In a move expected to have huge implications on the upcoming assembly elections, the Siddaramaiah led Congress government in Karnataka has declared the Lingayats to be a religious minority. Hinduism being an amorphous religion has seen branches of sub-traditions and oppositional traditions since time immemorial. The Lingayats too emerged as a reactionary force against Hinduism in the twelfth century. While it rejected most of the broad Hindu traditions, it also assimilated aspects of it, making the demand for a separate religious status a rather complicated affair.
However, the issue of the Lingayats is further complicated by the fact that underneath the socio-cultural demand for a separate religion is a burning political struggle for votes. Speaking about the gradual politicisation of the Lingayat agitation in last few decades, historian Manu Devadevan says “the movement took off in the early twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century when the first census took place, most of the communities in India started identifying themselves as homogenous groups. So to a large extent, it was a cultural movement then. You don’t find anything explicitly political there. That happens only after the 1980s.”
The community which currently forms 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population is understandably a major vote bank for political parties. In the past few decades, the Lingayats have emerged as strong supporters of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). By giving separate religious status to the community, the BJP stands to lose much in their effort to create vote bank based on Hindu solidarity. The Congress, on the other hand, stands to gain just as much from the desired branching. This whole agitation, however, revolves around a single core question- who are the Lingayats and what precisely is their religious identity?
The tradition of Lingayatism is known to have been founded by social reformer and philosopher Basavanna in 12th century Karnataka. While there exists a debate around whether Basavanna founded the sect or if he merely reformed an existing order, there can be no doubt that under him the community acquired the form of a well-organised, structured mass movement. Followers of the sect continue to revere him as the founder and prime philosopher of their religion.
Basavanna’s religious movement needs to be located in political setup of medieval Karnataka, particularly under the reign of King Bijala II. This period in Karnataka was characterised by the dominance of Brahmanical Hindu values, a social system based on caste restrictions and a feudal economy. The religious, political and social order did not just blend into each other, but also supported and benefited from each other. Further, the religious framework in medieval Karnataka was dominated by Shaivite traditions. “It is of utmost importance to see that Lingayatism, while historically related to this brand of Shaivism, was born as a negation of its fundamental principles which were indistinguishable from the mainstream Brahmanical Hinduism,” writes historian K. Ishwaran. Therefore, while the Lingayats were and still remain staunch worshippers of the Hindu God Shiva, they strongly protest against Hindu social practices such as caste discrimination and wearing of the sacred thread.
Basavanna’s vision of a societal order was one based on human freedom, equality, rationality, and brotherhood. He and his followers spread their ideas through vachanas (prose-lyrics) and their prime target was the caste hierarchy which they rejected with full force. In one of his vachanas, Basavanna asserts that “the birthless has no caste distinctions, no ritual pollution.” He rejected the Hindu Brahmanical ritualism and its adherence to sacred texts like the Vedas.
In contemporary times, followers of Basavanna’s vision is one of the most influential groups in Karnataka. They revere both God Shiva and Basavanna. Some famous personalities in Karnataka who are also followers of the Lingayat tradition include former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, journalist Gauri Lankesh, and scholar M.M. Kalburgi.
The emergence of the Lingayat sect can be located within the larger trend of Bhakti movements that had swept across South India from the 8th century AD onwards. The Bhakti tradition was a social reform movement that developed around Hindu Gods and Goddesses but split away from the Hindu fold by offering a path to spirituality regardless of their caste and creed. In a way, they were movements that took birth within Hinduism but strove to rectify what the followers saw as the unjust practices within the tradition. In that sense, none of the Bhakti movements could acquire the status of separate religion in itself but chose to improve the religion within which they were born.
However, the case of the Lingayats was different. While they also fell into the category of a social reform movement within Hinduism, they made some radical departures from the traditional Bhakti paradigm. “While the conventional Bhakti movements were marginally, vaguely and emotionally critical of the existing Brahmanical Hindu system, Lingayatism challenged it to its roots, and made good its challenge by becoming a highly structured movement, striving for the institutionalisation of the same or similar values professed by the Bhakti movements in general,” writes Ishwaran.
“The Lingayat Bhakti movement in Karnataka assumes the form of a cult in itself. From very early times, the Lingayat status was hereditary in nature. This is something that did not happen within the Bhakti movements elsewhere in South India, which is why they are demanding a separate religion status,” says Devadevan. Therefore, Basavanna’s movement did not just uproot the Hindu cultural practices but also broke away from the other Bhakti movements by forming an institutionalised order for themselves.
What complicates the issue, however, is that while Lingayatism breaks away from the larger Hindu fabric in significant ways, it also assimilates large portions of it, thereby making their identity difficult to define. The one aspect that strengthens its association with Hinduism is the relationship the cult shares with Veerashaivism. While it is popularly believed that Lingayatism and Veerashaivism are one and the same, historical evidence suggests that they are not.
Veerashaivism is also a Shaiva sect within Hinduism and is predominantly located in Karnataka. “Veerashaivism emerges in the sixteenth century and the followers claim that the philosophers of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries to be their forebearers. They claim that Basavanna was not the founder of the Lingayat tradition, but rather a reformer of an already existing religious tradition which they call Veerashaivism,” says Devadevan.
However, evidence also suggests that Lingayatism departs from Veerashaivism in significant ways. The Veerashaivas accept the Vedic texts and Hindu practices such as caste and gender discrimination. Basavanna, on the other hand, did not just oppose these but also offered an alternative model for them. The Veerashaivas claim mythical origins from the Shivalingam, which is similar in thought to the origin theories of Brahmanism. Basavanna, on the contrary, opposed all Brahmanical roots. However, the debate surrounding whether Basavanna founded the Lingayat sect or simply modified the already existing Veerashaivism sect makes it difficult to discern to what extent they can be considered separate from the Hindu traditional framework.
Further, the complications also arise from the fact that Lingayatism, while rejecting large portions of the Hindu traditional practices, does assimilate aspects of it, just like it absorbs aspects of other contemporary religious traditions like Jainism and Vaishnavism. “ These are influenced by the Upanishads, Jain and Vaishnava traditions. They have drawn from Vedic traditions,” says Devadevan. The close associations that the Lingayat followers share with Hinduism, both sociologically and historically, make it a complicated case of to be or not be Hindu.