Akka Mahadevi, Poet-Saint of Karnataka

by Paul Hawkwood

Akka Mahadevi was a bhakta—an ardent lover of God—in the Shaiva tradition of South India’s Karnataka State during the twelfth century. This poet-saint celebrated her love of Lord Shiva in the language of the common people, which was for her a simple form of Kannada.

The title Akka, which means “elder sister,” was given to Akka Mahadevi by a community of Shaiva saints—including the much-revered Basavanna and Allama Prabhu—in recognition of her deep spirituality. Indeed, Akka Mahadevi’s poems express both her devotion and her intense longing for union with God. In these poems she speaks directly to Lord Shiva with words of adoration and longing, describing the experience of surrendering her small self to the state of union with the Divine. Taking the Lord as her husband, she was like the Rajasthani saint Mirabai, who devoted her life and her ecstatic bhajans to Lord Krishna four hundred years later.

To this day in Karnataka, and throughout India, the songs of Akka Mahadevi are widely sung. She wrote in the form of a devotional free-verse hymn called a vachana. Around three hundred of these survive, giving voice to her devotion to Lord Shiva. As she writes in the poem above:

In my worship of you throughout the day and night, I forget myself,
O Lord Shiva, enchanting as white jasmine flowers.

This, the final stanza of her poem, is simple yet filled with ardent devotion. As a poet, I find myself enchanted by Akka Mahadevi’s passionate poems, which convey her profound love for the Lord in terms that are both direct and artful. They draw me toward the state she describes—that the Lord is our own Beloved, ever-present in our hearts and minds.