I Keep Vigil of Rudra: The Vachanas

I Keep Vigil of Rudra: The Vachanas

Item Code: NAC563
Author: H.S. Shivaprakash
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9780143063575
Pages: 252
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.0 Inch X 5.0 Inch
Weight 190 gm
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Back of the Book

Here I come, a ferryman without a body to the great flowing river. If you play the price your mind that grasps and let’s go, I shall take you across.

Vachana poetry in Kannada literature attained its zenith in the twelfth century. Passionate, intensely personal and ahead of their times, these free-verse poems speak eloquently of the futility of formal learning, the vanity of wealth and the evils of social divisions. The vachanas stress on the worship of Shiva, through love, labour and devotion, as the only worthwhile life-goal for the vachanakara—the vachana poet.

This collection offers a selection of vachanas composed by a wide range of vachanakaras from different walks of life. While some of these poets are well known even today, most have been forgotten. Translated fluidly and with great skill by H.S. Shivaprakash, I Keep Vigil of Rudra is not only an important addition to vachana literature, but also a must read for lovers of poetry everywhere.

Publisher’s Note

H.S. Shivaprakash is a well-known poet, playwright and translator from Karnataka. His translations and adaptations of Shakespeare are widely staged. He has also translated major European, Latin American and African poets into Kannada and sonic of the best-known Kannada and Tamil poets into English. He is the winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for playwriting and four best book prizes of the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi for poetry and translations. A former editor of the translations journal Indian Literature, Shivaprakash is an honorary fellow of the School of Letters, University of Iowa, and a specialist in Indian devotional traditions. He is currently professor, Theatre and Performance Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Alas! They make versions of versionless non-version.

—Allama Prabhu

Historical Context

Medieval Kannada literature spans a period of about seven centuries from the beginning of the twelfth century However, the borders of this period are sometimes pushed back and forth. For instance, some historians consider Muddanna, the famous poet who saw the birth of the twentieth century, as part of medieval literature whereas the Tatvapadakaras of the eighteenth century are regarded as the precursors of modern Kannada literature. Historically, these centuries saw many dramatic events on the socio-.political and cultural frontiers of Karnataka. Among other things, the period saw the fall of the Chalukyas of Kalyana, the meteoric rise and disappearance of the Kalachuryas, and the ups and downs of the Hoysalas of Dorasamudra. These events roughly characterized the political landscape of the first two centuries of the medieval period. The most important event during the later centuries was the setting up and consolidation of the Vijayanagara Empire. The rise of the Bahmani sultanate of Bijapur and the emergence of smaller kingdoms and fiefdoms like those of Bidanur, Mysore and of the Keoadi family also took place during this period. Of all these developments, the Kalachurya and Vijayanagara empires made the greatest difference to Kannada language and literature.

The Shaiva and Vaishnava bhakti movements that swept across all of Karnataka had a much greater formative influence on the literature of the period than purely political events. Though it would be inaccurate to claim that the period produced only bhakti literature, there is no denying the fact that the bhakti way of seeing pervades the best works of medieval Kannada literature. The positive effects of bhakti were the liberation of language from the artificial conventions of courtly writing that characterized most of the works of the ancient period; the creation of shorter genres of literature like the vachanas and kirtanes, which are more accessible to the common man than long and involved narratives of the previous age. It is no wonder, then, that these changes influenced the content and form of the narrative poetry of the period. The narrative poetry stopped singing praises of kings and emperors by comparing them with mythological figures like Arjuna or Bhima as did the leading poets of the previous age) The heroes of medieval narrative poems were not military heroes any more, but spiritual heroes. The form of narrative poetry also underwent a sea change, thanks to the bhakti movement. The greatest narrative poets of the previous age, with minor exceptions, employed Champu, a genre characterized by Sanskrit metres. The medieval narrative poets resorted to simpler vernacular metres like Shatpadi, Sangatya and Tripadi.

Bhakti movements were not without their negative effects. Many of the lesser poets took spiteful sectarian propaganda to be the main task of poetry and produced mediocre work. This is a weakness that has at times diluted even the works of otherwise great poets like Basavanna and Harihara. The pervasive influence of the bhakti movements limited the content of literature to the religious. Only the greatest poets of the period like the Vachanakaras and Haridasas at their best, and Kumaravyasa, are free from the stigma of sectarianism.

The overall drama of the medieval Kannada literature was played out against the background of great social and political turbulence, The dynasties that ruled different parts of the land were constantly at war with each other. To make matters worse, there were invasions from the Muslim sultanates of the north. Massacres during war, looting and arson, the weight of heavy taxation—all these added to the burden of the common man. Though bhakti movements attempted to make caste exploitation less severe, they gave rise to bloody conflicts between Shaivas, Vaishnavas, Jainas and Muslims. On the whole, it was a period of endless conflicts, a feature best captured in historical narratives like Nanjundakavi’s Ramanathacharite produced in the latter half of the medieval period. Given this general background of turbulence, it is small wonder that bhakti exercised irresistible fascination on the minds of common people by offering salvation from the endless suffering of everyday life.

This was also a period during which the bhakti movements, the twelfth-century Sharana movement in particular, challenged caste hierarchy. However, all these developments had no lasting effects on the social structure based, theoretically, on varnashrama dharma. The Vijayanagara emperors, the symbol of the ‘pride’ of the Kannada people, used such grandiloquent titles as Gobrahmana Pratipalanacharya (the great protector of cows and Brahmins), Hinduraya Suratrana (the king of Hindus and the life of Brahmins) and Vaidikamarga Samsthapanacharya (the great founder of the Vedic path). On the basis of these titles one may deduce that the duty of the king, theoretically, was to uphold Brahmins, cows and Vedic values. The social structure—consisting of four varnas, eighteen kulas and innumerable castes—was controlled by the Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaisya combine. Agraharas and Brahmapuris (Brahmin colonies); monasteries and temples; and Banajusanghas (associations of traders and merchants) were the privileged institutions.

The rigid caste hierarchy continued to be maintained through various means by the institution of dana or charity, meant only for satpatras (the deserving), which obviously meant Brahmins; by waging barbaric wars against feudatory lords who refused to pay timely tributes; by glorying the slavish heroism of common people sacrificing their lives for the sake of their lord, and deification of women condemned to perform sad, which are documented in an hyperbolic manner in innumerable monuments like viragallu (hero stones) and mastigallu (chaste-woman stones) .The number of castes multiplied throughout the medieval age. In spite of this, the varnashrama order remained theoretically inviolable. The rigidity of varnashrama-based caste rules applied not only to the living, but also to the dying. S. Settar’s analysis has persuasively shown that among the people who undertook innumerable voluntary forms of ritual death in conformity to jaina teachings, all belonged to privileged dwija (twice—born) castes (that is, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya), except one. Caste privileges affected otherworldly matters too.

The only ways out of such an unassailable fort of dharma were samadhi (absorption in god), moksha (escape from a conditioned existence) and atmarpane (self-immolation of heroes and virtuous women) .The literary transformations of the medieval period had to be effected against a backdrop as vicious as this. The vachana as a form of poetry attained its zenith during the twelfth-century Sharana movement, which ended in political violence and counter—violence. The ruling class had greater material power than Sharana revolutionaries and the scattering of the movement was a setback for the future development of the form.

The efflorescence of the vachanas, however, altered the course of Kannada literature for centuries to come. The revolutionary force of the vachanas was assimilated into the hegemonic values of medieval society. This socio-political process is reflected in the literature of the succeeding centuries by the so-called followers of the Sharana tradition. The successors of the twelfth-century Sharanas gradually rose to a privileged position in the Vijayanagara empire, particularly during the rule of Praudadevaraya.

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, vachana writing virtually disappeared. However, the Virashaivas who had inherited the values of the vachana movement, found a rallying point under the patronage of the rulers of Vijayanagara. They had before them the model of attempts at the reintegration of the works and scriptures of classical Hinduism undertaken by Brahmin sages and pandits from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards, following the threat of Muslim invasion. A similar attempt at the consolidation of Virashaiva lore and vachana Canon was undertaken during the fifteenth century by the Virashaiva priestly class. For them, the twelfth-century Sharana movement was no more an immediate reality. It was a glorious memory, a myth. They carried out a reinterpretation of the myth through scholarly endeavours like collections, anthologies and commentaries on vachana texts. Mahalinga (circa 1430 AD), Kalmatada Prabhudevaru (circa 1430 AD), Gubbi Mallannarya (early part of the fifteenth century), Channaviracharya (sixteenth century AD) and Singalada Siddhabasava (circa 1600 AD) expressed their theological erudition in their collections, selections and anthologies ofvachana texts purely from the standpoint of bhakti. Singalada Siddhabasava produced sophisticated commentaries on the Bedagina vachanas in the light of the Shakti Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. What is characteristic of all these scholarly endeavours is the over emphasis on the theological and metaphysical aspects of the vachanas and the total exclusion of their socio-political and existentialist implications.


Acknowledgements ix
Introduction xi
Abbreviations of the Kannada Source Texts lxxix
The Path: Vachanas 1
The Path: I Saw This Wonder 7
The Path: Ugh! This Empty Show of the World 39
The Path: Labour 85
The Path: Journey 103
The Destination: Union 151
Select Bibliography 171
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