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Why a 12th century Bhakti saint is key for BJP in Karnataka

Basavanna is a seminal figure in the Bhakti movement, which challenged the dominance of Brahminical Hinduism, and especially institutions like the caste system, from the 6th century onwards.

Written by Amrith Lal | Updated: May 15, 2017 2:35 am
Basavanna, Basavanna, Karnataka, Karnataka BJP, Sharana movement, what is Sharana movement, BJP, Karnataka polls, Karnataka elections, bhakti movement, Hinudism, caste system, india castism, Narendra Modi, modi, Bijjala, Kalachurya, Chalukyas, indian express PM Narendra Modi and BJP leader B S Yeddyurappa at an event in Delhi

Earth is one and the same/ For pariah street/ And Shiva temple;/ Water is one and the same/ For washing shit and ritual cleaning;/ All castes are one/ For a man with self-knowledge/ Salvation’s fruit is one and the same/ For all six systems;/ Truth is one,/ O master Kudalasangama/ For the one who know you.

— Basavanna (tr H S Shivaprakash)

Two weeks ago, at a ceremony to dedicate 23 volumes of the vachanas of Basavanna translated into various Indian languages, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the utterances of Basavanna were the basis for good governance: the true essence of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”. The translations were the effort of a team of scholars led by M M Kalburgi, the scholar whose murder 2 years ago by fundamentalists was one of the triggers of a massive protest by writers against growing intolerance against free speech in society.

Basavanna, who lived in the 12th century in Kalyana in northern Karnataka, is a seminal figure in the Bhakti movement, which challenged the dominance of Brahminical Hinduism, and especially institutions like the caste system, from the 6th century onwards. He was a saint, a social reformer, a poet and a political activist; he was minister to Bijjala, a Kalachurya king who succeeded the Chalukyas and ruled from Kalyana. Under his spiritual leadership, the Veerashaivas, an order of Shiva worshippers that rejected discrimination based on caste and gender, sought to establish an egalitarian social order. The Sharana movement he presided over attracted people from all castes, and like most strands of the Bhakti movement, produced a corpus of literature, the vachanas, that unveiled the spiritual universe of the Veerashaiva saints.

H S Shivaprakash, translator of the vachanas into English, writes: “It is rare to come across any literary movement elsewhere which produced (so many poets)… from all sections of the society. The fact that this explosion took place in the caste ridden 12th century Karnataka society, in which all Shudras, untouchables and women were denied the right to literacy, makes the vachana revolution even more amazing. The Sharana movement produced 33 women vachana poets, most of them from the lower strata of the society.”

A K Ramanujam described the vachana as not only a spontaneous cry, but a cry for spontaneity. The vachana form predates Basavanna, according to Shivaprakash, who names Madara Chennaiah, a cobbler-saint, as the first vachana poet. The second poet, Dohara Kakkaiah, too was born in an untouchable caste. Very few of the works of these poets have survived while a large collection of vachanas of Jedara Dasimaiah, a weaver by profession, are available.

Among the vachanakaras were people from many artisanal communities and untouchable castes. Not surprisingly, kayakave kailsasa (work itself is worship), became almost a theological dictum of the Sharana movement.

The egalitarianism of Basavanna’s Sharana movement was too radical for its times. As his fame spread, people flocked to Kalyana to see him. He set up the Anubhava Mandapa, where the Sharanas, drawn from different castes and communities, gathered and engaged in learning and discussions. In Ramanujan’s words, “A new community with egalitarian ideals disregarding caste, class and sex grew in Kalyana, challenging orthodoxy, rejecting social convention and religious ritual.”

The gathering storm shook the empire when the Sharanas challenged the final bastion of the caste order: they organised a wedding where the bridegroom was from a lower caste, and the bride a Brahmin. The conservatives and the radicals clashed. Basavanna was forced to leave the palace and the city, and the Sharana movement dispersed before the violence unleashed by the establishment. It never managed to regain its radical, egalitarian edge, though the Veerashaivas, now commonly known as Lingayats, emerged politically powerful in the later centuries.

Basavanna, Basavanna, Karnataka, Karnataka BJP, Sharana movement, what is Sharana movement, BJP, Karnataka polls, Karnataka elections, bhakti movement, Hinudism, caste system, india castism, Narendra Modi, modi, Bijjala, Kalachurya, Chalukyas, indian express A statue of Basavanna in London. Archive


The Lingayats, who are estimated to be about 17% of the population, have had immense influence over Karnataka politics. Under leaders like Nijalingappa, who was Karnataka CM for nearly a decade, and B D Jatti, the community rallied behind the Congress. An influential section began to move away from the Congress after the party split in 1969. Nijalingappa stayed with the Congress (O), while Indira Gandhi’s faction under Devaraj Urs, an OBC leader, built a social coalition of OBC castes, Dalits and Muslims, offering empowerment through reservations and land reforms. Urs’s coalition had the numbers to challenge the dominance of the Lingayats, and the other dominant caste, the Vokkaligas.

When Janata emerged as a challenger to the Congress, both communities backed it, and the party became a contender for power in the 1980s and 90s. But the split in Janata Dal in the late 90s also resulted in the two communities drifting apart: the Lingayats went to the BJP, then an emerging force, while the Vokkaligas more or less stayed with the Janata Dal, headed by Deve Gowda, a Vokkaliga. The rise of B S Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, in the BJP in the 1990s cemented the community’s ties with the party. Today, the Lingayats are considered the core vote of the BJP. Political analysts say when Yeddyurappa rebelled against the BJP and floated his own outfit, the Lingayats shifted support, resulting in the party’s defeat in the 2013 Assembly election. Yeddyurappa’s KJP won 10% of the vote, and the BJP presence in the Assembly fell from 121 to 40 seats.

Senior CPM leader G N Nagaraj argues that Modi’s invocation of Basavanna is part of the BJP’s outreach to the Lingayats. In the light of Yeddyurappa’s past record and his present tenuous relations with the BJP state leadership, Modi may want to establish direct ties with the community; the party does not want the community’s support to be mediated by one leader. Nagaraj also argues that the Lingayats are not a monolithic community, and it is only the richer sections among them — the business elite, landlords and the priest class — that support the BJP. He calls them the inheritors of a distorted legacy of the Sharana movement — among the distortions are building temples and worshipping Vedic cultures, which, Nagaraj says, are against Basavanna’s basic principles.

With Assembly elections due in Karnataka next year, political parties have started to reassess their strengths. The Congress under Siddaramaiah is banking on a social coalition of backward castes, Dalits, Muslims and, possibly, an alliance with the Janata Dal (S), reminiscent of Urs’s strategy. In his recent Budget, he also promised subsidised canteens like the Amma canteens in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. As Siddaramaiah’s political skills square against Modi’s Hindutva politics, the outcome will be keenly watched. Till then, as Basavanna said: “They do not believe, do not trust/But call out in vain/ They do not know how to believe/ These men of the world./Will not Shiva say: ‘Yes’/ To men who merely call out/ But do not believe/ Says Kudalasangama, our father:/ ‘Go on blow your horn, go on crying out.’


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  1. R
    Ramesh Linganna
    May 16, 2017 at 3:06 pm
    Everyone knows here that MMK was murdered by his family members. Yet, secularists do not stop accusing the so-called fundamentalists.
    1. S
      May 15, 2017 at 12:41 pm
      all drama is going on here.Have these so called reformers done anything to protect india during medieval times when cental asian invaders colonised india and killed millions of indians and enslaved milliosn for indians and sold them throughoutt central asia until slave rates dropped all over asia.Millions of indians were killed during central asian invasions of india and these so called reformers ran like cowards for thier lives.Also where were these reformers when britain invaded and looted trillions of pound and destro india's gdp from 23 to 3 ?Have these reformers ever condemned any terror attack or sacrificed their lives for india No,all these so called reforemrs do is abuse hinduism and waste time in supporting caste system.But these reformers never do anything to protect india from terror attacks,or fight poverty,illetracy or anything else.these so called reformers dont even have a god and are mostly athiests with no proper ideology .This is ntohing but waste of time!!
      1. R
        May 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm
        basavanna should be adopted across India along with similar social reformers. CAste will then be annihilated. The hard core reliance on Ambedkar's raucousness and hard hitting analysis of the religion seems to set people's backs u. Better to use saints from tge past whom Hindus look up to to bring about this social change. Beautiful, lyrical poetry that opens a person's eyes is much more soothing than aggressive bashing by current day 'reofrmers' and is more likely to work, coming from within the same ethos.
        1. C
          May 15, 2017 at 5:25 pm
          Vishwa guru Basavanna, his teachings were beyond cast & community. His message is Work is worship though vasudev kutumbakam. He is against temple building. He told my leg is pillar,my body is temple sanctum & my head is jowel of head gear. His teachings on social equality still guiding force for many generations. He is true Vishwa guru.But ayath community leaders builted wall around him project him as their own leader!!!.. for political gain. Our young generation it better to understand true spirit of bakthi movement in India.
          1. Shyamal Ganguly
            May 15, 2017 at 7:56 pm
            I do not believe the Rich and Powerful believe in what you have written. Young generation will not listen to people like you. They only know: "Make money by any means and that is OK". Ask IAS, IPS, JUDGES, POLITICIANS and get an answer on this Money Maxim theory. Make money by any means and that is OK. Heck with a pujari of Basavanna. Look around Bangalore!!!
        2. A
          Abdul JAMAL
          May 15, 2017 at 9:43 am
          A brown skin converted using money Christian priest Christian father Christian bishop who used to pretend to speak against child abuse was arrested in Kerala for raping of a minor and making her pregnant in his Christian missionary school next to Christian church, police said. The 17-year-old molested girl by the Christian padre gave birth to a baby at a private hospital last month and the accused Christian father Christian priest had shifted both the mother and the newborn to an orphanage in north Kerala’s Wayanad to hush up the incident. Christian Father Robin Vad mchiryil (48), the vicar of St Sebastian church in Kottiyoor, was arrested after the child narrated the incident to officials of childline, a telephone helpline for children in distress. Childline officials then tipped off police. The church official had allegedly abused the girl at the computer cl provided by the church, police said.
          1. R
            May 15, 2017 at 12:20 pm
            The Christians in India kind of Naxals. Kerala Nuns are in Bule film, fathers going after minors and widows in the name God is really sad. Yet again money flows from US to them freely . Any religion doing noon sense must be punished. Be it Baba or Father must be dealt same.
            1. A
              May 15, 2017 at 4:56 pm
              RSS Troll posting as a Muslim. Must be born of one night stand between a drunk muzzie and drunk Brahmin woman after late night party.