Kanaka Dasa’s musical critique of “Caste, caste, caste”

The poet-saint Kanaka Dasa lived in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka, in the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Empire was flourishing. A devotee of Krishna, he was a member of the haridasa devotional movement, which began in the 14th century and continued on through the 19th century. Some well-known haridasas include Purandara Dasa and Vyasatirtha. The haridasa movement significantly influenced what we now know as Carnatic music; Purandara Dasa is known as the “Great Father of Music” (sangeeta pitamaha), and many of his songs and the compositions of other haridasas are sung today. Because we have lost the original melodies of these songs, modern musicians and scholars have set these Kannada compositions to music, and that’s what we hear today. Many of Kanaka Dasa’s songs are sung as part of the Carnatic classical canon, including the charming ragamalikaBaro krishnayya“.

The song I want to share in this post, “Kula kula kula vennutiharu,” is rarely heard on the Carnatic concert stage, but its message is as urgent now as it was hundreds of years ago. In this song, Kanaka Dasa questions the notions of purity and pollution that form the basis of caste. He cleverly points out that lotus flowers, cow’s milk, and fragrant musk all originate in locations that orthodox Hindus may see as “impure”; yet, their products are seen as symbols of divinity and goodness! He asks the listener: which caste do Vishnu and Shiva belong to? Which caste does the soul or the five senses belong to? These questions may seem frivolous and rhetorical, but the fact that caste hasn’t been eradicated yet shows us that we need to take Kanaka Dasa seriously.

This song has been set to a joyful raga, Hamir Kalyani, and is sung here by the Bangalore Brothers, M.B. Hariharan and S. Ashok. Kannada lyrics follow, with an English translation taken largely from William Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices:

(The song itself begins at 3:35)

kula kula kulavennutiharu
kulavyAvudu satyasukhavuLLa janarige

People constantly talk about caste, caste, caste.
To which caste do those who experience true happiness* belong?

*enlightenment, divine bliss, etc.

kesaroLu tAvare puTTalu ada tandu bisajanAbha nigarpisalillavE
hasuvina mAmsadoLutpatti kshIravu vasudheyoLage bhUsuraruNNalillavE

The lotus is born from pond-bed mud and slush
but we offer it to God in worship;
milk is secreted from a cow’s udder
but the highest caste drinks it.

People constantly talk about caste…

mRugagala maiyalli puTTida kastUriya tegedu pUsuvaru bhUsurarellaru
bageyinda nArAyaNanAva kuladava agajavallabhanyAtara kuladavanu

Musk oozes from deers’ pores
but Brahmins smear it on their “pure” bodies.
To what caste does Lord Narayana belong, tell me?
To what caste does Lord Shiva belong?

People constantly talk about caste…

Atma yAva kula jIva yAva kula tattvEndriyagaLa kula peLirayya
AtmAmtarAtma neleyAdikEshava Atanolida mEle yAtara kulavayya

To what caste does the soul belong?
To what caste do life and love belong?
To what caste do the five senses belong?
If a soul is united with God, the Soul of Souls,
What does caste have to do with it?

People constantly talk about caste…

I don’t want to delve into criticisms of the bhakti movement in this post, partly because I’m writing this at 1 am but also because they deserve their own post. However, many Dalits and anti-caste thinkers, including Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, have argued that the bhakti movement wasn’t as revolutionary as we have been led to believe. At the risk of over-simplifying their claims, they argue that the bhakti poet-saints of the past argued for a spiritual equality, in which all humans are equal before God, but they didn’t fight to extend those ideals of equality into the real world. So, they argue, caste hierarchies were maintained or even strengthened even while the bhakti movement was in full swing.

Although some modern scholarship is pushing back against these claims, arguing instead that bhakti saints like Ravidas, the Kartabhajas, and Kabir did in fact advocate for real-world equality, these critiques are still important for us to keep in mind. That said, I do believe that we can still learn a lot from this song, and the thousands of other poems and songs composed by these radical thinkers centuries ago. The fact that their criticisms of caste and inequality still ring true today show that we as Hindus and as South Asians still have a lot of work to do.


  • The lovely people at Rasikas.org
  • Prof. William J. Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices: Exploring South Indian History and Hindu Literature, particularly chapter 9, “Poet: Kanakadasa’s Eloquent Responses to Caste Prejudice”

Image sources: Kanaka Dasa stamp, Haveri district temple


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