Sarvajnya: A radical encyclopedic

Shivanand Kanavi draws a portrait of Sarvajnya, the radical poet who strode through Karnataka of the 16th century, about whose personal life little is known.

Shivanand Kanavi draws a portrait of Sarvajnya, the radical poet who strode through Karnataka of the 16th century, about whose personal life little is known.

A group of writers led by Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau and Voltaire, created the Encyclopedia in 18th century France and thus came to be known as Encyclopedists. They were all fired with a common purpose: to further knowledge and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in the church and state. The underlying philosophy was rationalism and a qualified faith in the progress of the human mind. Their work proved to be far more revolutionary and radical than their contemporaries had envisioned and had an indelible impact on the French Revolution.

Roughly two hundred years prior to the French Enlightenment, strode a poet all over Karnataka who also called himself an encyclopedic-a Sarvajnya. Normally in the Indian tradition there is great humility and display of one’s learning is frowned upon. The word Sarvajnya is more often used to ridicule those ignoramuses who act as ‘know-alls’. But Sarvajnya was unabashed and truly used his poetic skills to comment on all sorts of subjects from the daily life of people. His poems talk about agriculture and different professions; about the joys and problems of family life; about the caste system; about hollow religious rituals; about all the four goals in life, dharma, artha, kama and moksha and so on with a great sweep and with profound wisdom.

His tools were biting satire as well as gentle humour. At the same time these aphoristic pearls of wisdom became so popular that one could find manuscripts recording them in ordinary villagers’ homes as well as in royal palaces. In fact over a period of time, they have become substitutes for proverbs. Rev Chennappa Uttangi (1881-1962) did a yeoman service by traveling all over Karnataka for nearly a quarter century from village to village to collect and edit over 2000 of Sarvajnya’s vachanas or poems, and published them in 1924. Sarvajnya is spoken of with the same affection and respect by the ordinary folk and the learned alike as Vemana in Telugu and Tiruvalluvar in Tamil.

Sarvajnya’s poems are marked by high poetic qualities as well. Besides using analogies, allegories, alliteration, puns and double entendres, they use simple pure Kannada words. Sarvajnya not only used the folk idiom and language but also a common folk metre called the tripadi-three liner – and raised it to great heights. His amazing control over the form of tripadi has led to literary critics comparing him to the mythological Bali who is supposed to have used three foot steps to cover heaven earth and hell.
However other than what we learn of his rational world outlook and honest expression, we know very little of this towering itinerant iconoclast, who strode through Karnataka nearly 500 years ago. Some autobiographical poems imply that he was born in Masoor near Dharwad. Dating him is also difficult and is based on the fact that a work written in 1600 CE refers to Sarvajnya. As for the faith or caste he was born into, again there have been guesses but no confirmation. His vachanas indicate clearly that he chose Veerashaivism. But it would be a sign of extreme narrow mindedness to put this radical in a straight jacket of faith and caste.

A few of his vachanas have been translated below by the author. As is usual in such cases, translation can only give a sense of their content but not the literary and cultural richness.

The Yogi has no caste, the wise one is not stubborn
The sky has no pillar to hold it up, the heaven
Does not have a ghetto for the outcaste, says Sarvajnya

The world is born out of the unclean
The Brahmin however says "don’t touch me I am clean"
Then where was he born, asks Sarvajnya

Bones, entrails, nerves, skin, holes, cavities
And flesh with all kinds of excretion, constitute all beings
Where then is the justification for caste asks Sarvajnya

We walk on the same earth and drink the same water
We are all burnt by the same fire, then where does
Caste and gotra come from asks Sarvajnya
They bring drinking water from the same source and cook
But do not want to sit together and eat
Sarvajnya does not need such people

The fingers count, the tongue multiplies
But if the mind is distracted
Then it is like a street dog says Sarvajnya

Ganga, Godavari, Tungabhadra and Krishna
You dipped in all of them, but you did not realize the God
within you asks Sarvajnya

If dipping in holy water the Brahmin jumps straight to
the heaven, then why won’t a frog in the same water
Jump up too asks Sarvajnya

If Sandal wood on the forehead takes you straight to
heaven then why not the stone
On which you make its paste, asks Sarvajnya

If three holy threads take you to heaven
Then why not someone wearing
An entire rug asks Sarvajnya

If a thick coat of ashes takes you to the heavens
Then why not a poor
Donkey wallowing in it, asks Sarvajnya

In a crore of professions agriculture is the highest,
Agriculture leads to textiles too
Else the country itself would be in trouble

If you tell the truth as you see it they get upset
That is why it is very difficult to see people who speak
the truth as they see it, on this earth, says Sarvajnya

And lastly,

One does not become a Sarvajnya through arrogance
By humbly learning a word from everyone
Sarvajnya became a mountain of knowledge

These are but a few samples. It is difficult to choose from a treasure house of over 2000 of Sarvajnya’s poems where he covers a vast number of topics in everyday life.

It is appropriate that recently the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu commemorated Tiruvalluvar and Sarvajnya through unveiling their statues in each other’s states. However, a more concerted effort should be made to introduce Indians to the rich diversity of cultures and literature from different regions and languages of India.

Reference: Sarvajnya Vachana Sangraha Selected Vachanas of Sarvajna, Compiled by M.Mariyappa Bhat, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1996

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *