Understanding Veerashaivas, Lingayats and Sanatana Dharma

Do Veerashaivas or Lingayats form a distinct religious category? Perhaps no, as both have roots in the age-old Shaiva tradition. Religion cannot be founded as one establishes a shop, even if it is patronized by state power. The failure of Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi is a case in point. Jesus Christ did not found Christianity or the Buddha, Buddhism. But their ideas crystallized with time, making the identity-conscious followers, circumscribe the prophets into micro groups.

Veerashaiva sect  is traced to five great teachers – Revanaradhya, Marularadhya, Ekoramaradhya, Panditaradhya, and Vishvaradhya, who sprung out of the five faces of Siva - Ishana, Tatpurusha, Sadyojyoti, Vamadeva and Aghora, symbolising consciousness, bliss, will, knowledge and action, respectively. Veerashaiva saints are popularly called sharana or shiva-sharana ie those who are under Shiva’s canopy of grace. Sharana-s brought spirituality within the purview of daily life by laying emphasis both on worldly duties and on achieving oneness with Shiva. Among the galaxy of sharana-s who appeared in Karnataka during the 12th century, Basaveshvara (1105-1167), also called Basavanna or Basava, was the most prominent.

Since he successfully countered the twin challenges of the growing popularity of Vaishnavism and Jainism and, the increasing hold of the priestly class on the social and religious activities of people in Karnataka and Andhra, the prefix ‘Veera’ or ‘the brave’ came to be tagged with the Shaiva faith.

Born in a Brahmin family at Ingalesvara-Bagevadi, Basaveshvara found social inequality repulsive, religious rites and ceremonies, redundant, and animal sacrifice, morally unacceptable. After attaining spiritual realization, at Kudal Sangam, the confluence of Krishna and Malaprabhah rivers - where he saw the Lord in all his glory and was graced by him, he left for Kalyan where king Bijjal appointed him as the chief treasurer. It was here that he became the nucleus of socio-religious reformation. He opposed caste distinctions, ritualism, iconolatry and the dominance of hereditary priests. He advocated inter-dining and inter-caste marriages and upheld the values of honest work and community-sharing by proclaiming the doctrines of Kayaka and Dasoha.

Veerashaivas came to be known as Lingayats as they started wearing the linga of Shiva on their body as suggested by Basaveshvara. The Linga is worn in a silver casket around the neck, day and night, to remind its wearer of His benign presence, and his own Shiva-nature. The linga is considered Shiva himself. It stands for the union of para-Shiva and para-Shakti. Linga is used for meditation, as can be seen from the work, Shri Siddhantashikhamani with Shri Maritontadarya's Tattvapradipika (ed. Dr M Shivakumara Swamy, Varanasi: Shaiva Bharati Shodha Pratishthana, 2007, p. 78) which defines a Veerashaiva as one ‘who places his Ishta Linga on the palm with his mind fully concentrating on it and worships it with his mind totally withdrawn from all external actions.’  

Virashaivism regards Shiva and Shakti as fundamental to existence: Shakti is Shiva, like fragrance in a flower. It preaches a form of qualified non-dualism, called shakti-vishishtadvaita, which considers god and the human soul as one, like the sun and its rays. In line with the Indian spiritual tradition, it lays down panchachara or five codes of conduct for moral upliftment.


Panchachara requires a Virashaiva to worship the Lord daily in the form of a linga (lingachara), observe moral principles (sadachara), have concern for humanity (shivachara), care for worldly creatures (bhrityachara) and adhere to community-living (ganachara). Instead of mortifying the human body to realize god, Veerashaivism regards it as the abode of god and of bliss – the mountain Kailasha to meet Siva. 

Ashtavarana (eight coverings)

The ‘eight coverings’ (ashtavaranas) of a Veerashaiva, are: obedience to guru, wearing of Ishta linga, reverence for jangama wandering monk, savouring or sprinkling  on oneself the holy water of paduka, guru’s sandals, partaking of prasada, consecrated food, smearing of vibhuti, holy ash, on the body, adorning a rosary of rudraksha beads and recitation of the Namah shivaya-mantra. The orthodox followers of Basaveshvara prefer to chant Guru basava lingaya namah instead, in adoration of their spiritual and social preceptor.

Anubhava Mantapa: Hall of Experience

The unique aspect of Veerashaivism was the establishment of Anubhava Mantapa, called also Shivanubhava Mantapa or Mahamane, by Basaveshvara. Anubhava Mantapa was a spiritual forum for discourse, discussion, and debate, as also for sharing personal experiences of the Divine. Its President, Allama Prabhu (Maha Prabhu; Prabhudeva) was addressed as shunyamurti -‘image of the void’- due to his spiritual attainments.  The holy seat which he occupied was called shunya simhasana - ‘throne of the void’. Anubhava Mantapa attracted persons of all religious shades and social ranks including women, some of whom like Akka Mahadevi (c.1150- c.1166) revealed sparks of a powerful mind and of a mystic. She broke conventional norms of living by staying nude among ascetics, just covering her body with her long, lustrous, curly hair, not with a view to assailing virtue or modesty but to prove that the true self is sexless, that renunciation is not just of worldly goods but even of the last apparel to hide one’s body. 

‘You can …peel away every strip

you wear

but can you peel

the Nothing, the Nakedness

that covers and veils.’

To the shame less girl

wearing the White JasmineLords

light of morning,

you fool,

where is the need for cover and jewel?

In her day-to-day life, Akka Mahadevi showed that true freedom being joy could not be complete without shedding inhibitions and that spiritual ecstasy is a matter of losing oneself in the One Lord Channamallikarjuna, a folk-form of Shiva.

Shunya Siddhanta

The concept of Shunya in Veerashaivism is of great philosophical significance. Shunya is nothing yet everything; neither tangible nor intangible yet both and beyond. It is the distinction-less absolute, transcending perishable and imperishable states. Allama Prabhu’s aphorism: ‘Emptiness is sown in Emptiness; Emptiness is reaped out of emptiness; Emptiness is merged in Emptiness and turned into empty. Emptiness is life, Emptiness is perception’, may well be juxtaposed with the peace invocation of the Vedas: ‘The invisible is the whole, the visible too is the whole. From the whole, the visible universe of infinite expansion has come out. The whole remains the same, even though the infinite universe has come out of it.’

Shatasthala Siddhanta

Veerashaivism lays down six steps to supreme realization, called shatasthala.  The first step is that of a neophyte when the sapling of devotion grows into him (Bhakta Sthala). This is followed by the birth of godly feeling (Maheshvara Sthala), the dawn of divine grace (Prasadi Sthala),the awakening of life – energy emanating from Siva (Pranalinga Sthala), surrender of the individual self (Sarana Sthala) and finally, absorption of the  spiritual seeker into Him (Aikya Sthala).


The first five pontifical seats (mathas) of Veerashaivism were established in Kedarnatha (Uttaranchal), Shri Shaila (Andhra Pradesh), Balehonnuru (Karnaṭaka), Ujjini (Karnataka) and Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). The Veerashaivas hold sixty-three nayanmars, Tamil Shaiva saints of great antiquity, sometime placed between the sixth and tenth centuries CE, and seven hundred and seventy later-day saints, including Manikka-vasagar, Basavanna and his worthy disciples or contemporaries, in high esteem and show them deep respect.


The twenty-eight Shaivagamas from Kamika to Vatula as also upagamas or secondary agamas are the common religious source of Shaiva-s, Veerashaiva-s and Lingayat-s. More specifically, Lingayata literature comprises of vachana-s, a form of didactic and devotional compositions in Kannada by Basaveshvara, Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Chennabasavanna, Siddharama, and other inspired sharana-s. What to speak of social or religious divisions, Devara Dasimayya, an early Vachana-poet, rejected even biological distinction between males and females, as the soul is sexless.

‘Suppose you cut a tall bamboo

In two;

make the bottom piece, a woman,

the headpiece, a man;

rub them together

till they kindle;

tell me now,

the fire that is born,

is it male or female ?’(A. K. Ramanujan’s translation)

To describe the Lingayat faith as different from Veerashaivism, and to divorce it from Sanatana Dharma, is not in consonance with the eternal, and all-embracing Indian religious tradition, in which Shiva, the Supreme Lord, is a principal figure. There are as many sects of Shiva as his names and attributes – each devotee is a cult in him as most do not follow any dogma while propitiating the Lord, who is considered the heart of the cosmos, and above formalism. Sanatana Dharma that forms a link between time and the timeless, has floated various forms of Shaivism, the Lingayat being one of them. Should the branch disown its roots?

The political announcement with respect to Lingayats, as separate from Hinduism, may yield benefits due to a minority, but it is sure to dilute the spiritual heritage of centuries. Lingayats are as much Hindu as any other sect. William McCormack observes in this respect. ‘…we believe Lingayats to be Hindus because their beliefs are syncretistic and includes an assemblage of many Hindu elements including the name of their god, Shiva, who is one of the chief figures of the Hindu pantheon.’ (Appendix II: ‘On Lingayat Culture’ in A. K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Shiva, Penguin Books, 1993, p.157).


Author is Former British Council Scholar, Principal, Lyallpur Khalsa College and Registrar DAV University, Jalandhar City.

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