People, male and female,

by Akka Mahadevi

English version by A. K. Ramanujan
Original Language Kannada

People,
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
comes loose
               When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?

When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?

-- from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan

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/ Image by Annabelle Shemer /


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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Mahadevi gives us a moment of discomfort.

People,
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
comes loose


It reminds me of that embarrassing dream we have all had, showing up to school or work only to realize that we are naked.

Mahadevi, like many ascetics in India over the centuries, adopted the life of the "sky-clad" -- that is, she lived as a holy woman who refused to wear clothes, even in public. This is shocking and challenging to us on so many levels.

We can list many things that trigger our fear of public nudity: discomfort with one's body, sexual privacy (or shame), the need to conform to social norms.

But we are not just talking about physical nudity here. We are dealing with a more fundamental spiritual dynamic: the reflex to hide one's true nature. Most of us carry a basic fear of the self. It's immensity and beauty overwhelm us. It threatens the ego, which we have come to identify with.

As we clothe the body, we cover our true selves with the ego.

Not only do we present this adorned ego-self to the social world, we do it in our own minds, as well. We try to fool ourselves as to who we are. This is where the real spiritual problem occurs.

As an aside, this is the same metaphor of nakedness used in the biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When that primal couple cover themselves with fig leaves, the issue isn't physical nudity or sexual shame. It is that they seek to hide. They present a false, covered self, and thus are divided within themselves. Most foolishly, they imagine they can hide their true selves from the all-seeing Divine Gaze, and so they have slipped into a fantasy reality that is no longer filled with life and consciousness. They have "fallen" into materiality and duality. No longer at one with God, they must leave the harmony of the garden. It is not that they are banished; they have banished themselves to a reality of separation.

There may well be reasons in social relationships to present a public face while keeping aspects of ourselves private. We may do this to protect vulnerabilities and to make sure we honor that which is sacred within us, so long as we recognize what we are doing and why. But when we try to hide from ourselves, we have created a split that is devastating to the soul. That is when we become separated from who we truly are. The result is that our inherent wholeness and bliss are lost.

This is why some ascetics like Mahadevi have chosen to go about naked. On the one hand, her nakedness symbolizes transcendence of sexuality and society, but on a deeper level, it represents that she has returned to to the naked Self. It symbolizes that she no longer hides from the Divine Gaze.

When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?


The question for the sincere seeker is not how to better clothe oneself, it is how to get more naked. Humbly, honestly, without pretense, we ask: Who am I? Who am I, nakedly? And: Why hide? Hide from whom?

The Indian concept of darshan is about seeing, to see an image of one's god, to have a vision. But darshan works both ways. To see is to be seen. The secret is that the reverse is equally true: One must be seen to see. One must be naked to dwell in the garden in the company of the Eternal One.

how can you be modest?



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





People, male and