How Karnataka's Lingayat Community was First Hinduised and Then Hindutvaised

Lingayatism was founded to disrupt Hinduism's Brahminical order. Centuries later, the community's social elite and new middle class has embraced the neoliberal and communal policies beloved of the Sangh Parivar.

Some political statements and events in Karnataka might have given the impression that the assembly elections in the state are being fought on a more secular basis than earlier imagined. 

For example, on April 23, 2023, in an interview at the India Today Roundtable, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, said that ‘hijab and halal are not election issues’. 

Before that, on April14, B.S. Yediyurappa, a former BJP chief minister of Karnataka and the tallest Lingayat leader in the state, said that he will not approve any socially polarising issue.

The defections of senior Lingayat leaders like Jagadish Shettar, a former chief minister, and Laxman Savadi, a former deputy chief minister, from the BJP to the Congress, also led to speculations that the  inherent non-Brahminic values of Lingayatism cannot co-exist with Brahminical Hindutva. Some observers went to the extent of wondering if the inherent character of Kannada soil would ever allow Hindutva to exist at all! 

But such impressions have proved to be wishful thinking. When Union home minister Amit Shah made a whirlwind tour of Karnataka, he said in each of his election speeches that the removal of reservations for Muslims in the state was the BJP government’s biggest “secular achievement”.

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and one of the BJP’s star campaigners in Karnataka, also openly declared that Muslims should not ask for reservations in India since they got ‘their’ state of Pakistan after partition. 

Likewise, even the hope that the Lingayat community is backing away from Hindutva is an over-reading of events. The story of the Lingayats in Karnataka is in fact the story of Hindutva’s growing hegemony in the state. 

Counter-revolution in Kalyana 

In the 12th century CE, Basavanna, a statesman and poet, founded Lingayatism on the basis of an egalitarian theology  completely contrary to the Brahminical Hindu caste order. The late Professor M.M. Kalburgi, an acknowledged authority on Lingayatism, described Lingayat as the first independent religion founded by the Kannadigas. In his work, he also gave an account of how Basavanna’s revolutionary ideas fell victim to a counter-revolution by the Brahmins. Many accounts of the fall of Kalyana, including that of Prof. Kalburgi, describe how Kalyana, the centre of Basavanna’s new religion, was  attacked and thousands of his disciples or Sharanas massacred, leading to his suicide.

A portrait of Basavanna (1105-1167 CE) by artist Vishakha Kanavi. Photo: Author provided.

A short time after Basavanna’s death, the Lingayat community started to mimic the existing Brahminical caste hierarchy. While many scholarly works explain the variables and nuances of this historical  phenomenon,  Lingayatreligion.com provides a basic understanding of how Lingayatism is independent of and separate from Hinduism. The community’s intellectual and philosophical discourse was influenced by Brahminical sectarianism and Basavanna was slowly reduced to a mere social reformer while the community he founded was adduced to a Shaivic sect, the Veera Shaiva, within the Hindu pantheon.

Also read: Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate

Over the years, the Veera Shaiva Lingayat and the “independent Lingayat” slowly became complementing identities rather than contradictory identities and the Hinduisation of the community increased. Converts to Lingayat from the upper and lower castes of Hindu religion continued to have the same status they had in the Hindu  hierarchy, though they prefixed their original caste names with the word Lingayata. 

The once rebellious Lingayata then became a dominant caste within the caste hierarchy of the Hindu order, partly due to the elevation of their upper echelons. Many of them became feudatories and kings and later, in the British period, zamindars. Thus by virtue of their social position, the Lingayat social elites safeguarded the very Brahminical social order against which the founders of their community had rebelled. 

Nevertheless, a subaltern Lingayatism defended the community against the Hindu institutionalisation of Lingayat. The subaltern classes maintained the community’s original egalitarian spirit, though in a decentralised, unorganised and uncoordinated manner. Many mutts were set up in different parts of the state, catering to the needs of the downtrodden by providing education, free hostel facilities, health care, etc. 

During the British period, the Lingayats enumerated themselves as a separate religion. But that was for administrative and welfare purposes. Later, in the 1920s, the Lingayats in old Mysore areas fought for reservation along with the Vokkaligas against the Brahminical domination of the administration. 

By the time of independence, the Hinduisation of the Lingayat community was complete, though autonomous voices and formations continued to stand against it. In the post-independence era, a new upwardly mobile middle and upper class of the Lingayat emerged due to their social position and modern education. Some sections among them continued to resent the influence of Hinduism on the community. But as a feudal class in the villages and a Sanskritised class in urban areas, the affinity of the Lingayat community towards ideological Brahminism, which provides spiritual justification for their elite existence and for a hierarchical and exploitative social order, also grew. 

The  BJP as a political ally

In the post-independence era, the political elites of the Lingayat community enjoyed power by aligning with the Congress party. But when the Congress chief minister of Karnataka, Devraj Urs, introduced land reform policies and reservation policies focused on Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits, the social elites of the Lingayats were offended. In the 1980s, they became the backbone of the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party and in the early 1990s, when Yediyurappa, the quintessential Lingayat leader, joined the BJP, many of the Lingayats shifted their allegiance to the saffron party. Later, after the Janata Dal split and H.D. Devegowda, a leader of the Vokkaligas with whom the Lingayats had always competed for political and social space, headed the Janata Dal (Secular), the BJP became the Lingayats’ natural party of affiliation. 

Due to this political shift, the BJP’s electoral fortunes and ideology gained legitimacy and currency in Karnataka. For example, in the 1989 assembly election, the BJP’s vote share had only been 4% and it had won only four seats. But when the Lingayats switched affiliation to the BJP, the saffron party’s vote share swelled slowly to 33.86% and 110 seats in 2008 and 36% in 2018. In parliamentary elections, the BJP has been scoring more seats and votes than the Congress since 2009 and in 2019, the BJP got 51.75% of the votes and 25 out of 28 seats. 

For the past two decades at least, the Lingayats have been the backbone of the BJP. Even in 2013, when Lingayat stalwart Yediyurappa quit the saffron party and formed his own party called Karnataka Janata Paksha, he got only 10% of the votes. This was despite the fact that though he had distanced himself from the BJP, he did not distance himself ideologically from the saffron party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). 

Lingayat elites and neoliberalism

After the advent of privatisation and the commercialisation of professional education in the state, most organised Lingayat mutts opened professional colleges. These commercial ventures brought the mutts closer to the state in terms of seeking favours, etc. Many organised mutts today have lucrative empires of educational institutions. They even expanded into different profitable social sectors. The neoliberal political economy and the withdrawal of the state created a new elite class led by the seers of the affluent mutts and backed by their upper class beneficiaries. This class  admires neoliberalism, which is completely against the concepts of equality and shared lives that constitute the foundational principles of Lingayatism.

Simultaneously, the Sangh Parivar worked within the Lingayat community and its mutts on an ideological and organisational level. The emergence of the BJP as an alternative party at the national level, complete with its aggressive neoliberal and Hindu Rashtra pitches, was not considered objectionable by many seers. The patronage of the saffron party at the centre and in the state was necessitated by the new political economy of the organised elite Lingayat mutts. 

Towards Hindutvaisation

While the Hinduisation of the Lingayat elite took place over centuries, its Hindutvaisation did not take long. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious arm of the Sangh Parivar, took on its shoulders the task of bringing all sects and religions of India which it considered essentially Hindu under a “Hindu umbrella”. While a senior Vokkaliga seer of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt belonging to the non-Brahminical  Natha tradition was one of the VHP’s vice presidents, many Lingayat seers, who had been reluctant in the beginning, also slowly started to participate in the Virat Hindu Sangams organised by the VHP. 

Also read: Karnataka Lingayat and Veerashaiva Thinkers’ Forum Endorses Congress

In 2017-18, when the Congress government in Karnataka recommended a separate religion status for the Lingayat, which had been a demand from certain sections of the community, the 10th Dharma Sansad (Assembly of Faith) was organised in Udupi with the active partnership of the RSS, including its head, Mohan Bhagwat. One of the five resolutions passed at the sansad was to oppose any attempt to give the Lingayats the status of a separate religion. This resolution was signed by many prominent Lingayat seers who attended the sansad, which itself had been inaugurated by a Veera Shaiva Lingayat seer.  

In fact, one reason for the defeat of the Congress in the 2018 assembly election was a campaign by the Lingayat social and spiritual elites against the then chief minister, Siddaramaiah, accusing him of dividing the Hindu community by recommending a separate religion status for the Lingayats. The Congress lost hugely in constituencies where Lingayat voters dominated, showing that the Sangh Parivar narrative of the Lingayat as part of the Hindu order had developed a deep resonance even among the ordinary members of the community. Now, even though an organised effort by some committed forces  for a separate religion status still continues, the anti-Brahminical narrative has been diluted and only the material benefits of such a move are discussed. 

The Hindutvaisation of dominant sections of the Lingayat community is also reflected in the way priority reservation was demanded by the community and the way in which the communal solution offered by the Bommai government was accepted. 

The Panchamasali Lingayats, the numerically dominant sect among the Lingayats, had been demanding inclusion among the most backward sections of society categorised under 2-Aof the OBC reservations. (The OBC reservations provided to different castes in Karnataka have been categorised as 1, 2-A, 2-B, 3-A and 3-B since 1994. The castes under categories 1 and 2-A are the most backward, while Vokkaligas and other castes under 3-A and Lingayats and other castes under 3-B are relatively less backward. Muslims were categorised as 2-B.)

This demand itself is against the tenets of the Basavanna philosophy of the Lingayat, since the Lingayats are socially and educationally far ahead of the castes already listed in 2-A. But the seers and the community were adamant on this demand and the Bommai government played a communal card by scrapping the 4% reservation for Muslims and distributing it to the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas instead. This was a brazen communal and Hindutvavadi measure, but the Lingayat seers found it satisfactory and withdrew their campaign. 

Even when the textbook correction committee headed by a Hindutvavdi spokesperson deleted all references to anti Brahminical acts including the preaching of Basavanna and the Lingayatism he founded, most Lingayat seers and social elites did not challenge it in a big way and were happy with a few inconsequential changes. None of them raised a voice against the way Tipu Sultan was treated in the same textbook or indeed against any communally polarising project of the BJP and Sangh Parivar such as the hijab issue, the halal issue, the economic boycott of Muslims, etc. On the other hand, many local Veera Shaiva-Lingayat seers in North Karnataka either head organisations like the Sri Ram Sene and Bajrang Dal or are regular guests at programmes held by these Hindutva organisations, delivering hate speeches comparable only to those of Yogi Adityanath. 

In fact, some of these seers are demanding the ‘restoration’ of the Peer Pasha Bangla Dargah in Basavakalyan, Bidar, to the Lingayats, claiming that it is the original seat of Basavanna, while others have claimed that there were 64 Veera Shaiva and Lingayat mutts in the undivided Dakshina Kannada district, one of which, in Malali, has been encroached by a dargah. While the controversy around the Malali dargah has reached the courts, the reference to the existence of 64 mutts earlier has created anxiety among the Muslim community.

The subversion of revolutions

Since the emergence of aggressive Hindutva under Narendra Modi and in the absence of any vibrant alternative social movement, the influence of Hindutva over the seers, social elites and lower middle class youth of the Lingayat community has increased. 

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

Along with this, the Sanskritised and upwardly mobile middle class of the community provides credence to Brahmanical tenets by emulating them in their personal and socio-cultural life. Thus the anti-Muslim, ultra nationalistic and anti-Dalit corporate capitalist Hindu Rashtra rhetoric reverberates positively among this upwardly mobile and vocal strata of the community. 

These developments have emboldened the BJP-Sangh Parivar to do away with the old guard in the forthcoming assembly elections and bank on the independent social base they have cultivated  over the years. 

That the political and social dynamic of the Lingayat community in the state is gravitating towards Hindutva is not surprising. It is also not new. 

Everywhere in the world, rebellious religions are co-opted and tamed by the ruling class. Egalitarian socio-religious movements can retain their revolutionary virtues only when they are in constant conflict with the forces of reaction. Once they are institutionalised, they are bound to become instruments of reaction and oppression no matter what their original tenets might have been. Christian imperialism, Islamic fundamentalism and expansionism, the Buddhist onslaught in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, etc., are just a few examples of the result of the institutionalisation of otherwise egalitarian socio-religious philosophies.

The history of the Brahminical socio-religious intellectual leadership, like its counterparts in other parts of the world, is replete with examples of co-opting and diluting challenging discourses. Only by consciously choosing the social location of being with the oppressed can a revolutionary philosophy remain revolutionary. 

Shivasundar is a columnist and activist in Karnataka.