Saturday, 21 May 2011

Sri Kanaka Dasara Biography

Kanaka Dasa   ಕನಕ ದಾಸ (1509–1609) was a great poet, philosopher, musician and composer from Karnataka. He is known for his Kirtanas and Ugabhoga compositions in the Kannada language for Carnatic music. Like some other dasas, he often used colloquial language for his compositions.

Thimmappa Nayaka was his original name and he belonged to chieftain (Kuruba Gowda ) / (Dhangar ) family of Kaginele in Haveri district. He was born to the Kuruba Gowda couple Biregowda and Beechamma at Bada village. Kanaka Nayaka being of the warrior community (Kuruba Gowda) his defeat in the field of battle, directed him to the path of devotion. He came to be called Kanaka Nayaka as he found a treasure-trove of gold (kanaka means gold in Kannada). Kanaka Dasa was well educated and capable of analyzing the society microscopically. Based on one of his compositions it is interpreted that after he severely got injured in a war and was miraculously saved, he gave up his profession as a warrior and devoted his life to composing music and literature with philosophy explained in common man's language. It appears that he started traveling to places a lot to gain more knowledge. However he had maintained a balanced view about all faiths. At a young age he authored poetries Narasimha stotra, Ramadhyana Mantra, and Mohanatarangini.


His writing started showing his innovativeness in using day to day activities of common man. For e.g. Ramadhyana Mantra is a poetic expression of conflicts between rich and poor classes where he uses ragi (staple food of poor and high in nutrients) and rice (main food of rich but not as rich in nutrients) to synonymously to represent poor and rich. He joined Haridasa movement and became a follower of Vyasaraja who named him as Kanakadasa. His poems and krithi deal with many aspects of life and expose the futility of external rituals. They stress the need for cultivation of moral values in life. Similar to Purandara Daasa, Kanaka Daasaru’s compositions addressed social issues in addition to devotional aspect. Kanaka Daasa was very aggressive and straight forward in criticizing evils of society such as superiority claims using caste system. His poem "Kula Kula Kula vendu hodedhada dhiri" asks humans not to segregate themselves from one another, because every human is born the same way, everyone eats the same food and drinks the same water, hence none is superior or inferior to one another.

The deity he worshiped was Adhikeshava of Kaginele, presently in Haveri district of Karnataka. Kaginele, now a village, was a prosperous place and trading center in the Middle Ages. Out of the many of his compositions, about 240 (see Ref 2) are fully accountable today. All his Karnataka Music compositions end with mudra (signature) Kaginele Adhikeshava. In addition to being a poet he worked as a social reformer by down playing dogmatic communities that were suppressing the disadvantaged communities. Kanakadasa made extreme effort in reforming the disadvantaged communities by convincing them to give-up their age old obsolete social practices and adapt to the changing world. He effectively used music to convey his philosophy. He lived at Tirupathi in his last days. He is one of the greatest musician, composer, poet, social reformer, philosopher and saints that India has ever seen.

                                      Major works

  1.  Nalacharitre
  2. Haribhaktisara
  3. Nrisimhastava
  4. Ramadhanyacharitre, a rare work on class struggle
  5. Mohanatarangini
Kanakadasa wrote about two hundred forty Karnataka Music compositions (Kirtane, Ugabhogas, padas and mundiges or philosophical songs) besides five major works. His compositions are published in many languages. For example about 100 songs in Kannada and 60 songs in English are published in popular books.

His writings were unique in style. In Ramadhanyacharitre, an allegory on the conflict between the socially strong and weak castes and classes, presented as an argument between two foodgrains, rice and ragi, is a most creative literary piece with a powerful social message, In the work, rice represents the socially powerful and ragi (millet) represents the working people.

The two grains come before Rama to argue their case and establish their superiority. In the end Rama sends both of them to prison for six months. At the end of the period, rice has turned rotten while the hardy ragi survives, earning Rama's blessings. This shows the intelligence of Kanaka Daasa in trying to reform the society. He was blunt in criticizing those who opposed the good practices. In one his compositions he says,"Eternal hell is for those who criticize noble men, for those who condemn teachings of jagadguru Madhvacharya...".

Nalacharitre (Story of Nala)
Haribhaktisara (crux of Krishna devotion)
Nrisimhastava (compositions in praise of Lord Narasimha)
Ramadhanyacharite (story of ragi millet) and an epic
Mohanatarangini (Krishna-river).

Kanakadasa rationalized bhakti (devotion) by giving worldly similes. His writing has intimate touch that identifies the reader with the poet himself. His two famous compositions in translation are given below. One condemns caste system in a refined poetic way and the other wonders, at the colorful and baffling creation of God Almighty in child-like wonder.

His Nalacharite is based on the famous love-story of Nala and Damayanti, which appears in Mahabarata. Though a great devotee of Lord Krishna, Kanakadasa gives his own interpretation. Nala who is in love with Damayanti, exercises restraint svayamvara (choosing bride/bridegroom) ceremony to win over Damayanti by allowing Indra and other gods a chance to win over her.

When he loses everything in a dice-game and gets exiled to the forest, stubbornly followed by Damayanti, he deserts her in sleep, hoping that she may go back to her parents and have a better life. He later drives king Rituparna to the second svayamvara of Damayanti, to see his wife married to a suitable person and be happy! Lord Krishna appears only once casually to rescue the caravan in which the hapless Damayanti was traveling and was attacked by wild elephants.Nrisimhastava is a work dealing with glory of god Narasimha (half human and half lion).

Kanakadasa's Ramadhanyacharite has quite an unconventional theme. It is about a battle of words between ragi (millet) and rice, each claiming superiority. They go to lord Rama for justice. With the help of the sages, Rama proves the superiority of ragi over rice. Ragi becomes blessed by absorbing the qualities of Raghava, another epithet of Rama. It is interpreted as poverty and humility being upheld by the poet above material wealth. Even today ragi is food of the poor which has high nutrition value compared to rice. Ragi is a good source of nutrition for people with diabetes for its low sugar content and nutrition value.

Mohanatarangini, although a kavya (poem in classical style) written with all conventional eighteen descriptions, deals with eroticism. Pleasure-based eroticism of Shri Krishna with the consorts. The eroticism between Aniruddha and Usha form the main theme.

It excels in depicting contemporary life. The description of Shri Krishna's Dwaravati (Dwaraka) is very similar to that of Vijayanagara, under Krishnadevaraya as noticed by foreign travelers. The market place with colorful stalls with various commodities, well demarketed lanes brimming with craftsmen, clients and merchants, royal garden parties and glory of the palace find their place in Mohanatarangini. It echoes the contemporary Portuguese travelers' accounts. A drinking bout of men and women of working class is very picturesque. The reader feels as if Kanakadasa is providing a commentary of a live event. It is for such unconventional and down-to-earth descriptions as also for social awareness that the great poet-saint has become immortal.

Nee Mayeyolago

The following is the translation of Nee Mayeyolago:
Are you a creature of illusion? or illusion your creation? Are you a part of the body? Or is the body a part of you?
Is space within the house? Or the house within space? Or are both space and the house within the seeing eye? Is the eye within the mind? Or the mind within the eye? Or are both the eye and the mind within you?
Does sweetness lie in sugar, or sugar in sweetness? Or do both sweetness and sugar lie in the tongue?
Is the tongue within the mind? Or the mind within the tongue? Or are both the tongue and the mind within you?
Does fragrance lie in the flower? Or the flower in fragrance? Or do both the flower and fragrance lie in the nostrils? I cannot say, O Lord Adikeshava of Kaginele, O! peerless one, are all things within you alone?

Kanakadasa's famous phrase

ನಾನು ಹೋದರೆ ಹೋದೇನು – I shall go (to heaven) if my-self (my selfishness) goes (away)
This was a famous phrase Kanakadaasa is quoted to have said in front of all vedantis, when asked who will attain Moksha . This question was asked by Vyasatirtha in a sabha, to actually bring light into Kanakadasara bhakti. Kanakadasa humbly but assertively tells that no one here will attain moksha. Only he can attain Moksha, on hearing this the pandits present there were taken aback and were very angry. Then Vyasatirtha asks Kanaka to exlpain what it means , then he goes ahead and explains the meaning , which actually meant who has lost the Naanu ("Self"/"I") i.e.; ego will attain Moksha .

Kanakadasa in Udupi

Kanakadasa has special association with Udupi and as he was the follower of Sri Vyasaraja Swamiji. On the advice of Vyasaraja Swamiji he had come to Udupi. He stood outside the matha and was lost in his prayers to Lord Krishna by singing songs in praise of the Lord and had darshan of the lord through a small window. All devotees who visit Udupi Krishna Matha take a peek at Lord Krishna through the small window, wishing to relive the ecstasy of Kanakadasa. It is also a memorial to Kanakadasa and a testimony to the eclectic Hindu belief that devotion, poetry and sainthood are above caste and creed and certainty above orthodoxy.

Kanakadasa once wanted to have a darshan (encounter) of the Lord Krishna in Udupi. He was not allowed into the shrine by castist priests as he was not a higher-caste by birth. Kanakadasa then started singing the praises of Shri Krishna and was lost to outside world in a corner outside the temple. Legend has it that the western wall collapsed so that Kanakadasa could have darshan of Lord Krishna's icon. A small window was constructed at the breach later. The idol of Lord Krishna is still today worshipped through the window. This window came to be known as Kanakana kindi (Kanaka’s window).

Historical evidence shows that there was indeed a small earthquake on that day which led to the collapse of the wall. (Note that the statue of Lord Krishna was facing to east before this incident). The memory of Kanakadasa was permanently etched in the temple of his beloved Lord Krishna. Today that window stands as a tribute to the 0unique saint of Karnataka.

From that time onward, Kanakadasa could have the darshan of Sri Krishna with his physical eyes as well as his inner eye. To perpetuate this sacred memory, the tradition of looking at the icon of Sri Krishna through this window before entering the shrine started.