Kanaka Dasa (1509-1609) was a poet, philosopher, musician and composer from modern Karnataka. He is known for his Kirtanes and Ugabhoga compositions in the Kannada language for Carnatic music. Similar to some other Dasas, he often used colloquial language for his compositions. He was a disciple of Vyasathirtha and a follower of Dwaita philosophy propounded by Madhvacharya.
Thimmappa Nayaka was his original name and he belonged to chieftain Kuruba (Dhangar) family of Kaginele in Haveri district. He was born to the couple Biregowda and Bachchamma at Baada village.
Kanaka Nayaka being of the warrior community his defeat in the field of battle, directed him to the path of devotion. He came to be called Kanaka Nayaka as he founded many treasure-trove of gold (kanaka means gold in Kannada) during his child hood and never used for self.
Kanaka Dasa was well educated and capable of analyzing the society microscopically. Based on one of his compositions it is interpreted that after he severely got injured in a war and was miraculously saved, he gave up his profession as a warrior and devoted his life to composing music and literature with philosophy explained in common man's language. It appears that he started traveling to places a lot to gain more knowledge. At a young age he authored poetries Narasimha stotra, Ramadhyana Mantra, and Mohanatarangini. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna.
Kanakadasa has special association with Udupi and as he was the follower of Vyasaraya Swamiji. On the sayings of Vyasaraya Swamiji of Vyasaraja Math he had come to Udupi. But it was time when the discrimination on the basis was at its peak. The Brahmin fundamentals did not let him to enter the temple as he was from a lower cadre of the society. He stood outside and prayed to Lord Krishna by singing songs of praising Lord Krishna. Owing to the call of his devotee Krishna turned to West and gave darshan to Kanaka through a window. Today that window (commonly called as "Kanakana Kindi") stands as a tribute to Kanakadasa. Almost all devotees who visit Udupi Krishna temple try to have a peep at the idol through this small window wishing to relive the ecstasy, Kanaka had at the divine ‘darshan’. It is also a memorial to Kanakadasa and a testimony to the eclectic Hindu belief that devotion, poetry and sainthood are above caste and creed and certainty above orthodoxy. It is said that Kanakadasa lived in a hut in this place in front of the “gopura”. Later, a small shrine was built in his memory and it came to be known as “Kanakana Gudi” or “Kanakana Mandira”.
His writing started showing his innovativeness in using day-to-day activities of common man. For e.g. Ramadhanya Charite is a poetic expression of conflicts between rich and poor classes where he uses Ramadhanya ragi (staple food of poor and high in nutrients) and rice (main food of rich but not as rich in nutrients) to synonymously 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. His 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. His poem "Kula Kula Kulavendu hodedhadadiri" asks humans not to segregate themselves from one another, because every human is born the same way, everyone eats the same food and drinks the same water, hence none is superior or inferior to one another.
Out of the many of his compositions, about 240 are fully accountable today. All his Karnataka Music compositions end with mudra (signature) Kaginele
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.
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.