Basavanna, who is credited with founding Lingyatism. (Sscheral via Wikimedia Commons)
  • That the Lingayata vachanas are a reflection on adhyatma is not to rule out that they work for the betterment of human life.

Indian traditions were once taps that brought life-giving water to us, Indians, says S N Balagangadhara. They taught us to live, in peace and content and seek happiness. “Because of the event of colonialism, Indians lost trust and faith in their own traditions.” Colonialism turned these taps off. This “did not merely sever our links to the land, to our past and indeed to knowing who we were. It also made us ignorant of the very existence of these taps, had us believe that these were useless drainage cisterns built by people from so-long-ago. We seem to have forgotten today that water came through them once. All we see are useless pipes, which work no more; that is what our own traditions have become to us now”.

In less than 100 years, we have found new uses for what has remained of these traditions today. We have successfully turned these drainage cisterns into our battlefields-cum-flea market-cum-bedrooms. We use the remains of the pipes as tools to beat each other up, when we aren’t busy begging in the name of these traditions for state benefits, like lower-caste status, reservations and minority-religion status. The only requisite is our ability to formulate our greed in the language of ‘social justices’ and re-present our traditions as ‘social reform movements’ of some kind. It requires no doomsday philosopher to predict that this is a sure path to disaster. All that a social science student can do in such a situation today is to ask what a tradition is and how to see it, as this essay attempts to do.

The Issue


We often see in Karnataka that scholars (and not lay people) find it extremely difficult to accept that the Lingayata tradition is an adhyatmic (spiritual) tradition. They see it as an insult to accept that a Basava or Allamais a gyani. Where has this assumption that adhyatma (spiritualism) is indifferent to ‘social problems’, come from? Since when? This is not a place for an historical exposition of this assumption. We will, instead, reflect hereon another issue: to say that Bhakti traditions, like the Lingayata tradition and the vachanas (a type of writing), are a reflection on adhyatmais not to rule out that they work for the betterment of human life. That is, the Lingayata saint-poets, much like the Adi Shankara or Ramanuja, are gyanis, precisely because they worked towards solving human problems, albeit not in the way we think when we portray them as anti-caste warriors. What else did they do then?

Let us begin with a simple question: What would one gain by reading the vachanas today? When one raises this question within the academic world today, a standard answer is readily offered. The vachanas represent one of our most successful movements against Indian social problems. So, if we learn about this movement, we would gain some knowledge about the problems in our society and solutions to them. This should help us rebuild our society and enrich our life.

No historical evidence supports this story. Even the ‘literary’ texts, like the vachanas and puranas, do not bear out such a reading of the tradition. Where does this story come from then? Some digging around, however, reveals the assumption underlying this answer: we have a long history of ugly social problems (e.g., casteism), which are deeply entrenched and impervious to any solutions. Time and again, some Indians, like Lingayata saint-poets, have fought against these problems. In order to solve these ‘Indian social problems’, they say, one should follow in the steps of the vachana-composers.


Some Basic Questions

What should surprise us is that there is no clarity about what these problems are or how vachanas help us solve them, in spite of 150 years of scholarship on the tradition. Consider these questions about the ‘social problems’ of India: What is their nature? Why do they so stubbornly endure? How do they reproduce themselves? Is a central authority required to institute and sustain a social structure? In the absence of any central authority, what sustains the alleged social structure? Is Indian society unique in having such social problems? Do comparable problems also exist in, say, the Western countries? What does fighting against them involve?

If the vachanas are indeed commentaries on social problems, the way they are presumed to be, let us ask some basic questions about them too: Do they provide us with knowledge about these problems? Are they, then, scientific theories in an Indian form? If so, what do they seek to explain? Do they give us knowledge about society, social structures or how human psychology works? Do they tell us what the relationship is between an idea and human action? Or, are they instruction manuals about how and what actions to undertake?


There are no answers for these questions today. If so, how can anyone possibly claim to assess the ‘solutions’ to the problem of ‘casteism’ in the vachanas? This indicates how the now dominant understanding of the vachanas is rather weak and untenable. They are more ideological and political than scientific.

Gyanis Or Social Activists?

To extract the reading that ‘the vachanas are a description of a social reform movement’, therefore, scholars have imposed ideas and incidents that are alien to the vachanas and the Lingayata tradition. As a consequence, during the last century, whether we like it or not, we have portrayed our gurus and rishis, such as Allama and Basava, as complaining, angry, sad and, thus, as ordinary suffering human beings. Their 20th century image is built on the contemporary model of a successful social activist: an earnest but anxious street fighter, quarrelling and fighting (for the downtrodden) all the time. This is how Basava is portrayed in the popular Kannada fictional works, like, for instance, in P Lankesh’s Sankranti (1971).


In our bid to present Basava as a social rebel, our traditional knowledge, adhyatma, too has been disdainfully portrayed as part of the superstitions of the illiterate lay people. To portray an Allama as adhyatmic teacher, they say, is to do injustice to him. Such an attitude to India’s gurus and adhyatma is what Europeans taught us. We pay homage to it every day, writhing in our blindness, by perpetuating it endlessly.

On The Model Of Reading The Vachanas

How should we read the vachanas, then? When this question re-emerges, the fact that the Lingayata literature was largely seen as adhyatmic writings until the 20th century should serve as our heuristic. This is not a call for abandoning the popular idea that ‘the vachanas represent one of our most successful movements against unjust practices amongst people’. Retaining this idea, if it is so important for us, requires clarity about many issues. Common sense tells us that every society has problems, which need to be solved, or at least kept under check, for the well-being of people. Adhyatma, as S N Balagangadhara has been pointing out, is a way of helping human beings to live in shanti and samadhana. Those who walk this path earnestly and seek ananda may also attain the same. Put thus, we can see that adhyatma cannot but address problems amongst human beings as well. That is, Indian traditions, like the Lingayata tradition, were dealing with problems that are common across human groups and charting out a lifestyle for its followers to overcome them.


The question then is: how could we say that the vachana-composers address the so-called social problems through the adhyatmic route? The answer to this question needs some stage setting. Think about the Basava that P Lankesh or Girish Karnad sketch in their plays on Basava,and not the ‘real Basava’:a good soul, hard worker, ‘reformer’, compassionate and honest. Imagine he becomes the almighty emperor of India or of the world today. Let us ascribe to him all the mythical powers too. And with these powers and authority, he does in the world what he does and also intended to do in Kalyana city in those plays. Will that solve our problems? Will all of us become happy in five, 10, or 15 years from now? Or, at least, will we be less unhappy? If not, why not?

An answer to these questions, whether a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, demands clarity about the nature of the problems that make us unhappy, nature of happiness and so on. To know what this clarity comprises, let us ask a question: How could the vachana-composers solve problems in society through whatever that they taught people? At the very least, (a) their teaching should address both the perpetrators and victims of oppression. (b) They should allow people to live in whatever religion and caste they like. If they do not have this freedom, every human being has to be forcefully ‘converted’ to ‘something’ that is neither a ‘religion’ nor a ‘caste’. In that case, note carefully, they have to ‘impose’ something on people that violates all possible notions of ‘freedom’. (c) They should allow us to choose whatever profession we want to undertake, from being a priest in a church to a pickle-selling illiterate woman or the president of India. (d) One should be able to opt for whatever route of saadhane one wants to undertake, from familial life to renunciation of the world. One should be able to attain peace, contentment and happiness that an Indian tradition promises, in spite of these personal choices and not by relinquishing them.

If you disagree with me on any of these points, say for instance point ‘b’, you will have to say that Lingayata saints, like Basava, were thinking neither about human problems nor were they helping those who came to them. They are, then, at best, the leaders catering to the needs of a small (‘minority religious’) group, like the Lingayatas. This is akin to catching fish for them; something that the best of our ‘modern’ ‘social activists’ do. This is not a negative assessment of these activists. They are not ‘bad people’. The point is, the current model of ‘social activism’ is fights for some issues, concerning a specific group of people. One day, such issues pass off, groups disappear, ‘fights’ die, and the leaders retire and retain mere historical significance. There is another model of work, which is like teaching people to catch fish and building the condition for them to catch fish, in the words of S N Balagangadhara. While the former is what adhyatma is, the latter (the condition) can be called a tradition, like the Lingayata tradition.


Therefore, to pretend as if the teachings or the model of life the Allamas and Basavas have developed are unconcerned about people belonging to other communities, is to say that they are dealing with the grievances of a group, like the ‘social activists’ of today, and are insignificant from the perspective of larger humanity. "Ask yourself: Is Allama or Basava merely a more successful 'social activist' of the kind we see around us today?" If not, why not?

Under the conditions ‘a’ to ‘d’ listed earlier, the only possible route an Allama or Basava could take involves, at least, the following: (a) proposing ways of living that are neutral with respect to an individual’s religion or caste; (b) working on one’s psychology instead of blaming someone else for the problems in the world. Note that the first point can be formulated as living a life by engaging in daana, kshame etc., extending to spending more and more time in puja and other rituals of one’s choice. This is how we should think about the Lingayata ideas like ishta-Linga pooje, dasoha and pancha-achara. The second point can be reformulated variously as issues of dhyana, anubhaava or adhyatma. Is this not what the Lingayata tradition speaks about as ashtaa-varna? Such a way of living can also be charted as a progress of some kind. A scale with different levels, stages or states can be used to measure the progress. This is what, I suggest, the Lingayata notion of shat-sthala is about.

This method of analysing the vachanas has some surprising results and advantages. Results: (i) Where and when the vachanas deal with ‘caste’, they treat it as another problem that a Bhakta faces in one’s adhyatmic journey. (ii) Our Basavas and Allamas can now both be seen as ‘social activists’ (in the sense of the term explained here, if the word is so dear to us), and they can still remain blissful gyanis, which they are. Explanatory advantages: We can now begin to, (i) see how the vachanas are a variety of Indian adhyatmic literature and assess their quality as adhyatmic literature, and (ii) talk about those elements that give them a distinct identity amidst hundreds of other Indian traditions, as well as their unique contribution to Indian culture.


This model of understanding the vachanas will raise many questions. One may ask, for instance: How does one understand the criticism of ‘lower castes’, the Vedas and Brahmins in the vachanas? The answer is straightforward. If one proposes different ways of living, one also criticises the existing ways that generate suffering and make people unhappy. Therefore, the vachanas criticise ‘castes’ and traditions. In fact, we find vachanas that seem to make fun of even Linga and Linga puja.

One may also ask: How do we understand the importance that Basava and others seem to have placed on becoming a Lingayata follower? Didn’t the Lingayatas admit proselytisation, unlike Hindus? Here is my response to the issue. Imagine… if I had met Allama and Basava and told them the following: “Sir, I will follow all of your instructions and live the life you suggest. However, I want to remain a Christian bhakta and do pooja to Jesus alone, and not the Linga. So, can I still attain shivasayujyaor mukti? Or is it reserved only for those who ‘convert’ to the Lingayata tradition?” How would they have answered my question?

If you think the answer is a ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the second, these are no different from the answer(s) that Christianity and Islam give. You are then treating them as another religion.


Dunkin Jalki is an assistant professor at SDM Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHS), Ujire (Karnataka, India). He works on caste, Lingayata tradition, colonialism and related issues.

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