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.
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.’