History of Lingayatism

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Basava, a native of Bagevadi, was a Brahmin and the son of Madiraja and Madalamba. His maternal uncle Baladeva was a minister in the court of King Bijjala. There are multiple theories attributed to the appointment of Basava as a minister in the court of Bijjala:[1]

  • When his uncle Baladeva fell sick and was bedridden, the latter's responsibilities were transferred to Basava.
  • Another theory suggests that Basava successfully deciphered an inscription that disclosed the location of a treasure. This pleased King Bijjala who appointed Basava as a minister.

According to Basavapurana, when Basava assumed power, he began distributing gifts to all the devotees of Lord Siva. The other people felt left out and began instigating the King, who later cruelly punished two devotees of Shiva. This episode had a profound effect on Basava. Another incident was that at the age of 8, he also rebelled during his initiation ceremony (holy thread ceremony of the Brahmins).[1]

He then rebelled against the rigid practices of the caste system then prevalent and eventually began expounding his own theosophy with a casteless society at its core. Soon, his philosophy began attracting large numbers of people. Saints like Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi, and Channabasavanna also played pivotal roles in founding and spearheading the sect.

Basava lived and taught in the northern part of what is now Karnataka State. This movement found its roots during the brief rule of the Southern Kalachuri dynasty in those parts of the state.

According to Gail Omvedt,[2] Virashaivism (Heroic Shaivism) under Basava was fiercely monotheistic and also free of temple worship—the Virashaiva devotees instead substituted a linga (phallus) image worn on the body and symbolising Shiva (hence the term Lingayat). The movement also decisively rejected caste. Not only did Basava accept people from all castes into his new community, but he himself proclaimed his rejection of his brahmin birth and his kinship with the oppressed castes. "Our Cannayya, the untouchable, is my father and our Kakkayya, the tanner, is my uncle" (in Schouten 1995, 52). Many vachanas from the twelfth century movement—-often oppressed castes and untouchables themselves-—proclaimed equality, and Basava's uncompromising attitude was prominent: "What does it mean which background you have? He who wears the linga of Siva is well-born! Should we inquire about the background among the devotees, after the castes have been mixed?" (Schouten 1995, 55). The radicalism of the early movement culminated in a marriage between a formerly untouchable boy and a formerly Brahmin girl, which the orthodox section of society condemned and opposed. The fathers of the bride and groom were sentenced to death by the king and dragged by an elephant through the streets of the town, which led to a full-fledged revolt by the oppressed castes. Riots and clashes followed, in which King Bijjala was assassinated; the orthodox sections were finally victorious and the movement expelled from the kingdom (Ramanujan 1973, 63-4).[3]

Sources of Lingayat history[edit]

To reconstruct the historical context, origin and development of the Lingayat faith, one will need to draw upon several sources. The various sources that are involved here include folk literature, inscriptions, historical facts, post-Basava developments, the Vachanas, reminiscences, Ragale literature, the Lingayat and Jaina puranas and doctrinal and philosophical works like the Shoonya Sampadane. Following a holistic and comparative study of all these sources, it is possible to reconstruct the origin and development of the Lingayat faith across time and space. Of all the sources, particularly important is the epigraphical evidence. The Arjunavada inscription in particular establishes the historicity of Basava beyond dispute. The Vachana literature, especially the vachanas composed by Basava himself are of vital importance in this studya. Harihara's Ragale is yet another invaluable source.


  1. ^ a b A History of Indian Philosophy By Surendranath Dasgupta
  2. ^ Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, by Gail Omvedt, Navayana 2008
  3. ^ Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, by Gail Omvedt, Navayana 2008, pages 48-51