With the Karnataka elections scheduled for May 12, the focus on the Lingayat-Veerashaiva standoff has become sharper. When Karnataka became a state in 1956, its linguistic identity was closely entwined with the Lingayat-Veerashaiva tradition. The Vachana literature, produced by the followers of Basavanna — the founder of the Lingayat cult — in the 12th and 13th centuries was seen by the partisans of separate statehood for Karnataka as a key cultural marker of the region. The national movement as well as the Karnataka unification movement, with Kannada as its unifying bond, found its most intense expression in the northern part of the state, where the Lingayats were demographically significant. When disparate political entities scattered over the colonial Bombay and Madras provinces, the Nizam’s Hyderabad state and scores of princely states, including Mysore, were forged together to create Karnataka, Lingayats assumed political leadership in the new state.
They had few rivals except the Vokkaligas, the agrarian social group that enjoyed pre-eminence in south of the state. In the 1970s, the then chief minister of Karnataka, Devaraj Urs, brought a radical change in this axis of power by forging an alliance between backward castes and minorities. This was not taken well by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas — more so the former — who felt that Karnataka’s identity was co-extensive with their own.
Much of what constitutes Karnataka today has been a great transit zone for trade, cultures, languages and social practices between the North and the South, and beyond the Arabian Sea to the West. Buddhism and Jainism flourished in the region, so did the Nath Sampradaya and Tantrism. Mutts representing the Vedic traditions propagated by Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhavacharya also came up in the region and there were myriad representations of Shaivite and Shakti beliefs.
It is in this setting that we need to locate the creativity of Basavanna. He decried rituals, ceremonies and propitiations and called for reflectivity. Basavanna made ishtalinga the symbol of such a disposition. He celebrated equality by decrying and violating caste distinctions and called upon the devotee to make his personhood the laboratory of new spiritual experiences. He termed this reflective striving as the Guru — “arivve guru”. While parallels to such striving are galore across India, Basavanna broke ground with regard to four issues. His followers would continue to pursue their traditional occupations, experiencing the transcendental realm in and through them. “Kayakave Kailasam,” work is bliss, became one of the main principles of this persuasion. His followers hailed from all castes. There were cobblers, washermen, sweepers, weavers, goldsmiths, barbers, boatmen, traders, oil-pressers, and cowherds who wore their occupational marks and transformed themselves into great poets and spiritual savants. Second, this path was available equally to men and women and produced great saint-poets such as Akka Mahadevi. Third, Basavanna formed the Anubhava Mantapa at Kalyan, where saints and savants came gather together to exchange their experiences and learn from one another. Fourth, this great social and spiritual upsurge was expressed in Kannada, the language of the common people, shaping the language in turn.
The relationship between Lingayat beliefs, as expressed through the Vachana literature and practices such as ishtalinga, had an uneasy relation with Shaivite practices although they themselves were not rigid. Over the years, Shaivism, in the form of Veerashaivism, a resolute commitment to Shiva, was to connect many Lingayats to a wider milieu, creating its own pantheon in turn. It is important to point out that a distinct form of philosophical conversation, Tatwapadas, Sufi traditions and the devotional Dasa Sahitya also flourished in the region where Lingayatism found its initial moorings.
Much of the Lingayat country came under British rule following the defeat of the Marathas. Confronted with the colonial regime, the rudimentary institutions of the Lingayat mutts took on the larger responsibility of not just standardising their traditions but also setting up new educational institutions. Some of these mutts were pronouncedly Lingayat and some others were heavily tilted towards Veerashaivism, although the former had an edge over the latter. The Veerashaiva Mahasabha, founded in 1904, acted as a powerful pressure group to advance the interests of this group, which it described as Veerashaiva Lingayats though the tension and equivocation between Lingayat, Veershaiva and Veershaiva-Lingayat smoldered below the surface.
While the demand to declare Lingayats/Veershaivas/Veerashaiva-Lingayats as a separate religion came to be voiced from the 1940s, the demand did not enjoy wider support as long as the community had political preponderance. Besides, a large section of Lingayats hailing from lower castes were brought under reservation benefits although the Veerashaiva Mahasabha had always sought reservation for the community as a whole and in the 1970s and 1980s organised public protests for the same.
A set of new developments in recent years, however, have placed the community at a crossroads. While its shrinking political space has made it to look towards the BJP as an alternative, the community has also come under the ideological sway of the sangh parivar. This has bred much resentment within the mutts, which were self-consciously Lingayat. The mutts today run thousands of educational institutions, including professional and technical colleges and universities. To benefit from the provisions of Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution, they demand minority status. There are theological and philosophical arguments for separating from Hinduism as well. And, there is also a widespread feeling among the lower strata of Lingayats that its upper strata has cornered all the economic and educational benefits.
In this context the demand for, or endorsement of, a separate religion or religious minority status either exclusively to the Lingayats or the Lingayat-Veerashaiva combine or Lingayats and those Veershaivas avowing Basava’s teachings, are nothing but political posturings with little capacity to respond to a complex set of problems that the community confronts today. These problems have been exacerbated by the intervention of the sangh parivar, which wants to ride roughshod over the distinct legacy of Lingayatism in the name of Hindu unity, by the current regime in the state which is keen to undermine the hold of the BJP over the community, by the crass economic interests of some mutts and a section of the Lingayat elite to cash in on the religious minority tag.