About three years ago, I did a class on medieval Indian history (Grade 7 NCERT) at the school where I teach part time. Up until that time, my elective had an average of 12 participants (it’s a small little school). But this subject had just four sign ups. By the end of the semester, the four told me it had been their favourite so far because as a group, we were able to understand the connection between the past and present, a connection that seemed to elude us when we just looked at the textbook.
That semester we compared the height of the Thanjavur gopuram to a modern urban building, contemplated the impact of political instability and violence that comes about when a kingdom is constantly being raided by a neighboring king or a bunch of raiders from Central Asia, and compared it to stories of children living through political instability in Kashmir or parts of the Northeast or Sri Lanka. We also read the poetry of Bhakti saints who questioned superstition, social inequity and caste with sharp clarity. By the end of the term, we realized that regardless of time period, the human experience has remained constant. From the surface, we may look different, but on examination we are no different from our ancestors who lived during those times.
Take our modern vocabulary. It makes you think we are living in a new unprecedented era of human evolution. Like, influencers – do you think influencers are a new concept linked to social media? Well, then meet Kanakadasa, and others like him (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Kabir, Eknath, Jnanadev, Purandaradasa, etc) who were the viral influencers of their time.
We can read that dry chapter about the Bhakti movement and wonder why it matters, especially if one has no particular interest in god or religion. But here is why I think Kanakadasa and other Bhakti saints are still is relevant, even if you don’t listen to classical music or are religious:
Be0fore we begin, 2 quick facts to remind you who are talking about:
- Kanakadasa is one of the pillars of Carnatic music – credited with 240 odd musical compositions that are now canon.
- He got a Krishna idol to literally turn away from the entrance, towards a little window in the back of the Udupi temple sanctum sanctorum when Kanakadasa was not allowed to enter the temple on account of his low caste. By turning towards the window, Kanakadasa was able to have the Lord’s Darshan through a crack in the wall.
And now here are 3 things that makes you forget that Kanakadasa was belonged to the 16th century (during the time of Hampi’s Vijayanagara Empire):
Kanakadasa was born a minor chieftain under the Vijayanagar empire. While he belonged to the shepherd caste, he was not some poor unknown. He was a well respected and successful member of society. Yet, when his guru, the famous Brahmin saint Vyasatirtha accepted Kanakadasa as his disciple purely on the merits of his devotion and talent, the guru’s other followers (all Brahmins) sneered at him for his lack of qualifications (birth being the only qualification that mattered at that time).
Kanakasa’s response? Like a modern song writer, his music was influenced by his experience. He wrote some of the classiest revenge songs ever. One of his longer pieces called Ramadhanya Charita is a biting criticism of caste through witty metaphor. The story isn’t about the glorious life of Rama. Instead, grains of rice and ragi play the main roles.
In the story, Rama and Sita, on their way back to Ayodhya, stop for a meal at sage Muchikunda’s ashram. Here, the sage offered a vast spread of food and Rama asks Hanuman what the best dish is. Hanuman, ever the over-achiever, asked for all the raw ingredients that went into making the dishes to be brought out. Once on the table the various grains assembled begin to argue that they are the grain of real essence. Finally, Rama asks that all grains be stored for six months. Six months later, Rama asks to check on all the grains. Rice, the most refined of grains, was stalest while ragi, of humble origins, was still fresh. Thus, humble ragi won the title of Ramadhanya – the grain of Rama. Rice was a metaphor for the refined upper castes while ragi represented the humble lower castes who worked sincerely without fanfare. This poetic work assured the common man that Rama was aware of their true worth.
In another song titled Teerthavanu Pididavarella (Are All Those Who Hold Teertha Hallowed?) Kanakadasa says:
Are all those, who holding their nose and take a dip
Into water who reading holy scriptures
Hoping to enjoy other’s wives secretly
Swerving from the code of ethics, Brahmins, gody?
Are those bot-bellied persons Vaishnavas of true essence
Who earn their lievelihood with shouts of vehemence,
Simply painting their foreheads and keeping their vessels
Without knowing the art of penance and its skills?
Imagine being one of those snooty fellow disciples listening as Kanakadasa sings the keerthana before his guru, or worse, listening to people in your community humming it as they watch you walk past them, demanding undeserved respect.
Recently, I was listening to a wonderful podcast on The Daily about Serena Williams legacy to the sport. She is a great example of the importance of representation and just how powerful that is. How do you quantify the impact of seeing someone who looks like you succeed in a world that is not welcoming to you. Serena Williams looked nothing like the delicate gazelles we expect to win Women’s Wimbledon. She was muscular and powerful and was a woman of colour. She didn’t hide who she was. She was loud and proud. But we think of representation as being something modern.
Yet, back in the 16th century, Kanakadasa was representing an entire group of people who were consciously disempowered. He was writing songs in local dialect for the common man in which he was explaining complex Hindu philosophy in simple language – philosophy that the Brahmins felt was exclusively their domain.
While Kanakadasa was an outsider to the orthodoxy, to the common man, he was a lower caste man who was accepted and even praised by the great Brahmin guru Vyasatirtha, advisor and guru of the king of the entire Vijayanagar Empire. His life was his message And what was that message? He was saying that everyone is deserving of divine grace and acceptance. He was saying that these Brahmins who demanded respect and servility weren’t necessarily deserving of it.
Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa was going village to village spreading the word. So, you could meet him, talk to him, listen to him, sing with him and clap to the beat. There is power in that.
- Democratization of Education
In modern times literature, social science, science and technology are important elements of that education. Why? Because education’s main goal is to improve quality of life. A good education gives us perspective; it makes us less gullible to superstition or herd mentality; it prepares us to be good citizens; and it prepares us with the skills and knowledge we might need to earn a living. Today, with technology and e-learning – high quality education is available to more and more people. It used to be the domain of the rich, but now it is something accessible to anyone with a smart phone.
In the medieval times, you learnt how to make a living by helping your parents or people of your caste. But that wasn’t an education. An education that explained the world to you or that transformed your way of viewing the world was an education exclusively for the Brahmin or the Kshatriya. Anyone not of those castes were excluded in two ways – first, they did not have access to a Brahmin guru who passed such important knowledge orally to his disciples. Second, they could not learn on their own because all scriptures were in Sanskrit. But Kanakadasa brought learning to everyone. Instead of sitting in one place, expecting disciples to come to him, Kanakadasa came to your doorstep. So, a potter or a weaver, an open minded Brahmin or Kshatriya, all had access to him.
And when he came to your village, he wasn’t just talking about social justice or deep Vedantic truths, but he was also encouraging rationalism – telling people that they needed to think logically and not fall prey to superstition. In a sense, his music was the medium of education in that time, much like video is today.
As I read and listened to his music, Kanakadasa upturned several false narratives that I had collected in my head. Prime among them was this peculiar belief I once indulged that Indians began to think rationally once we were exposed to rational Western thinkers of the18th and 19th century. Yet, 200 years before that, Kanakadasa was already questioning the orthodox Hindu’s belief that he needed a son to be able to attain the Divine. His argument was based in logic and rational thinking. Think for yourself, he was constantly exhorting. It is the same as Kabir and other poets of this period. Yet, somehow I read Indian history and unconsciously came to believe, rather preposterously, that before Western philosophy all Indians were running wily-nily through life without any sense of reason.
The other false narrative I had built up was the power of an individual against ingrained social norms. I had a Hollywood influenced dramatic belief that all it takes is one persuasive individual to transform society. However, Kanakadasa was fighting the same prejudice that, 400 years later, Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders were fighting against – an inflexible and cruel caste system. This leads me to conclude that social change cannot come from one individual’s extraordinary effort. It can only work when we all unite and push against it, like that moment at the end of Finding Nemo, when Nemo advises all the fish to swim down to overwhelm the fishing net. It is an apt visual metaphor for what is needed to make fundamental changes in society.
In the end, personalities have always come who have tried to play the role that Nemo’s dad plays here which is to encourage us all to swim down, but the swimming is up to us, and while all of us cannot be Kanakadasa or Ambedkar or other voices of a united conscience, we can all swim. Social change is always a product of united effort.
a. Select Songs of Kanakadasa by Shashidhar G. Vaidya
b. Wikipedia for more information on Haridasa and Vyasatirtha
c. Rajkumar’s 1960 film Bhakta Kanakadasa. (great piece of Indian film history and great music too)