Spiritual revolutionaries of the South

Published : Aug 05, 2015 12:40 IST

Basavanna. His vachanas (prose-lyrics) are replete with caustic comments on the insitution of caste. Here, a statue of him in Bangalore.

Basavanna. His vachanas (prose-lyrics) are replete with caustic comments on the insitution of caste. Here, a statue of him in Bangalore.

THE Bhakti movement can be seen as a great revival and reinforcement of the sramanic tradition of spiritual inquiry, subaltern religiosity and social protest. This does not imply that Bhakti was a monolithic movement; it was a polyphonic movement spread over 14 centuries, from the 6th to the 19th, which accommodated conservatives as well as radicals. But even social conservatives like Tulsidas who recognised the varnasrama dharma succeeded in creating a new poetic idiom with fresh dimensions of imagination and thus helped radicalise the practice of poetry. Some radical social groups like the Warkaris of Maharashtra, who included Namdev, Tukaram, Chokhamela and others; the Veerashaivas of Karnataka represented by poets like Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, and Allama Prabhu; and the Radhasoami Movement, which had in it Swami Dayal Singh and Anand Swarup, actualised alternative communities based on the perfect equality of caste, class and gender.

The Bhakti movement included Brahmins like Ekanath and Jnandev of Maharashtra, Chaitanya claimed by Bengal as well as Odisha, and Sankardev of Assam, who had all de-brahminised themselves, as well as shudras and avarnas or atishoodras , who recognised the Brahmin hegemony even while pleading for ultimate human equality like Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan of Kerala, besides marginalised sections like non-Brahmin craftsmen, women and Muslims, who developed a subaltern egalitarian vision of a new society—one could name, for example, Pambatti Chithar the snake-charmer, Dasimaiah the weaver, Channiah the cobbler; Dadu the cotton-carder; Namdev the tailor; Chowdaiah the ferryman; Chokhamela the mahar; Gora the potter; Ravi (Rai) das the tanner; Kabir the weaver; Tukaram the pedlar; women saints like Karaikkal Ammayar, Andal, Janabai, Bahinabai, Gangasati, Lal Ded, Akka Mahadevi, Muktayakka, Meerabai and others; and, if we can extend the definition to the Sufis, Muslims like Pir Muhammad, Mastan Sahib, Sheikh Farid, Shah Abdul Latif, Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu.

There were Vaishnavites , Siaivites and Shakteyas among the Bhaktas, besides those who followed the nirguna cult and practitioners of tantra . Let us remember that the poets themselves were not often aware that they belonged to or were creating a movement, though it seems so in retrospect. However, this hindsight gives the majority of them enough shared features to make them look like the participants in a large radical spiritual movement. To sum them up briefly: one, they have a predilection for pre-Aryan patterns of life and thought as implied in the rejection of Brahmin privilege, egalitarian content and the tribal character of collective worship; two, they emphasised the similarities among different religions and cults, finding them to be different paths to realise the same goal and at times even attempted integration like that exemplified by Sikhism and Sufism; three, most of them rejected the varna-jati system and the Brahmin claim to superiority by birth; four, they problematised the intermediary institution of priesthood by directly addressing the Supreme; five, they privileged the oral tradition against the written; six, they gave up Sanskrit, the language of the elite, and chose to compose in regional languages and local dialects; seven, many of them travelled widely and were multilingual—like Kabir, Meerabai, Guru Nanak, Namdev or Vidyapati; eight, poetry and philosophy coexisted, supporting each other, and the barriers between the physical and the metaphysical grew thin in their aesthetic-spiritual practice; nine, they developed a popular symbolism of their own, mixing traditional symbols such as the tree, birds, the sky, river, fire, and so on with symbols chosen from the workplace, such as the loom, the wheel and bellows, or from the kitchen, such as the knife, the ladle, the fireplace, the veil, the sindoor , and so on; ten, they replaced the supposedly Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, Mitra and Yama mostly with supposedly pre-Aryan deities such as Shiva, Vishnu/Krishna and Sakti/Kali; and eleven, they created or introduced several new forms of poetry, music and dance like doha , pada , prabandha , bijak , vakh , vachana , abhang , bharud , barahmasa , qasida , rasa (poetry), kirtan , bhajan , dhun , nagarasankirtana , Krishnalila , Ramlila , tungi , angkiyanat , harikatha , burrakatha (group performances) that gave rise to classical/semi-classical forms like Kathakali, Thullal, Yakshagana, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Odissi.

Taken together, Bhakti was a comprehensive cultural revolution with profound ideological, aesthetic and practical implications that attempted to create an alternative religion of the people articulating subaltern aspirations. Here, I am only making some observations, on the basis of the above features, on the early phase of the Bhakti movement as it developed and evolved in Tamil and Kannada.

The Tamil Bhaktas: A counter-tradition The Tamil Bhakti poetry of the period from 6th to 13th century AD, especially that by the Siddhas ( chithars ), qualified by the linguist Rev. Robert Caldwell as the “anti-Brahminical cycle” of compositions, may be said to have laid the solid foundations, social, philosophical and aesthetic, for the later Bhakti movements in the South as well as the North. Tirumular, the 6th century mystic, proclaimed in a famous verse, “Caste is one and God is one” ( Tirumantiram , 2,104), a slogan later taken up by Sree Narayana Guru, the 19th century social reformer of Kerala and modified as “One caste, one religion and one God for mankind.” Tirumantiram deals primarily with Yoga and Tantra. Tirumular decried bigotry and preached equanimity and love in an age when Vedic and non-Vedic religions, Saivism and Vaishnavism, Saivasiddhanta and Shankara’s Advaita were battling each other.

Those who follow the six religions know Him not,

Nor is He confined to those six faiths.

Seek, and having sought, cogitate your mind

And then, no doubt, you will gain salvation.

(Verse 1,533)

K. Kailasapathy points out there are more than 50 names associated with the Siddha school of poetry. Strangely, Gorakh appears in the list of Siddhas and there is a traditional belief that Tirumular came from Kashmir and some other Siddhas came from Arabia, China and other distant lands; two Sufis, Pir Muhamed and Mastan Sahib, are also listed among them. What interests us here is that orthodox Saiva siddhantists held the Siddhas to be religious outcastes as they challenged the very foundations of medieval Hinduism—the authority of the sastras , the validity of rituals and the basis of the caste system. To quote Kamil Zvelebil, “Almost all of them manifest a protest, expressed often in very strong terms, against the formalities of life and religion; denial of religious practices and beliefs of the ruling classes.” For example look at these verses by Shivavakkiyar:

Of what use are temples,

And of what use are the sacred tanks?

( Chithar Jnanakkovai ,

Verse 29)

The chanting of the four Vedas,

The meticulous study of the sacred scripts,

The smearing of the holy ashes

And the muttering of prayers

Will not lead you to the Lord!

You dumb fools performing rituals

With care and in leisureliness,

Do gods ever become stone?

What can I do but laugh?

( Chithar Jnanakkovai ,

Verse 121)

Pambatti Chithar also ridicules those fools who think that the flaw in a pan will go away if you rub it with tamarind and opposes the caste hierarchy:

We’ll set fire to divisions of caste

We’ll debate philosophy in the market places

We’ll have dealings with despised households

We’ll go round in different paths.

( Ibid , Verse 23)

Dissent of the Siddhas

The Siddhas most often refuted the theory of the transmigration of the soul and of rebirth. Shivavakkiyar says: “Milk does not return to the udder/Likewise butter can never become buttermilk;/The sound of the conch does not exist once it is broken;/The blown flower, the fallen fruit, do not go back to the tree;/The dead are never born again, never!” ( Ibid , Verse 43)

A grand remonstrance against almost anything that was held sacred characterises these poems. One reason for this dissent may lie in the class/caste origins of most of the Siddhas. Tradition tells us they included shepherds, temple-drummers, artificers, robbers, potters, fishermen, hunters, weavers, washermen, oil-pressers, paraiyars and others. Periyapuranam , the hagiographical work of the 12th century that narrates the lives of 63 Saiva saints, supports this. Sekkizhar, the author, a minister in the Chola court, portrays the saints overcoming their caste origins and attaining spiritual glory through a life of dedication and love. They were well below the Brahmins, Vellalas (agriculturists) and Vanigas (merchants) who constituted the ruling class in those times. They believed in brotherhood, disbelieved idol-worship and worshipped a supreme Abstraction rather than a supreme person. By imagining an impersonal— nirguna —godhead, they freed themselves of rituals and other common Hindu observances. They attempted a synthesis of apparently diverse elements of Jnana, Bhakti and Yoga. Like the Indian Sufis, they rejected the mechanical and dreary aspects of Bhakti and cherished love, tenderness and compassion.

Looking at the formal aspect, the poetry of the Siddhas is sustained by the simple colloquial expressions and speech patterns of the common people. It lacks the “grammatical finesse” so much upheld by traditional poetics. They did not mind using “vulgar” ( chyutasamskara ) and “obscene” ( ashleela ) words; it was a language in which words are on purpose semantically polyvalent. In spite of their apparent obscurities and profundities, the poems were accessible to any native speaker of the language. Over the centuries, the Siddhas developed a cryptic, coded, secret, symbolic language of their own best suited for oral transmission. They deployed images, myths, symbols and histories in order to communicate their ineffable experience. Their tantric orientation also led them to the use of sexual symbols. Man-woman intimacy is often used here to express the kinship between God and the soul. Manikkavachakar’s Tirukkovaiyar is almost like a poem of love, separation and reunion, erotic and allegoric at the same time. The Siddhas, like the vachanakaras of Karnataka that followed, considered the body the sacred abode of God. Tirumular says: “The mind is the sacred chamber/ the physical body is the temple/ for my gracious Lord,/ the mouth its tower gate…. Those who let the body decay destroy the spirit…. I fostered the body, and I fostered the soul.” This is in contrast to much of the mainstream religious teachings that decry the body as evil and unholy. This robust acknowledgement of life and physicality and the stoic acceptance of even the saddest of experiences must also have endeared them to the common people. Tirumular had this famous line: “May the world be as happy as I am.”

The Siddhas were indifferent to accepted language and respectability in modes of expression as they found the established “literary” culture oppressive. They framed an idiom that was full of paradoxes, witticisms, wisecracks, epigrams and earthly adages. They revolutionised Tamil religious-philosophic poetry by bringing into its world the language of folklore, a bold device that became irrevocable. It survived the neglect of the mainstream scholars until it was revitalised by Subramania Bharati, Bharatidasan, Thuraiyappa Pillai and others. In the best tradition of mystics, they transcended the polarisations of life and literature by mixing the sacred with the profane, the spiritual experience with the external event. At times the verses looked like puzzles. Here is Tirumular:

I sowed the eggplant seed: jack sprouted

I dug the earth: the pumpkin blossomed.

The garden folk took it away merrily;

What then ripened was the banana fruit.

In this apparently absurd poem the eggplant is yogic practice, the jack tree connotes freedom from worldly desires, digging the earth means philosophical speculation, the pumpkin flower signifies shivam manifesting itself, the garden folk are the sense organs, ripening of the banana indicates spiritual attainment. The Siddhas used traditional metres as well as those that had no scholarly sanction. They used melodies, tunes and metres of folksongs and workers’ songs. They created and adopted several forms that suited the unorthodox and incisive content of their poetry. Sufi mysticism easily coexisted with the Siddha philosophy: Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have several cult sites that are the graves of Muslim Sufi saints and pirs. Many celebrated Hindu shrines are believed to have been constructed on or near such tombs as they were considered sacred and the dead saints propitious. Their non-sectarian, anti-establishment philosophy unflinchingly critical of smug religiosity and the oral lore they used together made them the voice of the voiceless. They were the harbingers of a vigorous and germane counter-tradition that is part of the dialectics of our cultural history—by “counter-tradition” I mean what Louis Kampf means by it: not one that “opposes tradition”, but “the tradition that opposes”.

The Veerashaivas: For an egalitarian ideal For the Veerashaiva (Lingayat) poets of Karnataka, the poets’ religion was not a given; it was something to be attained through faith and constructed through a lifestyle, a question not of chance, but of choice. This leaves scope for change and conversion. Several scholars (A.K. Ramanujan, Birinchikumar Barua, Sisirkumar Das) have compared this movement to the Lutheran Reformation that critiqued the Roman Church and provoked the clergy. Lingayatism emerged as a militant religious movement during the reign of the Kalachurya king, Bijjala II (1100-1167). The reign of the Kalachuryas was characterised by the dominance of traditional Brahminical Hindu values, a social system based on caste and a polity and economy governed by feudal principles. Three mutually reinforcing institutions—the court, the temple and the Mahajana Agrahara settlement— supported the kingdom. The traditional Saivism of the Kalamukha priests had become indistinguishable from the mainstream Brahminical Hinduism that perpetuated hierarchy, exploitation and superstition. Lingayatism negated the status-quoist brand of Saivism. Basavanna, its master-organiser, wanted to overthrow this exploitative order and replace it with a new society based on freedom, equality, rationality and brotherhood. Basava’s vachanas (prose-lyrics) are replete with caustic comments on the institution of caste. For example: “To him who has self-understanding, there is but one caste” ( Vachana , 878); “The birthless has no caste distinctions, no ritual pollution” (417); “ Only the murderer is an untouchable, the eater of filth is untouchable” (590).

K. Eswaran points out that the equality of man is associated with his equal right to have access to God. Thus man’s belief in God becomes the basis of Basava’s egalitarianism. Further, the assumption of equality is related to individuality, since a man should be judged not by the ascriptive criterion of who he is, but rather by the achievement criterion of what he has done. Basava asks in a popular vachana : “Of what avail the reading of the Veda? Listening to sastras ? Performing ritual meditation?” (598)

Again, “Shall I call sastra great? It glorifies karma . Shall I call Veda great? It enjoins animal sacrifices.” He points to the futility of orthodox Hindu modes of knowledge and comes close to a form of naturalistic humanism. He rejects the notions of karma and rebirth and interrogates bookish religion: “Sir, isn’t the mind witness enough/for the taste on the tongue?/Do buds wait for the garland makers’ word/to break into flower?/Is it right, Sir, to take out the texts for everything?/And, Sir, is it really right to bring into open/the mark on our vitals left by our Lord’s love-play?” (848).

Basava also secularises the concepts of heaven and hell: “There is no other heaven and hell/Truth speaking is heaven, lying hell./Performance of right conduct, heaven; its non-performance, hell.” (239). He rejects escapism and advocates a strong commitment to empirical reality: “Let what is to come tomorrow come today itself/ what is supposed to come today, come to us this moment” (696). Basava asked the people not to take threats of punishment from Brahmins based on supernatural mechanisms and said that sin and merit— papa and punya —are creatures of our fashioning. He also pointed to the gulf between precept and practice among the upper castes: “They tread one path while their sastra treads another” (574). Sansara was salvation for him and the only community was the universal community of man:

Our untouchable Channaiah is my father,

Drummer Kakaiah is grandpa,

Look, Chikkaiah is our father,

Flutist Bommaiah is brother.

How can they not know me?

The body was important to him as it was for the Siddhas: “Make my body the beam of a lute,/of my head the sounding gourd,/of my nerves the strings,/of my fingers the plucking rods./Clutch me close/ and play your thirty-two songs,/O, Lord of the meeting rivers!”


The rich will make temples for Siva.

What shall I, a poor man, do?

My legs are pillars, the body the shrine

The head a cupola of gold.

Listen, O, Lord of the meeting rivers,

Things standing shall fall

But the moving ever will stay.


The last two lines reassert the poet’s faith in life, movement and change. He admired work and considered it salvation, “ Kayaka is Kailasa .” Kayaka is not only the labour for livelihood, but work for the society. Community cooperation is built into Basava’s idea of the work ethic. His efforts to build an alternative community along with the saranas , his devoted colleagues, based on modern values was as important as his attempt to revive the oral tradition and employ spoken language instead of Sanskrit to communicate his message. The institution of Dasoha also tended to generate a sense of sharing between free and rational individuals.

Like the Siddhas, Basava, too, accepts suffering as a purifying force; God grinds and files until one’s colour shows and grain grows fine. Basava laughed at the multiplicity of gods he found around: the pot, the winnowing fan, the stone, the comb, the bowstring, the bushel, the spouted cup, “Gods, gods, there are so many, there is no place for a foot” (563). He too laughed at religious rituals and customs like holy baths and sacrifices. He says how the Brahmins who feed the fire as God splash water from the gutter and dust from the street on it and scold it when it goes wild and burns the house. The love the vachanakaras preached went beyond the human race and had an ecological and cosmic dimension. Dasareswara says: “Knowing one’s lowliness at very word,/the spray of insects in the air/in every gesture of the hand,/things living, things moving/come sprung from the earth/under every footfall;/and when holding a plant/or joining it to another/or in the letting it go/to be all mercy, to be light/as the dusting brush/of peacock feathers:/such moving, such awareness/is love that makes us one,/with the Lord Dasareswara.” Dasareswara did not even pick flowers to offer them to god; he gathered only blossoms that fell of themselves. The vachanakaras express kinship with all beings and share the principle of Ahimsa with Buddhism and Jainism, though they reject the determinist idea of karma with its inexorable chain of action and consequence that binds individuals with no hope of grace; they also opposed the special privileges Jains enjoyed in contemporary society. Basava and Dasimaiah desperately struggled against the hegemony of Brahminism and Jainism to suffer dire consequences.

Questioning gender inequality The vachanakaras also questioned gender inequality. Dasimaiah the weaver asks: “When you cut a long stick into two,/make a she of the one below/and a he of the one above/and rub the two/the fire that is born between them: /is it a he or a she, O, Ramanatha?” And continues: “Did the breath of the mistress/have breasts and long hair?/Or did the master’s breath/wear the sacred thread?/Did the outcast, last in line,/hold with his outgoing breath/the sticks of his tribe?” Basavanna says: “Look here, dear fellow,/I wear these men’s clothes/only for you./Sometimes I am man,/sometimes woman”(703). Dasimaiah follows: “If they see breasts and long hair coming/they call it woman; if beard and whiskers/they call it man:/but look, the self that hovers in between/ is neither man/nor woman/O, Ramanatha!” (Dasimaiah, 133)

The women saints in Tamil like Andaal and Karaikkal Ammayar and of Karnataka like Akka Mahadevi, Lakkamma, Satyaakka, Goggavve, Muktayakka, Nimmavve, Kalaveya, Remmavve, Kalavve, Kamamma, Somamma, Kethaledevi, Puttavve, and Sarla Sankavve also reject the gender distinction that is the basis of all patriarchal notions. Akka Mahadevi, like Lal Ded of Kashmir, walked naked to show she was above gender. Akka, who had left her royal husband and unhappy marriage thrust upon her, like Meerabai later, to join Basava’s alternative community, expresses the tension of having to serve the earthly master and the Divine Lover simultaneously:

Husband inside, lover outside,

I can’t manage them both.

This world and the other,

Cannot marry them both

O, lord as white as jasmine,

I cannot hold in one hand both

The round nut and the long bow.

Love for Siva provided Akka with an alternative to her difficult marriage with Kausika. Her pleadings with Siva are much in the language of love, and metaphors of sexual union are used to denote spiritual union:

In our embrace the bones should rattle

In a welding, the welding mark even should disappear.

The knife should enter totally.

When the arrow enters,

Even the feathers should not be seen.

One can see similar lines in Kadire Revamme, who had left her husband, took to spinning for livelihood and embraced Veerashaivism; in Ayadakki Lekkamma, a married saint; and in Satyaakka, an unmarried saint who calls Siva “man among men”.

(Andal of Tamil also used this metaphor: “I have lost the beauty of my pearly smile,/Of my red mouth and breasts/Because of the cruelty of the stealer of hearts/ Whom the Gods hail everywhere.” And she tells the cuckoo: “What secret passed between us two/ Is known to us alone/ If you will quickly coo him here/You will see what I can do.”)

The vachanakaras privileged experience over the received ( sruti ) and the remembered ( smriti ). Lord’s grace (“When the winds of the Lord’s grace lash, quickly, quickly, winnow, winnow”; Chowdaiah, the Ferryman) cannot be purchased by offerings to god and priest, temple-going, pilgrimage, ritual or following sacred space and time. Veerashaivas were horrified of the bargaining and manipulation involved in the regular religious practices and believed purely in the Divine Experience that one can only wait for.

Like the European Protestants, they returned to what they felt was the original inspiration of the ancient traditions and believed in an unmediated vision. A.K. Ramanujan, following Victor Turner ( The Ritual Process ), calls the Veerashaiva movement an “anti-structure”, developed out of the elements of the structure they reject. Here the hierarchy of the guru, the elders and the novices is based not on birth and occupation but on mystical achievement. Like the Siddhas, Veerashaivas came from all classes and castes: laundrymen, boatmen, leather workers, etc. They also produced their own forms of poetry with its implied oral poetics. Vachana is something uttered here and now, as against what is heard ( sruti ) and memorised ( smriti ); it is personal literature as it describes the mental state of the devotee, expresses the real conflicts of real persons and is uttered not through a persona or mask, but directly in the person of the poet himself. The saints did not follow either Sanskrit or Dravidian metres, rejected premeditated art and emphasised spontaneity. Their structures are closer to the folk tradition and they often use the features of heroic oral poetry. Basavanna says, “I will sing as I love”, rejecting conventional patterns of verse making. Their metre is not syllabic but syntactic; the units are not of sound, but of syntax and semantics. Some poets like Allamaprabhu were more esoteric and used a dark, symbolic language— sandhyabhasha —like some Tamil Saivites before them or like Kabir in some of his ultbasis later. But the people of the day understood those nuances and suggestions.

The Tamil Saivites and the Kannada Veerashaivas may be said to have laid the solid foundations of the Bhakti movement that later spread to other parts of India, in terms of the egalitarian world view, the radical use of symbols and signs as also the approach to form with its implied oral poetics. No study of counter-culture in India can ignore the importance of these early spiritual revolutionaries of the South.

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