It was gory battlefield with injured bodies beckoning the gods of death to give them freedom from life. Their commander, Kanaka, chief of the army of the Vijayanagar kingdom, with an injured body and a wounded ego, was slowly losing consciousness, writhing in pain he prayed to Lord Hari to give him mukti.
It was then that the miracle happened!!! Lord Hari appeared before Kanaka as he lay limp with failing consciousness and put forth an option to entice him into sainthood: “Embrace the religion of surrender or Dasa Deeksha and you shall be rid of pain and injury.” Enlightenment dawned upon him and he surrendered to Hari with all his heart – a great saint “Kanakadasa” was born that day in the battlefield.
Kanakadasa, one of the greatest singing saints of Karnataka, was the contemporary of Sangeeta Pitamaha Purandaradasa.
Vyasaraja, the court priest of Vijayanagar, initiated Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa into dasa deeksha. Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa were two favourites of Vyasaraja. Both saints had evolved and sown the seeds of dharma and bhakti.
Kanakadasa belonged to the northern part of Karnataka. HIs parents Beere Gowda and Bachamma were living in a village Bada – now known as Byadagi – situated in Bankapura taluk of Dharwad district. Beerappa was designated as the village head and also was commander (Danda Nayaka) of the village. Though blessed with everything – health, wealth and power – the couple were childless. So they went to Tirupathi and worshipped Lord Venkateshwara. By the grace of the Lord of Tirupathi, Thimmappa, Bachamma was blessed with a male child and the parents named him Lord Tirumala – Thimmanayaka.
At the tender age of six, Thimmanayaka lost his parents and was brought up by the villagers. Gradually he learnt all the martial arts and took charge as commander, very loyal to the king of Vijayanagar. Once, excavating the land at a nearby farm in the village Kaginale, he stumbled on a treasure of gold coins and ornaments. He utilized this treasure to build in Kaginale a temple where he installed the idol of Adikeshava. He also became a staunch worshipper of Adikeshava and served him with great devotion. From then onwards, he was called “Kanakanayaka”. As chief of the army, he was a powerful warrior who protected the kingdom. The Vijayanagar king was very dependent on Kanakanayaka for the safety of his kingdom.
Kanakanayaka, though the army chief, was a spiritualist at heart. This led to strange dreams wherein he was called by God to become his dasa. But the power of the kingdom was so strong, it was difficult to lure him away towards God.
Then in the war that nearly killed Kanaka, Lord Hari appeared, saved him on the condition that he surrender to God and advised Kanaka to seek the guidance of the seer Vyasaraja who initiated him into the Dasa vritthi. Kanaka came to be known as Kanakadasa.
Kanakadasa composed many devotional songs in praise of Hari, under the pseudonym Adikeshava. After he took to sainthood, Kanakadasa stayed at Hampi with his guru Vyasaraja and Purandaradasa.
Kanaka belonged to a backward community. The upper class community was against accepting him into the temple for worship or any other spiritual activity. They complained several times against Kanakadasa to Vyasaraja.
Vyasaraja being his guru had complete faith in his disciple and to prove this point to the people against him, Vyasaraja put Kanaka through several tests in which Kanaka never failed, proving that he was a truly spiritual soul. This made Kanaka well-known, and people gradually realized that Kanakadasa was indeed a saint.
Widely accepted as a devotee par excellence, Kankadasa toured all over the country spreading the message of the dasa cult. He went from village to village, imparting the greatness of Hari Bhakti to the rural people, and enlightening them about the blind practices and customs which marred their lives.
A remarkable incident occurred in Kankadasa’s life when he went to the Udupi Sri Krishna temple. Kanakadasa was forbidden from entering the temple as he belonged to a backward caste. He then prayed to Lord Krishna that he would not leave without having his darshan; to the wonder of all the people there, the idol of Sri Krishna turned towards Kanakadasa miraculously! He has written about this incident in a composition.
Besides devotional songs, Kanakadasa wrote four Mahakavyas – Nala Charithre, Mohana Tharangini, Hari Bhaktha Sara, and Ramadhanya Charithe.
It is said that at the end of his journey of life of about 98 years, he went to the sanctum of Lord Tirumala Thimmappa and never returned.
Even today no Carnatic music concert is complete without the songs of Kanakadsa. Dancers dance to his compositions. Apart from his rich contribution to the world of music, he was a saint, a philosopher, a social activist and a great poet who brought about a significant change in society.