Religious fault lines

Print edition : May 11, 2018

A celebration after the Karnataka Cabinet granted minority status to the Lingayat community, in Bengaluru on March 19. Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

Members of the Akhil Bhartiya Veerashaiva Lingayat Mahasangh protest against the government’s decision to grant minority status to Lingayats. Photo: Vijay Bate

The 108-foot-tall statue of Basava on the outskirts of Basavakalyan. Pictorial depictions of Basava and his statues dominate the landscape of north Karnataka. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A view of the Basavakalyan fort. It was the base of several dynasties that ruled the region and holds the remnants of the 12th century Kalachuri king Bijjala II’s court in which Basava was prime minister. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Tontad Siddhaling Mahaswamiji, the pontiff of the Yedeyuru Sri Jagadguru Tontadarya Samsthanmath in Gadag, honouring a member of the Jatav community from Delhi who called on him. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

The logical beneficiary of the Siddaramaiah government’s move to recognise Lingayats as a separate religious group should be the Congress. The BJP knows that its ideological aim of uniting all castes under the monolith of Hinduism will be undermined if this happens.

The rich make temple for Śiva.

What’ll I make, My Lord,

Poor that I’m?

My legs are pillars indeed,

My body, the shrine,

My head, My Lord, is the golden pinnacle.

Listen, Kūḍalasaṅgamadēva,

The standing will cease to be,

The moving will not.

-- A vachana by Basava.

ONE of the first major towns a traveller entering Karnataka from Telangana comes across is Basavakalyan in the north-eastern corner of the State. The entrance to the town is via an impressively built, salmon-coloured, five-tiered gateway with three arches. This majestic gateway haloes a statue of the 12th century reformer Basava (also known as Basavanna and Basaveshwara) wearing a crown and sitting astride a horse. There is also an imposing 108-foot-tall statue of a seated Basava after you pass through the gateway. At the centre of the town is a sprawling fort, which, along the course of history, was the base of several dynasties that ruled the region. Deep inside, in the oldest part of the fort, is what is generally thought to be the remnants of the 12th century Kalachuri king Bijjala II’s court in which Basava was the prime minister, and under whose rule, for a brief while, the “ideal” Lingayat society flourished. Pictorial depictions of Basava and his statues dominate the landscape of north Karnataka. In Gadag, there is a 116-foot-tall statue overlooking the lake in the centre of the city.

Basavakalyan is a popular place of pilgrimage. By the time of his elevation as prime minister, Basava had gathered a scintillating set of radical thinkers around him from all castes, including what were the untouchable castes at the time. He had also established his reputation as a revolutionary thinker whose message was well ahead of his time. Basava and his fellows, which included women, communicated their ideas through vachanas. (A.K. Ramanujan, in his book Speaking of Siva, describes vachana as a “religious lyric in Kannada free verse”.) His followers and peers, who were called sharanas, developed a society which had as its main tenets gender, caste and class equality and the repudiation of rituals. For Basava, Siva (God) was within.

While Basava himself came from a Brahmin family, the society in which he lived saw a boom in vachana literature written by “lower caste” writers. In his book I Keep Vigil of Rudra: The Vachanas, H.S. Shivaprakash writes that a large number of vachana poets came from the class of artisans and from “castes whose professions were looked down upon in the caste hierarchy”. Shivaprakash provides a partial list of the caste/professions from which the vachana writers were drawn. These included a shepherd, a woodcutter, a washerman, a ferryman, a doctor, a cobbler, a toddy tapper, a cowherd, a rice gatherer, a basketmaker, a ropemaker, a barber, a farmer and a town crier. This also meant that the bargaining power of these castes in social and economic relations had improved.

In a revolutionary act of sorts, the sharanas blessed the marriage between the son of a cobbler called Samagara Haraliah and the daughter of a Brahmin named Madhuvarasa, egregiously breaching the social norm. “The Brahmins were wild about it and complained to Bijjala that this was not dharma. The king accepted this, and his soldiers started attacking the sharanas,” said Ramjan Darga, the former director of the Centre for Vachana Studies in Bidar. In Bhima Kavi’s 14th century text Basava Purana, which is one of the few sources on Basava’s life, this assault is described in some detail. The eyes of Madhuvarasa and Haraliah were gouged out and both of them were dragged through the streets tied to an elephant’s feet, says Basava Purana.

Basava was affected by the violence and left the city for Kudalasangama (around 300 kilometres away in the south-west) where he had spent some part of his youth. In the melee that ensued, Bijjala was murdered in the fort and the sharanas were killed or chased out of the kingdom. Accounts vary as to whether Basava himself was murdered or he died a natural death in Kudalasangama, but it is recorded that his life ended here. “Thus, state and religious power united and destroyed Basava’s model society,” said Darga. His followers were scattered all over south India, leading to the temporary decline of the movement. It was a dark time for Basava’s followers who were persecuted for their beliefs so much so that they even had to hide their identities. The fall of Kalyana, as Basavakalyan was known then, thus occupies a poignant spot in the collective memory of Lingayats.


Things are vastly different now. Lingayats are a numerically large group in Karnataka and form a dominant community with tremendous influence in the political, economic and social arenas. Large numbers of Lingayats can also be found in the bordering districts of Maharashtra and Telangana. The turnaround started in the 15th century when a few Lingayats got the patronage of Deva Raya II of Vijayanagara and, subsequently, from other rulers in the region. This led to two things that happened simultaneously over the next few centuries. First, there was a massive expansion in the power and influence of the community as its members became part of the landed gentry and accumulated wealth and social privileges. This continued during the British era as well when Lingayats were recognised as a separate religion in the census. They also laid emphasis on education, and as Divya Komala has shown in her unpublished thesis, “Education as Capital: Lingayat Redefinition in Karnataka (1883-1956)”, Lingayats were second only to Brahmins in their participation in educational institutions in the princely state of Mysore. Significantly, the Lingayat population in the area of princely Mysore was considerably lower than in other parts of the Kannada-speaking areas that were part of the Bombay Presidency or the Hyderabad princely state.

The second development was that as the community became part of the state apparatus, its distinct identity got diluted as it was appropriated into the larger Hindu fold. “This is also the time when Veerashaivas entered the scene and created their mathas,” said Darga. The lines between the separate Lingayat identity and mainstream Brahminical Hinduism got blurred.

K. Neela, a writer based in Kalaburagi and whose work is influenced strongly by vachana literature, explained this point further. “The veneration of Siva is an intrinsic aspect of the Lingayat faith but the Siva of Basava is different from the Siva of Hinduism. The usage of Siva in the vachanas provided an entry point to Brahmins during the 15th century,” she said. In a profound irony, Basava’s movement, which originally started out against the Vedic caste system, became a “caste” next only to Brahmins in the ritual hierarchy of the region of modern Karnataka. A few scholars argue that the virakta mathas (formed after the death of Basava) preserved the culture of the vachanas.

The argument for a separate Lingayat religion, which reached its critical phase over the past year, is premised on the fact that Basava rebelled against Vedic rituals and caste hierarchy. This awareness has been more than a hundred years in the making and was the result of people such as P.G. Halakatti (1880-1964), S.S. Basavanal (1893-1951) and M.M. Kalburgi (1938-2015). Kalburgi, especially, was a crusader for the cause, and some of his intellectual comrades feel that he was assassinated because of his aggressive reiteration that Lingayats were not Hindus. Shashidhar Todkar, the principal of Hiremallur Ishwaran P.U. Science College in Dharwad, said: “If Kalburgi had not sacrificed his life, this movement would not have succeeded.”

Considering that the Vedas and caste are the basis of Brahminical Hinduism, how could Lingayats be part of Hinduism? This simple and compelling argument is what the vanguard of the movement, consisting of intellectuals such as S.M. Jaamdar of the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha (Global Lingayat Assembly) and many virakta matha pontiffs, has been reiterating ad nauseam. This argument becomes complicated as Veerashaivas also claim to be part of the Lingayat community although the basis of their faith is the Vedas. What complicates the demand further is that while a separate Lingayat religion can probably be justified historically and theologically, there is a vast difference between its principles and its actual practice, which has been influenced by mainstream Hinduism. In this situation, spotting a “true” Lingayat is not easy. The few who claim to follow the principles of Basava truly do not go to temples or practise idol worship; instead, they use the “ishta linga” (a marble-sized stone in a casing that they wear on their body) to focus their meditative energies.

The agitation for separate religious status for Lingayats has been going on for a few decades now, but it received a fillip over the last year when the community mobilised lakhs of its members in five massive rallies in Karnataka. Finally, in a notification in March, the State government recommended that Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats who follow the principles of Basava be recognised as a separate religious group. The issue has immense political ramifications with the Siddaramaiah government forwarding the proposal to the Centre ahead of the Karnataka elections which are due in May.

Until a few years ago, it was estimated that Lingayats formed between 15 and 17 per cent of the State’s population on the basis of the reports of four backward classes commissions: the Naganagouda Commission (1960, 15.57 per cent), the Havanur Commission (1975, 14.64 per cent), the Venkataswamy Commission (1986, 16.92 per cent) and the Chinnappa Reddy Commission (1990, 15.34 per cent). In the early part of his regime, the Siddaramaiah government also undertook a comprehensive socio-economic survey that covered caste. These data have not been revealed, but according to leaks Lingayats constitute only around 59 lakh, or 9.8 per cent, of the State’s population.

They are spread all over the State but are concentrated in north Karnataka. There are more than four lakh Lingayats each in Bidar, Bagalkot, Belagavi, Bellary, Vijayapura, Davangere, Dharwad, Kalaburagi, Haveri, Gadag and Koppal districts in a vast swathe of the region starting from central Karnataka and extending all the way to north-west and north-east Karnataka. In south Karnataka, they are present in such huge numbers only in Chamarajanagar district.

Veerashaivas and Lingayats

Veerashaivism, a Saivite order, pervaded the Lingayat faith sometime in the 15th century. For a long time, the terms Veerashaiva and Lingayat were used synonymously, but over the past year several scholars have made the distinction between the two clear. Veerashaivas do not follow the principles of Basava but are the followers of Renukacharya. They are also the followers of the pancha (five) peethas, Vedic rituals and the Brahminical caste system. Veerashaivas see Basava as a reformer in the tradition of Renukacharya rather than a rebel against Brahminical Hinduism. The pontiffs of the pancha peethas are dressed in full regalia with a crown and are carried around in a palanquin. Contrary to this, the pontiffs of the virakta mathas are clad in simple attire. Seen strictly, there is no theological basis for Veerashaivism to be recognised as a separate religion as its adherents do not follow the principles of Basava. This is the bone of contention between the two groups.

In Mahagaon, 25 km from Kalaburagi, at the centre of a cluster of villages, a group of Lingayats had gathered in a local temple overlooking a sugarcane field. Of its population of around 12,000, Lingayats are about one-third. Here, the general view is that Lingayats should be given separate religious status but Veerashaivas and Lingayats must not be divided. “The issue is becoming one of mental harassment. All are making allegations against one another and our dharm gurus are fighting among themselves. Anyone who does linga pooja is a Lingayat,” said Palaksh Malhapnavar, an advocate based in Mahagaon.

Virkta matha pontiffs

While confusion prevails among ordinary Lingayats, many of the pontiffs of the virakta mathas are clear about the tenets of their belief. Tontad Siddhaling Mahaswamiji, the pontiff of the Yedeyuru Sri Jagadguru Tontadarya Samsthanmath, a virakta matha in Gadag, asserted that Lingayats were distinct from Veerashaivas. On the day Frontline met him, a group of 70 Jatavs (a Dalit caste from north India) from Delhi were waiting to see him at the matha. After honouring the Dalits, the seer said: “We are different from Veerashaivas as we believe in one God, not 33 crore gods. Our worship is in Kannada and not Sanskrit and we do not believe in any Vedic rituals or idol worship. Our Siva is the ‘Ishta linga’, their Siva is different. We do not have any caste and gender distinctions as well. You just saw that these Jatavs who are Dalits have come to meet me after becoming followers of Basava.” The seer then explained the six steps to follow in the Lingayat faith: Bhakta (devotion), Mahesha (unquestionable devotion), pranaligi (soul), prasadi (god in everything), sharana (god is everywhere), and aikya (unification).

The pontiffs’ principled stand is understandable as many of them have consciously sought to live by the ideals of Basava. Take the case of the pontiff of the Sri Murugha Matha in Chitradurga as chronicled in the work of the scholar Aya Ikegame: “Since the present pontiff, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, became the head of the matha in 1991, he has caused many controversies by bringing radical changes to the prestigious tradition of the matha. He abandoned many ceremonial practices that he thought were inconsistent with the philosophy of Basava…. Murugha Sharanaru stopped ascending the age-old throne, rejected the title of ‘Jagadguru’ that many of his predecessors had struggled to preserve, and he even dropped the unpretentious suffix ‘Swamiji’. Instead, he called himself ‘Sharana’—which simply means a disciple of Basava. Yet the most disputed issue was that he began to initiate young disciples from lower castes, as well as Dalits and Adivasis. He trained them in the religious school, the Basavatatva College attached to the matha, and encouraged them to start their own mathas by allocating 5–10 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] of the matha’s land to build their establishments. So far three young seers have founded their own caste mathas through such arrangements, and more will undoubtedly follow.” (“Why do backward castes need their own gurus? The social and political significance of new caste-based monasteries in Karnataka”, in Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2010.)

Mobilisation of Lingayats

An important point concerns the manner of mobilisation of ordinary Lingayats. There is a vast gulf between the leadership and the ordinary Lingayats in whom Hindu rituals are ingrained. The influence of caste has pervaded Lingayats to the point that they even have subcastes (some say 90) among them, with some, like the Panchamsali and Banajigas, considering themselves higher in the hierarchy than the Hadapada, Simpiga and Ganigaru castes. In the hinterland, it is unusual for marriages to take place among the subcastes. There is also a priestly class among Lingayats called the jangamas, who are mostly identified as Veerashaivas. They preside over rituals relating to birth, marriage and death.

“Lingayats were so entangled with Hinduism that a few decades ago Linganand Swamy and Mate Mahadevi [the seer of the Basava Dharma Peetha in Kudalasangama] went around creating awareness among ordinary Lingayats that Basava was a real person and not a bull as was commonly thought,” said Neela.

Organisations such as the Basava Dala and the Basava Kendra have been working relentlessly over the past few decades to bring awareness among Lingayats, but the question is whether the move to grant separate religion status means that ordinary Lingayats will move closer to Basava’s credo in the future.

There is a general consensus that Lingayats have been questioning caste and their identity as Hindus strongly over the past year. Devindra Baragale, a farmer in Basavakalyan, said: “Social reform and awareness that we are a distinct community have been happening over the past few decades, but now the pace will be quickened.” Todkar had an interesting response.“I can’t say if we will reach the ideals of Basava, but the hypocrisy of the Veerashaiva mathas will reduce,” he said.

Lure of benefits

Significantly, a point that has not been highlighted sufficiently is that a large number of Lingayats have also been mobilised on the basis of benefits that will accrue to their community. A pamphlet distributed at the first Lingayat maha rally that took place in Bidar on July 19 last year makes the point that Lingayats should endorse the demand for a separate religion to safeguard the future of their children. If Lingayats are recognised as a separate religious group, it is deemed that they will also be recognised as a religious minority and have certain privileges in running educational institutions under Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution. This seems ironic considering that Lingayats are a dominant community already.

Take the village of Mahagaon, for instance. While there are a few Lingayats who are landless, meaning that they have historically had no access to power, the community is the dominant caste in the village. Soundarya Iyer, who has studied the village extensively for her PhD thesis (“Dynamics of Rural Transformation in Karnataka: A View from Three Villages”, 2017), says: “In 2014, at the time of the field survey for my dissertation, Lingayats constituted 29 per cent of all households in Mahagaon and owned 58 per cent of the land in the village. The dominant families of the village were visibly present in gram panchayat, taluk panchayat and zilla panchayat politics. In 2014, an average Lingayat was more educated than people of most caste groups of Mahagaon. Lingayats of Mahagaon constituted dominance as defined by the sociologist M.N. Srinivas, with numerical, economic and political dominance.”

So even if the community is relatively prosperous, the talk of benefits dominates all conversations in Mahagaon. “If Lingayats stay united, we will get benefits, but any division in our community will reduce our strength,” said Palaksh Malhapnavar. His friend Nagendrappa Benur said: “Siddaramaiah has not done anything for Lingayats apart from creating this controversy.”

The sense of grievance that the government had marooned them was strong among Lingayats in the village. Though unsure of what benefits they would actually get if they were designated as a minority, they were clear that they were endorsing the demand for a separate religion as it would ensure benefits. The subcastes among Lingayats are already granted reservation in a number of categories for recruitment to government jobs and for selection in government-run educational institutions, but the demand seems to be that the community should be given even more benefits as a bloc.

A look at other nodes of power shows that Lingayats are a powerful caste. Lingayat educational institutions manage schools and colleges in a variety of disciplines. The most successful of these is the Karnataka Lingayat Education Society headquartered in Belagavi, which has 250 institutions and around a lakh students spread across Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. Other prominent Lingayat educational institutions in Karnataka include the Bijapur Lingayat District Educational Association (Vijayapura), the Basaveshwara Veerashaiva Vidyavardhaka Sangha (Bagalkot), the Sri Siddhaganga Education Society (Tumakuru), the Sharnbasveshwar Vidya Vardhak Sangha (Kalaburagi), the Hyderabad Karnataka Education Society (Kalaburagi), the JSS Group of Institutions (Mysuru), and the Bapuji Educational Association (Davangere). Even in a small town like Basavakalyan, higher education is overwhelmingly dominated by Lingayat institutions: there are five Lingayat colleges here.

In caste atrocities against Dalits, Lingayats lead in north Karnataka where vestiges of feudalism still prevail in rural agrarian relations because of inefficient land reforms that have taken place here compared with southern and coastal Karnataka. Because of their historical dominance, they have influence in village affairs. Politically, Lingayats, along with Vokkaligas, have a disproportionately high representation in the Legislative Assembly. There are 47 Lingayat MLAs in the 224-member Assembly. Since the formation of the State of Karnataka, eight Chief Ministers have been Lingayats.

Political ramifications

Conversations with journalists from north Karnataka reiterate the general notion that Lingayats are strong supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). T.V. Sivanandan, a senior journalist based in Kalaburagi, has kept up with how the community came to support the BJP.

“After the exit of Congress Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa, who was a Lingayat, the community shifted its political support to the opposition. Ramakrishna Hegde, who was in the Janata Party at the time, became their favourite leader even though he was a Brahmin. When Hegde allied himself with the BJP in the 1990s, Lingayats moved to the BJP and began to see B.S. Yeddyurappa as their leader. When Ramakrishna Hegde toured north Karnataka after he was expelled from the Janata Dal in 1996, massive crowds greeted him. Once he came to the Veerashaiva Kalyana Mantapa in Gulbarga. The crowd, comprising mostly of Lingayats, was so massive that all the roads were blocked for four to five hours. It was a spontaneous crowd, not like the paid crowds of today,” said Sivanandan. The BJP is keen on retaining its Lingayat vote base as it could be in a precarious position in Karnataka if it loses seats in its stronghold, particularly the Bombay-Karnataka region. There is a real fear that it will be marginalised in the forthcoming elections. With many of the virakta matha pontiffs openly calling for support to the Congress in the elections, the BJP is in a tight spot.

The logical beneficiary of the move by Siddaramaiah to recognise Lingayats as a separate religious group is the Congress. Even if the party gets support from a part of the community, and if these votes are added to its traditional support base of Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Classes, the Congress stands to gain a large number of seats all over north Karnataka. But the Congress cannot afford to be complacent as there is simmering anger among ordinary Lingayats that Siddaramaiah has divided them. It is also clear that staunch Veerashaivas will not be voting for the Congress and are ideologically more aligned with the BJP. BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah, have gone on record stating that the party will not allow the community to be divided.

The ideological aim of Hindutva in uniting all Hindu castes under the monolith of Hinduism will be considerably weakened if communities that have been brought into the broad Hindu fold start seeking an escape from it. Because of the amorphous nature of Hinduism, any caste can seek independent religion status. This does not bode well for the BJP in the long run. Bhimashankar Biradar, a lecturer in Kannada at Akkamahadevi Arts and Commerce College for Women in Basavakalyan, said: “The demand for a separate Lingayat religion is justified ideologically and theologically, but the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is worried by this move as they see it as the Hindu community being divided.”

In the name of Basava

“The followers of the Basava who wears a crown and sits astride a horse are more than the followers of the Basava of the vachanas,” said Dr D. S. Chougale, a Lingayat playwright based in Belagavi, referring to how the community uses its identity for political purposes. The observation becomes relevant as political battles rage in the name of Basava.

Pilgrims continue to flock to the Aikya Mantapa in Kudalasangama, the spot where Basava is believed to have achieved unification with the divine. The mantapa is located in a 100-foot-deep well at the confluence of the Krishna and the Malaprabha rivers. A walk bridge from the Sanghameshwar temple side leads to the mantapa.

As pilgrims descend the circular stairway to pay their obeisance to the linga placed at the bottom of the well, a vachana of Basava comes to mind, considering the politics over his name:

When the hunter brings a hare,

They buy it for the gold coin it’s worth, My Friend.

When it’s the corpse of the ruler of the land,

Look, there’s nobody to buy

For an areca nut’s worth, My Friend.

Worse than a hare’s is the life of a man.

Have faith in our Kūḍalasaṅgamadēva, My Friend.


The vachanas have been translated by Manu V. Devadevan who teaches history at Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

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