Twelfth-century saint-poet Allama Prabhu, along with Basavanna
and Akka Mahadevi, was a founder of the Virashaiva or Lingayat movement in
Karnataka. During a period of intense religious ferment, these Sharanas—proteges
of Shiva—aimed to dismantle religious hierarchy and bigotry. They rebelled
against exploitation based on class, caste and gender. And the form of expression
they chose was the vachana—poetic compositions in everyday Kannada, which
shook rath-century Karnataka out of slumber. Today, with their focus on devotion
towards Shiva through love, labour and dedication, they form an integral part
of the Bhakti tradition as well as India’s spiritual heritage.
The vachanas of Allama Prabhu symbolize his journey of freeing himself from
worldly attachments and bondages. From gazing at Shiva from a distance, to
uniting with Him, to declaring He doesn’t exist and to finally realizing that He
should be understood as a dynamic void: Allama covers a wide arc in his quest
for spiritual enlightenment. Rooted firmly in the idea of experiential reality, his
vachanas are passionate and filled with yearning; critical and brazen. Translated
with great skill and fluidity by Manu Devadevan, God Is Dead, There Is No God
is a treat for modern-day seekers as well as poetry lovers.
Manu V. Devadevan is Assistant Professor of History at the
Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, and
author of A Prehistory of Hinduism (2016) and The ‘Early Medieval’
Origins of India (2020). A poet, literary critic and translator, he
has published widely in Kannada and also writes in Malayalam.
Devadevan is a recipient of the Infosys Prize 2019 for Humanities.
It is at once gratifying and humbling to present to the
Anglophone reader this translation of the Kannada vachanas
of Allama Prabhu, a 12th-century saint-poet, who is widely
regarded today as one of the pioneers of Virashaivism. I
began work on these translations in December 2012 and
abandoned the project in less than a month. I had made
considerable progress, with nearly eighty vachanas rendered
into English. A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva and H.S.
Shivaprakash’s I Keep Vigil of Rudra, with their orientation
towards formalism and dialectics respectively, were the two
existing benchmarks of vachanas in English translation.
Insofar as both contained less than 160 vachanas each, I
was well past the halfway mark.
The adventure was revived one evening in October
2017 during a conversation with Vinaya Chaitanya, who
was with me at my residence in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh,
at the time on a month-long visit to share with me a set
of his forthcoming translations of religious poetry from
Malayalam, and finalize them for publication. Earlier in the
day, James Mallinson had come home for lunch, taking time
out of his khechari vidya (paragliding) tour in Bir. Allama
returned to me during the lunch with Jim and Vinaya, and
in the evening, when I told Vinaya (who is known for his
Malayalam translation of Milarepa and English translation
of Akka Mahadevi) of the work I had given up some years
ago for no reason as it were, he urged me to get back to it
Now that I had taken up the work in all earnest, I realized
that the translation was not easy, because of two reasons.
Firstly, I had to reckon with the fact that Ramanujans
anthology, which was unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons,
happens to be the best-known translation of the vachanas.
Hardly representative of the wide-ranging themes and
concerns in the surviving corpus, Speaking of Siva had
nevertheless attracted a cult following since its publication
in 1973. Secondly, the vachanas were contextualized against
the backdrop of a history that was doubtless passionately
utopian, but was deeply flawed in its assessment of the
past. A new English version that could brave Ramanujan’
formalist renderings and lock horns with a history that
evokes strong passions was a challenge.
These translations have benefitted from encouragement
and comments—and at times, both—that I received from
Jyotirmaya Sharma, David Shulman, Rahamat Tarikere,
K.V. Narayana, Kesavan Veluthat, Sudha Gopalakrishnan,
Jesse Ross Knutson, Manorama Tripathy, Shonaleeka Kaul,
Gil Ben Herut and Abhilash Malayil, in addition to Vinaya,
Jim and Shivaprakash. Suggestions for revision that I
received from some of them have been invaluable, although
I have not been able to incorporate them in every instance.
I am indebted to Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger for offering
to publish this work, and to my editor, Radhika Shenoy,
who shepherded it with great élan.
It was the late M.M. Kalburgi, who advised me to take up
the vachanas for translation, for he believed that translation
and performance on a stage are the moments when one _
is closest to the text. And this, he held, assaults us with
flashes of understanding that other modes of engagement
with a text are incapable of extending. That was in 1998.
I didn’t give it much thought at the time. A job with the
Indian Railway, responsibilities as a trade union activist, and
amateur research interests in the rich siddha traditions of
northern Karnataka kept me busy. Twenty-one years later, I
have the book, but Kalburgi is not here to read it.
This volume introduces the Anglophone reader to the
vachanas of Allama Prabhu, a major saint from 12th-century
Karnataka. Allama’s is a household name in the Kannada-
speaking region. He is generally placed in the league of
Basava, Akka Mahadevi, Channabasava, Siddharama, and
a few other saints, and recognized as one of the founders
of Virashaivism. The followers of this sect are now called
Lingayats or Virashaivas. Over ten million Lingayats live
in Karnataka today, accounting to a sixth of the state’s
population. Several millions more live in the adjoining
states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana,
Maharashtra and Goa.
The vachanas were poems composed in the 11th and the
12th century by Shaiva saints, whom tradition identifies as
sharanas, protégés of Shiva. Attempts to produce vachanas
were made off and on in later times too, and has continued
well into our times. The surviving poems are over 20,000
in number, but close to 90 per cent of them are attributed
to the 130-odd pioneers of the 11th and the 12th century.
Among the pioneers, about half a dozen lived between
c. 1050 and 1150 CE. The rest were active in the later half of
the 12th century. The Lingayats regard the vachanas as their
sacred literature. Within the extant corpus, the poems of
Basava, Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi are conferred a
pride of place and held in special esteem."
The 12th century was an age of profound political
transformations in the Deccan region. The Kalyana
Chalukya state, which exercised overlordship over large
parts of central and southern Deccan for close to two
centuries, fell apart in the early years of the 1160s, when
four of its tributary chiefdoms declared independence and
established states of their own: the Seunas in the north, the
Kakatiyas in the east, the Hoysalas in the south and the
Kalachuris in the west. The Chalukya decline had begun
after they faced severe military setbacks at the hands of the
Kakatiyas and the Hoysalas. The Hoysala ruler, Narasimha
I, put to death one of the last Chalukya kings, Taila II, in
a campaign in 1163. Of the four new states, the Kalachuri
state was short-lived. Founded in 1162, it had disintegrated
by the end of the 1180s. The other three states turned out to
be enduring. They collapsed only after repeated attacks from
the Delhi Sultanate in the first half of the 14th century.
The disintegration of the Kalyana Chalukyas and the
appearance of the four successor states were closely related
to the fortunes of the sharanas. Basava and Channabasava
lived in the Kalachuri court of king Bijjala II. The Kalachuris
and the Seunas both extended Siddharama their patronage.
Siddharama remained hostile to the former, but seems to
have maintained warm relations with the latter, although he
didn't accept their support. Harihara, the first hagiographer
of the saints, lived in the Hoysala court of Narasimha I,
before moving to Hampi. And in some legends, Palkurike
Somanatha, the author of the Telugu Basavapuranamu,is said
to have found a patron in the Kakatiya ruler, Prataparudra.
And as it turns out, all of them—Basava, Channabasava,
Siddharama, Harihara, Somanatha—were critical of the
political establishments of their times, a sentiment widely
shared by most 12th-century sharanas.
Historians regard the work of the sharanas as an
ingenious regional expression of the larger South Asian
bhakti devotionalism. ‘This assessment, however, is placed
within a narrative that is the stuff of romances. The 12th
century is represented as one of intense religious ferment,
characterized by widespread dissent and protest from a
section of the Shaivites against oppressive orthodox beliefs
and conventions. We are told that under the leadership of
Basava (known with various honorific suffixes as Basavanna,
Basavaraja, and Basaveshvara), an enlightened brahman
trom the town of Bagewadi (now Basavana Bagewadi),
the unrest developed into an organized movement
against religious bigotry, obscurantism and superstitions,
challenging exploitation based on class, caste and gender.
Devotees of Shiva from all walks of life, especially from
the urban artisan and labouring classes, participated in
the movement. They gathered in the city of Kalyana (now
Basavakalyana in the Bidar district) in an assembly called
the anubhava mantapa (the hall of experience), where they
discussed a variety of matters that concerned them, from
sublime metaphysics of liberation to the mundane aspects of
labour. Basava convened the assembly, another saint, Allama
Prabhu, presided over it, and a great number of sharanas—
among them Akka Mahadevi, Channabasava, Siddharama,
Madivala Machayya and Kinnari Bommayya—participated
in it. Their views found expression in the form of vachanas,
which they composed in great numbers.
The movement culminated in a revolution in Kalyana.
The disregard for caste norms and a pratiloma marriage
among the sharanas, involving the daughter of a brahman
and the son of a madiga (tanner), caused mayhem. ‘The
orthodox sections, and under their influence, the king,
persecuted the sharanas. The bride’s father, Madhuvayya,
and the grooms father, Haralayya, were blinded, and in some
accounts, put to death. Enough was enough. One of the
sharanas, Jagadeva, who in some versions is accompanied
by an aide, Mallibomma, avenged the persecution by
murdering the king, Bijjala II. The revolution led to the rise
of Virashaivism, a new sect based on principles of equality
and egalitarianism. The sect accepted the poems of the
torchbearer sharanas as its canon.
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
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