituality, something that we have failed to realise?
MR: How is actual physical union possible? Only the yearning for union, which is the yearning to transcend duality, is expressed in sexual terms. As I say in the book:
The strong sexual imagery in the last vachana is actually indicative of the deep yearning for mystical union - the expression of this ultimate union, or the great urge to self-transcendence, is in physical terms. The physical becomes the heart and soul of the metaphysical. In the way of bhakti, the poet joins the bodily experience with the transcendental so that the spirit speaks through the flesh. For, the body, as Akka would say, is not only the 'house of passion' but also the 'home' of the Divine. So the physical continues to be the base, even when, at some point during this journey, her Lord Chennamallikarjuna, with 'white teeth' and 'matted curls,' metamorphoses into nirguna, or the aniconic one, who has no attributes; and finally, into the nirakara, one with no name or form.
5. In page 75, you talk about Allama Prabhu, Jiddu Krishnamurti and U G Krishnamurti's pathless path, wherein they reject the notion of accumulation of knowledge and performing sadhana to attain enlightenment. Is there no meaning in seeking guidance from a guru, which is considered to be an essential prerequisite to progress on the spiritual path? How does on conduct oneself in life if one is a spiritual aspirant desirous of attaining enlightenment? Is luck the only factor that results in one progressing from anubhava to anubhaava?
MR: The need for gurus, sadhana and jnana is quite necessary, or at least the necessity is there in every quester's life. We need all these tools when we start the journey, but somewhere along the line, they drop off one by one and one is on one's own. A genuine quester cannot be dependent on a guru forever, and a genuine guru would certainly want to release such people from the circle of his influence. In other words, what we know is that that state of being cannot be brought about by an act of will, or engineered, or replicated, through any method or sadhana whatsoever. At best, sadhana can prepare the ground and yet there is no guarantee. The search cannot bring it on, only the end of search, if at all. But then of course, there has to be a search for it to be abandoned, the search which ceases with the realization that the very search is the barrier. It is the realization of the mind that it cannot solve the problem it has itself created in the first place.
Intense anubhava takes you thus far but no further; for anubhaava to happen we let go all anubhavas! Rest is luck or grace or whatever that is, we have no clue. I called it the 'second missing link,' that which catapults one into the natural state of being.
To me, the overarching message of Akka's life is this: one has to transcend norms and remain resilient until the goal is achieved. Akka transcended physical inhibitions and social strictures as she set out on the spiritual path, and demonstrated amazing resilience in standing up to societal barbs and naysayers until she achieved her ultimate goal of aikya. This is something each of us can learn from, whatever the nature of our individual goal.
Rao's account of Akka Mahadevi's life and message is highly recommended reading for spiritual aspirants in general, and for those seeking to know more about one of the most fascinating female saint-poets of India.
Androgyny and Female Impersonation in India: Nari Bhav, T. Mukherjee & N.R. Chatterjee, Niyogi Books, First Edition, 2016. Chapter title: The Soul In-Between: Gender, Androgyny and Beyond in Bhakti Poetry, The Example of the Karnataka Veerashaiva Tradition, H.S. Shivaprasad, pp. 71-82.