Making Sense of the Lingayat Controversy

This summer in Bangalore feels more heated up thanks to the impending Karnataka State Assembly Elections. The whole of India is waiting to watch if BJP will add another state to its fold or if the Congress under its new President will retain its stronghold over Karnataka. With only a few days to the poll, one cannot deny that the most favourite term during this election season has been ‘Lingayat’, a community which constitutes about 17% of the population in the state. For the uninitiated, Lingayats are followers of 12th-century philosopher-saint Basavanna and they believe in veneration of the Linga (a symbol of Shiva). However, unlike the Veerashaivas, who also worship Shiva, but follow the Hindu customs, the Lingayats claim to be a non-Vedic culture and reject ritualistic worships. Therefore, they have been demanding the status of a separate religion for a long time. In March 2018, the ruling Congress government in the state accepted the recommendations of the Nagamohan committee under section 2D of the state Minorities Commission Act. The Committee recommended that a religious minority status could be rendered for the Lingayats but not for the Veershaivas. This political gimmick in broad daylight was to counter the strong rallying of this community by BJP’s star candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa who also belongs to the same community. However, the demand for a separate religion for Veerashaivas/Lingayat goes a long way back and had to be understood beyond the current controversy. So, an eminent panel of scholars sat down to discuss in detail the theological nuances of this conflict on May 5, 2018, at the Bangalore International Centre.

The panelists were Ms Asha Devi (Literary Critic and Associate Professor of Kannada, Maharani’s science college for Women), Dr Basavaraj Kalgudi (Literary Critic and Former Professor of Kannada, Bangalore University), and Professor H S Shivaprakash (Poet, Playwright, and Professor, Theatre and performance studies, JNU). The discussion was moderated by Chandan Gowda (Writer, Professor of Sociology, Azim Premji University). Speaking of the current controversy, Asha Devi said she was initially excited hoping that we were being part of a historical movement. She remarked how the Kannada speaking world had constantly tried to revive the Lingayat movement through its literary works, despite multiple failures. However, according to her, the current situation is more complex, challenging, and abstract.

In the views of Dr Kalgudi, while there are political, religious, and economic aspects to the current controversy, the common man from the community is not bothered about all of it. It is only the intellectual-community and the mutts who have been in the forefront of the current movement. He also remarked that the Vachanakaras of the 12th century believed in an agrarian society devoid of rituals and hierarchies. They also believed in ‘Body as the abode of god’ as against the Brahminical concept of God as a different entity. However, the current Lingayat community has about 90 sub-castes and every sub-caste has got a hierarchy which is not in line with the preaching of Basavanna.

Prof ShivaPrakash observed that the far-reaching implications of the current development are more important than its immediate implications. He doesn’t want to call it a movement or a revolution and was also convinced that a lot of us have misread the ‘Sharana’ culture. He says the word Lingayat occurs in Vachana texts only 67 times and that too after the post-Basava period. However, the term ‘Sharana’ occurs more than 4000 times implying that the original identity marker was not Lingayat or Veera Shaiva but ‘Sharana’. According to him, ‘Lingayat’ and ‘Veerashaiva’ are caste-based identity markers while Sharana is the quality based marker. Also, the Vachananakaras did not intend to create a new faith or Dharma, but a new Ethics or culture. About the debate whether Lingayats are non-Hindus, he also quoted Manu V Devadevan’s study to establish that, the term Hindu did not exist before the 18th century and it came into existence only as a geographical identity.

According to him, the Sharanas were not only against Brahminism but also against Jains and temple Shaivites. He believes the problem with Sharana culture started from the 15th century with the reconstruction of the Vachanas by the 101 Virakthas. Some of the meaningless rituals such as washing of the guru’s feet and drinking the water, wearing rudraksha and other formal aspects currently in practice got emphasized only during the reconstruction and Vachanas became more rigid and institutionalized. In his opinion, Vachanas have a discursive quality but they are not distrusive. They have poeticality but they are not poems. They are a genre independent of all literary and philosophical genres. So, he suggests that Vachanas must be read in the light of Vachanas and not from the later reconstructions.

Speakig of the Shunya Sampadne, an anthology of vachanas, Prof ShivaPrakash says there were two narratives, one centered around Allama Prabhu emphasizing the monastic culture and the other centred around Basava emphasizing devotion or Bhakti. However, multiple voices of women and saint-poets were suppressed to give technical victory to the hero, Allama. So, he doesn’t want to consider what is considered as Veerashaiva literature as an extension of Vachanas. The values of Vachanas are truly found in another spiritual movement that was founded in the 17th century by Kodekal Basaveshwara, which is predominantly non-Lingayat.

Prof ShivaPrakash continued to explain that in India, there were two approaches to spirituality. One is the samanic tradition which emphasizes on monastic culture. The other is the tantric tradition. Both these approaches, Yoga and Bhoga, are anti-social and are against family life. The Vachanakaras, however, advocated Kayaka yoga which was inclusive in its approach towards family life while pursuing spirituality. There were a lot of women saints who were part of the Vachana movement who were known to be not subservient to their husbands. Also, seeing Labour as a means to spiritual enlightenment was something unique to Sharana culture although there might be references of the same in the works of Sant Tukaram or Kabir Das. However, after the 15th century, the labouring class was sidelined.

Dr Kalgudi spoke of the work done by Dr P.G. Halakkati which speaks of an important dilemma about whether the Lingayat community was against the Brahmins.  Many orientalists of his time had maintained that Lingayatism is non-Vedic. However, Dr Halakatti argues that most of the Vachanakaras during the Vachana movement were Brahmins and a lot of utterances in the Vachanas are taken from Vedas and Upanishads.

Speaking of the Pancha Peethas, Kalgudi remarks that research suggests that these were of NathaPanthis, but in the current times these Peethas do not recognize Basava as their leader. The Pancha Peetha Swamis of later period consider themselves above Basava and inclined towards Vedic Shaivism.

Adding on to what Dr Kalgudi said, Prof ShivaPrakash said that the Kaalaamugas who were influenced by the Sharana culture slowly converted to Lingayatism but they continued practising their yagna and other rituals. Also, the tradition of Panchacharya is only a post-sixteenth century construction mimicking the five mutts of Shankaracharya.

Speaking of the Lingayat Mutts, ShivaPrakash observed that they are revenue-earning institutes but unlike the Brahmin Mutts they educated a lot of Shudra boys. He also thinks that the mutts have scarcely produced any great scholars. In his views, the concept of mutts is not justified as per the Vachanas and the Vachanas broadly reject the accumulation of wealth.  Dr Kalgudi emphasized that the mutts cannot be dismissed entirely because they have been doing a lot about educations and inter-caste marriages. But there is also caste based hierarchies in these mutts and the succession in these mutts involves a lot of nepotism.  Also, these mutts have been trapped by politicians in the current controversy and they probably do not understand the Vachanas in their true sense. According to him, Lingayats and Veerashaivas are synonymous as per the Vachanas.

Quoting Allama, Prof ShivaPrakash explained that a Sharana is one who can achieve the boundless within the confines of life. According to Vachanakaras, there is no spiritual text and it is all about one’s own individual ‘anubhava’. He also emphasized the contribution of non-Lingayat communities to the glory of Vachana expression and the labouring sections of Vachanakaras whose expression was suppressed after the 15th century. He believes that the power of Vachanas needs to be liberated from the Casteists and Institutionalists, but the demand to recognize the heritage of Sharana culture is valid. He also added that the politically-correct lefts of the country will bring more darkness for the Vachanas. The problem with Indian scholars according to him is that they are not able to read the pre-modern texts and they are Anglo-centric. He was also hopeful that Prof. Shettar’s project on Vachanas might bring out better translations.

According to Ms Asha Devi, the kind of intense connection that women and the Dalits had with this Vachana movement, shows the significance of this movement.

The panel also deliberated that the intense identity politics that is gaining strength in the state might lead to other kinds of intolerance. According Dr Kalgudi, these demand for minority status might lead to more dangerous times where everyone will take to streets demanding for minority status. But Professor ShivaPrakash sees no problem with such demands, rather he thinks that these might bring out interesting possibilities. The panel also broadly agreed that the Vachana movement was not an anti-caste movement as being claimed, but it did provide a platform for people from all castes and communities to come together. It provided them with a new identity. As per the Vachanas, anyone can be Sharana.

The Q&A session saw some interesting and intriguing discussion on the effect of these on the younger generations of the Lingayat community, about different forms of Shaivism, the role of Rudra in these cultures and nudity of women saints like Akka Mahadevi. An hour and a half is only too less when you sit down to listen to such eminent scholars who have so much to share.  Personally, the discussion stirred in me too many questions and encouraged me to read more to understand the true theological significance of the Sharana tradition.

What do you think? Tell us in Comments.