MAHADEVI, a younger contemporary of Basavanna and Allama in the twelfth century, was born in Udutadi, a village in Sivamogga, near the birthplace of Allama. At ten, she was initiated to Siva-worship by an unknown guru. She considered that moment the moment of her real birth. Apparently, the form of Siva at the Udutadi temple was Mallikarjuna, translated either as ‘the Lord White as Jasmine’ or as ‘Arjuna, Lord of goddess Mallika’. ‘Cenna’ means ‘lovely, beautiful’. She fell in love with Cennamallikarjuna and took his name for a ‘signature’ (ankita) in all her vacanas [poems].
She betrothed herself to Siva and none other, but human lovers pressed their suit. The rivalry between the Divine Lover and all human loves was dramatized by the incidents of her own life. Kausika, the king (or chieftain) of the land, saw her one day and fell in love with her. He sent word to her parents, asking for her hand. In addition to being only human, he disqualified himself further by being a bhavi, an unbeliever. Yet he persuaded her, or rather her parents, partly by show of force, and partly by his protestations of love. It is quite likely that she married him and lived with him, though some scholars dispute the tainting fact. Anyhow it must have been a trying marriage for both. Kausika, the wordling, full of desire for her as a mortal, was the archetype of sensual man; Mahadevi, a spirit married already to the Lord White as Jasmine, scorning all human carnal love as corrupt and illegitimate, wife to no man, exile bound to the world’s wheeling lives, archetypal sister of all souls. Significantly she is known as Akka ‘elder sister’. Many of Mahadevi’s most moving vacanas speak of this conflict. Sometimes, the Lord is her illicit lover, sometimes her only legitimate husband. This ambiguous alternation of attitudes regarding the legitimacy of living in the world is a fascinating aspect of Mahadevi’s poetry.
At one point, Kausika appears to have tried to force his will on her and so she leaves him, cutting clean her relations with the whole world of men. Like many another saint, enacting…true homelessness by…wanderings, she left birthplace and parents. She appears to have thrown away even modesty and clothing, those last concessions to the male world, in a gesture of ultimate social defiance, and wandered about covered in her tresses.
Through a world of molesting male attentions she wandered, defiant and wary, asserting the legitimacy of her illicit love for the Lord, searching for him and his devotees. She walked towards Kalyana, the centre of Virasaiva saints, the ‘halls of Experience’ where Allama and Basavanna ran a school for kindred spirits.
Allama did not accept her at once. A remarkable conversation ensued, a dialogue between skeptic and love-child which turned into a catechism between guru and disciple. Many of Mahadevi’s vacanas are placed by legend in this famous dialogue. When Allama asked the wild-looking woman for her husband’s identity, she replied she was married forever to Cennamallikarjuna. He asked her then the obvious question: ‘Why take off clothes, as if by that gesture you could peel off illusions? And yet robe yourself in tresses of hair? If so free and pure in heart, why replace a sari with a covering of tresses?’ Her reply is honest:
Till the fruit is ripe inside
the skin will not fall off.
I’d a feeling it would hurt you
If I displayed the body’s seals of love.
O brother, don’t tease me
needlessly. I’m given entire
into the hands of my lord
white as jasmine.
At the end of this ordeal by dialogue she was accepted into the company of saints. From then begins the second lap of her journey to her Lord. She wandered wild and god-intoxicated, in love with him, yet not finding him. Restless, she left Kalyana and wandered off again towards Srisaila, the Holy Mountain, where she found him and lost herself. Her search is recorded in her vacanas as a search for her love, following all the phases of human love as set forth by the conventions of Indian, especially Sanskrit, poetry. The three chief forms of love, love forbidden, love in separation and love in union are all expressed in her poems, often one attitude informing and complicating another in the same poem.
She was recognized by her fellow-saints as the most poetic of them all, with a single symbolic action unifying all her poetry. She enlists the traditional imagery of pan-Indian secular love-poetry for personal expression. In her, the phases of human love are metaphors for the phases of mystic ascent. In this search, unlike the other saints, she involves all of nature, a sister to bird, beast and tree. Appropriately, she chose for adoration an aesthetic aspect of Siva, Siva as Cennamallikarjuna, or the Lovely Lord White as Jasmine.
Like other bhaktas, her struggle was with her condition, as body, as woman, as social being tyrannized by social roles, as a human confined to a place and a time. Through these shackles she bums, defiant in her quest for ecstasy.
According to legend, she died into ‘oneness with Siva’ when she was hardly in her twenties—a brief bright burning.
from speaking of siva, a k ramanujan