Kanakadasa’s major works are:
- Nalacharitre (Story of Nala)
- Haribhaktisara (crux of Krishna devotion)
- Nrisimhastava (compositions in praise of Lord Narasimha)
- Ramadhanyacharite (story of ragi millet) and an epic
- Mohanatarangini (Krishna-river).
Kanakadasa rationalized bahkti (devotion) by giving worldly similes. His writing has intimate touch that identifies the reader with the poet himself. His two famous compositions in translation are given below. One condemns caste system in a refined poetic way and the other wonders, at the colorful and baffling creation of God Almighty in child-like wonder.
Haribhaktisara is essence of devotion to Lord Krishna as the name indicates. A work of one hundred and ten verses with chorus line ‘deva rakshisu nammananavarata’, it is a prayer song, sung by Madhva men and women in Karnataka while performing everyday chores. It teaches complete surrender to God.
Nrisimhastava is a work dealing with glory of god Narasimha (half man-half lion).
Kanakadasa’s Ramadhanyacharite has quite an unconventional theme. It is about a battle of words between ragi (millet) and rice, each claiming superiority. They go to god Rama for justice. With the help of sages, Rama proves the superiority of ragi over rice. Ragi becomes blessed by absorbing quality of Raghava, another epithet of Rama. It is interpreted as poverty and humility being upheld by the poet above material wealth. Even today ragi is food of the poor.
Mohanatarangini, although a kavya (poem in classical style) written with all conventional eighteen descriptions, deals with eroticism. Pleasure-based eroticism of Shri Krishna with consorts and Aniruddha-Usha form the main theme.
It excels in depicting contemporary life. The description of Shri Krishna’s Dwaravati (Dwaraka) is very similar to that of Vijayanagara, under Krishnadevaraya as noticed by foreign travelers. The market place with colorful stalls with various commodities, well demarketed lanes brimming with craftsmen, clients and merchants, royal garden parties and glory of the palace etc find place in Mohanatarangini. It echoes the contemporary Portuguese travelers’ accounts. A drinking bout of men and women of working class is very picturesque. We feel as if Kanakadasa is providing a running commentary on an actually happening scene. It is for such unconventional and down-to-earth descriptions as also for social awareness that the great poet-saint has become immortal.