Religious leaders attend the Forum of Lingayat Mathadhipathies at Basava Samithi, Bengaluru | Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Religious leaders attend the Forum of Lingayat Mathadhipathies at Basava Samithi, Bengaluru | Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Both the Congress and the BJP can feel the churn that this decision has caused in society and have hence steered clear of openly bringing it up in the election campaign.

The one issue that has been the source of constant buzz in these polls is that of the Siddaramaiah government’s last-minute decision to seek minority status for the Lingayat community.

This is a complex socio-religious issue that needs to be looked at from multiple angles. It also leads to a fundamental question of whether a new religion can be created with mere state power and patronage, or does it have to be a distilling of the thoughts and teachings of a spiritual leader.

Getting into the depths of the theological dimension is beyond the scope of this article, and that too on the eve of the polls. But as a background, the Veerashaiva sect traces its roots to five great teachers – Revanaradhya, Marularadhya, Ekoramaradhya, Panditaradhya, and Vishvaradhya, who, they believe, sprang out of the five faces of Lord Shiva and symbolised consciousness, bliss, knowledge, will and action. The many saints of the community came to be known as shiva-sharanas, or those under the protective umbrella of Shiva. They brought the lofty ideals of spirituality to the daily life of the common man.

Among the many sharanas, the most prominent was the 12th-century saint and reformer Basaveswhara (1105-1167) or Basavanna. He attained spiritual enlightenment at Kudala Sangama, in today’s Mumbai-Karnataka, at the confluence of the Krishna and Malaprabha rivers.

He dedicated his life to the cause of social reform, gender equality, democratic dialogue, and a caste-less society that had broken free from Brahminical orthodoxy and ritualistic religion, stressing hard work and community-sharing. In simple vachanas in Kannada, he conveyed esoteric philosophies to the masses.

He wonders in one vachana – “The wealthy build temples of Shiva. But Oh! Lord! What can I do, as a poor man? My legs are the column, and body itself a temple, my head is the golden crest. Listen, O Lord of Kudala Sangama, things fixed shall end, the moving shall stay!” Followers, both men and women, were initiated into a personal communion with Shiva through a linga they wore around themselves, worshipped and meditated upon.

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The beautiful trend of the rainbow of philosophical ideologies that we collectively call ‘Sanatana dharma’ has been a surge of social reformers and leaders who have sprung time and again when the ritualistic hold of exploitative clergy has marred the essence of religion. About 200 years before Basavanna, Ramanujacharya, who crystallised the Vishishtadwaita philosophy, defied his guru, went atop a temple gopuram, and openly gave away the secret “Om Namo Narayanaya” mantra, which supposedly led people to heaven.

When the angered guru admonished him and cursed him to hell, Ramanuja exclaimed that if so many poor men and women were to go to heaven due to the mantra, he would not mind hell for himself.  The followers of Ramanuja are today the Srivaishnavas or Iyengars across India. Likewise, Adi Shankaracharya’s concept of “I am God, God is me”, giving an equal status to all beings, challenged the hegemony of caste that was setting in.

But today, can the followers of Dvaita, Advaita or Vishishtadwaita all claim to be separate religions, while the differences they have with each other are only doctrinal? Worse, is it the work of modern governments to step in to decide what constitutes a religion?

The Congress and the BJP have a lot to answer on this issue. In 2013, when the notification for separate religion status for the Lingayats was sent to the UPA government, it was summarily rejected. What explanation does the Congress have for this? On such a sensitive social issue, why did the state government not act since 2013, and come up with the recommendation just months before the polls?

The same party demands intense discussion within the community when it comes to sensitive matters like triple talaq. Yet, was it prudent to stir the cauldron with no assessment of the pros and cons? Similarly, Yeddyurappa, supposedly the tallest Lingayat leader, had endorsed this demand in 2013 and today the BJP opposes the move. The JD(S) has nothing to gain or lose and has remained mute.

Both parties can feel the churn that this decision has caused in society, and have hence steered clear of openly bringing it up in the election campaign. Were it to be beneficial, would the Congress not have drummed it up as their success? Reports of large sections of the Lingayats not taking the decision well, and Veerashaiva pontiffs going to villages to extract oaths from their followers to teach the Congress a lesson, have made the party jittery.

With the Lingayats forming a crucial vote bank in Mumbai-Karnataka, Hyderabad-Karnataka and Central Karnataka, the decision could boomerang on the Congress. The BJP, too, has not stressed too much on its narrative of the Congress dividing Hindu society, as nobody knows which way the wind blows when it comes to the legitimate wishes of the entire community.

The Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha has opposed the government move of separating the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas, who have lived together for centuries. Interestingly, the mahasabha is led by Congress leader and former minister Shamanuru Shivashankarappa, whose son is in the state cabinet. Both of them have been given Congress tickets. Basavaraj Horatti of the JD(S) and president of the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha, which was formed as a breakaway from the Veerashaiva mahasabha, believes the BJP’s diplomatic silence on the issue will hurt the party.

Ironically, the Lingayat community, formed on the fundamental teachings of a caste-less society, has many sub-castes like Hoogara, Hadapada, Madivala and Kumbara, who have been traditionally discriminated against by the Veerashaiva thralldom dominated by the Panchaacharya (or five mutts). The issue has further divided the Veerashiva community, the pontiffs, the state cabinet and the polity at large.

The ideal way would have been to encourage and facilitate in-depth discussions from within the community and its several sub-sects, and reach a harmonious consensus rather than take a top-down approach like that adopted by the Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das panel constituted by Siddharamaiah to render a hurried verdict.

Over 50 influential pontiffs of the community met the chief minister and sought the rejection of the panel’s report. A handful of others like Mathe Mahadevi, head of the Basava Dharma Peetha at Kudala Sangama, stirred a hornet’s nest by giving an open call to support the Congress. In effect, the issue has been so terribly polarised and politicised.

In the 1980s, the Ramakrishna Mission had made an appeal seeking a separate religion status in order to gain the benefits of Article 30 (1). But the Supreme Court struck this down. With the new Right to Education (RTE) architecture brought in by the UPA, the discriminatory benefits that minority educational institutions get, and the fact that the Veerashaiva community runs several hundreds of educational institutions, makes many sceptical of the motives.

With the kind of social strife that this issue has ended up stirring, if Basavanna were alive today, he might have lamented just as he did in one of his vachanas:

“Lord, is there any religion without compassion? There must be compassion for all creatures. Compassion in the basis of religion. Anything otherwise is unacceptable to the lord of Kudala Sangama.”

Dr Vikram Sampath is a Bengaluru-based award-winning author/historian and political commentator.

This is the ninth essay in a series by the author on the upcoming Karnataka election. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth parts here.

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