Aug 13, 2009
The birthday of Lord Krishna, also known as Gokulashtami or Janmashtami is celebrated on two different days in different parts of India due to variation in calculations in the time of the birth of Lord Krishna in regional calendars. This year Gokulashtami is generally celebrated on August 13, whereas in north India it is observed on August 14.
Lord Krishna is worshipped as the eighth incarnation (avatar) of Lord Vishnu. He is one of the most popular and widely worshipped deity among all Hindus throughout the world.
On this occasion of Janmashtami, it would be appropriate to recall one of the most illustrious devotees of Lord Krishna from medieval period who was born 500 years ago in 1509 and had intimate relation with the Krishna temple at Udupi, founded by Shri Madhvacharya, the exponent of the Dwaita (dual) philosophy. This humble devotee of Lord Krishna was Kanakadasa.
In the absence of contemporary records, it is quite difficult to reconstruct the life of Kanakadasa. However, the traditions and the literary compositions of Kanakadasa throw sufficient light on his life and devotion to Lord Krishna.
According to tradition, Kanakadasa’s original name was Timmappa Nayaka born in a shepherd (kuruba) community of Kaginele in Haveri district of Karnataka. He was the chief of security forces under a local ruler. According to one of his compositions, Timmappa Nayaka was mortally wounded in one of the wars, but was miraculously saved. Following this incident, he gave up his profession as a warrior and devoted his life
writing poetry and literature using common man’s language. Later, he came to be known as Kanakadasa.
Though originally Kanakadasa followed Shaivism, the religious sect of the Kurubas, later he was converted to Vaishnavism and became a staunch devotee of Lord Krishna. He propagated the Dwaita philosophy of Shri Madhvacharya through his poetry and music. Kanakadasa gained knowledge and understood the finer points of the Karnataka Music that was founded by his contemporary Purandaradasa.
Kanakadasa became a part of the Haridasa literary movement that ushered in an age of devotional literature in Karnataka. There were several Haridasas (Servants of Hari or Krishna) who composed devotional hymns in praise of Lord Krishna which could be sung to the accompaniment of simple instruments such as Tanpura and Tala.
Kanakadasa had special bond with Udupi in general and Shri Krishna temple in particular. On the advice of his guru Shri Vyasaraja Swami, Kanakadasa came to Udupi. Shri Vadiraja Teertha, who was in charge of Udupi Mutt at that time knew about this pious devotee of Lord Krishna and made arrangements for his stay in a hut in the roadside in front of the temple. Kanakadasa used to play on his tanpura and sing in the hut, but a wall of the temple separated him from his beloved deity.
It was a period during which discrimination among the people based on caste system was rampant in society. According to a legend, Kanakadasa wanted to have a ‘darshan’ of Lord Krishna through the formal entrance to the temple. However, the Brahmin fundamentalists did not permit him to enter the temple as he belonged to the lower Kuruba caste. Though hurt by the treatment he got from the fundamentalists, Kanakadasa did not give up his efforts in gaining the ‘darshan’ of his beloved deity.
He went behind the wall covering the deity outside the temple and began to sing in praise of Lord Krishna.
The incessant appeal of the humble devotee to give ‘darshan’ to him had its desired effect. Suddenly there was a breach in the wall where Kanakadasa stood and Lord Krishna offered full ‘darshan’ to his humble devotee. The crack in the wall was later replaced by a small window, presently known as ‘Kanakana Kindi’.
The pilgrims who visit the Krishna temple at Udupi as well as those who would like to have a quick darshan of the deity without standing in the serpentine queue in the front of the temple peep at the idol of Shri Krishna through the ‘Kanakana Kindi’.
Before the biannual ‘Paryaya’, each of the chiefs of the eight Mutts founded by Shri Madhvacharya, before taking charge of the Shri Krishna mutt, comes in procession to the ‘Kanakana Kindi’, looks at the deity through the window and then enters the temple. This tradition was initiated by Shri Vaadiraja Teertha and has been continued to the present day.
A magnificent gopuram was built above the spot where Kanaka had the ‘darshan’ of Lord Krishna. This is a memorial to Kanakadasa who proved that devotion and sainthood are above caste, creed and orthodoxy.
Another unusual phenomenon associated with this incident is that while in all Hindu temples the deity and the main door face the east, in the Shri Krishna temple of Udupi, the deity faces the west. This is believed to be not in accordance with the Hindu Vasthu Shastra of temple architecture and leads one to believe that the deity turned towards Kanakadasa to give him ‘darshan’ and remained in that position facing west.
Another tradition associated with Kanakadasa’s devotion to Shri Krishna has been followed since the days of Shri Vadiraja Teertha. It is believed that when Kanakadasa was preparing rice cake for his lunch, he saw the rice gruel flowing out through a hole from the temple kitchen.
Kanakadasa collected the gruel in a coconut shell and going in front of the temple offered the gruel along with his rice cake to the deity. Shri Vadiraja, who came to know about the above incident reported to have said to his attendant, “Kanaka is a great devotee. Krishna is more pleased with his gruel water than with our costly dishes. He may be shepherd by caste, but he does not lag behind in his devotion and enlightenment. He is like pure gold (Kanaka). From this day onwards we will also offer rice gruel and cake to Shri Krishna to perpetuate the memory of Kanaka’s great devotion.” This tradition has been continued even today. Along with other dishes, rice gruel and cake are offered to the deity, only change being a silver goblet has replaced the coconut shell.
The poetry and literature of Kanakadasa reflect social conditions that prevailed during his time. Besides five major works, Kanakadasa wrote about two hundred forty compositions in Karnataka Music that include Kiratanes, Ugabhogas, Padas and philosophical songs.
In one of his major works titled ‘Ramadhyanacharitre’, Kanakadasa highlights the conflict between socially strong and weak castes through an allegory of argument between rice and millet (ragi) representing the socially powerful and weak castes respectively. When these two gains present their argument before Lord Rama to prove their superiority, he sends both of them to prison for six months at the end of which the rice becomes rotten while the ragi survives and earns the blessings of Lord Rama. Ragi has been considered as the staple food of the poor and working class. This narration has been interpreted as Kanakadasa’s emphasis on poverty and humility rather than material wealth.