Know Nothing: Five Vachanas and the Argument I Did Not Have With Gauri Lankesh

Adopting the language of 12th century vachanas, S. Anand has a dialogue with Gauri Lankesh. He tells her how wolves whistle over the stilled lioness.

People hold placards and candles during a vigil for Gauri Lankesh, a senior Indian journalist who according to police was shot dead outside her home on Tuesday by unidentified assailants in southern city of Bengaluru, in Ahmedabad, India, September 6, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it woman,

if beard and whiskers
they call it man:

but, look, the self that hovers
in between
is neither man
nor woman

O Ramanatha

—Devara Dasimayya’s twelfth century vachana,
in A.K. Ramanujan’s translation


I do not know most people in the world
The few I meet I know so little of, yet love
The ones I know do not know I know
Most people in the world do not know me
Gauri tells Anand, this is how it will always be


Knowing this, I know myself a little less
And what little I know I tell the world
That knows so much because of each little
Each butterfly that hits a windscreen
Lessens beauty in this world, Anand tells Gauri


But being little must never be belittled
If knowing is to know nothing, little will do
I want the words for what I do not know
In death let me have the last word, don’t fight it
Gauri tells Anand, listen to me now, I know


Did I forget to buy milk again? Oh but I’ve got cigarettes
The mundane enters a vachana even if it’s counterfeit
Know the word for cowardice that passes for valour?
If you can’t make one up why offer a poem to me?
Wolves whistle over the stilled lioness, Anand tells Gauri


The body that knows pain knows death before it comes
The heart that has known love knows to speak to hate
The dead poets sang well, their words are beyond twisting
The self that hovers in between is neither man nor woman
Gauri tells Anand, now let me have the last word

I knew Gauri Lankesh. A little. These vachanas for Gauri are anyway about knowing little, knowing nothing.

A vachana is remembered speech, word, promise, poem, song. It began as a twelfth-century form of speaking in verse in Kannada, a movement in which a range of working caste poets, men and women took part. Scholar and translator A.K. Ramajunan writes:

‘The poets were not bards or pundits in a court but men and women speaking to men and women. They were of every class, caste and trade; some were outcastes, some illiterate. Vacanas are literature, but not merely literary.’

It was more than that. Not all poetry may be about doing politics, but vachana poetry in the Kannada-speaking cultural geography of twelfth century Deccan, was certainly about politics. The watchman Talavara Kamideva, the farmer Okkalu Maddayya, the ferryman Ambigara Caudayya, the pancake-seller Pittavve, the rice-gleaner Aydakki Lakamma, the steward Bokkasada Sanganna, the cobbler Madara Dhoolaiah, the washerman Madivala Macayya, the comb-maker Mahadevi, the prostitute Sule Sakkavve and so on – each of them made poems; the ruler made poems, the physician made poems, the parasol-holder made poems and the wreath-maker made poems. Which is to say we may do well in heeding the poets and artists among the unlettered and underpaid working men and women who mutinied in Mahagun Moderne Society and today face social apartheid.

In the vachana tradition, physical labour was called kayaka – that which involved the body, kaya. Happily, this involves sex and hence an obsession with the god’s/beloved’s body as well, of which the vachanakaras Allamaprabhu and Mahadeviakka or Akammadevi (among others) unabashedly write. The sensual was spiritual. Much of vachana poetry is beautiful love poetry, even if many speak of detachment from the body. Anyone who surrenders to these free-floating ideas by either making such poetry or by listening to it, thus experiencing the universal of language that’s born of labour, was called a sharana: the one that has surrendered. Both the poets and the community of poetry they forged were sharanas. It was a civil rights movement as much as a literary movement.

Labour as poetry, poetry as labour

The sharana movement offered labour as poetry and poetry as labour. Word made flesh. Speech born of labour became the new universal that the poets both constituted and surrendered to. Madara Dhoolaiah, whose caste as a leather-worker prefixes his name, asserts his identity only to transcend it. His tools of labour enter his poems. Here, in H.S. Shivaprakash’s translation, with words sharpened on his chisel and anvil, he tells god to go do his job, his work, his labour:

On seeing the great godhead
Appear on the edge of a chisel
Piercing the hide–
‘Why are you here, sir
In front of the one that moves about
Carrying the bag a flesh?
Go, go away
To the dwelling places of your devotees
Free them
Go on to the top of the your silver mountain,
With your masquerades
Go free your devotees.
By the grace of the master of lust, dust and smoke
Go and prosper.’

What is god’s work? ‘Go free your devotees’. It is the bhaktas, whether then or now, who need to be freed from the clutches of unreason and hate. When Dhoolaiah shows god the door, is he religious? Or is he a rationalist? Another vachanakara, Adaiah, as if replying to Dhoolaiah – the vachanakaras were often in dialogue and critiqued each other in poetry – talks of the need to ‘transcend the web of similes’, the need to free ourselves from ‘the thick paste of similes and non-similes’. Adaiah also bemoans those who ‘make similes with similes’ and those who ‘come into being through similes’. Fellow poet Siddharama goes a step further, saying that the very making of a vachana goes against the vachana spirit. He says the vachana experience is something that is not spoken about, for it is a truth that is unspeakable, but when Siddharama sings-speaks-shares his experience, when he utters it, when he renders it as a vachana, in words that also imply a promise, he transgresses his own rule, he negates what he affirms, he affirms the unaffirmable. Speaking of the form of the formless, you arrive at the form of the vachana.

Contesting Ramanujan’s and another older translation of a vachana by Allama from Sunyasampadane (‘The Attainment of Nothingness’), regarded as the poet’s spiritual autobiography containing over a thousand vachanas, the scholar Tejaswini Niranjana says:

‘The linga is/is not Siva or god; it is a form for formlessness, a shape for shapelessness. It is an attempt to articulate that which cannot be articulated in the mystic experience, and in the poem-fragment it eventually turns out to be an articulation of a disarticulation.’

Dhoolaiah, Chennaiah, Adaiah, Akkamma, Lakamma, Siddharama, Basava, Allama…in all some three hundred such poets shook up the 12th century Deccan with the reverberations reaching what’s now Maharashtra and Andhra and parts of the Tamil country. They became literary heroes, worthy of love, adoration, respect. The echoes were felt among the many varkari poets who made abhangas in Marathi from the 12th century on to the 17th, with a corpus of poems by the tailor Namdeo, the brahmin Gnyandeo, the maid Janabai, farmer-tuned moneylender Tukaram, the prostitute Kanhopatra. From the 15th century, it inspired working class poets of the northern region, Raidas the tanner, Kabir the weaver, Gora the potter, Savata the gardener. Like Ramanujan has said, a fuse was lit. Bhakti became a pan-Indian generalisation, a 19th-20th century nationalistic project mostly, and this contained a multitude of distinct idioms. Niranjana draws our attention to the work of historians like M.G.S. Narayanan and Kesavan Veluthat who do not see this omnibus Bhakti phenomenon as really ‘anti-Vedic’. They think it ultimately performs the function of incorporating the non-Brahmin, non-Aryan population into the Vedic hierarchy. Born into a Kabirpanthi family, B.R. Ambedkar, too, broadly shares this view, and yet dedicates his important work, The Untouchables: Who were they and why they became Untouchable (1948) to ‘Nandnar, Ravidas, Chokhamela – three renowned saints who were born among the untouchables and who, by their piety and virtue, won the esteem of all’. There’s something irresistible here even for Ambedkar who turns his face away from all forms of Hinduism including Bhakti that involved hero worship.

To return to the vachana story which occupies a distinctive place in history, history that is often boundless and is constantly being rewritten, about 22,000 extant vachanas have been collated and edited by scholars like M.M. Kalburgi. It is this radical tradition of identity politics that we could today see in the rap of Sumeet Samos doing his M.A. in the much vilified Jawaharlal Nehru University, and in the growing body of work of Ginni Mahi, artists-activists who fuse art and politics, young men and women Gauri may have liked to hang out with and call ‘son’ or ‘daughter’.

Dhoolaiah speaks of making footwear as beautiful as his words, and making words as beautiful as the footwear he sews – hence vachana, where labour is turned into the word, and such words becomes sacred. The shoe is beautiful, as is the vachana, the poem. Poetry is ennobled. Classes deemed untouchable and ritually polluted broke bonds with the oppressive elite-owned prevailing creeds of Brahmanism, Jainism and Vaishnavism. And the sharanas found in the crematorium-dwelling ash-laden pot-smoking Siva, a great work of fiction and myth after all, an enchanting figure of the universal, an artist high on himself who thinks the Ganga springs from his head. They worshiped him as linga which was light, form, and the ultimate reality (not just phallic). To announce one’s membership, that was open to all, men and women and those who felt they were something in between, sported an ishtalinga, a personalised miniature linga that rubbed against one’s body (Akkammadevi though let nothing come between her own skin and the idea of god). The linga was the vachana poem, formless form, worthy of worship. The idea of ishtalinga, alas, has come to be treated like another sacred thread today.

The vachana poets often end with a reference to a god, often a form of a mystic Siva, and each poet adores him with many names: the lord of the trysting rivers (Basava), the lord white as jasmine (Akkamadevi), lord of the caves (Allama) and so on. They made him their excuse for making good poetry. If you partake of the vachana experience, religiosity seems a good excuse for poetry (like it does with Gerard Manley Hopkins). They spoke the most philosophical and naturalistic poems from their everyday experience. This was politics as poetry, poetry as politics. This was politics at its most beautiful.

It need not be seen as ‘literary because religious’ like Ramanujan ominously and a tad reductively does, even as he is in awe of the ecstatic espousal of the universal:

They are a literature in spite of itself, scorning artifice, ornament, learning, privilege: a religious literature, literary because religious; great voices of a sweeping movement of protest and reform in Hindu society; witnesses to conflict and ecstasy in gifted mystical men. Vacanas are our wisdom literature. They have been called the Kannada Upanishads. Some hear the tone and voice of Old Testament prophets or the Chuang-Tzu here. Vacanas are also our psalms and hymns. Analogues may be multiplied. The vacanas may be seen as still another version of the Perennial Philosophy.

Anyway, these are the debates we must be having.

Credit: PTI

Modi’s gestural violence

After Gauri’s assassination on September 5, I read her essay ‘Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate’ in The Wire, where she explains to us the ongoing debate in the Kannada world. We are living in the year when a man who is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Narendra Modi, in his capacity as prime minister, inaugurated and presided over the Basava Jayanthi and the Golden Jubilee Celebration of Basava Samithi in New Delhi. The irony and gestural violence did not stop with this. After a speech, where he described ‘Lord Basaveshwara’s Vachanas as a basis for good governance’, Modi walked into the audience ‘to meet the family members of the great Kannada scholar Late Shri M.M. Kalburgi’. Kalburgi was killed in 2015 by suspected members of Hindutva ‘shadow armies’, as a recent book documents. Basava for good governance, indeed.

Kalburgi first got into trouble in 1989, when he published his book Marga-One. Zealots belonging to the powerful Lingayat community demanded his scalp, and Kalburgi was forced to apologise to the Lingayat seers. A Congress government was in power then, headed by Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, who like Modi today watched it all unfold in silence. The brahmanisation of the vachana and sharana movement has been underway for decades, even centuries since editions came to be compiled. Scholars with secular motivation also have to be devout or pretend to be devout, and preferably Lingayats. Even they could be silenced. Reporting for India Today, Chidananda Rajghatta wrote:

Kalburgi examines several vachanas (verses) written by Basaveshwara’s second wife Neelambikke and concludes her relationship with her husband may have been only platonic. In another article, he examines the obfuscation by historians of the birth of Channabasava, another Lingayat seer. Kalburgi relies on historical writing to show that Channabasava could be the product of Nagalambikke’s (Basaveshwara’s sister) marriage to Dohara Kakkaya (a cobbler).

Even the mention of such facts was found unbearable. Kalburgi, described as ‘a devout Lingayat’ (as if this ought to be protection or justification to write), was then chair of Basava studies at Karnatak University, Dharwad. He had to resign from the editorship of the comprehensive vachanas project. Forced into a position the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan found himself in in 2014, Kalburgi told Rajaghatta: ‘I will never again pursue any research on Lingayat literature and Basava philosophy.’

Gauri Lankesh and M.M. Kalburgi spoke up. Their lives ended eerily similarly. Leaving us with, who next? Gauri and Kalburgi did not like their own silence, their emptiness. They gave it speech, a form. They were the vachanakaras of our time, our sharanas. We may add endlessly to this list: Rohith Vemula, Ayyaru, a peon in a panchayat office forced to clean the toilets who killed himself, Anitha, slain by the blunt but deadly bullets fired by a country-made NEET. Add anyone. After Gauri’s murder, a list of people I know, half know and know nothing about paraded in my mind’s eye. It scared and saddened me to think of the many people I don’t know who would have imagined a similar parade, been forced to imagine people’s possible deaths before they could happen. Hence, know nothing.

A dalit-brahmin wedding in 12th century

As the prime minister of the Bijjala kingdom, Basava had inaugurated the institution of Anubhava Mantapa – the Hall of Exalted Experiences – public halls, an academy of literary, philosophical and spiritual inquiry like the Buddhist sangha, where gender and caste discrimination were forbidden for those who’d embraced the linagayata creed and regarded themselves as ‘sharana’, those who had surrendered their identity and became reborn as a rational human being. What Basava preached in word, in his vachanas, he sought to live in deed. When Basava oversaw the marriage of a Sheelavantha, the son of the cobbler couple Haralayya and Kalyanamma, with Lavanya, the daughter of a brahmin minister Madhavarsa – after they had all become sharanas – a communal war erupted between hierarchy-seeking Brahmanism and an egalitarian communitarian ethos knit by word, by literature: an utopian document into which anyone could write themselves in. The most beautiful constitution imaginable was sought to be turned into a habitable social reality, though it ended badly as we will see. Even communism – the closest model we have had for a man-made utopia that has always had dystopic results – was never so beautiful in word or deed. The sharana world did not ever seek or need the sanction of the apparatus called state.

The Sheelavantha-Lavanya pratiloma marriage, where an untouchable man had married a high-born woman, was disapproved of, and both fathers were arrested and put to death by King Bijjala. Back then, the kings needed neither shadow armies nor the moral sanction of democracy, religious power or Hindutva that now wears the halo of a secular state underwritten by Ambedkar, who excoriated Hinduism. The bride and groom were blinded and then executed using the elahootte method – chained to the leg of an elephant, they were dragged to death along the streets of the town of Kalyana, the epicentre of the Basava-led movement (a town in today’s Bidar district of Karnataka). In the riots and violence that ensued, Bijjala was killed. All lingayata devotees fled Kalyana and took refuge in several distant places – it was only after three centuries, during the Vijayanagara period, that the vachanas were collected and codified first. The politico-literary community was broken and scattered, and survived at great odds under a regime of repression. You can imagine the brahminical state then flushing the sharanas out, and the poets and critics, dissenters, would have been among most wanted anti-nationals. The sharana movement took a long while to recover from this blow, and the way Kannada society is today it appears it has far from recovered. What happened with Sheelavantha and Lavanya is pretty much what happens today when a pratiloma marriage takes place – watch Sairat if you want reality narrated as an entertaining story.

I first encountered the vachana poets during my university days, through A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (1973). H.S. Shivaprakash’s translations in I Keep Vigil of Rudra: The Vachanas (2010) offer several correctives to Ramanujan’s rather mythological, euphoric and enchanted accounts of the poets and their lives. Importantly, Shivaprakash introduces to us the work and worlds of several untouchable vachana poets whom Ramanujan does not even mention. Madara Chennaiah and Madara Dhoolaiah are the progenitors of the vachana tradition to whom the latter-day Basava, born a brahmin and regarded as the foremost of vachanakaras, records his debt in “Appanu Namma Maadara Chennaiah”, a vachana that the Hindusatani classicist Mallikarjun Mansur, renders with great bhava in the raga Miyan ki Todi. Mansur may have vehemently disagreed with and even disapproved of Gauri Lankesh, but without wishing her harm.

Ramajunan’s work was severely contested in 1992 by the cultural studies scholar Tejaswini Niranjana (in Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context) for being colonialist, orientalist, Christian, missionary, Utilitarian, modernist, nationalist and nativist. In the last chapter of her work, Niranjana accuses Ramanujan of trying to ‘assimilate Saivite poetry to the discourses of Christianity or of a post-Romantic New Criticism’. Ramanujan was dying around this time and did not respond, but these criticisms were later contested and refuted by scholar-translator Vinay Dharwadkar in his 1999 essay, ‘A.K. Ramanujan’s theory and practice of translation’.

We cannot know what Ramanujan would have made of Shivaprakash’s work or of Gauri Lankesh’s piece. I’d have wanted to discuss all this with Gauri, perhaps playing to her Mansur’s versions despite her ex-husband and friend for life Chidananda Rajaghatta telling us that she was tone-deaf. Perhaps she’d have called over her friends, the writer Du Saraswati, filmmaker Madhushree Datta and theatre activist Ganesh Heggodu, to join us. But she’s gone. And the wolves lick their chops.

Anand is a poet, translator and publisher. He is working on a book on raga music.

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  • ‘Narendra Modi, in his capacity as prime minister, inaugurated and presided over the Basava Jayanthi and the Golden Jubilee Celebration of Basava Samithi in New Delhi.’ This was a very horrible ‘gestural violence’ according to the author. Why? Modi only presided because he was democratically elected and it is customary to invite the Head of Govt. or his representative.

    Is it really so ironic that instead of beating or killing members of the audience, Modi made the sort of foolish remark usual on such occasions? He also commiserated with members of the family of a distinguished scholar who was assassinated by cowards. Why did he not shoot those family members? Perhaps, the simplest answer is best. The job of a Prime Minister is to uphold the law. It is to commiserate with those who lose loved ones to criminal violence. This is part of ‘good governance’.

    The author tells us that Basava was a Brahman. He created a sect which could potentially take political power and establish a state. Given his antecedents, it would be a Brahminical state. The Kalachuris, by contrast, were not Brahmins at all and had previously supported Jainism. Yet the author says ‘You can imagine the brahminical state then flushing the sharanas out, and the poets and critics, dissenters, would have been among most wanted anti-nationals.’

    Clearly the author has an animus against Brahmans. Nothing wrong with that. So do I. They are insufferable. But why concede to them some supernatural faculty such that the power of the State and the ability to discriminate ‘National’ for ‘anti-national’ remains their monopoly? No doubt, Nehru was a Brahman and Rahul Baba declared himself to be one during the course of an election campaign in U.P. Still, must this Brahmin dynasty get the right to decide in perpetuity who is or isn’t ‘National’? I appreciate that many people in India still retain caste prejudice. I can understand that they look down on Modi because of his humble origins. But single him out for disdain in an article celebrating working people who were inspired to write sublime poetry of a sort which scholars stand in awe?

    It is clear the author is very well-connected. I suppose, it is natural for the cultural elite to look down on mere chai-wallahs who unexpectedly turn out to be good at governance and who get elected for that reason.

  • I agree. My Gujerati friend opened plants in three different countries. His Mum is still fighting a case in India. Governance means reform of the Judiciary and Legal system.