Book extract: ‘Yesterday Basavanna, today Kalburgi’

The forgotten egalitarianism of the lingayat religion

We Kannadigas would like to believe that, unlike some of our neighbors, we are extremely tolerant about different streams of ideas. Unfortunately, things here have not changed much for more than nine centuries. This was enunciated in one placard displayed at the meeting on Sunday to protest against Kalburgi’s killing. It said: Yesterday Basavanna, today Kalburgi. (DH File Photo)

It happened sometime in 2003 or 2004. In a small town called Malebennur, Davanagere district, a few lingayat youths had stripped and raped two women from a minority community to gleeful chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Riots and looting had promptly followed. That incident disturbed me extremely since Malebennur is very close to my ancestral village from my maternal side.

Malebennur had been a place where Hindus and Muslims had lived in harmony for generations. Soon after that incident, I was invited to talk at a lingayat matha in Davanagere. Though I had avoided lingayat mathas till then, I decided to go so that I could give a piece of my mind to the local lingayats. I cited one of Basavanna’s famous vachanas, which in A.K. Ramanujan’s translation, goes:

The rich will make temples for Siva.
What shall I, a poor man, do?
My legs are pillars,
the
body the shrine,
the head a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall, but the moving shall ever stay.

I asked the people gathered there, “The founder of your lingayat religion, Basavanna, was against building temples and worshipping idols, why then should you have truck with forces who want to build a temple to an imaginary god?” There was a furor. I was not allowed to finish speaking. Local Lingayats were so upset that I was provided police protection.

Fortunately for me, Dr M.M. Kalburgi also happened to be in Davanagere that day and was staying in the same hotel as I. He came to know about what had happened at the matha and sent for me. That was the only time I ever met him. A gentleman and scholar, he cited various shasanas (inscriptions) and vachanas explaining how lingayats were not Hindus. “What you said is correct, don’t be afraid to voice your ideas,” he encouraged me.

The reason for Kalburgi’s brutal killing is yet to be ascertained. However, the joy of the right-wing elements upon his demise shows how speaking against majoritarian beliefs is always dangerous.

We Kannadigas would like to believe that, unlike some of our neighbors, we are extremely tolerant about different streams of ideas. Unfortunately, things here have not changed much for more than nine centuries. This was enunciated in one placard displayed at the meeting on Sunday to protest against Kalburgi’s killing. It said: Yesterday Basavanna, today Kalburgi.

Basavanna, a social reformer and poet of the twelfth century, stood staunchly against the caste system. He strove for a casteless society which believed that only work was worship. He rebelled against the brahmanical caste system and identified himself with those born into ‘lesser’ castes. In one of his vachanas, he went so far as to declare that he was born to the servant of Madara Channaya and the tanner maid of Kakkayya.

Basavanna and other vachanakaras successfully built a strong movement which attracted people from all castes and classes. Those who came into the new social fold calledLingayata dharma forsook their previous caste identities and considered one another as equal. The real test for Basavanna, however, came in the guise of a marriage.

Two of Basavanna’s staunch supporters were Haralayya, a poor cobbler, and Madhuvarasa, a rich brahmin. Haralayya and Madhuvarasa wanted to show that they really believed in Basavanna’s egalitarian society, both in spirit and deed. So, they decided that Haralayya’s son Sheelavanta would marry Madhuvarasa’s daughter Lavanya. Of course, Basavanna gave his blessings to the new couple.

A marriage between a brahmin girl and an untouchable boy was too much for the priestly class to tolerate. They opposed the marriage and complained to Bijjala. Bijjala, who himself belonged to the barber community, could not resist the pressure of the upper castes and caved in. Punishment was swift and brutal. The bridegroom Sheelavanta’s eyes were gouged out after which he, Haralayya and Madhuvarasa were tied to the legs of elephants and dragged along the roads of the town till death.

Bijjala’s army also swooped down on lingayats. Thousands were killed while many fled in different directions. All they had as evidence for the casteless and classless society they had tried to establish were the vachanas composed by various people. In order to protect the vachanas, the lingayats placed them in the safekeeping of many people in different places. It was only in the twentieth century that they were collected together. Of the lakhs of vachanas composed 900 years ago, today only about twenty thousand remain. As for Basavanna, he was so dismayed at the chaos after the inter-caste wedding that he moved away to Kalyana.

Today, most lingayats have forgotten the exemplary ideals their religion was founded upon. Instead, they have become temple visitors and idol worshippers. Worse, they have become ideological slaves of the same priestly class that their Basavanna had so strongly revolted against. When a scholar like Kalburgi, who had studied both the vachana movement and the cultural history of the Kannada language, tried to tell them “this is not your religion”, they called him a blasphemer and harassed him with innumerable legal cases. And when he was shot to death, they gloated, “If you mock Hinduism, you will die a dog’s death.” What they forget is that, just as with Kalburgi, had Basavanna not voiced his opinions so many centuries ago, the lingayats would not be in existence.

No one knows who will gain materially by Kalburgi’s death. But it is clear that it is the right-wing fascist forces which will gain ideologically when reformist voices such as Basavanna’s and Kalburgi’s are brutally and fatally shut down. Ideas, however, never die.

This first appeared in Bangalore Mirror on 31 August 2015.

Extract taken from The Way I See It : A Gauri Lankesh Reader,  edited by Chandan Gowda, a faculty member at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Used with permission from DC Books and Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd who first published the book in November 2017.

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Book extract: ‘Yesterday Basavanna, today Kalburgi’

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