In Good Faith: In the vigil of Basava

The Sharana movement and vachanas address issues of our time. That’s why they resonate in contemporary social and political discourse.

Written by Mamta Sagar | Updated: May 14, 2018 12:08:47 am
In the vigil of Basava Basavanna was a social reformer, an activist and a saint from 12th century, who discarded his brahminical identity and argued for a non-hierarchical society. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the Karnataka election campaign, political parties were seen to be frequently invoking Basavanna and claiming his legacy. Strangely, even those political parties who thrive on agendas of religious and social discriminations have been quoting him.

Basavanna was a social reformer, an activist and a saint from 12th century, who discarded his brahminical identity and argued for a non-hierarchical society. His message was inclusive and argued for a diverse society and rejected an exclusive State favouring one caste or one religion. He would have never agreed on the idea of an exclusive Hindu Rashtra or building mandirs at the cost of violating human rights. For him, “legs are pillars, body the shrine, head a golden pinnacle… the stagnant perishes while those wander (across barriers) sustain”. References to Basavanna and the movement he lead allows us to at least dream of and hope for an egalitarian society at this point of time.

Annihilation of caste is the foundation of the Sharana movement that Basavanna led. It seems to have simultaneously addressed problems arising out of a casteist society giving access to specific powerful communities, castes and gender alone, to the philosophical and social milieus through depriving and marginalising the “other” and common people. The Sharana movement is a reformist movement as it attempted to address class, caste and to some extent gender issues in a given societal milieu. Of course, it marks a rupture with the then prevailing dominant religious and social mores, which is documented in the Vachanas, the oral texts produced by vachanakaras during that time.

“If breasts and braids come they call it a WOMAN/If moustache and loincloth come they call it a MAN/The knowledge of this duality/is it a man or a woman”, asks Goggavve, one of the vachanakaras.

Men and women sharanas from the untouchable castes and down-trodden communities were the force of the Vachana movement. Basavanna identified himself as one among them. He says,

“My father is Maadara Chennayya/Dohara Kakkayya my elder Uncle/Chikkayya the Uncle/My elder brother is Kinnari Bommayya/Why do you not know me as such Koodalasangayya?”

The movement gave the oppressed and the downtrodden a hope of equality and courage to nurture this dream. Basavanna encouraged men and women from lowest of the lower castes to practice social equality and actively participate in building and contributing towards a healthy society. Treasures of philosophical knowledge wrapped in Sanskrit and kept away from commoners unraveled in Kannada during Basavanna’s time. God and Bhakti that remained untouchable for many were made accessible. God started walking beyond the sanctum sanctorum of temples and lived amidst people. Fear for God was replaced with love, affection and humanitarian concerns. God and Bhakti were powerful tools used to fight social discriminations and to keep harmony and within the Sharana communities which were inter-caste and inter-religious in nature.

While even today the people of this country are not rescued from various social stigmas of religion, caste and gender attached to them, here seemed to have been a space in time and history that allowed the voicing of social discrepancies. Though this movement seem to have promoted new wave Shaivism, it is more a socio-political uprising against feudal and fascist power structures. We need to approach and understand the Vachana texts from a contemporary perspective. Only then will it reveal us secret hidden between the lines.

Using Kannada, which was people’s language, to deliver and attain philosophical deliberations as against Sanskrit, a language of the high-caste Hindus, in itself was a major political move. The vachanas were composed in Kannada. The vachanakaras spoke, voiced, documented and resisted though their words. What else do you want if you have the freedom to imagine your god in your own way along your experience and interpretations?

Though Basava initiated and led the Sharana movement, it was nurtured, protected and gets documented by many vachanakaras, men and women from varied walks of life who have composed the vachanas. For them, work was worship (“Kayakave kailasa”). Philosophical, social and political streams of thought addressing issues around caste and gender, authoritarian and subjugated, power and the powerless could be accessed in the vachanas composed during the Sharana movement.

It is important to recognise and recall the diverse voices in the Lingayat tradition only because it is the only inclusive, accommodative, sympathetic tradition that treated women, the poor, Dalits and the marginalised without discriminating along their religion, caste or gender. It allowed severe criticisms of the feudal, fascist, discriminatory power structures by citizens in the public.

“Nectar should be nectar for all/it cannot be poison for some…” says Urilingapeddi.

Basava says, “don’t kill, don’t lie.” The vachanas are so contemporary that they address every question of our time. They voice every issue of our time: The vachanas reveal and critique fascisms of our time. This is how Basava and his followers are relevant to our times.

The writer is a well-known Kannada poet

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