Don’t Despise Me by Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi was a saint of the Bhakti movement, and is a famous Kannada poet. Her many devotional poems showcase her powerful faith and adherence to her faith, even throughout a life that made such devotions truly difficult for her. Don’t Despise Me is one such poem that has made her the well-known and respected figure she is today.

 

Don’t Despise Me 

Don’t despise me as

She who has no one

I’m not one to be afraid,

Whatever you do.

I exist chewing dry leaves.

My life resting on a knife edge

If you must torment me,

Chennamallikarjuna,

My life, my body

I’ll offer you and be cleansed. 

 

Historical Context

As is unfortunately typical of poets and writers of the Bhakti movement, there are very few sources that can reliably convey information about Mahadevi’s life. She was born and lived in the twelfth century, and has become the focus of many myths and legends, which are difficult to discern from historic fact. In fact, much of what is known about Mahadevi comes from analyses of her own poems, which demonstrate that she was a strong devotee of the Hindu god Shiva, and saw herself as being married to him, and extremely faithful to the union. Some sources suggest that she was married by her parents to another man, whom she later left for her faith, renouncing all worldly possessions as she did so. Such sources indicate that Mahadevi set out conditions upon her marriage and that her suitor accepted them, and later reneged on them; others indicate that he refused to marry her after she made them.

Her writings and famous devotion have been a part of what has made her a saint of the Bhakti movement, and earned her the title of “Akka,” an honorific that means “elder sister.” Her lyrics and poems make it clear that her devotion to her god was extremely strong, and many of her works describe her love for Shiva in a passionate or even intimate way.

 

Lyrical Analysis

As Akka Mahadevi’s poems, including Don’t Despise Me, were originally written in Kannada, it is possible that some of the more subtle nuances of her writings have been lost in translation, so elements of the work such as rhyme and rhythm cannot be properly analyzed in English, as they are simply not there.

Don’t despise me as

She who has no one

I’m not one to be afraid,

Whatever you do.

Akka Mahadevi begins Don’t Despise Me with the titular concept, written seemingly as a plea to the reader. The careful division of the lines allows each individual idea that forms the sentence to stand on its own. The speaker — presumably Mahadevi herself — is able to divide her first thought into four important ideas: the plea to not be abandoned, the loneliness of the speaker herself, her fearlessness, and the incredible potential for fearlessness she could have had. That she states that she will not be afraid, no matter what may come her way suggests that “don’t despise me,” while worded as a kind of begging (as “despise” is a fairly strong word to have used), can also be read as a statement of resolve, or even judgment — Mahadevi’s way of saying that there is no logical premise from which to judge her loneliness. The idea of being despised for being along is a curious one in a contemporary context, however in Akka Mahadevi’s time, it was much more unusual to be alone, particularly for a woman, and her gender and place in society would have drawn considerable scorn from the people around her — but she does not care. The mixed themes of abandonment and confidence create a unique juxtaposition that forms a strong sense of character around Don’t Despise Me, and gives the reader a seemingly genuine insight into Akka Mahadevi.

I exist chewing dry leaves.

My life resting on a knife edge

The next two lines of Don’t Despise Me describe the speaker in a literal, and then metaphorical sense. When Mahadevi describes herself as existing on dry leaves, it seems likely that this is meant in a literal sense; that the speaker lives an impoverished life, and has to live that life one day at a time. That the phrase used is “I exist,” rather than “I live,” says a great deal about the scarcity of that life. In the next line, she describes her life as “resting on a knife edge,” which is a very powerful metaphor for that scarce life. A knife’s edge is typically a very fine line, as though the life itself feels like a lengthy balancing act. The knife also likely symbolizes the danger of the speaker’s daily life — few things are as uncomfortable as resting on a blade’s edge! In an objective sense, the speaker’s life seems remarkably difficult and very stressful; she lives on the barest minimum and in constant danger, both from the scarcity of her sustenance, and potentially from others who may despise her for the way she lives her life.

If you must torment me,

Chennamallikarjuna,

My life, my body

I’ll offer you and be cleansed. 

Don’t Despise Me concludes with an address to Chennamallikarjuna. Chenna Mallikarjuna is another term to refer to Shiva, the Supreme Being for the Shavism sect of Hinduism, and one of the most important deities of Hinduism as a whole. In another juxtaposition, he speaker addresses Shiva as a tormentor in a worshipping sense, concluding the work by offering herself, body and spirit, to the deity to be cleansed. It introduces an important theme into the work: devotion, and devotion in particular for the spiritual aspect of the universe. Describing her existence as “torment” is in line with the previous aspects of the poem, but the shift towards a devotional tone adds a new dimension to the work. Akka Mahadevi acknowledges the pain of her physical existence while taking comfort in her spiritual life. Even when she has only dry leaves to eat, and feels as though she lives her life on a knife’s edge, she feels clean, because her devotion to her faith keeps her strong.

From everything that is presently known about Akka Mahadevi, it is very likely that Don’t Despise Me is based on her own day-to-day experiences, living, as she did, impoverished and alone, but with incredible faith. Don’t Despise Me demonstrates her fearlessness and confidence, along with her contentedness with the life she dared choose to live.

Get more Poetry Analysis like this in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get new poetry analysis updates straight to your inbox.

Add Comment

Scroll Up