To bare or not to bare? That is the question—
Akka Mahadevi ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ the feminist mystic
“When all the world is the eye of the lord
What can you conceal?”
The legend of Akka Mahadevi ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ
Once upon a time, a Jain king from the State of Karnataka begs the young Akka Mahadevi to marry him. She agrees on one condition: she will continue her religious studies without any interference from him – or anyone else.
But, King Kaushika doesn’t keep his word and surrenders to the age old need for a man to control his wife. They fight. As they argue, he points out all the luxuries in his palace – reminding her of everything he has provided for her. I can almost hear him shouting:
“Look at all this! The opulence of my palace. I give you everything a woman could possibly want. The food you eat. The clothes on your back! They’re all mine”
By this point, Akka Mahadevi has had enough. She takes off her clothes and walks out of King Kaushika’s palace – stark naked.
Then, for the remainder of her life, Akka Mahadevi refuses to cover her body with anything – except light.
And this my dear readers, is 12th century India.
To clothe or not to clothe? That is the question—
As you can imagine, those who want to depict our fearless mystic in images are faced with the challenge of her nudity. In, Naked Truth: Visual Representations of Akka Mahadevi, Sushumna Kannan, suggests that “current moral anxieties inspired by Victorian sexuality” may be playing a part in this prudish reluctance to show her in the state which to her was most natural, and for which she felt no shame. I suspect, Kannan is right.
In my own interpretation of this 12th century mystic, I have tried to capture the freedom Akka Mahadevi discovered in her rejection of a patriarchal society and material belongings. Her nudity was, and is, awkward for many while that of male ascetics is not. This makes her life choices all the more significant.
The brightly colored trunk of a rainbow eucalyptus which sheds its outer bark as if shredding its extraneous cover is exactly the metaphor I was looking for. The female form in a crouched position at the base of the trunk becomes the fearless woman looking upwards to the light, arms outstretched, free of all worldly possessions.
So why don’t we give literary translators more recognition?
Akka Mahadevi wrote her poetry in Kannada, the language of the State of Karnataka in India. As always, I am grateful to literary translators who make the world of Akka Mahadevi’s poetry available to people like me —people who do not speak the language.
I don’t know about you, but every time I read a translated work, I silently thank the translator. Today, however, I want to show my gratitude publicly. Here are a few examples of literary translations which have given me joy, and inspired ideas for art:
- The Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila, E. Allison Peers (Translation) – from Spanish
- Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Spearing (Translation) – from Middle English
- The Conference of the Birds by Attar of Nishapur, Sholeh Wolpé (Translation) – from Persian
- Rabi’a Basri: Selected Poems by Rabi’a, Paul Smith (Translation) – from Arabic
Have translated works have inspired you to be creative? To write, paint, or learn another language perhaps? Let’s all give a shout out to translators who take us to places which would otherwise be beyond our linguistic reach.