Mahadevi: Your Way Out

Akka [“Elder sister”, an honorific] Mahadevi, (c.1130-1160 CE) was born in Karnataka, India, and was an important female figure in the 12th c. Bhakti movement.  Little is known for certain about her life, although she is today a household name in Karnataka.  It is said that she was sought in marriage by a local Jain king named Kausika, or actually married to him, but that she rejected him when he violated certain conditions of their engagement, which included the freedom to spend her time in devotion or with other scholars and religious figures, rather than with the king.  From her poetry, it is clear that she considered her real husband to be Lord Shiva (whom her poems name as Chenna Mallikarjuna, translated as ‘Lord white as jasmine’), and she became a wandering ascetic, even refusing to wear clothing. This was common practice for male ascetics but shocking in the case of a woman.  Statues of her often show her veiled, Godiva-like, in her own long hair.  Her poems radically reject the material world, and of course also the traditional feminine roles and mores.

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,
I burn,
desiring what the heart desires.

Cut through, O Lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out,

O Lord white as jasmine.


male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
comes loose.
When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?

When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?

Tr. A. K. Ramanujan

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