In his Lingayatism: An Independent Religion, Lingayat scholar and retired professor of philosophy at Karnatak University, Dharwad, N G Mahadevappa, argued the case for looking at the Lingayat religion separately from Hinduism: “The Lingayats are strict monotheists. They enjoin the worship of only one God, namely, Linga (Shiva). It must be noted that the word ‘Linga’ here does not mean Linga established in temples, but universal consciousness qualified by the universal energy (Shakti),” Prof Mahadevappa said in the paper that extensively referenced the research and writings of the Kannada scholar M M Kalburgi, who was shot dead by unidentified assailants in 2015.
Lingayats, who are currently classified as a Hindu subcaste called “Veerashaiva Lingayats”, are often considered to be Shaivites, even though the community evolved from a 12th century movement led by the philosopher-saint Basavanna to help downtrodden sections of Hindu society break the chains of caste and seek the truth themselves.
“While caste discrimination is central to the post-Manu Hinduism, Basavanna… and his associates… asked their followers not to observe it. They held that once a man undergoes the initiation wherein he is given an ishtalinga, he becomes superior and therefore, all Lingayats must be treated as equal,” Mahadevappa wrote. “There is a general misconception that Lingayatism is a subsect of Shaivism, which is itself a sect of Hinduism and that Lingayats are Shudras. But the truth based on textual evidence and reasoning is that Lingayatism is not a sect or subsect of Hinduism, but an independent religion.”
While the argument for Lingayats being a separate religion has existed in the mainstream for over seven decades, the community’s case was weakened by its subsumption within the Veerashaiva nomenclature after large numbers of Hindu Veerashaivas embraced Lingayatism while continuing to follow Hindu practices.
Research by scholars such as Kalburgi into the vachanas or religious-poetic verses written by Basavanna 800 years ago, produced evidence to show that Lingayats were a religious entity separate from Hindus. With Lingayats getting increasingly subsumed within the Veerashaiva and Hindu nomenclature, and the teachings of Basavanna losing their distinct place in society, however, there was concern in the nearly 3,000 religious monastries of the community — which run hundreds of schools and colleges in Karnataka — that for Lingayatism to survive, it must be identified as a separate religion.
In official surveys up to 1930, Lingayats were identified as “Lingayats”, with Veerashaivas being part of Lingayats; subsequently, however, the community began to be identified as “Veerashaiva Lingayats”, says S M Jamdar, a retired bureaucrat from Karnataka, who has been among the strongest advocates of recognising Lingayats as a separate religion.
“A decision was taken in a meeting of community leaders in 1941 to identify the mahasabha of the community as the All India Lingayat Mahasabha, and to declare Lingayats as a separate religion, but this decison has not been implemented, and the mahasabha continues to be known as the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. We want the decision taken 70 years ago to be implemented,” Jamdar said last year, as the movement to claim status of a religion and religious minority for Lingayats gathered steam.
While hundreds of signature campaigns have demanded the tag of minority religion for Lingayats — including one in 2013 in which BJP state president B S Yeddyurappa was a signatory when he had briefly left the BJP — the first signs of momentum in the movement came in July 2017, when nearly 1 lakh people gathered in Bidar in northern Karnataka to build pressure on the Siddaramaiah government. The rally participants submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister through the Bidar deputy commissioner, asking that their demand for recognition as a religion be taken up with the central government. They also demanded that the community be identified only as “Lingayat”, and not “Veerashaiva Lingayat” in caste certificates.
“The term Lingayat cannot be attributed to any community or caste. This is an independent religion. Lingayat has become a part of Hindu religion due to the ignorance of people. Lingayat should be an independent religion,” Mather Mahadevi, a woman seer from the Basava Dharma Peetha, told the Bidar rally.
Basavaraj Dhannur, one of the organisers of the rally, said, “We have demanded constitutional recognition as a religion. We have all the requirements to be recognised as a religion. The state government must recommend this to the Centre. This… has been delayed due to lack of political will. It (the rally) was a show of our strength. This is a 900-year-old philosophy, and researchers have provided proof to substantiate that Lingayat is a religion.”
Several massive rallies, attended by thousands of people, were subsequently held across the Lingayat heartland districts of Bagalkot, Belgaum and Bidar, and at several other places. Speakers at a rally in Belgaum in August criticised RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat for asking Lingayat seers to stay away from the movement. Mather Mahadevi said Bhagwat should instead focus on “using his influence with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speed up the process of granting us the status of an independent religion”.
As the movement gained traction from July 2017, it became increasingly clear that the ruling Congress was tacitly supporting the demand for separate religion status — in an effort possibly, to gain political currency with the Lingayat community, which had stopped backing the party in the 1990s after Rajiv Gandhi forced the abrupt exit of Lingayat Chief Minister Veerendra Patil. Several Lingayat Ministers came out in open support of the community’s demand — in August, Irrigation Minister M B Patil, Mines and Geology Minister Vinay Kulkarni, Medical Education Minister Sharan Prakash Patil, Higher Education Minister Basavaraj Rayareddi, and senior JD(S) leader Basavaraj Horatti, attended a meeting of Lingayat leaders, which was organised tacitly by M B Patil.
“A primary meeting of leaders of Lingayat mutts was held today to draw up a plan to achieve a long-held desire for Lingayats to be identified as a separate religion. Lingayats must be recognised as a religion on the lines of Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists,” Patil said after the meeting, which called for maintaining the distinction between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, and for Lingayats mutts to propagate the ideas of Basavanna.
Jamdar, the retired Karnataka official and coordinator of the Lingayat Maha Sangathan, said, “In the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, Lingayats, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs are included among Hindus, but Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains have been identified by state and central governments as minority religions in 1993, 1963 and 2014 respectively. Only Lingayats remain, and today’s meeting has decided to call for recognition of Lingayats as a minority religion.” Once the Lingayats were so recognised, they would be able to avail benefits under Articles 25, 28, 29 and 30 of the Constitution (which deal with freedom of religion and rights of minorities), he said.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s attempts to woo the Lingayats have included ordering pictures of Basavanna to be put up in all government offices, and setting up a university in the name of 12th century Lingayat poet and teacher Akkamahadevi. However, with some Ministers opposing the religious minority tag being accorded to Lingayats alone and not to the Veerashaiva Lingayats, this week’s cabinet decision chose to tackle the threat of agitation by the latter by recommending religious minority status for both “Lingayat and Veerashaiva Lingayat believers of Basava Tattva”.
The BJP has been largely silent on the issue, except for one remark by Amit Shah where he called the Lingayats’ movement a political ploy by the Congress.