Finding Basava: The poet? Philosopher? Saint? Social reformer?

...Or perhaps the man who founded a new religion without realising it.

WrittenBy:Kaushik Chatterji
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He’s the man on the street. Literally. The street is a highway, NH50, formerly NH13, four lanes of traffic, four lanes moving fast between Bijapur and Chitradurga, a fifth for a median that dissolves at intersections, or “crosses”, like the Kudala Sangama Cross we’re at.

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Kudalasangama bridge

This parachutiya (parachuter or parachutist to Oxford or Merriam Webster) is at a crossroads. Literally and otherwise. The trip to Kudala Sangama, Basava’s samadhi at the confluence of Krishna and Malaprabha, the latter thirsting for the waters of Mahadayi or Mhadei or Mandovi, was mostly fruitless and predictably so. Just like the trip the day before to Basava Bagewadi, the ostensible birthplace of the poet? philosopher? saint? social reformer? the man who founded a new religion without realising it?

You’re a tourist until you speak the local tongue. Good luck making sense of Karnataka in general and the Lingayat debate in particular when ‘Kannada gothilla’ is all the Kannada you know. And ippatthu. Better know ippatthu — twenty rupees for a one litre bottle of water to beat the unbeatable heat of north Karnataka, the Lingayat heartland.

The only semblance of a conversation was with the lady (wo)manning the shoe rack; handing my shoes back to me, she smiled and said…something. I don’t know. Then, “one kilo”. Ah, the shoes are damn heavy. Indeed. Also, thank goodness for the metric system.

Most pilgrims don’t speak anything apart from Kannada. How can they? Knowing a tongue other than your mother’s would require formal education, a privilege that the masses can hardly afford. It’s why vachanas, literally “that which is said” or “speech”, appealed to them. Vachanas, prose poetry about their quotidian lives, composed by Basava and his followers or sharanas, literally “refugees”, in the vernacular, the language of the people, lie at the heart of what is called Lingayatism (but not Veerashaivism, whose scriptures are called shivagamas or shaiva agamas or simply agamas). But it’s also why there is a lack of awareness outside Karnataka and its Marathi- and Telugu-speaking neighbours about the… sect? religion? movement? Especially north of the Vindhyas.

For CBSE students, Basava was a couple of paragraphs under “bhakti-sufi traditions” in the 7th standard NCERT history textbooks, easy to miss if the teacher decides to skip that page in a mad rush to finish the syllabus, easy to forget once you’ve written what you learnt by rote the night before the final exam. Plus, scholars will take strong exception to what’s written – Basava is described as “a Brahmana… who was initially a Jaina” and followers as “Virashaivas (heroes of Shiva) or Lingayats (wearers of the linga)”. Why those terms aren’t synonymous, what are the differences, what is Lingayatism and whether it’s a separate religion, and if so, why has the movement intensified now…in seeking answers to these questions from the common man, language is a hurdle and I’m no Moses, Edwin Moses, although there are workarounds.

The vachanas are now available in 20-odd languages other than the original Kannada. And there are scholars and activists and civil society members who will be able to express themselves more articulately in a language I understand. But poetry tends to lose a lot in translation, and scholars and activists and civil society members tend to miss the point where the pulse of the people can be gauged. Plus, they tend to point towards the vachana translations.

I’m at a crossroads, wondering whether to head back north and give up on this whole enterprise that is increasingly seeming like a royal waste of my time, money and effort, or whether to proceed south, or more accurately, south-west, to Dharwad, where the scholars are.

Commoners, not scholars

I’m waiting for force majeure. The man on the street, he’s waiting for a bus to take him to nearby Hungund, roughly 15 minutes down the highway that continues to Bangalore.

Maybe this is that chance occurrence. Here’s a common man, not an erudite scholar or a firebrand activist, who speaks, in addition to Kannada, a smattering of Hindi and English and is a… Lingayat? Veerashaiva? “Both. Same thing.” But not Hindu? Maybe, maybe not… in internet parlance, DKDC (Don’t Know, Don’t Care). So what about this clamour for a separate Lingayat religion… “A few rich Veerashaiva-Lingayats, owners of institutions, they want to get benefits.” The recommendation for a separate religion is a strike against the incumbents, “they’re dividing the people”, but it’s one of those unfortunate compulsions of electoral politics, a con that is outweighed by the pro of progress. “Roads and electricity in villages, midday meals for schoolkids… good work. He [Siddaramaiah] should come back.”

The tilt towards Congress makes him an outlier – Lingayats are seen as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vote bank (that wasn’t always the case, though – more later). Politics aside though, his is a view that is not atypical. A day before, there was this  rather reluctant bank official at the Basaveshwara Temple in Basava Bagewadi, the ostensible birthplace of Basava…yes, that word again, ostensible. That’s because no one knows for sure where he was born.

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Basaveshwara Temple in Basavana Bagewadi

So this other common man, the bank official, feels the separate religion tag is important. “Reservations. Seats. Jobs. Institutions.” At a mobile shop near the temple, a proud Veerashaiva blames Siddaramaiah and the Congress for “dividing Hindus”, and feels it is a purely a political ploy with an eye on the elections that will not work. “No one will talk about it after the polls, you’ll see, and people know that, they are not fools.”

Three is hardly a reliable sample size – anything under 30 is considered statistically insignificant. But not journalistically insignificant – for news editors and reporters who report to them, two independent sources are enough to run a story. It seems, though, that whether they think of themselves as Hindu or Hindu-Lingayat or Veerashaiva-Lingayat or simply Lingayat or simply Veerashaiva, and whether or not they are in favour of Lingayatism being a separate religion, the people seem to think that the minority tag is only being pursued for its attendant benefits. Why bother with the common folk? Why not go straight to the scholars and the activists and the civil society leaders? Well, the common man is important because come May 12, he might, perhaps will, cast his vote regardless of whether he thinks he is a Hindu or a Lingayat or both, believes that Lingayatism should be a separate religion, has understood or even read the vachanas, or practises what Basava preached in lieu of or in addition to practices that are variously referred to as Vedic, Brahminical or Hindu.

For better or for worse, this is a democracy and the vote of one person does not count for more than that of another, so one commoner’s vote is equal to the vote of one scholar, and there are way more commoners than scholars. The albatross of intellect, it weighs them down, disconnecting them from the masses. Plus, those actively associated with the Lingayat religion movement tend to be a bit too… well, enthusiastic.

To be fair, it’s a watershed moment for the adherents and besides, you’ll seldom find anyone in Karnataka without strong convictions, be it staunch Gandhians who balk at the mere idea of a lifestyle that is not frugal and dismiss Western philosophies as purely materialistic, or rabid Hindutvavadis who know (not feel) that the Left has brainwashed generations of kids some of whom now want India to disintegrate. Why should non-Lingayats have all the fun?

Before anything existed

So the Lingayat religion activists tell you how vachanakaras, composers of vachanas like Basava and his 12th century followers or Sharanas, literally “refugees”, predate Chaucer (14th century), and they’re right – heck, they predate Dante (13th-14th century) too, but there are earlier instances of literature in the vernacular, the language of the people, Beowulf for example (8th century).

In the same vein, anubhava mantapa, the “hall of experience” established by Basava in Kalyan (now Basavakalyana in Bidar district, the crown of Karnataka) with 770 members representing all sections of society is bandied about as the world’s first Parliament, as it was set up in the 12th century while the Magna Carta wasn’t issued until 1215. Again, there are other examples of even older Parliaments, Iceland’s Althing for instance, founded in 930.

There’s a tendency to ascribe every social reform between the Indus and the Indian Ocean to Basava, be it abolition of sati or widow remarriage. Don’t you dare mention the contributions of Ram Mohan Roy or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Across the state, convictions border on the fanatical, the militant. And how can you be certain that one of the fanatics, the militants, won’t pick up a weapon to silence you if you are saying something contrarian?

Where even the rationalists are not particularly tolerant of divergent viewpoints, better hoard your rations of thoughts and beliefs.

Just like a Naxal

“Do you believe in god?” A couple of days after the encounter with the man on the street that prompted me to persevere, I’m in Kalyan Nagar, a peaceful neighbourhood near the university in Dharwad, whose peace was shattered by the sound of bullets on the morning of August 30, 2015. The ghost of Kalburgi seems to be making the mid-April air heavy with unease. The question is pointed, a test, perhaps, with only one correct answer, and I’m not sure how to answer it, but honesty is the best policy, so no, not really. “Well I’m driving, so it’s best to believe in god.” A joke, phew. The sphincters relax – not completely, but that’s my mind playing tricks on me, hardly the fault of the genteel octogenarian I’m here to meet. A retired professor of philosophy at the nearby Karnataka University, Dr NG Mahadevappa is soft-spoken, but the speech does not stem from any lack of strength in his conviction — if anything, he seems to be very secure in his beliefs. (Is that where the fanaticism stems from, a sense of insecurity? Perhaps that’s one reason.)

Friedrich Nietzsche is invoked, not by name but through one of his many quotable quotes – “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross” – as Mahadevappa says how, in practice, there is no Lingayat who is a true Lingayat. “There’s a difference, and it is as a student of philosophy that I make this distinction, between philosophical Lingayatism and practical Lingayatism.”

The Lingayat philosophy, Basava’s philosophy – no caste, no gender, no priests, no temples, only work. Kayakave Kailasa, almost but not quite ‘work is worship’. Kayaka, work that is beneficial to society. Kailasa, the abode of Shiva…most followers were Shaivites to begin with, and barring a handful of priests and landed gentry, members of the working class – farm hands, potters, cobblers, tanners et al – poor, downtrodden… the dregs of society. And women, stifled then as now, being passed from womb to father to husband to pyre. People with no access to education but a lot of grievances, having faced discrimination at every turn. Perhaps that’s why Basava retained the Shaiva terminology with minor tweaks and major redefinitions, so as to not confuse anyone, especially the less literate of his followers. So the vachanankitas, signatures of sorts at the end of the vachanas are names of Shiva that people were used to (Basava himself usually signed off with O Kudalasangamadeva, oh lord of the meeting rivers). And the sthavara linga, the immovable Shiva of the temples, became ishta linga, a personal Shiva, a piece of stone wrapped in a cloth tied to a thread worn around the neck, a symbolic representation of a formless supreme being.

The ishta linga was an extension of Basava’s views on temples and priests – the former are made by the rich and the latter are middlemen, the poor have no use for either, they should treat their bodies as temples, legs for pillars and heads for shikharas (peaks or more accurately crowns of temples), and pray anytime anywhere without going to a temple and without the help of a priest. After all, when you are hungry, you don’t get someone else to eat food on your behalf, do you?

The word ‘lingayat’ itself didn’t refer to this (new) faith – Mahadevappa points out that even Christians were known as Christian Jews (also Hebrew Christians or Judeo-Christians) until about 70 years after Jesus Christ’s death – but to Step 1 of deeksha (initiation), the disciple receiving the ishta linga from the guru. The closest word for adherents of this (new) faith was also borrowed from Shaivism – bhakta, wearer of ishta linga, ready to become one with Shiva at the end of this life (Lingayats bury, not cremate, their dead), as opposed to bhavi, one caught in samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

The trouble with all this overlap, it became easier for Basava’s followers to regress, or for vedic Hinduism to infiltrate the fold or whatever remained of it after the persecution.

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Haralayya Circle, Bidar

“They were like Naxals,” says Ramjan Darga, a lot more forceful than Mahadevappa but no less accommodating. The revolution led by Basava was short-lived and crushed violently by the state. How it got to that point…the historical evidence is sketchy, and no two scholars are in complete unison. But between Darga, a former news editor with Kannada daily Praja Vani, the director of Basavadi Sharanara Peeth at Gulbarga University and the director of the Centre for Vachana Studies at Bidar’s Basava Seva Prathishthan, and Mahadevappa, a somewhat coherent and less hazy picture emerges as many (but not all) of the missing pieces of the puzzle – the philosophical and the practical, even if the historical is still pretty vague – fall into place, although they don’t always interlock. Among Mahadevappa’s works is a book called Lingayats are not Hindus. But Basava was, at least he was born as one, into a Brahmin family.

Eventually, he revolted – whether or not that rebellion started at age eight during the thread ceremony is uncertain – and it’s safe to say that he didn’t die a Brahmin. That’s like Dr BR Ambedkar saying “I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu,” except that Babasaheb was not born into privilege but Basava was. In that sense, he’s more like Charu Majumdar, renouncing what would have been a life of comfort for revolutionary words and actions.

Darga describes sharana sankula, the utopian, egalitarian society with no distinction based on caste or gender and a “social fund” that belonged to everyone in general and no one in particular as “spiritual communism”, although other Lingayats might object to the C-word and prefer spiritual materialism instead. But Basava did not exist in isolation, and preaching something so diametrically opposed to the status quo would have attracted violent retribution in those days.

It didn’t, because of Bijjala II, a mahamandeshwara (feudatory) of the Western (Kalyani) Chalukyas based in Mangalaveda (present-day Solapur district, Maharashtra), usurped power when the parent dynasty weakened, established his own (Southern Kalachuris, distinct from the Kalachuris of Tripuri near present-day Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh) and shifted his capital to Kalyan (now Basavakalyana).

In another example of his proto-Machiavellianism, the king, a Shaiva although he was earlier thought to be a Jain, let Basava continue preaching because he increased the working classes’ productivity, and the “social fund” of sharana sankula was essentially the king’s ever-expanding coffers. There was also perhaps a quasi-familial tie, and/or Basava’s direct deposit into the exchequer. Bijjala II employed two of Basava’s maternal uncles, Siddarasa and Baladeva, as bhandari (head of the state exchequer; similar to today’s Finance Minister) and dandanayaka (chief of the military).

Basava started off as an accountant and later inherited one or both jobs of his uncles, either upon their deaths or when he deciphered an inscription that resulted in a windfall for Bijjala II in the form of a hidden treasure. Basava was also married to the daughters of his uncles, Baladeva’s daughter Gangambike and Siddarasa’s daughter Neelambike – the weddings took place either at the same time, or one after the other; the hidden treasure might have prompted the second one as Neelambike was the foster sister of Bijjala II, his mother having died while giving birth to his brother Karunadeva, who was breastfed by Neelambike’s mother. Menage a trois, literally “household of three”, but not how it’s commonly understood. (The ghost of Kalburgi. Wasn’t he forced to recant something he wrote about the platonic relationship of Basava with one of his wives?)

Even when he was FinMin or Prime Minister or Chief Minister (depending on whose account you choose to believe), Basava was preaching things that were at odds with the status quo. It’s hard to say for sure when trouble started to brew, and whether it was on account of instigators around Bijjala II who talked about Basava’s rising stock, or due to the king’s own insecurities.

Basava’s views against temples and priests could not have gone down well with certain influential classes. Another bone of contention was the anubhava mantapa, with its first president being Allama Prabhu, a natuvara, a community of temple dancers.

The purge

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back, although a pratiloma vivah (hypogamous marriage, the marriage between a high-caste woman and a low-caste man) is more than a mere straw for the parochial guardians of a caste-infested society even in the 21st century; it is blasphemy.

Nearly 900 years ago, when the daughter of Brahmin Madhuvarasa and the son of the cobbler Haralayya, both the parents followers of Basava, got married, by all accounts, all hell broke loose that ended up with the parents’ eyes being gouged out and their bodies being trampled under elephants.

Basava himself left Kalyan, or was forced to leave Kalyan, or according to another theory, might have been murdered. As for the rest of his followers, they were forced to hide in order to save their hides, in the jungles and villages, not revealing their true identities or what they believed in.

“They don’t believe in Vedas, they don’t believe in idols…So what do they believe in? Only pictures and statues of Basava?” An irate no-changer in Dharwad. Hey man, I have no dog in this fight. But it’s a fight. Since when… unclear. After three centuries of being consigned to oblivion, Lingayatism comes back with a vengeance. Vijayanagara is being ruled by Proudadevaraya, a Lingayat. How did that happen? Basava had been largely forgotten, vachanas destroyed or lost, the original sharanas dead and gone. So who were these people who came to enjoy royal patronage – land, wealth, political power; the good Brahminical life of the priestly class of a classless faith? Were they descendants of the 12th century survivors (they could only have preached to their kith and kin since they were hiding in uninhabited jungles of Malnad, places like modern-day Ulavi in Uttara Kannada)? Or were they unrelated outsiders from neighbouring areas, Telugu-speaking areas, perhaps, Shaivas who found it easy to infiltrate the fold because of the terminological overlaps with what they practised and preached? There were jangamas (wandering preachers) even in the 12th century who were unwilling to give up all aspects of their old lives – Basava is said to have lamented the fact that Brahmins continued to wear the sacred thread along with the ishta linga; might their descendants have inherited their disingenuousness?

In any case, things took a decidedly regressive turn. During Basava’s brief lifetime, education had been made accessible to the masses, with vachanas being composed by potters, cobblers, even prostitutes; most of the original vachanakaras were married, among them 30-odd women.

After the persecution, literacy became the preserve of a handful, so the later vachanas were composed in the 15th century, almost exclusively, by unmarried male priests who viewed women as maya (temptation), and also headed mathas (mutts, something like monasteries). “As gurus, they were supposed to educate the masses about the essence of Lingayatism,” says Mahadevappa, “but they refused because they wanted to go back to Shaivism, in which Brahmins are very important.”


Within the Lingayat community, they started behaving as Brahmins – they acted only as priests and did not mix with the people, who were ignorant and were forced to remain ignorant. Over time, jangama became a caste; the product of birth, not actions as Basava would have wanted. Then, Veerashaiva entered the mix. Six hours of recorded conversations with the erudite duo, many more hours with them and others unrecorded, all these words and I better hit the road, Jack, because like Kerouac I have nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion, just like most of those who call themselves Veerashaiva-Lingayat, but wouldn’t know where Veerashaivism ends and Lingayatism begins.

In areas where there are more of them, northern parts of the state like Hyderabad Karnataka (earlier under the Nizams) and Bombay Karnataka (part of Bombay Presidency of British India), the literate and the landed refer to themselves as Veerashaiva. “They consider themselves to be the elite, the word Veerashaiva to be sophisticated and the word Lingayat to be derogatory,” says Darga.

Even the working class has internalised this distinction of nomenclature without bothering about the ideological differences, calling themselves Lingayats and the upper crust Veerashaivas. This wasn’t such a problem in southern Karnataka, where Lingayats were fewer in number but well to do and used the word Veerashaiva exclusively. But there are differences between the two… crucial differences. But even the scholars were not sure of these differences, whether they constitute a distinction without a difference, until a decade or two ago, and used the two words interchangeably.

Veerashaivas – the word itself is said to be of relatively recent origin, some two centuries old – are known to believe that panchacharyas, five spiritual leaders, were their founders, not Basava, whom they view simply as a reformer; this view, says Mahadevappa, emerged only in the early years of the 20th century.

Unlike the flesh-and-blood origins of who Lingayats believe their founder to be, the panchacharyas, Veerashaivas believe, were born from the sthavara linga; born from a stone, not a womb. Four of the five acharyas have historic origins and seem to have been Basava’s contemporaries since they are mentioned by 12th century vachanakaras; the fifth, that’s where things start to get tricky. Then there are the scriptures – agamas, not vachanas, that are believed to have been revealed to a chosen few by Shiva himself…a long, long time ago, like with most things Indian – internet, automobiles, plastic surgery and stem cell technology to name a few.

Mahadevappa realised this distinction only in the early 2000s, when the Kannada translation of a Hindi translation of some of the agamas, originally published in Solapur in 1902, was released in Bangalore. “I went through the translations as a student and discovered that fundamentally there is not a difference but an opposition between the principles of Basava and the principles of the agamas,” says Mahadevappa, who wrote a book called ‘Vachanokta Lingayata Agamokta Veerashaiva’. “So if you say that agama worship is Veerashaivism, then what Basava said is not Veerashaivism, it is Lingayatism as it is popularly called now. These agamas claim that Veerashaivism is a part of Shaivism and that it is Vedic.” This is the bone of contention – Lingayatism is not Vedic. That it had a body of original thought was also not widely known until ‘Vachana Pitamaha’ PG Halakatti – also from Dharwad –travelled across north Karnataka and discovered hidden palm leaves with vachanas that were considered lost written on them; several volumes of these vachanas were published in the 1920s, which helped rediscover what Darga calls “a forgotten religion”, its adherents still largely ignorant. He preferred to name it Basava Dharma, but started using the word Lingayat “when the separate religion movement started.”

Divided we stand

But when exactly did it start? Scholars will point towards evidence in district gazettes and census reports of the British era, both Mysore State as well as the Raj, but it has only intensified in the last year or so. What was the trigger? The trigger was literal. Perhaps. That’s one theory, and there are a lot of theories. Two bullets that shattered the quiet of Dharwad’s Kalyan Nagar. The ghost of Kalburgi keeps track of the separate religion issue. His image – there’s a drawing next to the image, that of him being attacked, and the words “truth can never be destroyed” – adorns a booklet of 30 select vachanas in six different languages. Kannada, English, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and… Bengali? Interesting choice, I’d have thought Telugu due to its proximity, but maybe there’s some other reason? Political, perhaps? There’s an effort to draw a straight line from Buddha via Basava to Babasaheb; some Lingayats believe that, had enough literature on Basava been available in English, Ambedkar might have gone with Lingayatism instead of Buddhism.

An effort to foster a sense of solidarity among the oppressed, the Dalits and the Lingayats, classified as Shudras by the British in the 1881 census, a tag that was fought, resulting in the 1926 Bombay High Court ruling that Veerashaivas are Lingi Brahmins, something that only jangamas (sometimes used interchangeably with Veerashaivas) seemed to be fine with. Solidarity is all well and good, except that successive backward classes commissions – Mysore, 1961, Nagna Gowda; First, 1975, LG Havanur; Second, 1986, Venkataswamy; Third, 1990, Chinnappa Reddy – have found Lingayats to be not backward, not in Karnataka anyway. Nagna Gowda: “the committee is of the opinion that the entire Lingayat community is socially forward”. Havanur, Venkataswamy and Chinnappa Reddy found the community’s literacy rate, school pass percentage and representation in state service to be well above the state averages; the third report says that they (along with the Vokkaligas) are “the leading landowners of Karnataka” and “the economic masters of rural Karnataka”; it notes how nearly half of those who made declarations of surplus land holdings under the Land Reforms Act were Lingayats.

All these findings and recommendations to take away the backward status have been vehemently protested; ironically, one aspect of these reports is being touted by the Lingayats now, the population estimates. We were 15.57 per cent in 1961, 14.64 per cent in 1975, 16.92 per cent in 1986, 18.42 per cent in 1990, how can we be only 9.65 per cent in 2015 (state government’s ‘caste census’), they contend. Cherry-picking shouldn’t come as a surprise from any politically powerful community, let alone one that has given eight Chief Ministers to the state and routinely sends over 50 MLAs to the Vidhan Soudha.

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Gulbarga (officially Kalaburagi) was in a festive mood this April, celebrating Dr BR Ambedkar from 11-14, and Basava Jayanti from 15-18.

But it’s not a monolithic community – there are 99 subgroups (the exact figure is disputed) with huge variations in land, wealth, education, jobs and social standing, and most don’t like to intermarry or even mingle with the others. Many of these subgroups are included in Category 3B of Karnataka’s backward castes list, a fascinating document that contains 3 categories, 5 subcategories, 207 entries and, last I counted, 801 subentries, not counting spelling variations… So the 11th entry in Category 2A goes from subentry a) to ao).

Add to that 101 Scheduled Castes (they are divided into Touchables and Untouchables, the latter divided into right-handed and left-handed, the former perceived to have cornered all the benefits of reservations, much to the chagrin of the latter; needless to say, they don’t constitute a consolidated vote bank, with each community having its own share of grievances resulting in myriad political preferences and voting patterns) and 50 Scheduled Tribes, and the list of ‘reserved’ communities goes up to 951. Many of them are still discriminated against by the Lingayats, especially Dalits (a friend in Bidar tells me he is never offered water when he visits the homes of certain Lingayat friends) and, ironically, other Lingayats.

It’s the difference between the philosophical and the practical that Mahadevappa mentioned, and you don’t need to be a student of philosophy yourself to see his point. “They practise casteism, visit temples, consult astrologers during weddings, some even eat meat and drink alcohol…one way or another, every Lingayat violates some or the other principle of Basava.”

The temple visits, rites, rituals, homa, havana, yagna… it’s all very, well, Hindu. It explains (but only partly) why the followers of a religion whose basis is the rejection of the Vedas’ authority started identifying themselves with a political party that is strongly associated with a rigid form of Hinduism based on the Vedas as well as with the imposition of a language (Hindi) that is not the language of the vachanas (Kannada).

Some even speak in a language that is eerily reminiscent of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. “Hindu dharma illa illa… But… Hindu nagarika… Hindu samskruti,” Siddalinga Mahaswamy of the Virakthamatha at Basavana Bagewadi told me a few days ago. Lingayats are not Hindus when it comes to religion, but we are citizens of a Hindu nation who are culturally Hindu. It’s what a whole bunch of Mate Mahadevi followers told me in Bidar: “We support BJP because… Nationalism! National integration!”

But that hasn’t always been the case. From the formation of Karnataka as Mysore in 1956 until 1972, all Chief Ministers were Lingayats from Congress, although the last of those was from Congress (O). That was the first point of departure, the split in the Congress in the late 1960s, with the major Lingayat leaders siding with the old guard or Syndicate as opposed to Indira Gandhi’s Congress (R) or Indicate.

The reason, experts opine, was because they had interests to safeguard, political and socio-economical, and the Indira faction was too Left for their liking. Back then, though, Lingayats weren’t a vote bank, they didn’t vote in a consolidated manner, and were fragmented along, ironically, caste lines. So in 1978, when Indira Gandhi fought from Chikmagalur against Congress (O)’s Veerendra Patil, the latter, an ex-CM was seen as a representative of the well-off Lingayat Banajiga community by the numerically stronger but economically weaker Lingayat Sadar community; her pro-poor image aside, this divided Lingayat vote played a part in helping Indira win the bypoll and become PM again.

Today any share of the Lingayat vote that goes the Congress way will be a gain for the incumbents in the 100-odd seats of northern Karnataka where Lingayats are present in sizeable numbers. What that share is, though, is hard to predict. The swami in Bagewadi feels 60, even 70, per cent might go for Congress; scholars and journalists don’t see a swing of more than two or three per cent, but that might be enough to seal the deal in closely contested constituencies.

Back to roots

For scholars and activists, the fight is not political or even for the benefits associated with the minority tag, although those are not insignificant. It’s why some in Bidar feel the trigger was actually the Ek Maratha Lakh Maratha rally in the city on October 19, 2016, which resulted in a similar show of strength by about 2 lakh Lingayats on July 19, 2017. “That (Maratha rally) made Lingayats realise that they should also demand reservations,” said one. In last year’s state Budget, minorities were allocated Rs 2,750 crore; this year, the Christian community alone got Rs 200 crore.

It’s a meaty piece of this pie that, the man on the street feels, Lingayat community leaders are eyeing. Yet another group of Lingayats feel the movement intensified after the unveiling of Basava on Thames by PM Narendra Modi on Pandit Nehru’s birth anniversary, November 14, 2015. Kalburgi, Maratha, Basava-upon-Thames… there’s a fourth trigger. Mahadevappa feels the swamis coming on board was the real trigger. “I was not in favour of that initially, but someone suggested that they be invited, and that has actually helped a lot.” For the swamis, both for and against the split, the key concern seems to be economics, that is, doing whatever it takes so as not to lose a sizeable chunk of followers and their business. But religious leaders have a kind of hold on their followers that community leaders and scholars don’t, and the pro-Lingayat swamis have actually managed to convince many of their followers about the differences between Lingayatism and Veerashaivism, and Lingayatism and Hinduism. “Plus, we have been distributing pamphlets, creating awareness among the masses over the past six or seven months.”

The rate might be debatable, and the reasons might not be ideological, but there is increasing awareness, that’s for sure.

Sample a wedding card, then and now. Then: a confused mix of Hinduism and Lingayatism, a photo of Ganesha alongside a photo of Basava. Now, like a friend in Gulbarga proudly shows me, no Ganesha, only Basava, along with a selection of 108 vachanas; the number, 108, is just another one of those overlaps between Shaivic Hinduism and Lingayatism, there’s no getting rid of such commonalities.

As long as there’s no more getting rid of people you don’t agree with. The ghost of Kalburgi, the ghost of Gauri Lankesh. The friend in Gulbarga, he says he was an early adoptee of the slain journalist. “Gauri and Kalburgi had no enemies, except one – Brahminism.” But religion doesn’t kill people, people kill people. Or does religion have a way of finding people with the itchiest trigger fingers? What does that say about Lingayatism?


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