Last week, as Shivakumara Swami of the Siddaganga mutt approached his death, lakhs of Lingayat followers thronged the mutt for a final glimpse of their beloved guru. The entire clan of swamis was present. The sight must have once again raised the hopes of Hindutva proponents that this agrarian community – comprising 17% (some say 30%) of the state’s population – could be converted into die-hard BJP voters.
On January 13, another leading spiritual voice in the state stepped up to advance this hope. Vishwesha Theertha Swamiji, the head of the Pejawara Matha, spoke to the media to endorse a Central government decision against recognising Lingayats as a “separate dharma“.
“The founder of Lingayat dharma, Basavanna, propagated Shiva bhakti which is the same as Veerashaiva dharma,” he said. “Basavanna was a Veerashaiva himself.” Lingayats, he implied, belong to the same belief system as most Hindus.
When the 88-year-old Pejawar Seer speaks, Hindutva gets a new lease of life. He heads one of the eight major mathas in the state, much revered for its rich history and believed to be established by Sri Madhvacharya himself.
He was initiated into sanyasa at the age of eight, grew to be a scholar in Nyaya, Vedanta and associated schools of philosophy, and later became a strong proponent of Hindu dharma. He has argued for Dalit rights, even while defending the ‘separate dining system’ for Madhwa Brahmins and others at the mutt. He has been associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, but in 2017, he also hosted an iftar during Ramzan, disappointing many of his followers.
Throughout, there has been a shortfall – a ‘last-mile connectivity’ problem – when it comes to his efforts at genuine social change. Every party seeks an audience with him, but his ‘Dhritarashtra Prema’ is for the RSS. He does not feign any balance – he has friends across parties but favourites only in the BJP.
So when the Pejawar seer makes a proclamation, one has to interpret his words beyond their obvious meanings.
The birth of Lingayat dharma
The 12th-century social reformer Basavanna, who founded the Lingayath dharma, was born a Brahmin in north Karnataka – but he rejected his identity in the pursuit of an ‘equal society’ where there was no discrimination between castes or gender.
The vachana movement still stands out as a historic radical effort to advance equality among all men and women, and reject the hierarchy of the contemporary order.
Ever since, in both identity and practice, Lingayat dharma has differed from mainstream Hinduism and struggled to retain that identity. The seers of that community have sought the status of a separate religion for at least last four decades.
The recent campaign started in Bidar in north Karnataka, where lakhs of Lingayats pressed that demand in July 2017. The interpretation of ‘Lingayata’ as standing apart from Hinduism (and opposing Hindutva) was strongly articulated by many members of the community. Two leading voices – M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh – have since been shot dead by assassins.
In an attempt to show solidarity, the then chief minister Siddaramaiah advanced the proposal – which was rejected by the BJP government in New Delhi.
Spiritual questions with political impact
The Pejawar swamiji’s reference to Basavanna as a good ‘Hindu’ comes at a crucial moment, when the strategic forces of Lingayata dharma are lying low, and reckoning with how their movement has played out. In this context, the seer’s comment sound more like a political strategy than scholarly reflection.
In Karnataka, the stronghold of Hindutva politics is in Dakshina Kannada, where the conservative Ashta Mathas exercise powerful control over their devotees and followers. But that region is devoid of Lingayats. Dakshina Kannada supports Hindutva politicians, but that region alone cannot win seats to wrest control over power corridors. This has made northern Karnataka essential territory for the advancement of Hindutva and the BJP.
The BJP needs a Lingayat leader like Yeddyurappa, who not only swelled the party ranks but also ensured the community identified with the BJP. For the BJP to retain power, Lingayats are a necessity and not a luxury. The other dominant communities in the state, Vokkaliga and Gowda community, have another party – the Janata Dal (Secular) – to themselves.
In saying Basavanna was a good Hindu, the Pejawar seer has laid the groundwork for the BJP to step up before the next round of elections kick in.