Mar 24 2014

Akka Mahadevi – Breath for fragrance

Published by at 9:41 am under Poetry

Breath for fragrance
by Akka Mahadevi

English version by A. K. Ramanujan

Breath for fragrance,
who needs flowers?

With peace, patience, forgiving and self-command,
who needs the Ultimate Posture?

The whole world become oneself
who needs solitude,

O lord white as jasmine.

— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan

/ Photo by Healzo /

I apologize for the unannounced hiatus in the poetry emails. The past couple of weeks have been a masala mixture of technical problems one day, some busy projects with my day job, a bit of social time with friends, that demanding chronic fatigue, and the need for meditative moments too.

And Spring is upon us! (…for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. You Aussies and South Africans are training me well.)

A mantle of snow one day, and the next blue skies and the first tentative greens. Having endured winter’s solitary discipline, we lift our eyes and discover color once again. We find new warmth in the sunlight, the lungs expand, the heart beats more easily, life flows… and we notice the world once again.


I keep returning to the poetry of the great Mahadeviyakka. Her poetry continuously plays with the tension between the discipline of an accomplished yogini and the sheer delight of one whose heart has blossomed. Her words tease and dance and overturn the grim efforts our spiritual strivings.

Breath for fragrance,
who needs flowers?

On your walk you come upon an ornamental plum tree in early bloom. How can you not stop, stand on your toes and bring your nose close to a pink blossom and inhale the sweet perfume? It speaks to us of beauty, joy, life. The flower’s fragrance has led us to our breath and to the present moment.

When we have already learned to live in the fulness of our breath, our teacher the flower has done her job. (Though I myself am not bold enough to cast all flowers aside.)

With peace, patience, forgiving and self-command,
who needs the Ultimate Posture?

Isn’t this a wonderful insight? Each religion and spiritual tradition has its own particular obsessions. In yoga, especially in hatha yoga, there is a strong conceptual link between asana (“seat” or “posture”) and the spiritual energetics of body and awareness. The “Ultimate Posture” or “Supreme Seat” can be understood in the literal sense as attaining and maintaining the perfect physical posture, or it can be understood as being seated in awakened awareness.

Mahadevi cuts through the accumulated centuries of psycho-spiritual technicalities and postural perfectionism, reminding us that when we have attained peace, patience, forgiveness, and mastery, that is itself the Ultimate Posture.

The whole world become oneself
who needs solitude

And in deepest communion, when the little self has melted into the living Self of all selves, then there is only Self. Why then isolate yourself to be by yourself? In a closet or in a crowd, we are seated majestically in the Self, every rising thought and new encounter carries the blessing of self-recognition.

Akka Mahadevi, Akka Mahadevi poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Akka Mahadevi

India (12th Century) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu : Shaivite (Shiva)

Mahadevi or Akka Mahadevi, sometimes called simply Akka, was born in Udutadi in the Karnataka region of India. At age 10, she was initiated as a devotee of Shiva, the pale-skinned god of destruction and rebirth, lord of yogis and ascetics. She worshiped Shiva in the form of Chennamallikarjuna, which means literally “Mallika’s beautiful Arjuna.”

It is said that Mahadevi was married by arrangement to Kausika, a local king. There were immediate tensions, however, as Kausika was a Jain, a group that tended to be wealthy and was, as a result, much resented by the rest of the population. Much of Akka’s poetry explores the themes of rejecting mortal love in favor of the everlasting, “illicit” love of God, and this seems to be the path she chose as well.

She ran away from her life of luxury to live as a wandering poet-saint, traveling throughout the region and singing praises to her Lord Shiva. A true ascetic, Mahadevi is said to have refused to even wear clothing — a common practice among male ascetics, but shocking for a woman.

In Kalyana, she met the famous Shaivite saints Basava and Allama Prabhu.

Akka spent the last of her days in the Srisailam area. Tradition says she left the world in her twenties, entering mahasamadhi (final divine union) with a flash of light.

More poetry by Akka Mahadevi

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