In politics, timing is everything. Months ahead of the Karnataka state elections, political parties are divided on whether the powerful Lingayats, who constitute 17% of the state’s population should be given the status of a minority religion. In the hope of winning favours, the ruling Congress government in the state has said yes while others in the opposition are asking, ‘But aren't they Hindus?’
The answer is complex and to understand it you have to trace the history of the Lingayats. It all started with Basava a visionary reformer who didn't just question orthodoxy but also set in place a creed of personal faith that championed equality and openness , long before it became fashionable to, anywhere in the world. He did this over 850 years ago.
Basava was born to a Brahmin couple, in 1131 CE at Bagevadi village in the present day district of Bijapur in Karnataka. Popular far and wide, a fairly detailed account of his life and times comes from the many texts written between 13th to 17th centuries like the Basava Purana (13th century), Mala Basava-raja-charitre (14th century) and Vrishabhendra Vijaya (17th century) . According to these works, Basava left his parent’s home while still in his early teens, because he was against the orthodoxy and rituals they followed. He settled to study and meditate, around 60 kms away, in Kudala Sangama before moving to Mangalwedha, in the present day Solapur district of Maharashtra. This was then the capital of Bijjala, the local Kalachuri chieftain.
Basava’s maternal uncle Baladeva served as the prime minister to King Bijjala. He welcomed his nephew and got him married to his daughter, Neelambike. Soon, Basava, who was brilliant with money matters, was appointed as finance minister to the Kalachuri chieftain.
By this time, Basava had also formed strong views and beliefs. He questioned existing practices and began preaching his ideas of social reform, harnessing the common tongue and power of verse to take his message far. He composed verses known as ‘Vachana’ in simple Kannada highlighting his philosophy which was practical and way ahead of its times.
At a philosophical level, Basava completely rejected the Vedas as well as the role of the Brahmin priests as the ‘guardians and custodians of the sacred’. He preached a personal devotion to the Linga, which for him represented Shiva as the primordial spirit.
Of the 60 Vachanas or verses of Basava that are still chanted, none exemplifies the essence of what he taught and preached than this - translated in English as -
Rich build temples for Shiva
What can I, a poor man, do?
My legs are pillars
My body is the temple
My head makes the golden shikhara
Oh, Lord of Kudala Sangama
The standing will perish
The moving will stay on.
For Basava and his followers, the Linga became a symbol of personal faith and identity.
Outside the philosophical inner world of the individual and his quest for God, Basava also stressed on improving society and bettering life. This included equality of sexes in religious worship, permitting widow remarriage and prohibiting child marriage . Going far beyond the other Bhakti reformers who preached reform, Basava even covered the practical, like the need for a strong work ethic based on hard work, dignity of labour and equality.
In 1155 CE Basava who was by now the Prime Minister of King Bijjala, created a storm when he established a novel platform, the Anubhava Mandapa or the ‘Hall of Experience’ in Kalyana. It was a kind of a meditation centre or a religious assembly, where people from all castes participated in spiritual discussions. The aim was to build a society where people of all castes and sexes were equal. There were only two qualifications to join in the assembly. First was to wear and worship a personal linga and second to abjure or renounce caste, communal and sex-based differences. While today it may not seem like a big deal, it was quite revolutionary for 12th century India. Noted Kannada Bhakti saints like Akka Mahadevi and Allama Prabhu participated in the discussions.
Soon the fame of Basava and the ‘Anubhava Mandapa’ spread not only across Karnataka but even to parts of present-day Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. However, the rising fame of Basava aroused the jealousy of a number of members of King Bijjala’s court and perhaps even the King and his family felt threatened. What followed was a period of prosecution against Basava’s Lingayats, because of which the community dispersed across the region.
In 1167 CE Basava who had by now left Kalyana for Kudala Sangama, took samadhi and breathed his last. But his fame continued to spread. It is a testimony to his legacy, that 850 years later, the Lingayats still form 17% of Karnataka’s population. They are entrepreneurial, affluent and well off and today their footprint can be seen across Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Sadly, in the din of the controversy on whether a ‘Special Status’ should be given to the Lingayats as a separate religion, there is little mention of Basava and his teachings …which have never been more relevant!
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