Haridasa Literary Tradition of Karnataka

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By H N Muralidhara

Three main traditions—the Virashaiva, the Vaishnava, and the Jain—are known to have had a significant impact on Kannada literature, which has a documented history spanning over a thousand years. In its early period, the Jain poets, most of whom were supported by kings as ‘royal poets’, created the ‘classical’ tradition. The Virashaiva literature, which flourished in the 12th century, is considered to have been revolutionary for more than one reason. Vacanas, the typical Virashaiva literary expressions, are a kind of poetic prose that have provided a unique dimension to the Kannada literary tradition. Their authors, the vacanakaras, were primarily mystics who led a socio-religious movement that threw open the doors of devotion and spirituality to all, irrespective of caste and creed. The next stage was that of the Haridasa literature, popularly called the Dasa literature, shaped by the followers of the Vaishnava tradition.

Origin and Development

The Dvaita or dualistic school of Vedanta, championed by Sri Madhvacharya, also known as Anandatirtha (1238–1317), is the main source of inspiration for the Haridasa literature. The monastic tradition established by Madhvacharya continued the practice and propagation of this philosophy. Many monks and scholars of this tradition wrote Sanskrit commentaries on Madhva’s works. Some of these very monks were also responsible for the origin and evolution of another form of expression meant to spread the message of the Madhva philosophy in the language of the common people. Sri Naraharitirtha (d.1333), a direct disciple of Madhvacharya, is said to have been the promoter of this kind of literature in Kannada. But only one or two compositions of Naraharitirtha are available today. It was Sripadaraya, (aka Laksminarayana Muni) (1406–1504), who laid the foundation for the Haridasa tradition. In spite of opposition from Sanskrit scholars, he composed songs in Kannada, set them to music, and made arrangements for a team of devotional singers to sing them at the time of worship in the math. Though the compositions of Sripadaraya are not many in number, they have representative features of Dasa devotional expression. Here is a well-known composition by Sripadaraya wherein he initiates a debate: Who is great, the Lord or the devotee?

O Sri Hari! Is it you that are great, or your devotees? If examined in different ways [one finds that] you have become subordinate to your devotees. While the Vedas are ever praising you as the Supreme Lord and the Highest Soul, you, dwelling in the mansion of Dharma and Arjuna, did follow them gladly whenever you were called. Then, who is great? You are considered as the Lord of the whole universe; therefore, you are very great. If you are pleased, you do grant even Moksha. But when you are found watching the doors of King Bali, then, who is great? [1]

It was Vyasaraya, or Vyasatirtha (1447–1539), a disciple of Sripadaraya, who gave a definite shape to the Haridasa movement. He commanded great respect from the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire, especially from Krisnadevaraya. Though he was the author of several Sanskrit works pertaining to the Madhva philosophy, he was very much attracted by the beauty of Kannada compositions. Not only did he compose songs, he also encouraged others to do so. Tradition has it that during his period two distinct divisions took shape among the followers of the Madhva philosophy. One was the Vyasa-kuta and the other the Dasa-kuta. While the former gave preference to the study of Sanskrit works, scholastic achievements, and philosophical debates, the latter mainly adhered to devotion and renunciation, along with composing the devotional devaranamas in Kannada. Though both the divisions shared a common philosophical background, there were differences at the practical level.[2] Nonetheless, the Haridasa movement took a definite form, both from the literary and conceptual standpoints, at this particular stage.

Conceptual Background: Bimbopasana

Madhvacharya divides all existence into two basic entities: the independent and the dependent[3]. According to him only Bhagavan Narayana exists independently. All the rest, from Goddess Lakshmi to all individual human souls, depend completely on Narayana for their existence. Ignorance causes these dependent entities to assume themselves independent—and this is bondage. Two types of veil cover the real nature of souls. One is ishvaraccha-dika, that which covers the real nature of God, and the other is jivacchadika, that which covers the real nature of the soul. The way to come out of this bondage is to become the dasa, servant, of the Lord. According to the Haridasas, it is by completely surrendering oneself at the feet of the Lord and eliminating the false ego that one can obtain deliverance from ignorance and bondage.

One distinctive feature of the Haridasas is that, more than anything else, they adhered firmly to the concept of bimbopasana expounded by Madhvacharya. According to this, when the all-pervading Vishnu resides in the hearts of individuals as the indwelling spirit, he is called ‘Hari’. Hari is the bimba, the entity reflected. The individual soul is the pratibimba, the refection of the bimba. The pratibimba is always subordinate to the bimba and is controlled by it. The ignorant soul, by constantly contemplating on the concept of bimba, attains freedom. It is to be noted here that even the term ‘Haridasa’ has its origin in this concept.[4] The exposition of this concept of bimbopasana forms one of the Haridasa literature’s main themes. For example, Gopaladasa says:

O man! Meditate upon the Bimba [indwelling God] within yourself by sitting in a joyous mood. After having bowed down to the twelve preceptors, after becoming perfectly righteous, after having repeated the first Mantra from the beginning, and after having understood the indweller with pure devotion, meditate upon Him with great confidence, sitting in the Padmasana posture—with legs folded across.

Without moving the body, and with great firmness [of mind], having shut the eyes, having forsaken sensuality, and having fixed the most auspicious and perfect image in the mind, see everything. Having once remembered all the forms of God and the image of the Highest Preceptor, being the mind back and fix it again in the Bimba of your own Preceptor. Afterwards, gently think of all these images with concentration, and having brought them together, join the same with the image of God, who resides permanently in your heart.

In the light of knowledge, having prepared your heart, the lotus of eight petals, and having seated Srinivasa, whatever worship you do outside, do it inside.

Perform service (upasana) with four qualities. Look at the form of Hari during every moment, chanting that He is the ordainer of every item of life, and that there is no one except the Lord.

Having discarded affection, without desiring anything, having understood all the other objects as equal, and having observed samadhi with devotion and foresight (divyadrishti), observe the mode gradually. If meditated in this way, God shall show mercy; the store of passions will be destroyed, and you will attain aparokshajnana. Then Gopala Vitthala will bless you.[5]


Even after Sripadaraya and Vyasaraya, there were monks who composed songs in Kannada. But the majority of the Haridasas were householders. They were in the world, yet not of the world. Many were engaged in worldly activities early in their careers, but unexpected transformations occurred in their lives which caused them to adopt the path of the dasas. Self surrender became their way of life.

The name of Purandara-dasa (1480–1564) stands at the top of the Haridasa tradition. He brought about significant changes in the fields of literature and music and became a source of inspiration for future composers. He is even regarded as the ‘father of the Carnatic or South Indian form of music’. Since no authentic material on his early life is available, his life could only be pieced togehter based on popular legend. His former name was Srinivasa Nayaka. Although very rich, he was a miser to the core. His wife was a sincere devotee of God. It is said that Bhagavan Narayana wanted to test Srinivasa Nayaka and came to him in the guise of a poor brahmana seeking financial help for his son's sacred-thread ceremony. Srinivasa Nayaka refused outright to help him. The brahmana then went to his wife and narrated his plight. Filled with compassion, his wife gave away her nose-ring. The brahmana took it to Srinivasa Nayaka and asked for some money in return. The sight of the familiar jewel shocked Nayaka. Without asking him anything about where he got the ring, Srinivasa Nayaka told the brahmana to come back the next day to collect the money. He then rushed home to verify whether the nose ring was still with his wife. Fearing harsh punishment, the wife decided to end her life by consuming poison. However, she miraculously found the nose-ring in the cup of poison and handed it to her husband. Through further enquiry, Nayaka came to the conclusion that it was the Lord himself who had come to him. This brought about a great transformation in him. He relinquished all his riches, went to Vijayanagara with his wife and children, took dasa-diksha, or initiation into the path of the dasas, and was given the name Purandara-dasa by Vyasaraya. He emotionally acknowledged the part played by his wife in his transformation: ‘Whatever happened, happened for a good reason. It paved the way for my service of the Lord. [Called] to hold the dandige [a stringed instrument] in my hand, I used to hang my head in shame. May the likes of my wife increase! She succeeded in making me hold the dandige with devotion.’

Purandara-dasa’s contribution to the Haridasa literature is immeasurable. He gave a new dimension to devaranamas as a form of literary expression. Through his mastery over language and poetic diction, and by way of his unique presentations, he has became a household name in Karnataka for many centuries. Purandara-dasa’s compositions are thematically multidimensional. Some of his songs are compositions praising the glories of the Lord. In others, one finds dialogues between the devotee and the Lord, wherein the trials, tribulations, joys, and sorrows of the inner life of an aspirant are vividly expressed. A major portion of his compositions recreate episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavata. Those dealing with Krishna, Yashoda, and the gopis of Vrindaban have varied dramatic narrations. His compositions with a social message are also many in numbers.

Purandara-dasa is known for his deft use of words. Here is an example of his effortless use of simile:

When I meditate on you, O Lord, what harm can others do to me? What can they achieve by their jealousy when I am surrounded by your boundless mercy and when I repeat your name constantly? Do ants lay siege to fire? Will the dust that a scampering horse throws up envelop the sun? Is there anything that can go against one who has patience? Will the mountain tremble when the wind blows? If a thief tries to break open and seize the money which he sees in a mirror, can he get hold of it?[6]

Purandara Mandapa on the banks of Tungabhadra River, Hampi, where it is said Purandara-dasa composed many of his kirtanas

In another song he equates the Lord’s name with sugar candy; and this is how he urges people to get a taste of it:

O buy sugar candy, my candy so good!
For those who have tasted say naught is so sweet
As the honey-like name of the godlike [sic] Visnu.
My stock is not packed on the backs of strong kine;
Nor pressed into bags strongly fastened with twine.
Wherever it goes it no taxes doth pay;
But still is most sweet, and brings profit, I say.
It wastes not with time; never gives a bad smell;
You’ve nothing to pay, though you take it right well;
White ants cannot eat the fine sugar with me;
The city resounds as its virtue men see.
From market to market ’tis needless to run;
The shops know it not, the bazaar can have none.
My candy, you see, is the name of Visnu,
So sweet to the tongue that gives praise as is due.[7]


In the Haridasa literary tradition, Kanaka-dasa (1509–1607) is a name which stands on a par with that of Purandara-dasa, his contemporary. Kanaka-dasa was born in a village called Bada in northern Karnataka. It is said that he was brought up in a family of shepherds and later became an army chief. It is contended that he renounced worldly life in response to a divine call during a battle and became a Haridasa. He built a temple for Adikeshava, his chosen deity, at Kaginele. Later he went to Vijayanagara and took initiation from Vyasaraya. Though he had the support and encouragement of Vyasaraya, who recognized his inner mettle, he had to face many challenges from some narrow-minded brahmana pandits of the math. This fact was even recorded by Purandara-dasa in one of his compositions. Kanaka-dasa strongly criticized the practice of judging a person on caste basis:

They talk of kula, times without number. Pray tell me what is the kula of men who have felt real bliss? When a lotus is born in mire, do they not bring and offer it to the Almighty? Do not the gods of the earth drink milk, which comes from the flesh of the cow? Do they not besmear their bodies with deer musk? What is the caste of god Narayana and of Siva? What is the caste of the Atman and the Jiva? Why talk of kula when God has blessed you? [8]

This ‘caste dialogue’ found expressions in one of his remarkable poetical works, ‘Rama Dhanya Charite’, the story of the cereal ragi. This is the gist of the story: Once there arose a quarrel about which type of cereal was superior - rice, whcih was consumed by the people of higher castes, or ragi, which was commonly used by the lower castes. Unable to resolve the issue, they approached Sri Rama, king of Ayodhya. Rama listened to both of them and, reserving his judgment, ordered that they be placed in the granary for some time. After the stipulated period, both were called back. By then the rice had turned stale, while the ragi was still in good condition. On the basis of this test, Rama declared the supremacy of ragi and called it raghava dhanya or rama dhanya after his own name. Popular etymology has it that raghava dhanya later became ‘ragi’. The allegorical way in which Kanaka-dasa portrayed caste has given this poem a unique place in the history of Kannada literature and it is considered one of the major sources for socio-cultural studies on medieval Karnataka.

It is said that Vyasaraya used to create some situations now and then to show the real worth of Kanaka-dasa to his other disciples. Once on an Ekadashi day, when fasting is observed as a religious practice, he called together all his disciples and gave them each a banana, with the instruction that nobody must see them eating it. The disciples hid themselves in different places of their choice and consumed their fruits. Kanaka-dasa, however, brought his fruit back. On being questioned by the guru, he replied: ‘When the all-pervading Lord is observing everything in this universe, can one really get a place where nobody is watching?’

On another occasion, in an assembly, Vyasaraya posed an interesting question to Kanaka-dasa: ‘Who among the people of this assembly will go to Vaikuntha (the abode of Bhagavan)?’ Pointing his finger at each person, he asked Kanaka, ‘Will he go to Vaikuntha?’ In each case, Kanaka answered in the negative. Even when Vyasaraya asked, ‘Will I go?’, the reply was the same. This was too much for the pandits and they began to fume. Finally, the guru asked Kanaka, ‘Will you go to Vaikuntha?’ Kanaka replied calmly in his characteristically ambiguous way, ‘If I go, I go. …’ The pandits thought this to be a self-assertive reply and a big uproar ensued. Finally, at the guru’s bidding, Kanaka explained what the statement meant: ‘If the “I”—the ego—is destroyed, then will I go to Vaikuntha.’

Here, special mention ought to be made of Vaikuntha-dasa of Beluru and Vadiraja-tirtha of the Sode Math. Both contributed to the Haridasa movement in their own way. Though Vaikuntha-dasa belonged to the Ramanuja sect; he was very close to Vadiraja-tirtha, who held him in very high esteem. Vaikuntha-dasa is considered a great devotee and mystic, and Vadiraja-tirtha has composed hymns and songs both in Sanskrit and Kannada. His compositions are known for their devotional fervour. Later, the Haridasa movement received good support and nourishment from Sri Raghavendra-tirtha (1595–1671) of Mantralaya Math. However, only one composition of his is available today. Special mention may also be made of Mahipati-dasa (1611–1681), who gave a distinct mystical dimension to the movement through his compositions.

The Second Phase

The second phase of the Haridasa tradition begins with Vijaya-dasa (1687–1755). His former name was Dasappa. It is recorded that Purandara-dasa appeared to him in a dream and wrote his ankita or kavyanama (pen-name), ‘Vijaya Vitthala’, on his tongue and blessed him with the Haridasa initiation. This became a turning point in Vijaya-dasa’s life. He composed innumerable songs and had many disciples. He was responsible for the rebirth of the Haridasa tradition. The soul-searching seen in Vijaya-dasa’s compositions is especially noteworthy. This is how he prays to God to cure him of bhavaroga, the disease of worldly existence:

O Lord, healer of worldliness! What is this disease that I am suffering from? You do examine, having felt my pulse calmly. The eyes cannot perceive the image of Hari. The ears cannot hear the kirtana of Hari. The nose cannot smell the fragrance of the sandal-paste applied to Hari. The tongue cannot taste the offering made to Hari. The hands cannot move to worship the feet of Hari. The head won’t bow down at the feet of the elders and the preceptor; my feet won’t travel on pilgrimage to places associated with Hari; and the other limbs won’t move to serve Hari. O Vijaya Vitthala, the relative of the unprotected! You are my precious Lord. Therefore, remove this very dangerous disease of time immemorial. I shall never forget your favour.[9]

Another Haridasa who made a significant contribution to the Dasa literature is Prasannavenkata-dasa, a contemporary of Vijaya-dasa. He was from Bagalkot in the Bijapur district. He lost his parents at a very early age. Greatly depressed, he went to Tirupati. There he met some Haridasas and was inspired to tread the divine path. His craving for the Lord was so intense that he took a vow to fast unto death. It is recorded that Bhagavan Venkateshwara appeared to him in a dream and gave the Haridasa initiation as well as the ankita ‘Prasannavenkata’. Though he did not have much formal learning and was ignorant of the scriptures; he showed remarkable talent in composing songs after his initiation as a Haridasa.

The continuation of the second phase of the Haridasa movement can be mainly attributed to the disciples of Vijaya-dasa. Chief among them was Bhaganna, or Gopala-dasa (1721–62). The various levels of the spiritual unfoldment of devotional sadhana have found vivid expression in his compositions. This is how he describes the presence of the all-pervading Lord: Wherever seen, there is not such a place where you are not. You are the indweller of all beings, and you are all-pervading. You are in grass, wood, and all animate and inanimate objects; and all praise you saying that there is nothing without you. Just as a lotus, though remaining in water is not wetted by it, so also, you are the insinuator and the inner-dweller yourself. O Gopala Vitthala! the Lord of the Deities, only the learned know you and others do not. You yourself are the all-pervading face, eyes, hands, and palms of the universe. You are the all-pervading ears and the support of the universe. You are all-pervading and omnipotent. O Gopala Vitthala! You, who are the universe itself, do grant me devotion to your all-pervading feet.[10]

Foremost among the disciples of Gopala-dasa was Jagannatha-dasa (1727–1809). Before he became a Haridasa, he was known as Srinivasacharya. He was a profound Sanskrit scholar and used to look upon the ‘Kannada dasas’ with contempt. Once Vijaya-dasa came to his place and invited him to the worship of Vijaya Vitthala, his chosen deity. For obvious reasons, Srinivasacharya rejected the invitation. Soon after, he was afflicted with an intense stomach pain, which later turned out to be due to tuberculosis. Finding no cure, he became convinced that this was the consequence of his arrogant behaviour towards the Haridasas. He went to Vijaya-dasa and tendered his sincere apologies. Vijaya-dasa blessed him and sent him to Gopala-dasa. By the blessings of Gopala-dasa not only was his disease cured, he was also initiated into the Hari-dasa tradition and given the name Jagannatha-dasa. He composed hundreds of songs under the ankita ‘Jagannatha Vitthala’. In one of his famous songs he describes the cosmic worship of the Lord thus: ‘The worship of the Lord is so easy for those who understand. Unfortunate is he who does not understand. The universe is the mandapa, earth the pedestal, rain his ablution (abhisheka); the quarters are his clothing, the malaya-breeze the fragrant incense, all the grain grown on earth his offering (naivedya), the lightning that shines is the Arati of camphor.’[11] Hari-kathamrita-sara, a treatise on the theory and practice of devotion, is an important poetic work of Jagannatha-dasa. It is written in the Shatpadi metre (each stanza containing six lines). In this work, one can find a rare harmony of scholastic acumen with deep devotional feelings. Here is an excerpt:

Even with the prayer of Lakshmi—the presiding deity of the Vedas and Vedangas—He cannot be understood, as He is the ocean of all the eternal imperishable virtues. (Even then) He is subdued by seers who meditate and serve His feet every day. Oh, how kind He must be! He cannot be obtained through mind or speech. But He wanders along with those who meditate upon him. He, having borne the universe within Himself and being the indweller of the jivas, is born with them. He is possessed of immense prowess. And He, having heard the singing of His devotees, appears in their mind. So eager is He that He sits hearing His praise when the devotee sings [the same with devotion]; He hears it standing, if the devotee sings the same sitting. He begins to dance [hearing it], if the devotee sings standing; and if the devotee sings and dances [in ecstasy], He gives Himself up. He is so easy [of approach], and cannot remain separated even for a moment. This being so, the creatures suffer in this world not knowing how to please Him.[12] The lineages established by Vijaya-dasa, Gopala-dasa, and Jagannatha-dasa have made significant contributions in carrying forward the tradition to later periods. The list is long; the prominent names include Mohanadasa, Timmannadasa, Rama-dasa, Yogendrappa (‘Pranesha Vitthala’), Karajagi Dasappa (‘Srida Vitthala’), and Ananda-dasa. The Haridasa tradition is still intact in Karnataka, though with lesser intensity. Even the 20th century saw a long list of Haridasa poets keeping the tradition alive.

It needs to be added that this tradition was not restricted to men. We come across many Haridasis such as Helavanakatte Giriyamma, Harapanahalli Bhimavva, and others who have made significant contributions not only from the literary point of view but from that of spiritual attainment as well.

The Central Message

In the socio-religious history of Karnataka, the Hari-dasas’ played a distinct note. They saved religion from lifeless rituals and the control of so-called scholastic circles, and brought it closer to the common people. From this point of view, their concept of ‘devotion’ had a revolutionary dimension. They not only recreated various incidents from such Puranas as the Bhagavata, but they redefined them as well. They established the primacy of repetition of the Lord’s name in all spiritual practices. This may even be construed, in a way, as an alternative to the Vedic ritualistic tradition. On the one hand, this divine name of the Lord brought each and every person into the spiritual fold, and on the other it unified the community, erasing distinctions of caste, class, and creed. Purandara-dasa observes: ‘O mind, do not forget to repeat the name of Lord Hari. Why need one perform sacrifices and rituals? Why become a mendicant or a monk? Loudly chant the name of the Lord who rests on Adishesha, praised by the sage Narada.’

Ritualistic performances are external in nature, whereas the repetition of the holy name is internal. According to the Haridasas, it is this shift from the external to the internal that makes spiritual practice more meaningful. In this type of sadhana, there is no place for ‘middlemen.’ Ritualistic practices, though they admit a few into the fold of religion, leave out the majority. On the contrary, the nama-sadhana of the Haridasas includes everyone and excludes no one. It prescribes no preconditions for sadhana:

In this age of Kali, if one chants the name of Hari, generations after generations will be liberated. Remember Him who is easy to obtain through simple devotion. Do not say ‘I do not know how to take a holy bath; and I cannot observe the vow of silence.’ Do not say ‘I know not the ways of worship and the means of pleasing the Lord, since I am wretched.’ Do not say ‘I know not the ways of repetition of the holy name and performance of penances and am not initiated by a holy man’. Find a means by which to remember Him whose glory has no end.

Rituals demand a specific time and place for their performance. One cannot observe them according to one’s own convenience. But this is not the case with remembrance of the holy name. Not only that, such remembrance helps bridge the gap between the so-called secular and the spiritual. The way of remembrance accepts day-to-day activities in their entirety and urges one to spiritualize every single moment. This view is aptly illustrated in a famous composition of Purandara-dasa that gives a long list of daily activities and ties them to nama-sadhana:

Why not chant ‘Krishna’ when by doing so
all difficulties will vanish?
When you have attained the human birth
and are endowed with a tongue,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
While waking up from sleep
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
Moving hither and thither in the household
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
Losing control of your tongue while talking,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
While treading a path carrying burden,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
While you smear your body with perfume
and enjoy the taste of betel leaves,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
When in the joyous company of the sweetheart,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
While conversing in a lighter vein,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
Considering this too a duty amidst many others,
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
When you are caressing your child
why not chant ‘Krishna’?
Seated on a luxurious bed
why not chant ‘Krishna’?

The Haridasas stress this internal attitude more than anything else. Even if some people engage themselves in all types of ritualistic practices, but lack sincerity of purpose, the Haridasas dismiss them as indulging in mere show:

This is nothing but showy renunciation: These people have not an iota of devotion towards our Lord. They get up at dawn and shiver terribly to show to others that they have had their bath and make them wonderstruck, with all the ego, jealousy, and anger full to the brim within. They gather all the vessels of shining brass and copper as if it were a brassware shop and light many lamps before them so that they glitter. This is the kind of deceitful worship they offer. With the rosary beads in their hand and mantra in their mouth, they put on a veil of cloth and contemplate not God but woman (ibid.).

It is also to be noted here that according to the Haridasas, ‘dasatva, the state of being a dasa’ is not merely a nomenclature or a designation. Nor is dasatva a state of inaction or inertia. It is a very positive process by which an aspirant consciously loses the ego and surrenders completely to the Lord. Even in this process the devotee does not proclaim, ‘I will become a dasa of the Lord.’ It is their contention that if the Lord ‘accepts’ their dasatva, they may become one. Hence, this elimination of ego is not only an end, but is also a means. To quote a famous composition of Purandara-dasa: ‘Make me your slave, Venkataramana, you, the Lord with a thousand names. Eliminate my bad qualities; fix your shield of compassion to my soul; grant me the service of your feet; bless me by placing your lotus-like hand on my head.’

One interesting feature of this sadhana is that the devotees not only take some responsibility upon themselves, but they fix an equal amount of accountability on the Lord himself! Both the devotee and the Lord enter into an ‘agreement’ to this effect. Says Purandara-dasa: O Krishna, let there be an oath upon you and an oath upon me; and let us both have the oath of your devotees. If I do not utter your name, let the oath be on me; and if you do not protect me, let it be on you. If I adore others leaving you, let the oath be on me; if you forsake my hands, let it be on you. If I deceive you by my mind, body, and wealth, let the oath be on me; and if you do not fix my mind in you, let it be on you. If I associate with the wicked, let it be on me; if you do not make me free from this worldly affection, let it be on you. If I do not make friendship with the virtuous, let it be on me; and if you do not dissociate me from the wicked, let it be on you. If I do not resort to you, let it be on me; if you do not protect me, O Purandara Vitthala, let it be on you.[13]

This dasatva of the Haridasas has other dimensions as well. At the spiritual level, the dasa actually becomes a master of his own senses, while those who claim to be masters are actually slaves to desires. At the socio-political level, the Haridasas may be considered free souls who declined to be ruled by any human superiors. They virtually challenged kingship with their spiritual courage: ‘When Lord Krishna is there to bestow his supreme blessings, what need is there to serve any mortal?’ was the stand taken by Guru Vyasaraya when he was being greatly honoured by the kings of the Vijayanagara Empire for his spiritual attainments. A similar stand has been taken by the other Haridasas too. Completely surrendering oneself to the Lord and desiring nothing has been the main feature of their spiritual discipline. In fact, one cannot draw a line of distinction between what constitutes sadhana in this tradition and what does not. Existence itself, in all its totality, becomes the theatre of spiritual practice. The culmination of this idea may be found in one of the songs of Kanaka-dasa:

This body is Yours; so is the life within it; Yours too are the sorrows and joys of our daily life. Whether sweet word or Veda or study or law, the power in the ear that hears them is Yours; the vision in the eye that gazes unblinking on beauty of young form, yea, that vision is Yours. The pleasure that we feel in living together with the fragrance of musk and sweet scents, that is Yours; and when the tongue rejoices in the taste of its food, Yours is the pleasure with which it rejoices. This body of ours and the five senses, which are caught in the net of illusion, all, all is Yours. O source of all desire that the body bears, is man his own master? Nay, all his being is Yours (78).

For the Haridasas, the practice of devotion is not something abstract or conceptual; it is that which transforms the aspirants and keeps them in divine communion every moment of their lives.

While describing the qualities of a devotee in one of his songs, Jagannatha-dasa prays to the Lord to keep him in such holy company always. Portions of the song run like this:

O Ranga, the ocean of mercy! Protect me, having bestowed upon me the union of the auspicious devotees that sing your fame. They [the devotees] do not know any other God except you. They shall never forget the favour done by you without any motive. They shall never do away with the service they do at your feet every day. They are not aware of any other thought except that of the highest Truth. They remain just like the deaf and the dumb. They never entertain in their mind any wicked contrivances. They never accept at any time anything which is not [first] offered to you. And they do not hanker after the pleasures of liberation (moksha) either. They [always] believe that victory and defeat, profit and loss, honour and dishonour, safety and danger, pleasure and misery, gold and wood, the lovable and the ugly, praise and insult, and the like are all subordinate to your will. They are unswerving devotees (ekanta-bhaktas) like the gods. They are the followers of rites and observances suitable to the country and time. They are free from the snare of desire, anger, love, passion, and other vices. And they are capable of [bestowing] blessings and curse. They consider that whatever is eaten and fed is all sacrifice to you. They enjoy the nectar of your name like the bee [that enjoys fragrance]. And they consider that their wives and children are all your slaves. They never forget at any cost their usual observances. They are worshipped by [all in] the world. They never cringe [for anything] with meekness. They never accept anything that comes from your enemies, and they give whatever is begged of them. They are ever joyous. They laugh, they weep, and they dance [in ecstasy]. [They] the Bhagavatas never desire for riches, nor [do they seek] poverty. They never remove their mind from you at any time. O Jagannatha Vitthala, how great and how blessed are your devotees!

Forms of Literary Expression

The Haridasa literature has two important aspects: the philosophical and the literary. The main compositions of the Haridasas are in the form of kirtanas, songs, ugabhogas, non-metrical short pieces, and suladis, compositions set to seven different talas, traditional metrical patterns. Kirtanas are also known as padas or devaranamas. Normally they begin with a pallavi, or refrain, followed by three to five stanzas that elaborate the idea or the emotion expressed in the refrain. The last stanza contains the ankita, which identifies the composer. The majority of ankitas are prefixed to the name ‘Vitthala’: Purandara Vitthala, Vijaya Vitthala, Gopala Vitthala, and so on. This is because the Haridasas are traditionally devotees of Panduranga, or Vitthala, of Pandharpur in Maharashtra. As a form of literary expression, the kirtanas have two facets: one is the ‘text’ or linguistic content; the other is the ‘performance’ or traditional rendering. It is at the stage of performance that many fresh shades of expression unfold. The development of this form to its fullest artistic reach is the unique contribution of the Haridasas to the Kannada literary tradition. Spontaneity is one of the main features of these compositions. They take shape according to the need at the time of its expression. Though musical performance is the main form of expression, the compositions are not meant to demonstrate the features of musical raga. In this respect, the Haridasas differ from the Vaggeyakaras or composers like Tyagaraja. The Haridasa compositions are more bhava-pradhanathan raga-pradhana, that is, they give precedence to sentiment over melody; and this is attested to by the very linguistic and prosodic nature of the compositions. The features that the Haridasa compositions exhibit can be grouped into a few select patterns, the possibilities of which each composition tries to explore in its own distinct way. These compositions are not ‘tuned’ to music. Though the compositions have both raga and tala content, these are intrinsic to their structure, not extrinsic. Even their metrical patterns and tala forms differ from the classical tradition in being more akin to desi, local, structures.

‘We should live thus’

The study of the Haridasa tradition amply demonstrates how a devotional movement can take people nearer to God. Even today, there are thousands of bhajana mandalis, or singing troupes, across Karnataka that sing Haridasa compositions in chorus, and the majority of these troupes are of women. Moreover, theirs is not mere singing but a ritualistic performance wherein a definite method is followed. And this method has become part and parcel of the daily routine of the common folk. Each and every daily activity is associated with some song or other of a Haridasa. For instance, there are countless songs which depict mother Yashoda waking up, bathing, adorning, feeding, and playing with the child Krishna. Mothers perform similar activities with their children singing these songs, thereby elevating the mundane to the level of the divine. Several passages, proverbial statements, idiomatic expressions, and punch lines of the Haridasa kirtanas have found their way into the Kannada diction, and can be heard in routine conversations of even the illiterate. Without particularly knowing the author, people recall a line or two from a song and say, ‘… we should live thus.’ The Haridasa movement is democratic in the true sense of the term—by the people, of the people, for the people. What more can we expect from a literary tradition? It has made the land, the language, and the people blessed.


  1. A P Karmarkar and N B Kalamadani, Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnataka (Dharwar: Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha, 1939), 35.
  2. S K Ramachandra Rao, Dasasahitya mattu Samskriti (Bangalore: Kannada Pustaka Pradhikara, 2003), 135.
  3. B N K Sharma, Sri Madhva’s Teachings in His Own Words (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1961) 27.
  4. Dasasahitya mattu Samskriti, 150.
  5. Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnataka, 102–3.
  6. R S Mugali, History of Kannada Literature (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1975),80.
  7. Translation by Charles Gower; cited in Edward P Rice, A History of Kanarese Literature (Calcutta: Association Press, and London: Oxford, 1915), 60.
  8. History of Kannada Literature, 82.
  9. Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnataka, 94–5.
  10. Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnataka, 102.
  11. History of Kannada Literature, 83.
  12. Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas, 112.
  13. Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas, 56.