Bengaluru: On November 2, a prominent Lingayat swami asked his community to stop worshipping Ganapati and unwittingly set off a huge controversy. “Ganapati is not Lingayat culture. Instead of starting events with a prayer to him, Lingayats should sing Vachanas,” said Panditaradhya Shivacharya Swami of the Sanehalli matha in Chitradurga district of Karnataka.
Vachanas, simple prose-poems composed by founding fathers of the Lingayat movement, are the religious scriptures of the community. Lingayats are descendants of a band of reformers led by Basavanna, who rejected Vedic norms and tried to form an egalitarian, inclusive society in 12th-century Karnataka.
The largely working class movement, which drew members from all castes, was crushed by the establishment and the tragic memory is burnt into the Lingayat mind. Basavanna’s emotional appeal cuts across caste and religion in Karnataka and several backward groups in Karnataka trace their social origin to the 12th-century movement.
Though over the centuries Lingayats have relapsed into many Hindu practices, a small but influential section of them is seeking to revive the distinct radical ethos of the founding movement and claim a separate religious status for the community.
Panditaradhya swami along with many other Lingayat religious leaders have opposed the worship of Hindu gods by the community for decades. Many of them routinely persuade their followers to empty their homes of idols and photos of Hindu gods. But for some reason the November 2 statement caught the attention of Hindutva advocates, who decided to go after him.
A police complaint was filed for hurting religious sentiments, TV channels gave the controversy breathless coverage, and a Sangh parivar-affiliated Kannada newspaper ran a continuous campaign for nine days publishing as many as 12 reports on the issue either on the front page or on the opinion page or on both. They asked him to apologise for “offending” the Sanatani religion and respect the plural nature of Indian society. One report spoke of an internationally funded conspiracy to undermine Hinduism. He was described as ‘shameless’, ‘mentally disturbed,’ ‘lefty,’ and a ‘Naxal’ in these reports.
Panditaradhya swami is widely seen as a progressive religious leader as he often asks his followers to grow a scientific temper, reject astrology and stop accepting puranas as gospels. He takes up the causes of weaker sections and enjoys a large following outside Lingayats. He has been organising a popular theatre festival every year for decades in which socially sensitive plays are prioritised. He is a strong advocate for a separate Lingayat religion and bringing back Basavanna’s teachings is the central theme of his work.
After the media campaign against him started, Lingayat groups interpreted it as an Hindutva attack on Basava philosophy and came out in support. Former IAS officer S.M. Jamdar said, “Many Lingayats especially Veerashaivas worship Hindu gods due to the influence of their neighbours. The Swamiji was right in questioning them.” Jamdar is the secretary of Jagathika Lingayata Mahasabha (JLM), which is spearheading the fight for a separate Lingayat religion. He says the swami’s comments were made at a Lingayat function and were for Lingayats only. “There is no need for others to get upset. We condemn the intemperate attack on him in equally strong words,” he added.
The older and more resourceful community organisation All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha (AIVM) refrained from issuing a public statement but indicated they were with the swami. Its secretary Renuka Prasanna said, “ The swamiji spoke the truth, we don’t start any programme with a Ganapati prayer. There is no question of not supporting him, if required we will also hit the streets.” AIVM is more conservative, ambivalent on a separate Lingayat religion and at loggerheads with the JLM.
In response to the campaign against Panditaradhya swami, Lingayat groups staged sporadic protests, launched a counter media campaign and started flooding social media with explicitly anti-Vedic Vachanas. Many left-leaning progressive activists also joined in and on November 22, both groups are coming together to support the swami at an event in Bangalore.
As many as six well known Lingayat religious leaders came out in support of the Panditaradhya swami. The lone exception was Dr Shivamurthy Shivacharya Swami of the powerful Sirigere matha, who opposed ‘fundamentalists’ and said there was nothing in Vachanas that went against Vedas. “The Sirigere Swamiji happens to be Panditaradhya swamiji’s senior in the matha hierarchy and has been at loggerheads with his junior for years. It is unfortunate that he is using this opportunity to settle scores,” said Jamdar.
“It is not right to pick a few Vachanas selectively and misinterpret them. It was not just Basavanna…Many like Allama Prabhu, Siddarama, Ambigara Chowdaiah rejected Vedas without mincing words,” Jamdar added.
The relationship between Lingayats and Hinduism is long debated. Though usually seen as a Shaivite community, the Lingayat Shiva does not reside in Kailasa nor is he married to Parvati or is the creator of Ganesha. He is a formless divine energy that is manifest in the Ishtalinga, which Lingayats carry and worship. Though Lingayat beliefs prohibit polytheism, most people in the community do exactly that and the groups fighting for separate religion are locked in a constant battle to discourage the practice.
The Ganapati controversy that has grabbed headlines for nearly two weeks in Karnataka underlines the challenges before the Hindutva advocates in the state. In the May 2023 state election, the BJP slumped from 104 to 66 MLAs – and not just due to bad governance and inflation. It also ran into tough ideological opposition from Muslims, Dalits, many backward castes and the JLM Lingayats.
The dissent of Lingayats is probably more damaging for the BJP as the community constitutes its primary vote bank. J.S. Patil, a full-time JLM activist, points out that while Lingayats may vote for the BJP, it is largely due to political expediency rather than any ideological commitment. “We are always aware that we are in an intense power struggle with the Sangh parivar within the BJP,” he said.
While Hindutva advocates may see the Ganapati controversy as an existential threat, Lingayat activists see it as an opportunity. “We have to thank Hindutva groups with folded hands for creating this controversy and energising us. We need one controversy like this every year to keep our fight going,” said Prasanna Alanahalli, an activist in Mysuru.
M.A. Arun is a Bangalore-based writer.