3 December 1509
|Died||1609 (aged 100)|
Kaginele, Byadagi Taluk (Haveri District)
|Occupation||Ruler, saint, poet, philosopher, composer|
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Kanaka Dasa (1509 – 1609) was a Haridasa saint and philosopher, popularly called Daasashreshta Kanakadasa (ದಾಸಶ್ರೇಷ್ಠ ಕನಕದಾಸ). He was a renowned composer of Carnatic music, poet, reformer and musician. He is known for his keertanas and ugabhoga and his compositions in the Kannada language for Carnatic music. Like other Haridasas, he used simple Kannada language and native metrical forms for his compositions. Kanakadasa Jayanthi is commemorated as a great poet, saint, philosopher, composer, and musician.
He was born into a Kannada Kuruba (shepherd) family in Baada village, near Bankapura in Karnataka, and was a warrior at Bankapura fort. He was taught by Srinivasacharya. As a child, Kanakadasa became an expert in Tarka, Vyakaran (grammar) and Mimamsa. Based on one of his compositions, it is interpreted that he was seriously injured in a battle and was miraculously saved. After this incident, he gave up his profession as a warrior and devoted himself to composing music, writing literature and explaining philosophy to people. His early work includes poems titled Narasimha Stotra, Ramadhyana Mantra, and Mohanatarangini.
Kanakadaasa's Master Vyaasatirtha (ವ್ಯಾಸತೀರ್ಥ) once posed a question: "who among the scholars present in the convention could attain salvation (Moksha)?". Kanakadaasa answered firmly in the negative about himself as well as his master. Scholars in the convention were seriously agitated by his firm replies; they felt that Kanakadaasa must be haughtily inconsiderate to deny salvation to his own master let alone the remaining scholars. When asked about his own chances, he affirms: ನಾನು ಹೋದರೆ ಹೋದೇನು ("If I'm gone, I may go"). His master, who could discern the real wisdom behind Kanakadaasa's affirmation, asked him to elaborate. He made a pun giving different literal and philosophical meanings. Though it seemed on the surface that Kanakadaasa claimed that he alone may attain salvation, he had in fact put forth a thoughtful message that no matter the level of one's scholarly prowess, one cannot achieve anything until one's ego is eliminated.
Kanakadasa has a special association with Udupi as he was the disciple of Vyasatirtha Swamiji. On the request of Vyasaraya Swamiji of Vyasaraja Matt he had come to Udupi. But it was an era when discrimination based on caste was at its peak. The priests would not let him enter the mutt, judging him to be a member of another caste based on his clothes, even though Vyaasaraaya Swamiji asked them to let Kanakadaasa into the temple. Kanakadaasa was outside the temple meditating on Lord Krishna and singing songs in praise of Sri Krishna. He did this for weeks, camping outside the temple, and cooking his own food.
Though distraught over being prevented from entering the temple, he composed poems in praise of Lord Krishna and composed kirtans (poems) which are still relevant today. He sang about how all human beings are equal, as everyone is born the same way physically, and everyone shares the same water and sees the same sun helping life on earth. Hindu temples and the deity in the temples always face east. In Udupi, though, Lord Krishna, in deity form, faces west.
It is believed that something unnatural must have happened when Kanakadasa was outside the temple, waiting to be allowed to enter it. It is believed that during those days, when Kanakadaasa was not allowed to have the darshan of Lord Krishna, he poured his heart out singing kirtans for his Lord. Miraculously, the deity of Lord Krishna turned around to face west. Through a crack in the outer walls of the temple, Kanakadaasa, the ardent devotee of Sri Krishna, was able to see his Lord. This left the orthodox community flabbergasted as to why something like that had happened, but Professor Sudhakara (Karnatak University, Dharwad), who was a director of Kanaka chair, says this story was construed and spread later. Bannanje Govindacharya was also of the same opinion. Such stories are inconceivable when the Vijayanagara Empire itself was established by Harihararaaya and Bukkaraaya who belonged to Kuruba (shepherd) family (community), and Kanakadaasa, before becoming a monk, was a chieftain under the same empire.
Today, the window behind which Kanakadaasa resided (commonly called "Kanakana Kindi") stands as a tribute to Kanakadaasa. Devotees who visit Udupi's Sri Krishna temple try to have a darshan of Lord Krishna through this window. It is a memorial to Kanakadaasa, and also bears testimony to the fact that devotion, poetry, and sainthood are above caste and creed and certainly above rigidly maintained orthodoxy.
Kanakadaasa's writing started showing his innovativeness in using the day-to-day activities of the common man. For example, Ramadhanya Charite is a poetic expression of conflicts between rich and poor classes where he uses Ramadhanya ragi (staple food of poor and high in nutrients) and rice (main food of rich but not as rich in nutrients) to synonymously represent poor and rich.
He joined the 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 the cultivation of moral values in life and devotion to God. His compositions addressed social issues in addition to the devotional aspect. Kanaka Dasa was very straightforward in criticizing evils of society such as superiority claims using the caste system. His poem "Kula Kula Kulavendu hodedhadadiri" 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.
He worshipped Adhikeshava of Kaginele, presently in the Haveri district of Karnataka. Kaginele, was once a prosperous trading centre 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 ends with mudra (signature) Kaginele Adhikeshava. In addition to being a poet, Kanakadasa used music to convey his ideas of social reform, and aimed to convince people to abandon 'obsolete' traditions in favour of a changing world, targeting caste-based discrimination. He lived at Tirupathi in his last days.
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 food grains, 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 survive, earning Rama's blessings. This shows the intelligence of Kanakadasa in trying to reform society. He was straightforward in criticizing those who opposed the good practices. In one of his compositions, he said, "Eternal hell is for those who criticize noblemen, for those who condemn teachings of jagadguru...".
Kanakadasa rationalized bhakti (devotion) by giving worldly similes. His writing has an intimate touch that identifies the reader with the poet himself. His two famous compositions in the translation are given below. One condemns the caste system in a refined poetic way and the other wonders at the colourful and baffling creation of God Almighty in childlike wonder.
His Nalacharite is based on the famous love story of Nala and Damayanti, which appears in Mahabharata. Though a great devotee of Lord Krishna, Kanakadasa gives his own interpretation. Nala who is in love with Damayanti exercises restraint in the 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 travelling and was attacked by wild elephants.
Nrisimhastava is a work dealing with the 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 the food of the poor and has high nutritional value compared to rice, especially for people with diabetes because of its low sugar content.
Mohanatarangini, although a kavya (a poem in classical style) written with all conventional eighteen descriptions, deals with devotion. devotion-based love of consorts with Lord Shri Krishna. The love between Aniruddha and Usha forms 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 travellers. The marketplace with colourful stalls with various commodities, well-demarcated lanes brimming with craftsmen, clients and merchants, royal garden parties and the glory of the palace find their place in Mohanatarangini. It echoes the contemporary Portuguese travellers' accounts. A drinking bout of men and women of the working class is very picturesque. The reader feels as if Kanakadasa is providing a commentary on 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.
Kanakadasa's birthday is celebrated in Karnataka, particularly in the Kuruba community. In 2008, Government of Karnataka decided to commemorate his birthday as a state festival and declared 15 November a state holiday.
During an excavation at Baada, Shiggaon region of Karnataka, the archaeological department found ruins of a fort and a palace which was identified as the magnificent era of Kanaka dasa (who was earlier called Thimmappa Nayaka). The State Government of Karnataka has built a new fort, palace and idols of Kanakadasa and his life scenarios commemorating the religious leader, saint poet Sri Kanaka Dasa.
In 1990, the Government of India honoured the saint-poet Sri Kanakadasa by releasing a postal stamp in his name.
Legendary Kannada actor and singer from the Kannada movie industry Dr. Rajkumar played Kanakadasa in the movie Bhakta Kanakadasa and the movie received a good response from the public.
Film director and playwright Girish Karnad made a documentary film titled, Kanaka-Purandara (English, 1988) on the two medieval Bhakti poets of Karnataka.
In January 2013, the Kaginele Development Authority Kaginele, Haveri District, Government of Karnataka, India re-dedicated the newly built Kanaka Dasa Fort and Palace to the general public, at Baada, Bankapur. The tourist spot is open to the general public and highlights the life and sainthood of Kanaka Dasa.
The Kannada movie Lucia starts with Nee Mayeyolago recited and is based on an abstract idea of the same theme.
Another Kannada movie Ramadhanya (May 2018) based on his life and most famous work – Ramadhanya charithre – beautifully encapsulates the saint's karmic journey and the relationship between two staple food of South Indians (1) Raghava Dhanya or Ragi and (2) Bhattha or Rice.