While critics saw Kalburgi as a serial provocateur and a habitual offender, his supporters, including Gauri, saw him as a product of the tradition of debate and dissent.

Kalburgi declared that he would ‘never again pursue any research on Lingayat literature and Basava philosophy’. But he never stopped his research. His intellectual thirst was unquenchable. In keeping with the state’s unflagging literary and academic traditions (eight Jnanpiths and more than fifty Sahitya Akademi Awards), he kept digging and interpreting, much to the discomfort and anger of Veerashaiva traditionalists and their orthodoxy.

Delving into a trove of some 20,000 vachanas, he went on to author scores of books and more than 400 articles on the subject, overseeing the translation of free-form verses—some of them fiercely contested—into several other languages. For his work, Kalburgi was conferred the National Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 as also the State Sahitya Akademi Award, Basava Puraskara, Nrupatunga Award, Pampa Award, Yakshagana Award and a raft of other honours.

Among Kalburgi’s controversial theses and hypotheses, based on his study of vachanas and other Lingayat literature, was his questioning of Basaveshwara’s conjugal life and relationship with his second wife Neelambike, and the divine origin of Channa Basavanna, Basaveshwara’s nephew and legatee who continued the sharana movement of the twelfth century after Basaveshwara’s death. For instance, Kalburgi hypothesised that Basaveshwara ‘gave away’ Neelambike to a sanyasi because he would not refuse anything to a supplicant. Channa Basava, he surmised, was not the offspring of a virgin birth, but was born of Basava’s sister Nagalambikke’s dalliance with the leather tanner Dohara Kakkaya.

For the Hindu Veerashaiva orthodoxy, all this was no-go territory, much like the secular and agnostic excursions into the life of Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed would offend Christian and Islamic orthodoxy. Protests—initially led by Vrushabhendra Swamy, who was also Kalburgi’s teacher in university—were organised as far back as 1986–87, a couple of years before I interviewed Kalburgi. It simmered for a while before dying out completely.

After a hiatus of some years, Kalburgi returned to his canvas, this time expounding arguments that the Veerashaivas and the larger orthodox Hindu community saw as heresy. For instance, he questioned the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi by Lingayats who had strayed from the founder Basaveshwara’s teachings, maintaining that the worship of Ganesh idols was born out of a myth that had no backing in the texts. He revelled in his discoveries and hypotheses, often presenting them in semi-fictional form to escape the wrath of conservatives. Shortly before his assassination, he had chortled about his play The Fall of Kalyana, telling an interviewer that a critic had compared it to T.S. Eliot’s verse-drama Murder in the Cathedral that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

While critics saw Kalburgi as a serial provocateur and a habitual offender, his supporters, including Gauri, saw him as a product of the tradition of debate and dissent that was the very essence of Lingayatism, even when they disagreed with him. ‘We Kannadigas would like to believe that, unlike some of our neighbours, we are extremely tolerant about different streams of ideas. Unfortunately, things here have not changed much for more than nine centuries. Something that was enunciated in one placard displayed at the meeting on Sunday to protest Kalburgi’s killing. It said “Yesterday Basavanna, today Kalburgi”,’ Gauri noted in a column following Kalburgi’s murder.

In the weeks and months before the assassination of Kalburgi and Gauri, the doctrinal skirmishes intensified even as political temperatures rose. To right-wing unitarists, who insisted that Veerashaivas and Lingayats are one and the same, attempts to carve out a separate space for Lingayats and seek the tag of a separate religion was aimed at diluting the power of the community—mainly by Congress protagonists. They saw the appointment of an expert panel by Siddaramaiah’s Congress government to study the demand for a separate-religion tag for Lingayats as a political move to divide the community. ‘In one of his vachanas, Basavanna admitted that he is a Veerashaiva, but some fake seers tampered with his vachanas to suit their cause,’ alleged Sanganabasava Mahaswamiji of Kottur, one of scores of seers who gathered at a rally in Gadag on Christmas Eve in what was dubbed a ‘unity rally’.

In truth, vachanas are often very paradoxical and open to interpretation. They conform to no formal meter or rhyme, have very little punctuation, and abound in metaphors and allegories. From A.K. Ramanujan to Kalburgi to British poet Ted Hughes, many have milked them for meaning and inspiration. Hughes kept his own ‘Vachana Notebook’ detailing his study of the poetry form, including borrowing what he called the ‘creative source’—‘Lord of the Meeting River’ from the vachanas became his ‘Lady of the Hill’. In an interview in The Times of India weeks after Gauri’s assassination, the Ted Hughes scholar Ann Shea spoke of the immense influence Basaveshwara’s vachanas had on the famed poet, who she said was ‘so excited by the rediscovery of that voice that he wrote to close friends exhorting them to buy Ramanujan’s book’, Speaking of Siva, which first brought Basaveshwara and his works to the notice of the modern English world.

Speaking of Siva was also the first book, the window, through which Gauri and I discovered vachanas. Today, vachanas have been rendered into forms ranging from Hindustani classical (many by the great Mallikarjun Mansur) to Bollywood spirituals (by Sonu Nigam) to even jazz (by Inchara Rao).

But the antiquity of Lingayatism itself is often disputed. Some scholars argue that it did not cohere till much after Basaveshwara’s death, perhaps well into the fifteenth century. Ditto with vachanas in their written form. The timelines are as fuzzy as for the birth of Hinduism.

Yet the faith and the politics around it has become a politically explosive issue in Karnataka. The power and draw of the community is such that, in Karnataka at least, they are a potent political force. Every national politician, from Sonia Gandhi to Narendra Modi, has courted the community. Of course, it helped that its icon Basaveshwara propounded the virtues of democracy, egalitarian society and all fine ideals. It offered good cover for political outreach.

In 2015, for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a statue of Basaveshwara by the banks of the River Thames, a project that was birthed and fructified by the Lingayat community in London led by Neeraj Patil, a former mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth and a community medical doctor. Patil made a winning argument to British Minister for Culture John Penrose when seeking approval for the project: that there was a conceptual relationship between the United Kingdom and Basaveshwara because he preached British values of democracy, freedom of speech, equality of opportunity and tolerance.

Modi agreed, saying at the statue’s inauguration, that wherever there is any discussion on democracy and the constitution, examples of Western countries are quoted, but very few know that Basaveshwara advocated democratic values and prepared the ground for gender equality and empowerment of women in the twelfth century.5 Rahul Gandhi was no less a votary of Basaveshwara, awkwardly quoting a vachana with mispronunciations galore to provide fodder (and internet memes) for his critics who were accusing him of taking a ‘soft Hindutva’ line.

The book ‘Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by Chidanand Rajghatta’ has been published by Westland. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.

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