Basavanna & Vir Shaivism Lingayat Movement

I had heard about the Lingayat community of Karnataka but was unable to find any reading material on it. Thanks to an email friend from Dubai got to know a bit. That aroused my curiosity to know more but none of Mumbai’s bookshops had any books on him. Ravi was nice enough to send me a photocopy of a book on Basavanna. 

This essay is based on inputs from the said book and the History and Culture of the Indian People by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. It is dedicated Basavanna. The chapters are presented as they appear in the book. Chapter 8 is titled Ravi’s comments where he shares his own experiences and observations on the current state of the Lingayat community and some of its prominent members.

Virasaivism or Lingayatism, traces its origin to the five great religious teachers, Renuka, Daruka, Ghantakarna, Dhenukarna and Visvakarna, who according to tradition, were the earthly manifestations of the five aspects of Para-Siva viz. Sadyojata, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Isna. These five teachers are said to have incarnated in the Kali-yuga as Revanasiddha, Marulasiddha, Ekorama, Panditaradhya and Visvaradhya, and expounded the ancient system of Lingayat. They are said to have established five mathas in India – Kedarnath in Uttaranchal, Ujjayini in the centre (M.Pradesh), Srisailam in the south (A.Pradesh), Rambhapuri in the west and Kashi in the north.

The names of three of the five acharyas, Visvarashya, Panditaradhya and Ekorama are mentioned in the Basava Purana. The greatest name in the history of Virasaivism is that of Basavana.

The Age of Basavanna   

Basava (B) lived during the middle of the 12th century. Although we do not have any biography of his, we are fortunate to have a long narrative entitled Basavarajadevara ragale composed in Kannada language by Harihara (1230 a.d.). The second source of information are the Vachanas or short compositions in poetic prose by B himself and of his contemporaries. These Vachanas give us a glimpse of his personality and enable us to understand his mental and spiritual evolution. A whole literature based on stories pertaining to B and his contemporaries has grown in Kannada. In Telegu, P Somanatha wrote the immortal Basavapuranamu which was translated into Kannada by Bhimakavi in 1369 a.d.

Social Background – The society at that time was based on the caste-system. It seemed rigid with the Brahmans at the top of the hierarchy and the Holeyas or outcastes at the bottom. Socially the Brahmins were the most privileged class. They were educated and considered to be the repositories of learning and culture. The Kings used to draw on them for duties of the state. Kings and rich people donated villages to Brahmans called agraharas. These donations helped the Brahmans to focus their attention to study and teaching. The agraharas became great centres of learning and housed great scholars. The Vedas were taught there with their six angas, Smritis, Puranas, grammar etc. The members of the Brahman community who controlled an agrahara were called Mahajanas or great people. They worked as a team and looked after the activities of the agraharas. In some cases the mahajanas chose a leader and worked under his guidance. B was the son of one such leader.

Although the Brahmins of that time were educated and learned, the ideals in the scriptures was not translated into practice. B says “scriptures show one way and the Brahmins follow another”. Religion had become a set of rituals with animal sacrifice taking place. To most it was karma and not jnana or bhakti that was important. The gap between the rich and poor was large, yet the rich were respected in society but the poor suffered. Among the lower castes, there were again different rungs and each caste had its own social privileges. The fear of excommunication prevented the member of any caste to do anything that the rules of his caste did not permit.

Women for not generally considered to be fit for education. However, many women belonging to royal families were educated and paid attention to fine arts like music and dancing. On the whole the women were supposed to be inferior to man in status. The position of the untouchables called holeyas was pitiable. There were numerous superstitious beliefs in society, some harmless others dreadful. People were constantly in fear and were forced to be at mercy of the priests.

Religious Condition – The major religions practiced in Karnatka during the first half of the 12th century were Jainism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Buddhism. Jainism was introduced into this area during the1 st century BC or perhaps earlier. It was patronized by successive royal dynasties. The dynasty which gave it maximum encouragement was that of the Gangas making it the most dominant religion during the 9th and 10th centuries. It is believed that it was the Jains who were the earliest cultivators of Kannada literature. The downfall of the Ganga dynasty was a blow to Jainism. It was the Digambara sect that was prevalent. Jainism does not believe in divine grace. The sect believes that women are not entitled to final liberation in this birth. Each man had to toil for himself to achieve final liberation. This could be achieved by the educated but the common man could not understand how there was a way out for him without a God who was prepared to show mercy on him. Digambara or nude-saints were great men but their nudity and outward appearance had created an impression that a man on whom Saturn had cast an evil eye would be born as a Digambara saint in the next birth.

Shrivaishnavism was becoming popular during this period, propagated by Ramanujacharya of Tamin Nadu. He had tender feelings towards the harijans. The keynote of his religion was bhakti or single-minded devotion to God and complete surrender of oneself to the Almighty. Buddhism was not terribly popular.

Shaivism was the most popular religion of Karnataka during the 12th century. There were many sects like Lakulisha-Pashupatha, Kalamukha, Marga Shaiva, Adi Shaiva. From this background emerged Virshaivism.

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