Are Lingayats Hindus? Even asking such a question may seem absurd since Lingayats have been, for over two decades now, the bedrock of Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral prospects in Karnataka. How could a community support the party of Hindutva politically while also asserting its difference from Hinduism?
This contradiction again came to the fore, triggered by a question from Siddaramaiah, the Karnataka chief minister. Accepting a long-standing demand of Lingayats, that their community be declared a religious minority, Siddaramaiah agreed to recommend their case to the central government. Noting that both “Lingayat” and “Virashaiva” are used for the community, he asked which term should be used in his recommendation letter. This opened a festering wound within the community. In the ensuing debate, Lingayat has come to mean an identity outside Hinduism whereas Virashaiva indicates remaining within the Hindu fold.
The term Lingayat denotes a person who wears a personal linga, the aniconic form of god Shiva, on the body. A Lingayat receives the linga during the initiation ceremony. Membership isn’t by birth alone, as in a caste group, so the Lingayats have historically been an open community, enabling a diverse social base.
The practice of wearing the linga can be traced to pre-modern times, often to the 12th century radical Bhakti movement led by Shaiva devotees known as the sharanas (those who surrendered). These devotees came together in Kalyana, the capital city of Chalukya and Kalachuri kingdoms. Basavanna, an official in the Kalachuri court, was their patron. Hailing from different caste and professional backgrounds, sharanas composed Kannada poems known as vachanas (sayings), now considered a part of the Bhakti literary corpus. More than 400 vachanakaras (makers of vachanas) have been identified so far.
Vachanas, like other Bhakti compositions, are outpourings of devotion towards Shiva. But they also contain fierce criticism of contemporary religion. The vachanakaras stand out for their strident opposition to temple worship. Basavanna writes: “The rich/ will make temples for Shiva/What shall I/ a poor man/ do?/ My legs are pillars,/the body the shrine,/ the head a cupola/of gold./ Listen, O, Lord of the meeting rivers,/ things standing shall fall,/ but the moving ever? shall stay.”
Not surprisingly, an influential foundation account of Lingayats traces its origins to Basavanna and the vachanakaras. This account distances itself from Hinduism, rejecting the primacy of Vedas, Sanskrit scriptures, Brahmin priests and temple worship. Vachanas are considered sacred texts and the linga itself is the object of worship. Prof MM Kalburgi, assassinated two years ago, was, perhaps, the most prominent intellectual advocate of this account.
The second term, Virashaiva, literally means brave or heroic Shaiva and is often found in pre-modern Kannada narratives and inscriptions. Being a brave Shaiva was enough to distinguish oneself from other Shaivas. Yet, in the present debate, Virashaiva implies an intimate relationship with Hinduism. The proponents of Virashaiva identity propose that Virashaivas predate Basavanna and his fellow sharanas. They argue that Basavanna only popularised an already existing Virashaiva tradition. The practice of wearing a personal linga is accepted, but seen only as an initiation ritual. While temple worship and Brahmin priests aren’t important in this second account, the Sanskrit corpus of Vedas and Agamas are accorded primacy.
Despite what the foundation accounts may claim, the making of Virashaiva-Lingayats has been a complex, messy process. Many Shaiva traditions coalesced in the past eight centuries, merging diverse beliefs and practices. This has occurred in such a way that separating Lingayat and Virshaiva trajectories is virtually impossible.
So how should we understand Lingayats and Virashaivas? Are they a protest group which, nevertheless, remains within Hinduism or do they constitute a separate religious community? There are compelling arguments for both positions. Hence, the Virashaiva-Lingayats themselves have to decide not only their core beliefs but also their relationship with Hinduism.
The present controversy has arisen because Lingayats also want the Indian State to affirm their distinctiveness from Hinduism and secure minority status. In the past too, such representations have been rejected — the Ramakrishna Mission and the Swami Narayana sect have sought minority status before, unsuccessfully.
But the demand of the Lingayats for minority status also has a lot to do with practical considerations. There were two rationales for obtaining a separate census entry and, thereby, minority status. In the past, Lingayats consistently argued that in the absence of caste census since 1931, their numbers have been underreported. They contended that a separate census entry would reveal their true numerical strength, which they estimated to be nearly two crores. An accurate count, Lingayats believed, would reveal their backwardness, thus securing reservation.
Now, the Lingayat reasoning has broadened further. A minority status would enable Lingayats to secure exemptions and preferential benefits for their educational institutions. Consider the fact that Lingayat organisations run four private universities and thousands of educational institutions, including technical and medical colleges. Just not being subject to RTE alone will bring a windfall to Lingayat institutions. Such motivations have brought together even ideological adversaries. While the Lingayat and Virashaiva divide may, perhaps, remain an irreconcilable one, neither of the warring parties will reject the benefits that will accrue to every community institution.
Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is a teacher at Karnataka State Open University.