Naked Truth: Visual Representations of Akka Mahadevi
Akka Mahadevi, the 12th century saint from Karnataka, is a unique figure in India’s history. She walked away from her husband – naked – proclaiming continuously that Shiva was her husband. She rejected clothes, jewellery and the world itself. According to some hagiographies, hair grew from her mother’s tears and effectively covered her, but she walked away unaware. In other hagiographies, she was always naked. A digambare, clad only in sky. Or, a keshambare, clad only in hair.
But how to visually represent a worship-worthy woman who walked naked rejecting the world? This is a question negotiated by various stakeholders in multiple ways. Religious organisations, historians and feminists adopt various stances on the issues underlying Mahadevi’s nudity.
In calendar art, Mahadevi is represented in typical ways – meditating, worshipping the linga, or gazing neutrally. In one representation, her birth, her devotion, King Kaushika lusting after her, her rejection of worldly life and, finally, achieving oneness with Shiva, is shown. She stands on the globe in the map of India – a possible attempt to paint her as relevant. And in front of a bull, Shiva’s vehicle.
The Lingayats (Mahadevi’s religious community) shy away from visual representations of her nudity. Its discussion is embarrassing or must be resisted because it would only feed voyeurism, voiding the purpose of Mahadevi’s life. In 1998, Halage Arya, a 15th century saint’s version of Mahadevi’s life in the Shoonya Sampadane was refused publication by the associated religious organisation because it was explicit.
Historians too are divided on Mahadevi’s nudity. The meaning of keshambara is a matter of debate and it could be an object made of hair, or a shawl made of the furry coat of goats, argues H Deveerappa (1997). Kesha is assumed to be Mahadevi’s hair in the standard textbook story, but it could simply be any garment that signified renunciation, says Shanta Imprapura (2005). This is indeed how Mahadevi is represented in the temple at her birthplace, Udutadi. She is not clad in just any material signifying renunciation but in an ochre saree replete with a blouse, although it finds no historical substantiation. Mahadevi is decked with rudraksha and bhasma.
For Sumitrabai (1997), a feminist, why Mahadevi had to be naked and what pressured her into it is the crucial question. Even as she notes that nudity has a presence in Hindu traditions, she wonders if Mahadevi had agency in choosing nudity, concluding that nudity is a metaphor, symbolic of the spiritual life. Thus, while Lingayats may be weary of voyeurism, feminists refuse to grant the nakedness of Mahadevi as her own choice because they think she was forced into it. The tradition of nudity and womanhood merging seems like an unlikely event to these stakeholders occupying opposite ends of the spectrum
In the Shoonya Sampadane, when Mahadevi arrives at the city of Kalyana, Allama Prabhu questions her on her nudity because her long braids strategically cover her private parts. Did this not indicate shame and a continuing attachment to the world, he asks. Mahadevi replies that she covers her body so onlookers may not be embarrassed. When another saint, Kinnari Bomayya tests her out of a spirit of devotion, Mahadevi proves to him that she has reduced kama to ashes in the fire of her knowledge. Through a vachana, she conveys that donning light as garment she has subdued the darkness of the senses. Feminists read these incidents as harassment, whereas the spirit of empirical inquiry and dialogue is another viable reading.
That religious organisations, historians and feminists, all express embarrassment, denial or view Mahadevi’s nudity as symbolic suggests that current moral anxieties inspired by Victorian sexuality loom large. Perhaps, that is why, even now, Mahadevi must be always clothed in all her visual representations.