Basava, also referred to as Basavanna, was a south Indian philosopher who is widely regarded as the founder of the Lingayattradition of Hinduism (Das 161). He is viewed as an early advocate for socio-religious reform, promulgating his teachings in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka (Ishwaran 2).
Although little is known about Basava’s early life, there are a few texts that provide details about his childhood. In addition to scarce historical records, the Basava Purana, written by Palkuriki Somanatha, provides a hagiographical account of his life. In addition, the Basavaraja Devara Ragale, a poem written in the 13th-century by Harihara, also provides important information about his life (Leslie 239). His poems, typically referred to as vacanas, have also provided extensive descriptions about his life and his beliefs (see Schouten 50-61).
Basava was born in a small village called Bagevadi to a Brahmin family (Ishwaran 1). His father was appointed by a local king to be the chief of his village. Though Basava was not born in a particularly wealthy family, he nonetheless enjoyed social privileges by virtue of his class and his father’s role in the village as the chief (Leslie 239). Over the course of his childhood, Basava engaged in activities that were traditionally prescribed for Brahmin males. Therefore, he was exposed to various religious rituals and also received formal religious education (Leslie 240).
However, despite the formalities that he had undergone, Basava grew increasingly disillusioned with the Brahmanical tradition in which he was raised (Schouten 2). In Harihara’s Basavaraja Devara Ragale, Basava was forced to participate in his sacred- thread ceremony – a crucially important initiation ceremony for twice-born males – at the age of eight. In contrast, according to the Basava Purana, he did not participate in his sacred-thread ceremony (Leslie 240). His father construed Basava’s reluctance to participate as egregiously disrespectful to tradition, creating friction in the relationship between Basava and his father (Rao and Roghair 58). Both accounts of his life relay a similar motif, namely his criticisms of the Brahmanical tradition at a very young age.
At the age of sixteen, Basava left his home village of Bagevadi and went to Kudalasangama, a popular pilgrimage site for Siva worshippers. The impetus for his decision to leave was marked by “a desire to escape… the religious ritualism and social prejudice of his environment” (Leslie 240). It was also at this time that Basava had become particularly fond of the Hindu god, Siva. Although several Saivite sects were prominent during this time, it is likely that Basava was exposed to the Lakulisa- Pasupata sect of Saivism in Kudalasangama (Das 162). He subsequently spent the next twelve years of his life in Kudalasangama where he extensively engaged in the service and worship of Siva. In addition, Basava continued to expand his education and also composed works of poetry (Das 162).
The socio-religious context in Karnataka during the 12th– century played an instrumental role in shaping Basava’s conceptions about the Brahmanical system of which he was particularly critical. A central facet of the Brahmanical system – the varna system – was construed by Basava to be an inherently oppressive system (Sahasrabudhe 225). In the Rg Veda, the Purusa – Sukta hymn situates the Brahmin class to be at the top of the social hierarchy, followed by the ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra classes. The class system was highly influential in Karnataka during this time, and the stratification of society closely followed the hierarchy implicit in the Purusa Sukta (Ishwaran 8). Devotion to god – bhakti – was a very popular mode of religious practice in Karnataka. This led to the creation of many temples that were primarily run by Brahmin priests. Due to the emphasis placed by the Brahmins on the importance of devotional practice, sudras felt that they were religiously obligated to donate their time and money to the priests (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, this led to the emergence of significant socio-economic and socio-religious disparities that were particularly conspicuous in Karnataka during this time. Basava was profoundly impacted by the segregation of worship that was commonplace in Siva temples. Devout sudras were unable to engage in the worship and service of Siva “in the company of the higher castes” (Ishwaran 7). Basava viewed this unfair treatment by the Brahmins as prejudice masked under the pretext of notions about ritual pollution (Das 163). In his vacanas, Basava extensively articulates his concerns about the oppressive and exploitative Brahmanical system in place; moreover, he assigned culpability to the Brahmin priestly class for reinforcing this system (Schouten 55). Ultimately, the socio-religious context of the time served as the major impetus behind shaping many of the reformist attitudes that Basava later came to hold.
The next significant transition in Basava’s life is marked by his move away from Kudalasangama to a small town named Mangalavada (Leslie 242). Legendary accounts suggest that the Hindu god Siva had appeared in one of his dreams and instructed Basava to move to Mangalavada (Leslie 241). However, Basava was frightened by the notion of having to leave Kudalasangama given the profound impact the village had on his religious and spiritual development. Siva reappeared in a subsequent dream where he presented Basava with his own personal Siva linga, a symbol that represents Siva in Saivite tradition (Das 162). This reassured Basava that regardless of where he was, Siva would always be there for him, manifest in the form of a linga. Therefore, it is said that these dreams spurred his transition to Mangalavada because Basava viewed it as incumbent upon himself to “articulate his emotional commitment to [Siva]” (Leslie 242). In a place like Mangalavada, his message could reach a larger audience which would allow him to fulfill his goal.
Mangalavada was a small town that was under the control of the Calukya empire in the 12th– century and was primarily inhabited by low class sudras (Leslie 242). Basava viewed this as an opportunity to promulgate some of his notions regarding religion and the importance of social reform. Over the course of the next several years, Basava regularly engaged with the people in his community through conversation and dialogue (Das 163). In addition, Basava regularly wrote works of poetry – vacanas – to disseminate his teachings to a broader audience (Leslie 242). In contrast to the Brahmanical system which valorized the use of Sanskrit as the principal way to communicate religious and spiritual topics, Basava instead decided to write in Kannada (Sahasrabudhe 223). He was a strong proponent of communicating religious and spiritual matters in the vernacular language in order to ensure that those teachings could be accessible to the greatest number of people. Sanskrit, however, was a language that was only accessible to relatively few people in society (i.e. primarily Brahmins), and therefore its use alienated the majority of people who had no knowledge of the language (Schouten 11). Thus, the preservation of the Kannada language and culture is heavily attributed to Basava due to his resistance to Sanskritic influences (Ishwaran 1).
In many vacanas, Basava presents arguments that undermine the intrinsically hierarchical nature of the class system (Schouten 51-52). Prejudicial attitudes towards lower class members of society (e.g. sudras) by the upper classes were commonplace (Ishwaran 8), and Basava argued that citing ritual pollution as a justification for such attitudes by the Brahmins was flawed. Central to Basava’s argument was his belief in the polluting origin of life (Schouten 59). The womb was traditionally regarded as a source of pollution, and because humans are born of the womb, one’s existence is plagued with pollution the moment they are born. Therefore, Basava concluded that “any pretension to high birth is meaningless” (Schouten 60) because regardless of one’s class, no one could escape the impurities associated with birth. In other words, the hierarchical nature of the class system, according to Basava, made no sense because of the common impure origin of human beings.
For many people, Basava’s ideals of social reform and equality were particularly impactful because he did not exclude anyone from his teachings on the basis of class or caste (Schouten 39). In addition, he espoused progressive views towards women, namely his recognition of women as individuals with rights (Sahasrabudhe 224). At the time, his acceptance for all people was construed as a radical departure from the traditional Brahmanical system because the egalitarian principles that Basava championed were, in many ways, contradictory to the views of the Brahmanical system (Das 163). This, in turn, was particularly attractive to lower class Hindus who had been traditionally alienated by the Brahmanical system.
In addition to his teachings about equality and social reform, Basava disseminated teachings about the nature of God and offered prescriptive approaches for the realization of God (Leslie 242). Because Basava was a devotee of Siva, many other Siva devotees, particularly from lower classes, found refuge in his teachings. Therefore, Basava was able to cultivate a large following which primarily consisted of Siva devotees – saranas – that distanced themselves from the Brahmin orthodoxy and instead embraced the inclusive model of Hinduism that Basava championed (Schouten 10). These saranas, according to Basava, no longer retained their class identity. This, too, was viewed unfavorably by the Brahmin orthodoxy, which, in contrast, stressed the immutability of one’s class (Das 163).
Due to a lack of royal patronage, Basava initially found it difficult to disseminate his teachings to a greater audience. The city of Kalyana – capital of the Calukya empire – had not yet divorced itself from the rigid Brahmanical orthodoxy; moreover, the Calukya leadership was generally apprehensive about Basava’s radical ideas because his ideas were met with strong contempt by the orthodoxy (Das 163). However, Bijjala, a powerful feudatory of the Calukya empire and a Saivite, was especially fond of Basava’s teachings (Leslie 242). The sustained decline of the Calukya empire coupled with poor leadership under Taila III led Bijjala to overthrow Taila III in 1162. Thus, he installed himself as the new emperor of the Calukya empire, paving the way for Basava to spread his teachings in Kalyana (Leslie 242). In addition to his religious endeavors, however, Basava was also a prominent political figure in the empire. He was appointed by Bijjala to serve as the chief minister of the empire, a position he held for thirty-six years (Ishwaran 6).
Basava continued to rally support from the people of Kalyana, with a particular focus on uniting Siva devotees and sudras. He later established the anubhava mandala, an institution that was central to accomplishing this goal. It served as a platform that enabled people from all walks of life to freely discuss spiritual, religious, and philosophical topics (Schouten 4). As time went on, a profound distrust of the Brahmanical system coupled with a growing sense of fraternity among Basava’s followers led Basava to formally establish the Saivite Lingayat sect (Ishwaran 2).
The monopolization of temples by the Brahmins was particularly disconcerting for Basava because it prevented many low-class Hindus from engaging in the worship of Siva (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, Basava reconceptualized the way people approached the worship and service of God – bhakti – to accommodate for the alienated peoples of society and to undermine the already waning influence of the priesthood. Basava explicitly declared that it was not necessary to visit a temple in order to worship God (Leslie 242). According to Basava, the linga is a manifestation of Siva; thus, it could serve as an object of worship. For many people, God was no longer a distant entity confined to the inner depths of temples. One could now freely worship Siva without concerning themselves about the mandates of orthodox tradition. In recognition of the all-encompassing presence of God, Basava believed that one could transform any object into a linga that could be worshipped if their devotion was strong enough (Rao and Roghair 33). The significance of the linga for practitioners of the Lingayat tradition continues to persist in contemporary practice, as well. Children will often undergo an initiation ritual (diksa) where a guru will present the child with a linga; moreover, one is expected to wear the linga around the neck for the rest of their life and worship it five times a day (Rao and Roghair 8).
There are two cornerstone principles of Lingayatism – kayaka and dasoha – that Basava argued were valid forms of worship and service to God. From God’s perspective, one’s profession did not dictate his or her worth in the eyes of God. Manual labor – kayaka – was looked down upon by the orthodoxy, but Basava emphasized that the precise nature of one’s work did not matter, insofar as one did his or her work with effort and honesty (Leslie 243). The principle of kayaka was wildly popular because it gave people the reassurance that doing their work dutifully was a viable path toward God (Das 164). Dasoha refers to a concern for the wellbeing of others in one’s community (Ishwaran 10). A portion of one’s earnings, according to Basava, should be used to improve the lives of other people, regardless of their class affiliation. The principle of dasoha was therefore adopted by many people in Kalyana who no longer donated their earnings to the priesthood (Leslie 243).
Basava’s rising influence in Kalyana was inevitably met with protest by the orthodoxy who accused Basava of exploiting his political power and his position as chief minister of the Calukya empire (Das 163). In order to dismantle Basava’s influence in Kalyana, the orthodoxy believed that altering Bijjala’s perception of Basava could create a significant rift between both individuals. Consequently, Basava was accused of inappropriately using empire funds to support saranas who needed financial support. In addition, he was also accused of “polluting the royal court” (Leslie 244) through his interactions with sudras and untouchables. Accusations against Basava continued to climb, further exacerbating social tensions between the Brahmins and the saranas. Though these social tensions were not initially manifest in the form of violence, this dramatically changed after a sarana man was said to have married a Brahmin woman. The orthodoxy was fiercely critical of this wedding because the man was an untouchable (Schouten 49). Thus, the wedding was construed as an affront to the established orthodoxy, and the married couple was subsequently put to death by the Brahmins (Das 164). The saranas felt betrayed by Bijjala because he ordered the death of the couple, and violence soon flooded Kalyana (Schouten 50). Meanwhile, Basava was accused of organizing an insurgency against Bijjala’s empire, further heightening tensions (Leslie 244).
As conflict continued to escalate in Kalyana, Bijjala’s army intervened and killed many of Basava’s followers. Distraught by these events, Basava decided that he could no longer witness the terror that had unfolded in Kalyana (Ishwaran 85). He moved back to Kudalasangama where he died a few years later in 1167 (Das 164). Meanwhile, the growing resentment the saranas had towards Bijjala ultimately led to Bijjala’s assassination (Rao and Roghair 13).
The future of the Lingayat sect was uncertain following Basava’s death. His leadership was crucially important in maintaining cohesion within the sect and a sense of fraternity. However, his absence left the Lingayat tradition susceptible to Brahmanical influences (Schouten 15). The so-called Brahmanization of the Lingayat sect was manifest in a number of ways. For instance, temples dedicated to Siva had been built and the Brahmanical practice of donating money to priests had also surfaced in the tradition (Ishwaran 4-5). Over the next few centuries following his death, steps were taken by influential adherents of the Lingayat tradition to ensure that the distinctive identity of the sect was not eroded upon by Brahmanical influences. Many of Basava’s vacanas and other writings had been consolidated; moreover, these texts were given canonical status in Lingayatism (Ishwaran 4). Another significant development in the tradition was the establishment of the Virakta monastic system (Schouten 15). Moreover, this system was important in preserving a sense of community in the sect by facilitating religious discussion amongst its followers in addition to providing Lingayat education (Ishwaran 4). Collectively, these developments were able to resist Brahmanical influences and thus enabled the tradition to retain its unique identity.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Das, Sisir K. (2005) A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.
Ishwaran, K (2019) Speaking of Basava: Lingayat Religion and Culture in South Asia. London: Routledge.
Leslie, Julia (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61:228-61. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00013793.
Michael, Blake R. (1983) “Foundation Myths of the Two Denominations of Virasaivism: Viraktas and Gurusthalins.” The Journal of Asian Studies 42:309-22. Accessed February 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/2055116.
Rao, Velcheru N., and Gene Roghair (2014) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sahasrabudhe, M (1979) “Mahatma Basavesvara – A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40:221-26. Accessed February 3, 2020.
Schouten, Jan P. (1995) Revolution of The Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Virasaivism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Srinivas, Mysore N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Basavaraja Devara Ragale
Dodda Basavanna Gudi
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Article written by: Bhadra Pandya (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.