Basava: The Voice of Equality in 12th Century India

The Ishtalinga necklace worn by the Lingayats
The Ishtalinga necklace worn by the Lingayats

If you are already familiar with the Lingayat community, you will know that they are largely based in Karnataka and have been fighting for a while now to be considered a separate religion, as opposed to a sect of Hinduism. The grounds for their demands are not unfounded, as the man who created their entire belief system around 900 years ago did it to break away from the Hindu orthodoxy of the time.

12th century Karnataka was governed by a Brahmin supremacy in a Hindu society. The caste system was rigid and absolute. Women were the ‘inferior species’, and their lives revolved around husbands, fathers and sons. Their thoughts and bodies were under complete male control and they had no freedom of choice or expression.

It was in these circumstances that Basava was born. Although he was born into a Brahmin family, he renounced the Brahmanical thread at the age of sixteen, and by the age of twenty-eight, he had formed a clear vision of a society without caste barriers (a vision which, even nearly a millennium later remains unrealised).

Basava was a deeply religious man, a stout devotee of Lord Shiva. However, he was not in favour of man-made social constructs (especially arbitrary hierarchies) intruding into religion and spirituality.

When Basava began to form his own community of Lingayats, he made sure that all were welcome. His teachings attracted many highly intelligent individuals from multiple castes and occupations, although the most path-breaking aspect of his community was the fact that women were independently allowed to join it (married or not). This was unimaginable during his time. To the Lingayat women, the community offered sanctuary from the oppressive patriarchy that they were tired of, allowing them to finally convey their own thoughts. The Lingayat women were not afraid to express their beliefs and did not shy away from their sexuality (in fact, they often blended it into their worship of the divine in a way that would scandalise even our so-called progressive society today).

Basava actively fought both against the caste system and gender inequality, striving to create a truly egalitarian society. Naturally, the Brahmin orthodoxy was not thrilled by Basava’s ideology. When it came to the Lingayat women, the idea of women being capable of free thought and speech was so unimaginable to conventional society that they were branded ‘unpredictable freaks’. However, since the Lingayat community was deeply rooted in the Hindu religion (and too small to be a real threat) they were allowed to continue practicing their beliefs, accepted as a strange and eclectic sect of Hinduism.

But Basava did not stop there. He pursued a career in politics, and eventually became the chief minister to the king. He finally had the power to bring about large-scale change – and he lost no time in doing so. To begin with, he allowed people of all castes to mingle and share their opinions in court. The orthodoxy was furious, and claiming that Basava would stoop to allowing intermarriages next, they asked the king to intervene and control his minister. Basava promptly ignored the king’s warnings.

The Brahmins’ fears came true, as a short while later, the daughter of a Brahmin married an ‘untouchable’ man in broad daylight. At this point, the orthodoxy decided that enough was enough. The fathers of the married couple had their eyes gouged out, after which they were thrown under elephants to be trampled to death. Basava’s political career came to an abrupt end, and he was forced to leave the kingdom.

But even after Basava’s death a few years later, his followers continued to keep his teachings alive, although they remained dormant. Only in the 15th century did they resurface once more, as one of their own community members became a minister in the Vijayanagar Empire.

Over the next few centuries, Lingayat beliefs underwent a series of subtle modifications in order to remain palatable to the dominant majority. Currently, they are considered to be a caste of their own, ironically becoming part of the very system that their founder sought to abolish. As they continue to fight to be an independent religion, the Lingayats are the living legacy of a man who believed in egalitarianism and gender equality at a time when such beliefs were incomprehensible, and fought for freedom of thought and expression, favouring intellectualism as the key to progress. Basava was a man so far ahead of his times, that even now, with all our literature and connectivity, he appears to be ahead of ours.

Works Cited

Pillai, Manu S. The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin. Chennai: Westland Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2019. Print.

“Who are the Lingayats and why they want a minority status”.  The Economic Times. March 19th, 2018. Web. <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/who-are-the-lingayats-and-why-they-want-a-minority-status/articleshow/63368295.cms?from=mdr > as seen on July 29th, 2020.

Shankar, B. V. Shiva. “Lingayats may soon move court to secure separate religion status”. The Times of India. January 22nd, 2020. Web. <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/lingayats-may-soon-move-court-to-secure-separate-religion-status/articleshow/73516728.cms > as seen on July 29th, 2020.

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