Sep 30 2015

Akka Mahadevi – Like a silkworm weaving

Published by at 10:13 am under Poetry

Like a silkworm weaving
by Akka Mahadevi

English version by A. K. Ramanujan

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
                  and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,
                  I burn
desiring what the heart desires.

Cut through, O lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out,

O lord white as jasmine.

— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan

/ Image by schmoo15 /

The Pope’s visit to the US. The terrible tragedy in Mecca recently. I’m not sure that my thoughts on these events have settled enough to comment on them. In the background we also had a celestial event of note…

Did you get a chance to watch the moon’s eclipse on Sunday? We had a stunning show where I live in Colorado, a massive orange moon climbing above the horizon at dusk, the first shadow appearing about 7:00 pm as the moon rose higher in the evening sky, and by 8:00 o’clock the full eclipse, then slowly the shadow passed into the night.

An eclipse is a powerful reminder to contemplate the shadows in life.

The thing about the dark parts of life and the dark parts of our own psyches is not so much that we are supposed to disown them or even transcend them. Often the real spiritual growth is when we recognize them and make room for them, finding ways to re-integrate them into a larger, more complete sense of self and world. But what does that really mean?

What we call the shadow is not necessarily harmful or destructive, it is simply what is hidden. It is what we have hidden from our own surface awareness. It is not something that is “bad” or “evil.” Most often what we have pushed into shadows is something painful, frightening. It only becomes destructive when we try to keep it chained in the shadow; then that imprisoned part of ourselves acts out violently, disrupting our polite, carefully crafted exteriors, demanding attention.

The eclipse invites us to really sit in the darkness and see what’s there. It is meant to be uncomfortable. We have the opportunity to become more comfortable with discomfort. We can learn to feel more of ourselves, we learn to recognize the lost, discarded, and scapegoated parts of ourselves. If we are wise, we stop exiling them into darkness and begin to listen to what they have to say, about ourselves, about our world, and it becomes possible to consciously craft healthier expressions of their energies. That all sounds very psychological, but there is an essential spiritual and energetic process occurring here as well: By reclaiming those condemned parts of ourselves, we become more complete, more aware of our whole Self, and our spiritual energies become more fully available to us, enabling more natural and spontaneous spiritual opening.

Despite the religious stories, true saints and sages are rarely brittle ideologues full of condemnation. It takes a nuanced sense of the complexity of the self and a compassionate awareness of the difficult, often traumatic experiences of human life, all integrated with a true artist’s skill — just to free up the spiritual energy necessary for deep spiritual awakening.

The lesson of the eclipse, the lesson of the eclipsed parts of ourselves, is to stop seeking artificial ideas of perfection through severance, but to seek wholeness through wise, compassionate, and careful integration.

Today’s poem by Akka Mahadevi is just haunting enough to contemplate in the aftermath of the eclipse.

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow…

Akka Mahadevi’s silkworm weaving a cocoon becomes a striking, visceral image of the divine impulse to turn inward, creating an interior space from one’s love and the very marrow of one’s being.

But the process can feel claustrophobic, suffocating. There is inevitably an encounter with death:

…and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,

Looking inward we come to a confrontation with ourselves, all of our being, the shadow as well as the light. It is painful, frightening. Seeing ourselves so nakedly, we often find our deep wells of shame and self-condemnation. Yet we can no longer turn away.

At this harsh moment, something must die for the silkworm’s transformation to proceed. The immature worm itself must die, the old, limited, divided sense of self realizes it cannot continue. The silkworm must summon every ounce of energy, available only from its whole, undivided self, if it wants to emerge and fly.

The spiritual path is not about navel gazing. It is life and death, and understanding the energies of each.

I burn
desiring what the heart desires.

Why does the rest of the poem shift and talk about desire and greed?

One way to understand the spiritual path is as a confrontation with addiction. Does that sound like a strange statement? Let’s consider the question for a moment…

Spiritual traditions all over the world speak of the problem of desire. I mean, where would institutional religion be without favorite words like “covet” and “lust”? But the real spiritual core of this teaching is not about sexual prudery, it is about the problem of allowing the awareness to become fixated on transient, outward, sensory-fed experiences that distract us from inner growth and wholeness. Another way of saying this is that the real problem is addiction.

Addiction, when we think about it, isn’t really about substance abuse, it is about attachment and the inability to let go. I would go even further and say that it is the unconscious belief that we somehow *are* the things and experiences we are attached to. We associate the feelings of that outer experience with life, but when that experience changes — as things have a tendency to do — we then react with terror and desperation because that feeling of life is about to change or diminish.

Overcoming addiction always, always demands a confrontation with death. It requires the painful recognition that whatever the experience, when it ends, we may experience terror, pain, or grief with shattering intensity… but what we really are continues, surprisingly alive and well.

Cut through, O lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out…

The heart’s greed… The heart is the self, one’s center. During the most profound states of self-awareness, the sense of one’s full Self is felt to be without limit or location, but, shifted to the individual level, it is simultaneously felt to be majestically at rest within the center of the breast. This is why so much spiritual language refers to the heart as the spiritual center. And the heart is inherently complete.

When the heart becomes “greedy” and desires something outside of itself, we have falsely externalized ourself — and that is when attachment begins and we start to experience problems on a spiritual level. It isn’t so much that certain activities or desires are evil or unspiritual, it is that we are no longer centered in the true self, and we have become confused as to what that “self” actually is. The result is that we end up feeling fragmented and incomplete. In order to re-experience wholeness we try to regain self though the compulsive pursuit of outer experiences and sensations, but it never quite works because the real self is always found within.

Clearly, I am not talking only about narcotics, alcohol, or other substances we normally associate with the word “addiction.” Looked at this way, virtually anything can be — and often is — addictive. Anything that draws the awareness out from the heart and holds it while compelling action to perpetuate the outward focus can be called addiction.

One can even go so far as to say that the ego is a phenomenon of addiction. When we falsely perceive ourselves as our outer experiences, we find ourselves caught in the tides of compulsive actions and reactions, all serving to strengthen that exteriorized self.

But the more we re-integrate those enshadowed, exiled parts of ourselves with our conscious being, the more inherent fulness we feel, and the less vulnerable we are to such problematic patterns of “greed” and psychic addiction. This does not mean that one necessarily avoids pleasure or pain or any experience, just that one becomes more aware of their hooks, and then chooses healthier ones without clinging to them as they pass, while remaining more fully engaged with the heart’s upwelling joy.

Addiction, death, shadow… too much? Did I mention that the eclipse is also a good time to unleash your inner Goth? Black nail polish anyone?

I hope you have a beautiful day, and a rich night. Sending love.

Recommended Books: Akka Mahadevi

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Speaking of Siva The Shambhala Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Poetry Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present: Volume 1 Sacred Voices: Essential Women’s Voices Through the Ages

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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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Akka Mahadevi – Like a silkworm weaving”

  1. Sylviaon 30 Sep 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Wonderful commentary Ivan. Wise, thoughtful and so much clarity. Thank you.

  2. Jon Spaydeon 30 Sep 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Beautiful and clear and helpful, Ivan. Thank you so much for all the energy and love you put into these selections and commentaries.

  3. Carolon 30 Sep 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Thank You, Ivan,

    This is a beautiful poem and your commentary was masterful – so helpful.
    Thank you. . .Carol

  4. Therese Monaghanon 02 Oct 2015 at 7:59 am

    Yes–yes–to all you’ve said in your commentary.
    Thank you Ivan–for your weaving of the darkness and the light. I saw only darkness the night of the moon’s eclipse. But I saw the full bright moon when it appeared at 5 the next morning. My learning–the light will appear in time. It is already present–only hidden. Namaste–Therese

  5. ebrahimon 02 Oct 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you ivan for A wonderful an excuisite commentary of the dark repressed energy that lies submerged in the core of our being. Disturbing and horrifying to even look there let alone to tenderly grasp it so as to release it, bit by bit. How shall be in peace without that finding its peace.

    It is said that night is the earths shadow upon itself just as the dark of the moon is its own shadow falling upon itself.

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