Rising like a mesa amid the flat and arid countryside that surrounds it, Yettappa’s Hill looms ominously as one approaches it through narrow and dusty mud tracks surrounded by fields of groundnut and corn some 15 km from Challakere town in Chitradurga district in central Karnataka. Atop the hill is a shrine to Yettappa, the deity of the Kadu Golla community, and the climb to the top is through a rocky goat trail. In keeping with the community’s beliefs, there is no anthropomorphic sculpture or representation of Yettappa; instead, a series of granite stones placed vertically in a semicircle, and festooned with fresh marigold garlands, reveal the spiritual significance of the site.
“Yettappa is very important for us and we want to establish a gurupeetha (a math led by a guru) at this location,” said Boodihalli Rajanna, the Challakere taluk president of the Kadu Golla Sangha (KGS) as he completed a brief ritual at the shrine which was open to the elements but for the cover provided by a lone tree. A few days earlier, KGS members from across Karnataka had gathered here to discuss issues facing the community. At the event, the Sangha’s State president, Rajanna (no relation to Boodihalli Rajanna) said, “Several castes all over Karnataka have their own gurupeethas. For the Kadu Gollas, the pilgrimage centres of Yettappa and Junjappa are akin to gurupeethas and because of this, we must develop Yettappa’s Hill and make it a gurupeetha.” He added, “Our community has tribal characteristics and we have been struggling to get Scheduled Tribe status for many years. There are efforts to divide the community but we should unite and ensure that this demand is fulfilled.”
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According to Rajanna, there are 1,250 Kadu Golla hattis (exclusive settlements) across Karnataka, most of them in Tumakuru and Chitradurga districts. These settlements at the periphery of villages have helped preserve the unique cultural world of the community. Their settled counterparts are the Ooru Gollas. In Kannada, ooru means village and kadu means forest. The Gollas (both Ooru Gollas and Kadu Gollas) are classified as a Backward Caste and are part of Category 1, signifying their “most backward” status.
A fight for SC, ST status
Over the past few decades, various communities across the country have been striving to gain Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe status buoyed by the concomitant benefits that such a tag would secure for these caste and tribal groups. While such negotiations are part of India’s social realpolitik and symbolise the success of its deep democracy, Rajanna, in his statement, draws a link between the establishment of a gurupeetha or mathto the community’s demand for ST status. Other communities in Karnataka too have used the institution of the math to further their political agendas but have not connected the two in the blunt way that Rajanna has done.
This linkage will be familiar to people who have closely followed the distinctive development of various caste maths, or mathas, in Karnataka, even by groups that did not have such a tradition or culture. On the face of it, the maths are established to entrench a caste’s spiritual practices and provide a locus for worship, but scholars have also pointed out that they have become spaces to astutely further the community’s interests. Thus, the math and the guru who heads it are often enmeshed in the pursuit of power and in negotiating on behalf of the community with the State.
An ancient history
Maths have an ancient history in the Karnataka region, with the oldest ones, set up and patronised by Brahmin subcastes, going back more than a millennium. The Sringeri Math, or Sringeri Sharada Peetham, in Chikkamaggaluru district is said to have been founded by Adi Shankaracharya, the 8th century Vedic philosopher-saint. Followers of other prominent Brahmin saints such as Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya, who belonged to or traversed the region, also founded maths to spread the Vedic philosophies of their gurus and contributed to the sharpening of the prevailing cleavages between these Brahmin subcastes.
In the 12th century, Basavanna and his peers, the vachana writers, emerged as trailblazers in north-eastern region of present-day Karnataka with their radical creed that opposed Vedic caste stratification. For this, the Lingayats, as Basavanna’s followers came to be known, were persecuted and the movement almost collapsed before it was resuscitated in later centuries. The Lingayat maths played a crucial role in this revival to the extent that the institution of the math is now intrinsically identified with the Lingayat community in Karnataka. The matadipathi, orpontiff, emerged as a powerful and influential community leader and the most famous Lingayat maths have had an unbroken lineage of gurusdown the centuries. Some established Lingayat mathsinclude the Siddaganga Math in Tumakuru, Tontadarya Math in Gadag, Suttur Mutt in Mysuru, and Murugha Math in Chitradurga.
This was the situation until the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956 when Kannada-speaking territories were merged to form Mysore (as Karnataka was known until 1973). The incorporation of territories from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and the Hyderabad princely State with the Mysore princely State meant that the Vokkaligas, the large peasant community dominant in south Karnataka, contiguous with the Mysore princely State, were overwhelmed politically by the Lingayats in the newly formed province of Mysore. Chafing at this turn of events, in the 1970s the Vokkaliga community coalesced around the Adichunchanagiri Math located in Mandya district, which helped unify the community and catalyse its interests.
B.L. Shankar is a veteran politician who is now in the Congress. In a public discussion earlier this year, he said, “After the unification of Karnataka, Vokkaligas could not become Chief Ministers and there was a fear that Vokkaligas would lose political power to the Lingayats. It was in the 1970s and early 1980s that Balagangadharanatha Swamiji, who was the head of Adichunchanagiri Math, started identifying with Vokkaliga politicians and mobilising them.”
- Over the past few decades, various communities have been striving to gain Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe status buoyed by the concomitant benefits that such a tag would secure for these caste and tribal groups.
- Mathshave an ancient history in the Karnataka region, with the oldest ones, set up and patronised by Brahmin subcastes, going back more than a millennium.
- Sometime in the 1990s, the Lingayat pontiff of the Murugha Math, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, began to offer deeksha (the initiation process among Lingayats) to novitiates from backward castes and even Dalits. After this period, maths mushroomed in Karnataka.
- When elections approach, politicians across party lines make a beeline to the maths to seek the blessings of the pontiffs.
Mushrooming of maths
Sometime in the 1990s, the Lingayat pontiff of the Murugha Math, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, began to offer deeksha (the initiation process among Lingayats) to novitiates from backward castes and even Dalits. The Japanese scholar Aya Ikegame studied this exercise and wrote that the math’s pontiff “began to initiate disciples from lower castes, as well as Dalits and Adivasis… and encouraged them to start their own maths”.After this period, maths mushroomed in Karnataka with various lower castes organising themselves around their own math.
K. Kariswamy, a Kannada freelance journalist, said the Devangas (weavers) were the first to set up their own math, followed by other backward caste communities such as Kurubas (shepherds), Valimikis (historically hunters), Upparas (salt makers), Lambanis (nomadic tribe classified as Scheduled Caste in Karnataka), Madivalas (washermen), Madigas (Dalit subcaste), and Vishwakarmas (goldsmiths).
Kariswamy chronicled this wave in 2000, and since then other backward castes and subcastes have set up their own maths, and having one is now crucial in the journey of cohering a caste. Many recently formed maths claim ancient and mythical vintages that are often fictional but still pivotal in the process of the caste’s identity formation. The maths mushroomed so fast that there is no authentic count of their number now.
The Kadu Gollas’ desire to establish a gurupeetha must, therefore, be located in this long trajectory of mathsin Karnataka. There is already a Golla math in Chitradurga, which has nascent connections with the Yadava, or cowherd, community of North India. This math was patronised by both the Ooru Gollas and the Kadu Gollas in the past, but the Kadu Gollas resented their community’s subsumption within the broader Golla identity. So, having their own gurupeetha is seen as the best way to set themselves apart, preserve their tribal characteristics and unique cultural practices, and bolster their claim for ST status.
Nobody denies the deep connection between politics and the maths and their pontiffs in Karnataka. Since the late 1980s and 1990s, the backward caste maths have become representatives of their community, giving its members, who used to be ignored by well-established theologians and politicians of the dominant castes, the chance to advance their worldly interests. The gurus are treated reverentially by the same people who did not respect them in the past. The extent of power each math can get for its members might be unclear, but the pontiff is assured a seat at the bargaining table.
There is also another kind of aspiration at play. Some of the marginalised caste maths aspire to reach the status of the more established Lingayat and Vokkaliga maths, which are sprawling, wealthy institutions that run a host of educational institutions and hospitals, with their influence equalling that of the State in the small towns. Many of the older maths have a great track record of social service, but they have also gathered economic clout alongside spiritual cachet and political connections.
Former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa was the first major leader who explicitly acknowledged and took advantage of this connection between maths and politics when he directly doled out budgetary grants for Lingayat mathsduring his tenure as Chief Minister between 2008 and 2011, and to a lesser extent during his stint as Deputy Chief Minister between 2006 and 2007. The façade of the invisible line that divided religion and politics was emphatically broken, but it paid dividends. The pontiffs faithfully stood by Yediyurappa whenever his Chief Ministership was threatened.
When elections approach, politicians across party lines make a beeline to the maths to seek the blessings of the pontiffs. This was visible during the Assembly election earlier this year and will recur before the Lok Sabha election next year. While scholars contend that the maths’ ability to sway votes is exaggerated, politicians prefer to play it safe.
Earlier this year, Karnataka saw how influential these pontiffs could be when Nirmalanandanatha Swami of Mandya’s Adichunchanagiri Math forbade BJP politicians from spreading the fake history of two Vokkaliga soldiers killing Tipu Sultan in 1799 during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. This myth, created over the past few years, acquired a patina of truth after being repeated by BJP politicians but was not repeated after the pontiff’s curt rebuke. Seers of maths also get routinely involved in contemporary politics when they lead agitations that demand an increase in reservation to benefit their caste members.
Scholars have also pointed out the subtle influence that maths have had on Karnataka society. First, the formation of maths has increased caste consciousness in the State, emphasising the existing fractures within society. As caste members coalesce around a math and its pontiff, they begin to privilege their differences with other castes. Second, the formation of a math helps in the process of Sanskritisation that aids merging with a broader Hindu identity. “Sanskritisation” is a term propounded by the sociologist M.N. Srinivas referring to the process by which lower castes seek upward mobility by mimicking the rituals and practices of the upper castes.
Aditya Bharadwaj, a Bengaluru-based journalist, recalled that in 2022 Education Minister B.C. Nagesh in the previous BJP government held a meeting with Hindu seers, and one of the Brahmin seers said that only satvik food (vegetarian food without onion and garlic) should be served in schools and no eggs should be provided. “Madara Chennaiah, a Dalit pontiff, did not object to the statement. This shows that these maths operate within a sort of Brahminical framework, which they impart to the community,” he said. Therefore, the aspirational rise in social hierarchy that the new maths envisage also leads to changes in cultural practices within the community when these gurus begin to mimic the religious rituals of the dominant caste.
According to Kariswamy, there was nothing “revolutionary” or “progressive” in Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru’s encouragement of backward castes to form their own maths in the 1990s. “None of these gurus have anything to do with Basava’s anti-caste philosophy; they perform privileged caste rituals and play down their own rich non-Sanskritic culture. These maths are only catalysing the Sanskritisation of the backward castes.” The Dalit poet Siddalingaiah, who passed away in 2021, once remarked on the new maths: “The backward castes had the freedom to think progressively because they had no maths. Instead of letting our friendships, education, books, and films shape our personalities, we are now letting the maths do it.”
Back on Yettappa’s Hill, speaking to the Kadu Golla leaders, it becomes clear that they have not thought through the various cultural questions that the formation of a gurupeetha will raise. For them, the math fulfils an instrumental goal, which is to bolster their demand for recognition as a Scheduled Tribe. Their single-minded goal shows how crucial the institution of the math has become in the politics and society of Karnataka.