Lingayatism emerged from the very rejection of the varna system.
The demand for recognising the Lingayat community as a religious minority, which has gained momentum over the past few months in Karnataka, has unleashed a fierce debate on whether, or not, Lingayats are a part of Hinduism. Questions are also being asked on whether, or not, the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats are the one and the same or if they adhere to a separate set of religious beliefs and customs.
Opinion on the matter is very much divided. Whereas some claim that there is no distinction between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, others are of the view that Lingayatism is an alternative for the Veerashaiva faith. The truth is that these two strands of faith are fundamentally different and, hence, cannot be said to represent or belong to the same religion.
The so-called Veerashaivas claim that they are a part of Hindu religion. They adhere to the principles of Manuvaad and also believe in the teachings of the Vedas, Puranas, Shashtras and so on. They perform their religious rituals accordingly. But the Lingayats reject all of this. Centuries ago they had rebelled against the chaturvarna system, as envisaged in Manusmriti. It can be safely regarded that Lingayatism emerged from the very rejection of the varna system on which Hinduism is founded. This is the primary difference between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, and this is also the primary reason why Lingayats do not wish to identify with Hinduism.
Even before the 12th century, there were Veerashaivas who adhered to Shaivism, which was a part of Hinduism. But Lingayatism emerged with the rise of the socio-religious reformer Basavanna, a Brahmin by birth, who was saddened by the blood and violence around him, often the consequence of rituals and sacrifices. He stood up against the deep-rooted social injustices that stemmed from religion, and refused to be dictated by the texts.
For several years he wandered from one place to another in the search of true knowledge, often meeting renowned scholars of the time and contemplating within. He finally invented a new religion, Lingayatism, which was a protest against the Brhaminical order based on Manuvaad.
Basavanna, also known as Basarva or Basareshwara, and endearingly called “anna” or elder brother, formed an association of like-minded people. His followers belonged to different strata of society and included the “untouchables”. Gradually, this group of Basarva followers metamorphosed into a large community called the Sharanas, who shared the common ideal of protesting Manuvaad. They joined hands with Basavanna to break all caste barriers and lay the foundation of a new social order premised on equality and justice.
The Sharanas were also called Shivasharana, and as their name implied, were the believers of the concept of Shiva. However, their Shiva was radically different from the Veerashaivas’ Shiva. For Lingayats, Shiva was a formless God and was synonymous with the Linga which represented universal consciousness.
Basavanna’s pioneering role in eradicating social evils made the 12th century an epoch-making time in the history of Karnataka. From being the leader of the Sharanas, Basarva rose to the rank of finance minister of King Bijjala. He then stepped up efforts to end the discrimination based on birth, social status and gender.
But soon Basavanna found himself at loggerheads with the priestly class in Dijjara’s court. The crisis deepened when Basavanna tried to arrange an inter-caste marriage between a Brahmin girl and an “untouchable” boy. A bloody battle ensued, which eventually led to the assassination of the king and disappearance of Basavanna. History is not clear whether or not the reformer was murdered, or whether or not he took his own life to avoid falling in the hands of the enemy.
In the next couple of centuries, the Brahminical forces remained predominant and patronised the Veerashaivas. They also tried to undermine the Lingayats. The military chased Basavanna’s followers, who fled to different directions. But the teachings of Basavanna survived the onslaught.
His ideas and philosophy, which had been expressed through vachanas (free verse or prose), were passed on from one generation to the other. The Lingayat dharma is based on these vachanas. Allama Prabhu, saint Akka Maha Devi and Channa Basavarna, along with hundreds of other Sharanas, who belonged to different segments of society and included the less privileged, penned numerous vachanas that now constitute Lingayatism.
In the context of the current agitation between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, I feel the Veerashaivas are the new Brahmins in disguise, who want to humble the Lingayat movement for religious recognition, a just demand.
The conflict originated when the Akhil Bharatiya Veerashaiva Mahasabha, an ace body of the Veerashaivas, invited Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah a year ago and demanded minority status for the community. The CM asked both Veerashaivas and Lingayats to come together and submit their pleas. But Lingayats refused to go along with Veerashaivas. They said the Veerashaivas claimed they were a part of the Hindu religion and were hence different from them. In any case, the Veerashaiva demand for minority status had been previously rejected by the UPA government at the Centre.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, however, constituted a committee of experts headed by Justice Nagmohan Das, which collected memoranda from the two communities and submitted these to the state government. The state government forwarded these to the Centre for Cabinet approval. Of course, the issue has got highly politicised, but this is natural considering the Assembly elections in the state are around the corner.
But the Lingayats are not confined to Karnataka. They are spread across Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Their demand and their struggle have a much wider ramification.
As a rationalist, socialist and atheist, my view is that Lingayatism is a great socio-religious movement and its emphasis on a caste-free society distinguishes it from Hinduism. I hope the Lingayat movement will meet its logical conclusion.
Professor Chandrashekar Patil is a renowned Kannada poet, playwright and intellectual.
As told to Anando Bhakto.