Timmappa, a hunter and the son of a shepherd, was given the name Kanakadasa much later in his life. Born in the 16th century, he was a contemporary of the saint-poet Purandaradasa. Both of them belonged to the Haridasa sect and composed several keertanas in Kannada.
There are several narratives about how Timmappa became Kanakadasa.
One of the narratives was that he found gold while digging in the garden and he used that money to build the temple of Adikeshava in Kaginele. The Vijayanagara ruler was impressed with this act and called him ‘Kanaka’, meaning gold in Kannada.
Another one suggests that his songs and literary works were written in utter humility and reached the depth of devotion. His contributions were so great, hence the name Kanaka.
His ultimate devotion towards Lord Sri Krishna led him to become a dasa (devotee) and he was accepted as a disciple of Sri Vyasaraya. Other members of the group objected to his inclusion since he was from a low caste. However, his knowledge of scriptures and his total devotion to God acted as a shield in overcoming prejudice.
Vyasaraya, Kanakadasa, and a banana
There are many stories of Kanakadasa that are very popular in the households of Karnataka.
One such story is that his guru Vyasaraya gave bananas to his disciples and told them to eat it in a place where nobody could see them. Later, Vyasaraya asked them where and how they ate it. One had hidden behind a door and eaten it, another had eaten under the cover of a blanket. All the disciples had managed to eat the banana with the exception of Kanakadasa.
When Vyasaraya asked Kanakadasa, he said he could not eat the banana as he could not find a place that is exempt from God’s presence. This highlights how engrossed Kanakadasa was in God even at an early stage.
‘What caste is there for those who are pious?’
The humiliation he faced because of his caste resonates in many of his keertanas.
He questioned the validity of the caste system. He critiqued it. He even tried to transcend his identity through his keertanas. He writes “caste! caste! they shout; what caste is there for those who are pious?” in one of his keertanas.
We can sense anger against a society that promotes the caste system. In a keertana like “do not get agitated my mind, be patient”, we can notice his suppressed anger. We also get to see his assertion of his caste identity in some of his keertanas such as “we are Kurubas and our God is Beerayya”.
Kanakadasa and a window in Udupi Krishna temple
The story of Kanakadasa’s miracle in the Udupi Krishna temple is the most celebrated one and has become a household tale in Karnataka. It is believed that when Kanakadasa went to the Udupi temple, he was chased out and the priests there did not allow him to have a darshana of Lord Krishna’s idol.
When he was tied up to a pillar at the back of the temple, he started singing “bagilanu teredu seveyanu kodu hariye” (Open the door and please let me serve you). The song went on praising Krishna’s compassion towards his devotees.
At last, the Lord responded to his piety and devotion by making his idol turn towards him to enable him to have a darshana through a hole that was exclusively created for him. Even today, there is an opening at the west end of the temple where the structure has a window named ‘Kanakana Kindi’.
Basavanna and Kanakadasa
Many attempts have been made in the 20th century to compare the vachana chaluvali of the 12th century led by Basavanna with the compositions of Kanakadasa’s keertanas of the 16th century. Such attempts do not take into account the time and contexts in which they are placed.
However, these desperate attempts at comparison make us understand the compulsions of contemporary times. Scholars and political activists find the ideas of social critique taking a prominent position in the literary discourse during these times.
The works of both Basavanna and Kanakadasa are used to form anti-caste narratives in Karnataka by evoking their vachanas and keertanas respectively. They are taken into account in order to challenge the dominant narrative of Hindutva, which is in line with varnashramadharma.
An icon of the Kuruba community too
More than a cultural symbol, Kanakadasa is also looked upon as a representative icon of the Kuruba community.
Electorally, the Kuruba community constitutes around 7% of the population throughout Karnataka. It is the third-largest community.
Therefore, there is a fight among the political parties in order to appropriate Kanakadasa as their political icon for obvious reasons.
(Aniruddha N works as an assistant professor of English at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan College, New Delhi)