While the Veerashaivas emerged in opposition to dominant Brahmanical Hindu traditions, in more recent times they haven’t asserted their dissensions.
In the preface to his Kannada play Taledanda (Death by Beheading), which traces the growth of the 12th century Veerashaiva movement, Girish Karnad says, “It becomes inevitable for every Kannadiga to return, like a tongue that returns again and again to a painful tooth, to the victories and agonies of that period.” Today, Karnad’s advice is followed on cue as the Lingayats rise up, like they once did, against the great tradition of (Brahmanical) “Hinduism” – a set of religions accepting Vedic and Puranic authority.
Gathering under the Lingayat Dharma Samanvaya Samithi, the Lingayats are asking for separate, minority religion status. The demand has been made several times since the 1980s, but to no avail. Since the community forms 17% of Karnataka’s population, the BJP and the Congress have joined in to heavily politicise the demand. The state Congress government has come out in full support of the agitation, leaving the BJP to make the next move to woo Lingayat votes for the April 2018 elections.
What further complicates the situation is the dissension within the community, in that the Lingayats consider themselves separate from the Veerashaivas. However, the Veerashaivas, under the Veerashaiva Mahasabha, have now announced a massive rally in Belgavi, Karnataka, to be held on August 22. They also asserted that Lingayats and Veerashaivas are the same and are separate from Hindus.
A history of dissent
Ironically, Veerashaivism has been relegated to a sect of Hinduism, the core Brahmanical values of which it staunchly opposed in the past and broke new ground. Given how starkly different Lingayat beliefs are to Hinduism, the agitation for a separate religious status is not only obvious but also necessary, since the tendency of Hinduism often eclipses several “little traditions”.
Veerashaivism (literally, heroic Shaivism) was a 12th-century religious movement spearheaded by the Kalachuri chief minister, Basavanna. The followers of the religion, the Lingayats, wear a small Shiva linga around their neck. Right from its inception, Veerashaivism was a religion of dissent. Their biggest attack was on the polytheism of Hinduism. A monotheistic religion, Veerashaivism believed in worshipping only Shiva in the form of an ishtalinga. Furthermore, it condemned the ostentatious rituals that defined Hinduism, such as praying in a temple, going on elaborate pilgrimages and so on. The new movement also summarily rejected the Brahmanic idea of worshipping deities and doing good in order to go to heaven.
By rejecting the supremacy of Brahmins, shrutis (revealed scriptures) and smritis (remembered tradition), Linagayats fundamentally negated the Sanskrit tradition. They instead composed hymns, known as vachanas (sayings), in Kannada and considered them as authoritative.
On the issues of caste and gender, Veerashaivism departed from Brahminism by being more inclusive. The idea of being born into a religion and into a caste was lambasted and people of all castes were welcome to become a Lingayat. Inter-caste marriage was encouraged and dining with members of different castes was the norm. While Hinduism marginalised women in matters of worship, Veerashaivism argued for gender parity through the vachanas:
“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”.
One of the most famous vachanakars (composer of vachanas or hymns) of Veerashaivism was also a woman, Akka Mahadevi, who renounced marriage, parents and even her clothes to wander in search of Shiva. Moreover, by opposing the Brahmanical notions of purity and pollution, several emancipatory ideas were adopted, such as the remarriage of widows, disregarding menstrual taboos and banning child marriage.
Given this, the Veerashaiva movement is often regarded as being a reformist one. However, the idea behind adopting such radical notions is not social reform per se, but to challenge the established Brahmanical order. Hence Veerashaiva was an anti-establishment movement. This is evidenced by the fact that not only was the religion in defiance of Brahmanism, it also militantly opposed Jainism, the religion that dominated Karnataka in the 12th-13th centuries. Interestingly, the Abbalur inscription says that one of the main ways in which Jainism was defeated was by large-scale destruction of Jain basadis (temples) and in later examples also the reuse or whole-scale conversions of Jain temples. The Megudi temple in Hallur and the Doddappa Temple at Adargunchi, Karnataka stand testimony to the radical way in which Veerashaivism wrested power from Jainism.
The process of assimilation
This represents an intriguing paradox in Lingayat philosophy. On one hand, vachanas denounce temple worship, but on the other hand, it was felt necessary to not only destroy but also appropriate and use Jain temples for worship. The conflict is better understood in light of the fact that despite its wayward practices, Veerashaivism was also eventually assimilated in the great Brahmanical tradition of the subcontinent. The assimilation reached it apogee when the religion began to get generous patronage from the Sangama kings of the Vijayanagara Empire. The patronage came at the cost of the religion’s fundamental tenets, the most ironical of which was to be slotted as a backward caste. To add insult to injury, few Linagayat generals of Vijayanagara built temples for Lord Virabhadra, a Puranic avatar (incarnation) of Lord Shiva.
The mellowing of Veerashaivism was not the first assimilation to the ‘great tradition’ of Hinduism. The process of merging local religions and traditions with the high Brahmanical customs was what defined the Puranic age. By linking tribal and non-Vedic deities to minor Vedic deities, as evidenced by the journey of Puranic Shiva and Krishna, the Puranic pantheon brought many small popular cults under its fold. Not only did this process help Puranic Hinduism gain more followers, it also combatted the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism. While it worked well for the great tradition, several little traditions that were merged have irrevocably lost their own identity. The tribal, cow-herder deity of the Abhiras that mixed with Krishna has no separate identity and the local myths surrounding the deity, that did not make it to the Puranas, lie buried in oblivion.
This danger looms large on Veerashaivism too. Already the caste system has invaded the anti-caste ideology of the religion and Sanskrit hagiographies have come up. The Jangmas, the priestly class of Veerashaivism, regularly emulate the Brahmins. If Veerashaivism does not carve itself away from the great tradition of Hinduism, it will soon be forgotten like many other little traditions.
Ruchika Sharma is a doctoral scholar of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University.