What is Lingayata? A Brief Look Into the Evolution of a Term Favoured by Media But Grasped by Few

The current day ‘Lingayatism’ has a past that is rich in literary output and unique in its philosophical teachings.

Today, April 23, is Basava Jayanthi.

A prolific efflorescence of Bhakti literature emerged in the form of vachana – short poetic prose or free verse poetry in simple Kannada in the 12th century, in North Karnataka. To this day about 12,000 vachanas of this period authored by over a hundred spiritual seekers and saints, including over 30 women have been discovered. These poet saints called themselves ‘Sharanas’. They hailed from almost all classes of society, professions, and castes – including outcastes or “untouchables”. 

They declared that they are a new community to which all those who believed and practiced certain foundational tenets could join on initiation. 

These tenets included: 

1) Equality and mutual respect of all Sharanas no matter what their past caste or community. 

2) Equality among seekers, the Sharanas, without any gender discrimination. 

3) Form of worship was personal and private to a symbol they called ‘Ishta Linga’. It was primarily meditative and yogic. The Ishta Linga could be carried on your body like a pendant and worshipped anywhere. Hence the name Lingayata — one who worships his personal Ishta Linga.

4) They considered all forms of labour and means of livelihood (‘kayaka’) a form of worship, provided the honest earnings from labour (kayaka) are primarily used for social redistribution, called ‘dasoha’. 

5) They stressed the importance of being a compassionate and socially productive human being in this world and in this life. They ignored the other worlds of heaven and hell, as well as theories of rebirth.

6) By asserting the importance of socially productive and honest labour as a form of worship to attain spiritual enlightenment, Sharanas also ignored renunciation and ascetic ‘sanyasa’ as the dominant and preferred path to enlightenment, as preached by the existing forms of Vedic, Agamic, Buddhist, Jain, and other traditions. Thereby they showed a path to spiritual enlightenment for all ordinary householders, farmers, traders, artisans and all working men and women.

7) They insisted on eating together among Sharanas defying the taboos imposed by caste discrimination, as they were all spiritually equal.

They lucidly expressed their views in the people’s language of the region, Kannada, on their spiritual pursuit. They primarily conceived their god as personal and formless. They also critically and incisively commented profusely on prevalent precepts and practices such as: meaningless Vedic and Agamic rituals, animal sacrifices during such rituals, and intermediation of priests in any form of worship. They also opposed rituals associated with animism and polytheism. They rejected temple-based worship dominated by priests and rituals.

They opposed discrimination against women in the spiritual field. They broke the Brahminical taboos which regarded women as inferior and unfit for spiritual self-realisation, because of their natural biological functions of menstruation and child birth. 

Critics of ritual

The Sharanas – also called ‘Vachanakaras‘ – not only ridiculed the Karma Kanda or Vedic and Agamic rituals of yajna, homa, havana, animal sacrifice and elaborate temple worship, but they also confronted all those Vedantins and Advaitins who merely spoke of the abstract high falutin ideas of atma-brahma but blatantly practised caste and gender discrimination. Vachanakaras frequently called such hypocrites as ‘vagadvaitins (‘advaitins only in words’).’

Among the Vachanakaras of 12th century, those that stand out with their incisive commentary are Basavanna (1105–1167) and his contemporaries, Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi. Many other Sharanas, over a hundred, also contributed to creating the new ethos and the new community’s norms as well as its metaphysics.

What they advocated in words as well as deeds was spiritually liberating and attracted a large number of working people of all castes including ‘untouchables’, artisans, farmers, traders, and some enlightened Brahmins as well. 

The popularity of the leading Vachanakaras led the poets in the region to write hagiographies of Sharanas in the Puranic style. These hagiographic works were still set in the Puranic and old Shaivite tradition and not the new radical ideas and practices of Vachanakaras. 

In the 13th century notable works in this regard are Palkurike Somanatha’s Basava Puranamu in Telugu and the great Kannada poet Harihara’s works (in the form of ragale poems) regarding Basava, Allama, Akka Mahadevi, and many other Sharanas. The Kannada version of Basava Purana inspired by the Telugu Basava Puranamu was written by Bhima Kavi in the 14th century.

There was growing popularity and numbers in this new community whose membership was open and inclusive. Unlike other sects of Hinduism, even today one can become a Lingayat through initiation, despite being born into another religion. Soon it led to royal patronage in some Deccan kingdoms like Vijayanagara, particularly during the reign of Devaraya II (reign 1422–46 CE). 

Later important royal dynasties in Karnataka became followers of Lingayatism. It is important to note that these kings and queens considered their faith a personal matter and were equally patronising all religions in their statecraft as was prevalent practice. 

For example, the Nayakas of Ikkeri or Keladi who ruled vast regions of present-day Karnataka and outside (1490–1763); Haleri dynasty in the kingdom of Kodagu (1633–1834) and many other smaller kingdoms. One of the most remembered is the Lingayat queen Rani Chennamma of Kittur (1778–1829), known for her inspiring role in the anti-colonial struggle against the British.

Teachings and literature

Lingayatism attained the features of an established sect with elite patronage and Lingayat literature, which also came to be known at that time as Veerashaiva literature, flourished from the 15th century onwards.

Also read: Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate

The Vachana and Sharana teachings resurfaced in the form of several compilations and at least four commentaries known as Shunyasampadane (attainment of the void or path to enlightenment). The declarative or dialogic form of many vachanas lent themselves to be cast as part of a spiritual dialogue or a discussion in a peer group. Such a forum of peers was not directly mentioned by Basava or Allama in their vachanas but it was later imagined as a spiritual forum called Anubhava Mantapa (hall of spiritual experience). 

Vachanas were not written either by academic philosophers or for such philosophers, but for ordinary people in their mother tongue, Kannada. Neither were vachanas written as canonical texts or foundational sutras for a new darshana or a philosophical school like Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Purva Mimamsa, Vedanta, etc. 

Vachanas were utterings of mystics based on their spiritual experiences and reflection. While some common tenets, concepts, and approaches can be distilled from the Vachanakaras, one also finds great individuality and diverse approaches among them in search of spiritual enlightenment as opposed to a monolithic philosophical system.

It should be noted that Sharanas were respectful towards Tamil Shaiva saints of an earlier period, known as Nayanars, (6th-8th Century CE)  and called them the ‘63 Puratanaru’ (sixty-three ancients). However, what the Lingayat Vachanakaras did was construct their own radically new community.

The Vachana form continued to be popular among post-Basava mystics till the 18th century, so much so that we have another 10,000 or more Vachanas written in the later period (15th to 18th century). 

The complete Vachana literature edited and published today by the Kannada Pustaka Pradhikara under the general editorship of the late M.M. Kalburgi by the government of Karnataka in two volumes has over 20,000 vachanas. The process of collecting manuscripts, authenticating them, producing critical editions, weeding out spurious ones etc. started in the 1890s and is now more or less complete.

A selection of 2,500 vachanas edited by Kalburgi for Basava Samiti have now been translated, and published under the leadership of Aravind Jatti, into over 20 languages including English, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Angika, Kashmiri, Dogri, Santhali, Bodo, Assami, Odiya, Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu, Bengali and so on. More, including Persian, Spanish, Bajjika and so on are in the works.

In the century-long effort in this direction many institutions like Karnatak University, Dharwad; Basava Samiti, Bengaluru and several Lingayat mathas have given institutional support. Many scholars have contributed to editing and interpreting the meaning and intent of Vachanas. To name a few: F.G. Halakatti, C. Uttangi, S.S. Basavnal, Siddheshwara Swamiji, S.C. Nandimath, R.C. Hiremath, S.S. Bhusnurmath, M.M. Kalburgi, L. Basavaraju, H. Tipperudraswamy, M. Chidananda Murthy, V.B. Rajur, N.G. Mahadevappa, A.K. Ramanujan, H.S. Shiva Prakash, D.R. Nagaraj and O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy. 

Vachanas are commonly recited and sung in the villages and towns of Karnataka both in religious and secular functions. Prominent musicians like Pt Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt Basavraj Rajguru, Pt Siddharam Jambaldinni, Pt Venkatesh Kumar and others popularized singing vachanas in their classical Hindusthani concerts as well as in Radio, TV and modern music industry in the past nearly a hundred years.

The social, political, and economic circumstances which led to this efflorescence in the 12th century and the 900-year trajectory of this community are still being explored. A significant modern contributor to this multidisciplinary exploration is historian Manu V. Devadevan.

Two forms

By the 15th century, the popular inclusive community of spiritual democracy initiated by Basava and other Sharanas started taking the form of a ‘faith that one is born into’ rather than voluntarily initiated into. Concomitantly high priests emerged to interpret the faith and carry out new rituals along with a large mass of followers of the faith. As traders, landowners, sections of contemporary elite, including some royal families, started joining the faith, there was a move to achieve formal ‘respectability’. 

A 108-feet Basava statue located in Basava Kalyana, Karnataka India. Photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Historically it took two forms. One was to pay obeisance to Basava and Allama but move away from their radical and experiential approach and instead evolve a formal metaphysics and a spiritual path called “shat sthala” (six stage path) which can be cast in a familiar tradition. This attempt then associated Lingayatism to some form of Advaita. Shakti Vishisht Advaita, Shiva Yoga etc were such new formal labels.

The other attempt by Agamic Shaivism to claim Lingayat as part of old Brahminical Shaivism. This trend headed by so called “pancha acharyas” denied the role of 12th-century Sharanas as founders of Lingayatism, including their radical new ideas and practices. 

In the medieval period the community also started calling itself Veerashaiva along with Lingayat as synonyms. This was contrary to the fact that all forms of Shaivism worshipped a Puranic, anthropomorphic Shiva as their deity, believed to be the resident of the mythical Kailasa, etc. Whereas, the Sharanas of 12th century did not recognise the Puranic Shiva as their deity. Nor did they recognise the associated temples and pilgrim centres like Jyotir Lingas and so on. Though the Sharanas called their deity Shiva, it was a formless Para Shiva. They identified it with void, space, Bayalu, an omnipresent element that is a part of every human being and not residing only in idols and temples, Shunya – not to be confused with the Buddhist Shunyavad – and so on. 

It is also to be noted that from 16th to 19th Century several Lingayat seers interacted with an open mind with Muslim Sufis and saints in the Deccan. As a result, Lingayat Mathas of Savalgi Shivalingeshwara, Shirahatti Fakeer Swamy, Kodekal Basavanna, and others, even today have a large following among both Lingayats and Muslims and both communities participate actively in the annual jatras and Rath Utsavs.

A significant point to note is that in the 1980s and early ‘90s hardly any Lingayat seer among the hundreds of prominent ones, joined the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or supported the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

The present

There are two major trends in the present day Lingayat community. One is to go to the spiritual roots of the community in the radical teachings of 12th-century Sharanas and Vachanakaras. Many in this segment also believe that Lingayatism should not be identified with Vedic or Agamic Hinduism but a separate way of life and religion, like Sikhism. They base their argument on the radical precepts of the vachanas of Sharanas of the 12th century as well as many practices of the community which are very different from traditional Hindus. For example, all Lingayats bury their dead, as against cremation among Hindus and so on. It is not known when this practice started. Lingayat burial rituals however are different from Islamic and Christian burial rituals. 

Late M M Kalburgi, who was a prominent academic and researcher of Lingayatism and Kannada culture and literature, strongly advocated the recognition of Lingayatism as a separate religion and not as a part of Hinduism. He was backed by many Lingayat seers and intellectuals. There were several large mass rallies held in different parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Delhi during 2017-18 demanding recognition from the Union government of Lingayat as separate religion, like Sikhism. 

Also read by M.M. Kalburgi: The Future of Folk in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The other trend in the Veerashaiva community pays formal obeisance to Basava and other Sharanas but basically adopts various practices of older Shaivism including temple worship. It recognises a priestly class (called Aiyanavaru or Jangamas) among Lingayats to perform rituals. This segment also practises caste discrimination and endogamy within sub groups of Lingayats (based on their former professions) like Jangama, Banajiga, Panchamasali, Sada, Ganiga etc. They also do not object to being part of traditional Hinduism.

Today Lingayats constitute an influential community in Karnataka and exist in significant numbers in Maharashtra, Telangana, and in smaller numbers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They are found in all professions and classes. 

More than 300 Lingayat mathas (monasteries) have been documented by researchers. Mathas are local and a few of them have a couple of branches. All of them are independent and autonomous with no centralized structure. They are local community institutions supported by land grants from devotees. Some are centuries old and many are more recent. Many mathas have grants from devotees of different castes, communities, and religions. The properties of the mathas are managed by a committee appointed by the devotees in the form of a trust. The committee then invites seers trained in the theory and practice of Lingayatism to provide the local community both moral and religious leadership. Swamijis in these mathas also act as social and moral counsellors and are often approached by devotees to arbitrate in many familial or property disputes. When any Swamiji does not fulfill his role as moral and religious leader in the community there have been cases of removal of a swamiji from a matha by the devotees on grounds of moral turpitude and a new Swamiji installed. 

Lingayats were able to access modern education under British colonialism due to the efforts of many intellectuals, businessmen and landowners in the community who started several schools and colleges. Significantly, Lingayat swamijis and mathas played a major role in the spread of modern education since the beginning of the 20th century. Many mathas all over Karnataka made special efforts to provide free boarding and lodging for poor students in their Prasada Nilayas without discriminating on the basis of caste and continue to do so. Thus for over a century, lakhs of poor students could get modern school and college education.

These efforts have led to the presence of Lingayats in very large numbers not only in the traditional professions of farmers, traders, and artisans but also in modern professions such as medicine, law, engineering, academia, and administration. Today, with their large presence in the economy and academia, they play a significant role in Karnataka’s political, cultural, and social life.

Shivanand Kanavi is a theoretical physicist, business journalist, author, former Vice-President of TCS, and is currently Adjunct Faculty at NIAS, Bengaluru. Can be reached at [email protected].

The above is excerpted from a contribution by Shivanand Kanavi to “Indians: Civilization and Histories”, edited by G.N. Devy, Tony Joseph, and Ravi Korisettar, published by the Aleph Book Company.