An early heroine of independence: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
In the early 12th century, a young child bride ran away, cast off her clothes, and declared herself married forever to Shiva.
Independence Day calls to mind Akka Mahadevi. ‘Akka’ (‘elder sister’ in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil) was born into a rich Hindu family in Udutadi village in present-day Shimoga district, Karnataka. She was married at the age of 10 to Kausika, a Jain chieftan. This was in the early 12th century. The Jains, then as now, were a prosperous community and Akka was expected to live the life of a medieval ‘corporate wife’, dress well, bear her husband sons and fulfill her traditional biological, domestic, social and ritual duties.
Instead, Akka ran away. Moreover, she cast off her clothes, possibly influenced by the Digambara or ‘sky-clad’ sect of naked Jaina ascetics, and wore her long hair as her only covering.
What could have made a gently bred girl utterly reject her prescribed life and wander bravely alone into the aggressive, jeering world of men? We cannot begin to imagine what she must have endured or the strength of mind and conviction it must have taken to make and sustain this terrifying choice back then.
Akka seems to have experienced a deep emotional transference to Shiva as ‘Chenna Mallikarjuna’, beautifully translated by the late AK Ramanujan as ‘O lord white as jasmine’ (Speaking of Shiva; Penguin, 1973). This love poured out in about 350 vachanas or sayings in Kannada. Akka wished to join a ‘soul family’, the Virashaivas, a new and radically democratic group of Hindus in the region. She made her way to their camp at a place called Kalyana and asked to be one of them.
Scandal had preceded her and she must have presented an unsettling sight, so young, staunch and unclad. Allama Prabhu, the Virashaiva leader, was caught between his heartfelt Shaiva empathy with all creatures and this severe test of his belief: did ‘all creatures’ include a woman who broke so many male rules? Despite his great saintliness and impeccable credentials as a spiritual democrat, in the Q&A reported by legend we see the overpowering need of the male mind to construct a patriarchal context for Akka’s ‘wildness’, to conventionalise her as ‘God’s wife’, if not a man’s.
Allama Prabhu reportedly asks: “Who is your husband?” Akka reportedly answers, “I am married forever to Chenna Mallikarjuna.”
Allama Prabhu says: “Why do you roam around naked as though illusion can be peeled off by mere gestures? And yet you wear a sari of hair? If the heart is free and pure, why do you need it?” Says Akka, with absolute honesty: “Till the fruit (mind) is ripe inside, the skin will not fall off.”
Melted by her sincerity, he accepts her into the Virashaiva fold. But some years later, now in her 20s, Akka leaves to look for Chenna Mallikarjuna. The legend goes that she went to the holy peak of Srisailam in today’s Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. Her body was never found. But nine hundred years later, little girls married off early all over 21st-century India still bear Akka Mahadevi witness.
(The views expressed are personal)