Kanaka Dasa [ಕನಕ ದಾಸ ] (1509–1609) was great poet, philosopher, musician and composer from Karnataka. He is known for his Kirtanes and Ugabhoga compositions in the Kannada language for Karnataka Music. Uniqueness of his compositions is that he embedded common people's day-to-day language into the complicated classical Karnataka music which was mostly limited to scholarly language. He is also known for propagating Dwaita philosophy of Shri Madhvacharya through poetry and music to the masses in the Karnataka region of South India.
Thimmappa Nayaka was his original name and he belonged to chieftain (Nayaka) family of Kaginele in Haveri district. He came to be called Kanaka Nayaka as he found a treasure-trove of gold (kanaka means gold in Kannada). Kanaka Dasa was well educated and capable of analyzing the society microscopically. In early age he acquired deep knowledge about poetry and understood the nuances of Karnataka Music that was just founded by Purandara Daasa. Based on one of his compositions it is interpreted that after he severely got hurt in a war and miraculously saved, he gave up his warrior’s profession and devoted himself to writings and composing music. It appears that he started traveling to places a lot to gain more knowledge. Though he came from Shaivism community followed by Kurubas, he became a close follower of Vaishnavism. However he had maintained a balanced view about all faiths. In early age he authored poetries Narasimha stotra, Ramadhyana Mantra, and Mohanatarangini. (See Ref 2)
His writing started showing his innovativeness in using day to day information. For e.g. Ramadhyana Mantra is a poetic expression of conflicts between rich and poor classes where he uses ragi (main food of poor) and rice(main food of rich) to synonymously to represent poor and rich. He joined Haridasa movement and became a follower of Vyasaraja who named him as Kanakadasa. His poems and krithi deal with many aspects of life and expose the futility of external rituals. They stress the need for cultivation of moral values in life. Similar to Purandara Daasa, Kanaka Daasa’s compositions addressed social issues in addition to devotional aspect. Kanaka Daasa was very aggressive and straight forward in criticizing evils of society such as superiority claims using caste system.
The deity he worshiped was Adhikeshava of Kaginele, presently in Haveri district of Karnataka. Kaginele, now a village, was a prosperous place and trading center in Middle Ages. Out of many of his compositions, about 240 (see Ref 2)are fully accountable today. All his Karnataka Music compositions end with mudra (signature) Kaginele Adhikeshava. In addition to being a poet he worked as a social reformer by down playing dogmatic communities that were suppressing the disadvantaged communities. Kanakadasa made extreme effort in reforming the disadvantaged communities by convincing them to give-up their age old obsolete social practices and adapt to the changing world. He effectively used music to convey his philosophy. He lived at Tirupathi in his last days. He is one of the greatest musician, composer, poet, social reformer, philosopher and saint that India has ever seen.
Kanakadasa wrote about two hundred forty Karnataka Music compositions (Kirtane, Ugabhogas, padas and mundiges or philosophical songs) besides five major works. His compositions are published in many languages. For example about 100 songs in Kannada and 60 songs in English are published in popular books.
His writings were unique in style. In Ramadhanyacharitre, an allegory on the conflict between the socially strong and weak castes and classes, presented as an argument between two foodgrains, rice and ragi, is a most creative literary piece with a powerful social message,In the work, rice represents the socially powerful, such as Brahmins, and ragi (millet) represents the working people. The two grains come before Rama to argue their case and establish their superiority. In the end Rama sends both of them to prison for six months. At the end of the period, rice has turned rotten while the hardy ragi survives, earning Rama's blessings. This shows the intelligence of Kanaka Daasa in trying to reform the society. He was blunt in criticizing those who were opposing good practices. In one his compositions he says,"Eternal hell is for those who criticize noble men,for those who condemn Madhva's teachings...".