THE KANNADA VACHANAS
By P. SAMA RAO
The value of the Vachanas in Kannada cannot be determined without an understanding of the necessity that inspired them. They came into existence in the early decades of the XIIth century, when people who had got fed up with the ghastly rituals of certain Shaivite cults like the Kapali and the Kalamukha harked back to the essential and the simple truths of Hinduism treasured up in the Upanishads. It was a regular swing back to them both on the material and the spiritual planes, with a pious resolve to simplify existence and its expression. Knowledge which had been the monopoly of the learned and the aristocratic few, was sought thereby to be broadcast to the commoner for his edification in a tongue which was spoken and easily understood by him. Till then the Kannada language persisted only in the Marga or the classical style, the graces and the tenor of which were patent only to the few bookish and the scholarly. Literature had thus remained estranged from the common life, and it needed truly a democratization for life and vigour. Perfection is a great simplicity and is not secular. Thus the vachanas of the Kannada Lingayat Saints are not the mere translations into the common tongue of truths enshrined in our great spiritual texts like the Upanishads, but are the expression of the human self in a holy adventure to get at the Divine. They are, therefore, comprehensive; there is no topic, materialistic or spiritual, ethical or socialistic, idealistic or secular, that they have failed to cover. Besides, they are poetic utterances of the great in tune with the Infinite. In a way they are re-statements as well as affirmations of the Truth in its various manifestations of human experience. By the way, they are revelations of one’s own soul, its tribulations, its hopes, its disappointments, and its hunger, all naturally strung together in a genuine offering of itself to the Supersoul. They are not linked together in accordance with any rigid and artificial rules of prosody or rhetoric. They transcend the rhythms these conventions have raised. They are pervaded by a novel rhythm of their own, that of the modern free verse fraught with Bhava, deep sincerity and beatific vision. To the feeling heart that understands them, they possess all the spontaneity and the poetry of the Upanishads. Therein lies their charm, their richness and their glow.
But these are not quite devoid of sectarian propaganda, as in the cases of the minor vachanakaras, like Ambigara Chowdayya, Tontada Siddhalingaswami etc., who in the guise- or examining other faiths belaud their own, namely the Lingayet faith, and proclaim from their house-tops that it is the only panacea for all ills. In this attempt to glorify their persuasion, we often come across deliberate perversions of the Truth, which are not sanctioned either by experience or logical deduction. We are not very much concerned with this taint, however, for it is natural to every protagonist of a faith in its nonage.
By the beginning of the XIIth century, Jainism was no longer popular in the Kannada country, what with its unmeaning ritualities that swamp it, and the formal canonization of every celebrity into the highest Jinahood. Brahminism was also not free from ritualistic tyranny. The Veerasaivism was ushered in as a revolt from it by a sincere band of mystics and highly spiritualized people like Sri Basaveswara, for the Kapali and the Kalamukha cults of Saivism were more harmful than beneficial to society, in that they had stressed the worship of the terrible aspects of Lord Siva–the Aghora aspects–through a ritual no less terrible, and, besides, immoral in the light of ethics which obtained then. But the Siva worship of the Tamil Nayanars, ingrained as it was with the finer emotions of the love of the Divine through Bhakti cult, was more sattvic and attractive to these reformers. So they took to it with all the glamour of the newly-weds to each other. We have thus the most beautiful poetry of love in the mystical sayings of Sri Basaveswara and Srimathi Akka Mahadevi.
Thus, what Jainism and Brahminism had irretrievably lost, the Veerasaivism had captured, and we begin to live again in the spiritual atmosphere of the days of the Upanishads.
The Bhakti-cult of the Veerasaivas is the most edible basis of their Vachanas. It had its springs in “Social equality, well-being, solidarity, and self-sufficiency”. That explains how these Vachanas are characterized by great intimacy, freedom and simplicity.
The most prominent among these Vachanakaras were Akka Mahadevi, Basaveswara, Allama Prabhu, Chennabasaveswara, Sidharama, Devara Dasimayya and Adeyya. There was quite a host of them belonging to every caste and profession gathered at the Anubhava Mantapa at Kalyan, and holding spiritual discourses directly under the nose of the most predominant of them all, namely Allama Prabhu. Lingayetism is not so much a caste as a creed, which at its inception was synthesis of all that was best both on the spiritual and materialistic planes. Spiritually their Shatsthala Siddhanta (six planes of spiritual existence) was a compromise between the various seemingly distinct paths of spiritual endeavour, namely, the Bhakti, the Jnana, the Karma, the Vyragya and the Yoga. Although some of the great Vachanakaras chose such of them as befitted their own spiritual capacity and persevered therein, yet we find no rivalry or preference expressed. They were all synthetic in outlook and practice. According to the Vachanakaras there were but two castes: one the godly and the other the otherwise. A faithful devotee of the Lord belonged to no caste excepting the godly; and once there was Lingadharana (initiation into the mysteries about the Lord, equivalent to the Brahminical Upanayana) there was a complete effacement of all impurities which impliedly meant perfection, a qualification necessary to set out on the path of knowledge about the Supreme. Thus we find Samatva, or equality was the guiding principle of this sect. To state how this obtains today is quite foreign to the purpose here.
Sarana is the perfect devotee of the Lord who has seen and felt God’s hand in everything tangible and intangible. He is one whose thought, deed and word have coalesced into a sweet consternation unto Him. He exists not for himself but for the Lord in whom he has centred his all with an abandon of his self. His one occupation is to broadcast His glory through “singing word” and sweet conduct. The Sarana is, therefore, one who has consecrated himself and everything to the Lord,
“With a mind that touches not the body, and the body that touches not the mind,
An action that touches not both the body and the mind.”
And to whom,
“The body and the Linga (symbol) are one,
The mind and the Knowledge are one;
Consciousness and unconsciousness are one;
Equality of vision and peace are one;”
for, to him, “I am” and “Thou art” do not exist as Allama says. These Vachanas which are mainly of these Saranas are therefore pervaded by a sweet aroma of holiness.
These Vachanakaras do not distinguish between spiritualism and ethics, individuality and community, the spirit and the flesh. What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Their politics and sociology are not divorced from the most spiritual life. Theirs is a practical religion which emulates heaven on earth. There is absolutely no difference between man and man, caste and creed, and man and the rest of the creation. Their kindness is akin to that of Lord Buddha who condemned harm to any living creature. On this basis we have sometimes some unpalatable things said by Basaveswara and others against the morale of the Vedic sacrifices. In a word, to these Vachanakaras everything was holy and straight which strove to reach God with a sincerity emulating the divine.
According to Rice, “the Scriptures of the Lingayet religion were in Sanskrit, and consisted of the 28 Saivagamas, the earlier portions of which were applicable to all Saivas, while the latter especially to the Veerasaivas. The ancient work Siva-Gita, which is celebrated, formed the bedrock of their cult too. For the unsophistic the teaching of these is popularised in Kannada in a series of prose works called the Vachanas which consist of short homilies or concise hortatory addresses
The Vachanas are sometimes sutraic, sometimes self-addressed, sometimes parable-like, and sometimes expansive with a reasoning and exhortation. But they are always characterized by the unrivalled intimacy and freedom of a truly kind heart that is god-possessed:
“I ever think of you, but you do not seem to know;
I ever lean on you, but you seem not to see;
How could I ever live without you, O Lord!
For, you are my being, my wisdom, my very life!”
To the heart that is simple and innocent there is no better vehicle to carry a message directly into it than the parable. That is why all the spiritual texts like the Rg-Veda, the Upanishads, Yoga Vasishta, the Bible etc., teem with parables. Basaveswara could not teach people better to be charitable in thought, than by this poetical say of the parable of the snake-charmer:
“A snake-charmer, his noseless wife, and the snake in his hand; They start to consult a good omen for the marriage of their son;
On their way they meet with another noseless woman, and they turn back saying, “It’s no good omen”.
See, how clever he is!
His wife is noseless, he has a serpent in his hand, he knows not his own defects, but yet he thinks low of others.”
As Bhartrihari has inimitably sung in V. 92 of his Niti-Sataka all life is a consecration unto the Lord, because He has dedicated Himself to serve the universe (Brahma yena kulalavan niyamito...). His creatures who are benefited by that service must requite Him in a similar way, unreserved and ungrudging. Molegeya Mareyya while stressing the immanence and the all-awareness of the Lord hints at this truth when he sets out this parable:
“When earth becomes the village constable is there any place for the thief to hide himself in?
Is there anything then that is not consecrated unto the Lord, who is infinite-limbed?”
Aphorisms are usually the most telling because they enshrine the greatest truths with the minimum of words. As Bacon confirms it, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Hence the holiest wisdom is often sutraic, and justly so. Chandimarasu emphasizes the greater importance of the spiritual constitution of the disciple than that of his guru in the endeavour to arrive at the Truth:
“What boots it to whom the mirror belongs?
Will it not do if you catch your likeness therein?
What boots it who the preceptor has been, if one has known the truth about oneself?”
Allama Prabhu explains this in a poetic manner:
“There is the lamp; there is the wick; can the lamp be lit without oil?
There is the Guru; there is the Linga; can there be devotion if the disciple lacks illumination?
‘SO HAM’ is quite futile without ‘DASOHAM’.”
Could Samatva or equality be better conveyed than from the following most beautiful lines of Banthadevi, which also suggests the oneness of the Lord?
“Is the space within the town different from the one outside?
Is the space the Brahmin tenants different from that of the outcaste?
The space is same everywhere;
There is difference but in name;
The wall alone divides the inside from the out;
There is but one Wanderer, and that’s He who responds with ‘O’ to the call.”
Allama Prabhu sums up the nature and scope of all philosophies in the cryptic line, “Devotion is the root, detachment is the tree, and knowledge is the fruit”
The Vachanas depend for their poetic and ultimate quality upon the edible and the luscious in Nature. Akka Mahadevi, Allama and Basaveswara were remarkable observers of Nature. They explain the highest truths through similes drawn from her. Allama explains the ‘How’ of the link that always exists between the Creator and the created in a manner that is a question again–
“How is the mango linked to the cuckoo, O Lord?
How is the tamarind linked to the ocean’s salt?
Who am I? Who art Thou, O Lord,
That we should be tied down each to each?”
A certain quality, that of purity, is always necessary before the Divine could be apprehended in the slightest degree, for as Basaveswara is positive,–
“Could the tatty-ring ever know the sweetness of cornflakes?
Could the monkey ever know the comfort of a silken cot?
Could the crow by habiting the celestial garden become a cuckoo?
Could a crane browsing on the fringe of a pond ever become a swan?”
To the illuminated, God and His ways are familiar in the manner of
“The anthill is familiar with the serpent’s bend;
The ocean is familiar with the river’s bend;
And the Lord is familiar with His devotee’s bend.”
But high imagination and a subtle sense of life’s mysteries are necessary before the mistiness in the following lines lifts, and the Truth lurking behind them becomes clear. One needs too an idea of cosmogony which is co-terminous with the godhead. According to Sidharama,
“It is void in the beginning, void at the end,
It gets spoilt in the middle; knowingly; see!
It is its own testimony in the world, that it becomes so.”
If Siddharama was a mere Karmin, he could not have touched at this Absolute in a perfectly advaitic manner. As Vedanta lays down, God existed alone, all alone, in the beginning of things, and that He could not enjoy Himself in His loneliness. An earlier Upanishad confirms this in “Sa vai naiva tasmad ekaki na ramate” and so, “He divided Himself into a Twain; and this Twain was like the female and the male in close embrace” (Brihadaranyaka Up. 1, 3, 4, 3). The rest of the creation closely follows upon this division, and has been similarly meant for His own delight. Siddharama asserts,
“There is nothing like ‘I’ and ‘Mine’;
Whatever I do, is Thy sport; my delights are all Thine;
I do not act at all; I exist only through and in Thee.”
Everything in creation is a manifestation of the Lord. This clears up the cloud in Allama Prabhu’s mystical observation,
“If Thou alone are the God, and I am none, why should I care for myself?
I quaff a cup of water when thirsty and eat a morsel of food when hungry;
I am myself a God, O Lord!”
The last line is reminiscent of the great advaitic truth, tat-tvam-asi. Since everything is and exists in the Lord, He is verily without a second. Creation and preservation are as natural to Him as destruction, which in its finality can only mean an absorption again of everything into Himself quite in a sportive mood. Thus the Lord is at once the worshipper, the worshipped, and all the aids of worship. As Allama puts it deliciously, “The Lord is self-born, became His own Guru, His own disciple, His own Linga, and His own ritual, all in sport.” When the knower, the known, and the knowledge become ONE, the aspirant is the God himself. This perfect identity with the Lord, in Allama’s words again,
“...is like the nacre in the mother-o’-pearl,
...is like the vein of light in the spark,
...is like the perfume in the wandering wind.”
This Samarasa, Samasukha and Samakale, as Tontada Siddhalingayati says is “like ghee mixed in ghee, the milk in milk, the oil in oil, the water in water, the light in light, space in space, and the breath in breath.” That is why our scriptures enjoined “Worship the Divine, having become divine” (Devo bhutva devam yajet). In a poetic manner Allama expresses the divine oneness in the most beautiful but mystical lines:
“I saw the Lord fiery inside a temple built of sealing wax;
There I saw no one worshipping Him;
I saw the fire in the tree burning up the tree,
It was in the Lord himself.”
There is nothing novel or original in the thoughts of the Vachanakaras. Their originality is in the manner of expressing them, their great simplicity and intimacy. The most abstract truths are illustrated with the most apt similes drawn from nature and her phenomena. While glorifying man they have not belittled her. She was always their ally and an aid to discover themselves and their place in God’s creation. She is, therefore, man’s equal, although to many mystics the patterns of God’s beauty and benevolence are more patent and easily discernible in her than in others. That is why the devotees of the Lord often question her about his whereabouts in the sweet manner of Akka Mahadevi, Mira and Gauranga.
The Vachanakaras are mostly Saranas in the strictest sense of the word. They are not academical, and their Vachanas are not treatises deliberately planned to educate anyone. They are but effusions of what they felt and experienced in their lives about men and things and the unperceivable Godhead.
Basaveswara sets out beautifully the end of all ethics in
“There is nothing like the heavens and earth;
Speaking truth is heaven, and untruth is hell;
Righteousness is heaven and vice is hell;
Thou shalt attest this, O Lord!”
Chenna Basaveswara, his nephew, in a poetic simplification of this, says addressing the Lord:
“The Sarana who adores Thee a thousand times with the lotus of his heart is a reflection of Thyself;
His lotus has eight petals;
The first of which with innocence, harmlessness and kindness to life is made;
The second with the control of senses many;
The third, is but the calmness secured of the effacement of self;
The fourth, is to have desisted from all useless activity;
The fifth, is the good intention in the place of the bad;
The sixth, is the celibacy bred not on fasts or negation but the acceptance of all that is necessary;
The seventh petal is the forgetting of all untruth and the speaking ever of the truth;
While the eighth and the last is the unconsciousness of all the worlds and the permeation of the self with the knowledge of the Lord;
Of what use then is the worship made of flowers culled from the outside world?”
He also describes true consecration as being “virtuous and pure” with a disposition shorn of all desires, and a consciousness which knows not itself, when the knower, the knowledge and the known are all become one. This is possible only when “the dominion over the self is transferred unto the Lord with a dedication of all the limbs and their action,” and when the distinction between oneself and the Lord is completely obliterated. Then only will the Lord limn Himself with all His glory and grace over the polished speculam of the devotee’s mind. Chenna-Basaveswara advocates that the consecration in order to be holy, “must be done even before the body has felt the thing through the senses. The hearing, the seeing, the breathing, the tasting and the touching must come afterwards.”
Among the Vachanakaras we have some remarkable women saints like Akka Mahadevi, Banthadevi, Mahadevi, wife of Molegeya Mareyya, and Nilambike, wife of Basaveswara. The spiritual alliance existing between them and their husbands, for instance between Nilambike and Basaveswara, and Mahadevi and Mareyya, are reminiscent of the soulful discourses between Yajnyavalkya and Maitreyi, and have been fruitful of many a poetic saying which seeks to describe the Indescribable. On being sent for to join him at Sangamesvara in order that she may attain the Lord Sangama there, Nilambike nicely retorts to her beloved Basaveswara:
“When the Lord has dawned on me from out of my palm, who should I least care for a union with Sangayya as he asks me to?
Has not the Lord Sangama any place here?
Is it worthy of high souls like my husband to feel a doubt about His existence as here and there?
I salute the Lord Sangameswara with my uplifted hands from here alone.”
According to the Vachanakaras, and as Allama Prabhu has beautifully put it, “Illusion lies only in the desire of the mind.” Illusion has many alluring shapes and sirens’ charms. Concretely as Akka Maha Devi has said,
“There is illusion in front of man, it troubles him in the form of woman;
There is illusion ahead of woman, it troubles her in the form of man;
To the world which is itself an illusion, the histories of Thy devotees, my Lord, are marvellous, wonderful!”
This illusion is berthed deepest in ‘I’ and ‘Thou’, which are but terms of transient life, and ‘Yours’ is ignorance, while ‘Mine’ is an illusion. But the illusion lifts itself when ‘You’ and ‘I’ combine into a sweet consecration to the Lord. As Ambigara Chowdayya has said,
“Knowledge lies in the knowing of oneself,
Divinity in the imparting of it to others.”
and as Adeyya defines and prescribes the remedy,
“If the mind is turned outwards there is the illusion;
If turned inwards we have there the undisclosed Jnani;
If he leans on Infinity he becomes the redeemed.”
Dakkeya Bommanna relates the earthly desires to various sounds produced out of the Kanjira during its play. Although the image is a bit far-fetched, the novelty and naturalness of the comparison are above question. The phenomena are true to life:
“A ball called life impinges against a tambourine called the body;
Life craves for gold, woman and earth, saying “Ta,…Ta...”
‘Give...Give...’ with the vehemence of sounds ‘HIM, DI, DIM, DI...’;
Amid this medley of sounds one must steer himself clear of the wicked goddess TIME;
If not, one cannot know God.”
For knowing the Lord, His grace is necessary; for, “Just as leaves, flowers and fruits lie concealed in the tree, but manifest themselves duly in seasons, the divine qualities emerge only at His desire.” (Allama). This element of grace in the Veerasaiva faith seems to have been borrowed from the Visishtadvaitic cult of philosophy.
The greatest poetry of the Vachanas is in the sayings of Basaveswara, while their sublimity lies in their description of the Absolute and the Infinite in terms most finite. We have visions both of the quality-ful and the quality-less Brahman etched in sweetest phraseology. What could be more tender and graceful than this address of Allama to the Lord?
“O Darling! Thou hast no father, no mother,
Yet, self-born art Thou, and brought up by Thyself;
Thou art self-illumined, and indistinguishable
With a history natural only to Thyself.”
Adeyya’s portrait of Lord Siva is as comprehensive and complete as the one of the Bhagavad Gita:
“Thy feet are below the nadir, Thy body above Suvarloka; Bliss is Thy crown, the heavens are Thy face;
The sun and the moon are Thine eyes;
The trees are Thine hair, and the open space is the symbol in Thine hand:
The stars are Thine flowers, the Present Thine worship,
And the clouds are Thine tresses flying;
The moonlight is Thine bhasma, and the mountains are Thine rudrakshas;
The eternal truths are Thine prayer-beads, while the Meru is Thine garland;
The universe is Thine neck, and Anantha is Thine kaupina;
“The alchemy of trigunas is Thine incense while the four Vedas are Thine tread;
The lightning is Thine glow, and the earth Thine throne;
The Vedas and the Agamas are Thine speech;
Wisdom is Thine teaching, and the thunder Thine voice;
While the day and the night are Thine mansions;
Abnegation and detachment are Thine satiety!
Allama Prabhu’s attempt to depict the Ineffable is by far the best we have that way among the Vachanas:
“Thou art like patience concealed in earth;
Thou art the lightning latent in cloud;
Thou art like the hare concealed in open space;
Thou art like light hid behind the eye;”
Thou hast the forth of the immense-sky;
Thou art eternal light, incomparable;
Thou art invisible to mind, and hast no likeness
To anything excepting Thine own.”
These have in them the ring of the Vedic and the Upanishadic address.
In fine these Kannada Vachanas are comprehensive in wisdom, and poetic in expression, what with a delightful simplicity and directness peculiarly their own. They are the forerunners of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic prose.
Note: The citations are from the author’s own renderings of the Vachanas into English.