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Kanakadasa - Poet among Saints

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: June 17, 2004
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Saint-Poet Kanakadasa (c 1509-1609 A.D.) belongs to the tradition of Haridasa literary movement which ushered in an era of devotional literature in Karnataka. Scores and scores of Haridasa have composed songs in praise of Krishna (incarnation of Vishnu). 'Haridasa' stands for 'servant of Hari', is another epithet of god Krishna. Right from 14th century to 19th, we find several Haridasas who wrote devotional compositions which could be set to music with simple instruments like Tanpura, and Tala (cymbals). They wrote kirtans, bhajans, prayers, lullabies, festival songs, and house-hold-chore songs. Written in simple and spoken Kannada, they had universal appeal. 

Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa are the foremost among Haridasas. Besides conveying dvaita (dualism) tenets, they preached kindness and equanimity in a world full of sorrows. They condemned superstitions, hollow rituals and upheld virtues of a pious life.

No biographical details of Kanakadasa are available. Tradition makes him a member of shepherd (Kuruba) community who was a chief (nayaka) of security forces under a local king. His family deity or the deity he worshipped was Adikeshava of Kaginele, presently in Haveri district. Kaginele, now a village, was a prosperous place and trading center in middle ages.

If Purandaradasa gave up trader's job and balance (takadi) for tanpura and cymbals, Kanakadasa threw away his sword when the "inner call" came. Purandaradasa is supreme or 'king' among composers. Kanakadasa is a poet among composers. He wrote about two hundred songs (kirtans, padas and mundiges or philosophical songs) besides five major works. 

Kanakadasa's major works are:

  1. Nalacharitre (Story of Nala) 

  2. Haribhaktisara (crux of Krishna devotion) 

  3. Nrisimhastava (compositions in praise of Lord Narasimha) 

  4. Ramadhanyacharite (story of ragi millet) and an epic

  5. 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 Mahabharata. 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 goes to forest, stubbornly followed by Damayanti, he deserts her in sleep, hoping that she may go back to her parents and have better life. He later drives king Rituparna to second declared 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 with which the hapless Damayanti was traveling and was attacked by wild elephants.

Haribhaktisara is essence of devotion to Lord Krishna as the name indicates. A work of one hundred and ten verses with chorus line 'deva rakshisu nammananavarata', it is a prayer song, sung by Madhva men and women in Karnataka while performing everyday chores. It teaches complete surrender to God.

Nrisimhastava is a work dealing with glory of god Narasimha (half man-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 god Rama for justice. With the help of sages, Rama proves the superiority of ragi over rice. Ragi becomes blessed by absorbing quality 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.

Mohanatarangini, although a kavya (poem in classical style) written with all conventional eighteen descriptions, deals with eroticism. Pleasure-based eroticism of Shri Krishna with consorts and Aniruddha-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 etc find place in Mohanatarangini. It echoes the contemporary Portuguese travelers' accounts. A drinking bout of men and women of working class is very picturesque. We feel as if Kanakadasa is providing a running commentary on an actually happening scene. It is for such unconventional and down-to-earth descriptions as also for social awareness that the great poet-saint has become immortal.

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
The Kanaka`s Peephole, Udupi
The Kanaka's Peephole, Udupi
The legend has it that a great devotee Kanakadasa was not allowed into the shrine as he was not a Brahmin by birth.

Kanakana Kindi (window of Kanaka) enjoys a special place at the Shri Krishna temple of Udupi. There is a legend that Kanakadasa wanted  to have a 'darshan' (encounter) of the idol.  He was not allowed into the shrine by orthodox Madhwas, as Kanakadasa was not a Brahmin by birth. Kanakadasa then started singing praise of  Lord Krishna and was lost to the outside world in a corner outside the temple. Suddenly there was a breach in the wall, where Kanaka stood, and Lord Krishna offered full darshan bending towards poet. A small window was constructed at the breach later. The idol has still a bend! 

Today that window stands as a tribute to the unique saint of Karnataka. Almost all devotees who visit Udupi Krishna temple try to have a peep at the idol, through the petty window wishing to relive the ecstasy Kanaka had at the divine 'darshan'. It is also a memorial to Kanakadasa and eclectic Hindu belief that devotion, poetry and sainthood are above caste and creed and certainty above orthodoxy.

A Poem by Kanakadasa

Translated by K. Narasimha Murthy
for Karnataka Sahitya Academy
Bangalore - 1988
(Taken from 'Aniketana', A quarterly journal of Kannada literature for English readers)


English 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?

See Also:

  • History of Kannada Literature -- Jyotsna Kamat traces the History of the Kannada Language for a special feature at Kamat's Potpourri.

  • Town of Udupi -- Photo album of the elephants, temples, arts, and people of the town of Udupi in Karnataka


Introduction | Important Proponents | Pictures
Alvars | Shankara |Bridal Devotion | The Alvars | Ramanuja | Madhva | Ravidas
Meerabai | Guru Nanak | Chaitanya | Purandaradas
Ramananda | Kabir | Tukaram | Kanakadas

Path of Devotion

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 - 1534)Guru GhasidasSant Tukaram Swami Haridas (1478-1573)Saint Mirabai
Andal - A Lady Saint of South IndiaSaint RamanujacharyaGuru Madhvacharya Sage Basaveshwara who founded the Lingayat cult in 12th centuryMadhvacharya (guru) teaching a Desciple
Adi ShankaracharyaChaitanya Mahabprabhu with DesciplesSwami RamanandSant RavidasSaint Namadeo (Namadev)
Saint Eknath

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