What Google and Wikipedia will not tell you about the Lingayats  

Following the recommendation of a religious minority tag for Lingayats, there is enormous curiosity about this powerful community. Here’s an insight into their social, cultural and political aspects

  1. Lingayats follow the 12th century social reformer and mystic Basaveshwara, who rebelled against the tyranny of the Hindu caste order and argued for an egalitarian society. Basavanna, as he his locally known, spoke about dignity of labour and gender equality not in the way we speak about them today, but as spiritual values to be imbibed and inculcated as a service to humanity. Before he broke his caste links, Basavanna was a Brahmin and was notable as a Chief Minister in the court of Bijjala, a king of the Kalachuri dynasty. His revolutionary spiritual and social agenda met with immense resistance during his lifetime.
  2. Lingayat propagandists would like us to believe that mankind’s first Parliament was set up during Basaveshwara’s time. But that is clearly an exaggeration. What he created with fellow mystics like Allama Prabhu was an open forum (Anubhava Mantapa), a kind of a debating society, which functioned as an interface between spiritual thinkers and society. Here sharanas or spiritual seekers and mystics primarily engaged and developed philosophical arguments that delved deep into the human condition.
  3. The best way to understand the Lingayats or the Basava philosophy is through Vachanas. These are short verses that are lucid and luminous. They are gently instructional at times, un-acrimoniously censorious of society’s ills, but always spiritual and abidingly poetic. The Vachanas used the idiom of the common man and have had a huge influence on the way modern Kannada is written.
  4. The Vachana revival as a literary and cultural project in Karnataka happened in the 1960s. These verses were mostly perceived as religious writings until then. Hindustani music legends Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraja Rajguru, who sang them, and AK Ramanujan who translated them (Speaking of Siva, Penguin Classics), immensely contributed to their cultural revival and universalisation.
  5. The Lingayats as a demography are found across Karnataka but are mostly concentrated in the Northern districts of the state. There is no accurate measure of their population (perhaps the caste census that the Siddaramaiah government is getting done will shine light on this), but an estimate pegs the figure at 12 to 14 % of the state’s population. Here too there is a lot of exaggeration as size helps in political perception and calculations.
  6. It is again estimated that Lingayats influence nearly 90-100 assembly seats (of the total 224) and that makes them extremely important in the power game. This calculation is based on a rough count of Lingayats in different Assembly seats. They range anywhere between 10,000 to 90,000 depending on the constituency. But now with the split between Lingayats and Veerashaivas, who were together perceived as a voting block there may be a slight alteration in the numbers. Anyway, Lingayats hugely outnumber Veerashaivas. There are hundreds of big and small Lingayat seminaries, also called Virakta Maths, but there are only a handful of Veerashaiva seminaries, five to be precise.
  7. The essential difference between Lingayats and Veerashaivas is that the Lingayats owe their existence and allegiance to Basava philosophy, while Veerashaivas follow a Shaivite order borrowing heavily from Hindu traditions. For them Basava is just one of their spiritual proponents. In other words, Basavanna is appropriated into the Shaiva order. The separate religion tag was meant to be given to only those who follow Basava philosophy, that is primarily Lingayats. But the Siddaramaiah government has rather cleverly said that this would be applicable to Veerashaivas who accept the primacy of Basavanna’s teachings as well. This sets the cats among the Veerashaiva pigeons and relatively quells resistance to the government’s move.
  8. There are a set of calculations based on data from the 1972 Assembly polls and subsequent elections which is interesting. Going by that if a political party were to get only Lingayat votes they can aim to win only around 26 seats. If the two major communities, Lingayats and Vokkaligas were to come together, then they can stake claim to around 65 seats (vote share of 1978 polls). If a fairly inclusive politics of communities is forged like in 1972 and 1978 by Devaraj Urs, 1985 by Ramakrishna Hegde and 1989 by Veerendra Patil then the vote share and seat share are pretty large.
  9. Now, the big question is how will Siddaramaiah’s politics be perceived? He has attempted to piece together Backward Classes, Dalits, Minorities and now a sizeable chunk of the dominant Lingayats. Since the innocence of the 1970s and 1980s no longer exists among caste groups, the chief minister’s circus of identity politics and social engineering may just about ensure that he retains the same seat and vote share as last time. That is if all other factors remain neutral.
  10. So far, the BJP had seen Lingayats and Veerashaivas as one political block, but now the Congress has engineered a split by offering the numerically higher Lingayats an independent religious identity. This split also checkmates the BJP and RSS’ Hindutva project. Caste and religious plurality as a counter strategy is intended to jeopardise the attempted Hindu consolidation.
  11. The risk that the Congress party and Siddaramaiah run by recommending Lingayats for an independent religion is if the meek and ordinary followers of the faith feel their religion and unity has been splintered, and they have been made guinea pigs in a political experiment. Then, there may be a backlash at the ballot box. So far, the most vocal about this issue are political leaders. The most powerful pontiffs of the Lingayat faith are yet to make their opinion known. Laymen Lingayats will wait for the polls to cast their view.
  12. Since the influential Lingayat community politicians, businessmen and pontiffs run mega educational institutions in Karnataka, across India and also in some cases on foreign soil, the religious minority tag is said to hugely benefit their businesses. Hence it is assumed that they will quietly acquiesce to the idea of a separate religion. There are also many constitutional guarantees religious minorities are accorded, plus the status opens up access to a wide array of central and state funds.
  13. Even as we tend to speak of Lingayats as a homogenous community, in reality it isn’t. Although Basavanna fought for a casteless society, over time, ironically, the community has reintroduced a stratification based on their original castes and occupations. When people had joined the Basava order they are said to have given up their caste affiliations to merge into one seamless ideal. But now, we have Jangamas (priestly class), the Banajigas (traders), Panchamasalis (tillers of the earth), Saadars, Nonavas, Ganigas, Gouda-Lingayats, Reddy-Lingayats etc. The Panchamasalis are numerically higher but are politically underrepresented. Banajigas, the trading sub-sect, has disproportionately walked away with political power. One has to wait and see how each of these sub-sects will respond to the separate religion tag. The reaction is not going to be uniform.
  14. Of the eight Lingayat chief ministers in history almost all of them, except one (S R Bommai was a Saadar Lingayat) has been a Banajiga Lingayat. Till date Karnataka has had 22 chief ministers (some of them with multiple terms) out of which eight are Lingayats (S Nijalingappa, SR Kanti, B D Jatti, Veerendra Patil, S R Bommai, J H Patel, B S Yeddyrurappa and Jagadish Shettar); seven are Vokkaligas (K C Reddy, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, Kadidal Manjappa, H D Deve Gowda, SM Krishna, H D Kumaraswamy and D V Sadananda Gowda); three from Backward Classes (S Bangarappa, Veerappa Moily and Siddaramaiah); two Kshatriyas (Devaraj Urs and Dharam Singh) and two Brahmins (Ramakrishna Hegde and R Gundu Rao).
  15. Basavanna has been the most explored literary figure and metaphor in the 20th century Kannada literature. The most celebrated works on his life are P Lankesh’s Sankranti, Girish Karnad’s Taledanda and HS Shivaprakash’s Mahachaitra. All three are plays. There are innumerable other works across genres that can easily fill up a section in a library. The best edited Vachana volumes with annotations and elaborate introductions are by scholar L Basavaraju.
  16. Since Lingayats have been politically powerful they have from time to time censored creative license as well as critical opinion of writers on Basavanna or the Lingayat-Veerashaiva history. Books that have been censored in the last few decades include Marga (edited by M M Kalburgi), Mahachaitra (by H S Shivaprakash), Dharmakarana (by P V Narayana) and Aanu Deva Horaginavanu (by Banjagere Jayaprakash). The intolerance of the community has exploded on many other occasions as well.
  17. When it comes to food habits, Lingayats are vegetarians. The Lingayat Khanavalis in all North Karanataka towns typically serve guests the food they eat: Jowar rotis, groundnut powder, sesame seed powder, fenugreek leaves, brinjal curry, lentil curry, cut onions, raw chillies and thick curd.
  18. Prof. M M Kalaburgi and Gauri Lankesh, who were murdered in the recent past, were both Lingayats. Incidentally, they were both for declaring Lingayats as an independent religion. While Kalburgi’s very last piece dealt with the origins and differences between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, Gauri’s last editorial endorsed the idea of Lingayats as a separate religion. The BJP did not mourn both their deaths.
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