Karnataka: Lingayats demand 'separate religion' status for their sect

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Karnataka: Lingayats demand 'separate religion' status for their sect

Post by Rashmun on Fri Aug 11, 2017 11:51 am

Gathering under the Lingayat Dharma Samanvaya Samithi, the Lingayats are asking for separate, minority religion status. The demand has been made several times since the 1980s, but to no avail. Since the community forms 17% of Karnataka’s population, the BJP and the Congress have joined in to heavily politicise the demand. The state Congress government has come out in full support of the agitation, leaving the BJP to make the next move to woo Lingayat votes for the April 2018 elections.

What further complicates the situation is the dissension within the community, in that the Lingayats consider themselves separate from the Veerashaivas. However, the Veerashaivas, under the Veerashaiva Mahasabha, have now announced a massive rally in Belgavi, Karnataka, to be held on August 22. They also asserted that Lingayats and Veerashaivas are the same and are separate from Hindus.

A history of dissent
Ironically, Veerashaivism has been relegated to a sect of Hinduism, the core Brahmanical values of which it staunchly opposed in the past and broke new ground. Given how starkly different Lingayat beliefs are to Hinduism, the agitation for a separate religious status is not only obvious but also necessary, since the tendency of Hinduism often eclipses several “little traditions”.

Veerashaivism (literally, heroic Shaivism) was a 12th-century religious movement spearheaded by the Kalachuri chief minister, Basavanna. The followers of the religion, the Lingayats, wear a small Shiva linga  around their neck. Right from its inception, Veerashaivism was a religion of dissent. Their biggest attack was on the polytheism of Hinduism. A monotheistic religion, Veerashaivism believed in worshipping only Shiva in the form of an ishtalinga. Furthermore, it condemned the ostentatious rituals that defined Hinduism, such as praying in a temple, going on elaborate pilgrimages and so on. The new movement also summarily rejected the Brahmanic idea of worshipping deities and doing good in order to go to heaven.

By rejecting the supremacy of Brahmins, shrutis (revealed scriptures) and smritis (remembered tradition), Linagayats fundamentally negated the Sanskrit tradition. They instead composed hymns, known as vachanas (sayings), in Kannada and considered them as authoritative.

On the issues of caste and gender, Veerashaivism departed from Brahminism by being more inclusive. The idea of being born into a religion and into a caste was lambasted and people of all castes were welcome to become a Lingayat. Inter-caste marriage was encouraged and dining with members of different castes was the norm. While Hinduism marginalised women in matters of worship, Veerashaivism argued for gender parity through the vachanas:

“If they see breasts and long hair coming they call it woman, if beard and whiskers they call it man: but, look, the self that hovers in between is neither man nor woman”.

One of the most famous vachanakars (composer of vachanas or hymns) of Veerashaivism was also a woman, Akka Mahadevi, who renounced marriage, parents and even her clothes to wander in search of Shiva. Moreover, by opposing the Brahmanical notions of purity and pollution, several emancipatory ideas were adopted, such as the remarriage of widows, disregarding menstrual taboos and banning child marriage.

Given this, the Veerashaiva movement is often regarded as being a reformist one. However, the idea behind adopting such radical notions is not social reform per se, but to challenge the established Brahmanical order. Hence Veerashaiva was an anti-establishment movement. This is evidenced by the fact that not only was the religion in defiance of Brahmanism, it also militantly opposed Jainism, the religion that dominated Karnataka in the 12th-13th centuries. Interestingly, the Abbalur inscription says that one of the main ways in which Jainism was defeated was by large-scale destruction of Jain basadis (temples) and in later examples also the reuse or whole-scale conversions of Jain temples. The Megudi temple in Hallur and the Doddappa Temple at Adargunchi, Karnataka stand testimony to the radical way in which Veerashaivism wrested power from Jainism.

This represents an intriguing paradox in Lingayat philosophy. On one hand, vachanas denounce temple worship, but on the other hand, it was felt necessary to not only destroy but also appropriate and use Jain temples for worship. The conflict is better understood in light of the fact that despite its wayward practices, Veerashaivism was also eventually assimilated in the great Brahmanical tradition of the subcontinent. The assimilation reached it apogee when the religion began to get generous patronage from the Sangama kings of the Vijayanagara Empire. The patronage came at the cost of the religion’s fundamental tenets, the most ironical of which was to be slotted as a backward caste. To add insult to injury, few Linagayat generals of Vijayanagara built temples for Lord Virabhadra, a Puranic avatar (incarnation) of Lord Shiva.

The mellowing of Veerashaivism was not the first assimilation to the ‘great tradition’ of Hinduism. The process of merging local religions and traditions with the high Brahmanical customs was what defined the Puranic age. By linking tribal and non-Vedic deities to minor Vedic deities, as evidenced by the journey of Puranic Shiva and Krishna, the Puranic pantheon brought many small popular cults under its fold. Not only did this process help Puranic Hinduism gain more followers, it also combatted the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism. While it worked well for the great tradition, several little traditions that were merged have irrevocably lost their own identity. The tribal, cow-herder deity of the Abhiras that mixed with Krishna has no separate identity and the local myths surrounding the deity, that did not make it to the Puranas, lie buried in oblivion.

This danger looms large on Veerashaivism too. Already the caste system has invaded the anti-caste ideology of the religion and Sanskrit hagiographies have come up. The Jangmas, the priestly class of Veerashaivism, regularly emulate the Brahmins. If Veerashaivism does not carve itself away from the great tradition of Hinduism, it will soon be forgotten like many other little traditions.



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Re: Karnataka: Lingayats demand 'separate religion' status for their sect

Post by Rashmun on Fri Aug 11, 2017 12:11 pm

A new political drama debuted on the pre-election stage in Karnataka last week, promising maximum sparring, contest and a bounty of contested positions in the lead up to the state assembly polls in April-May 2018. Playing on screens now is a high-stakes tussle between the Congress and the BJP, the two principal parties in the fray, for the votes of the Lingayat community, which makes up close to 17% of the state’s population.

With the community having stayed firmly outside the Congress fold in recent times, the party has made a bold incursion into what is now BJP territory. It has come out in full support of a contentious demand from a section of the Lingayats for a separate religion tag outside of Hinduism.

The Congress’s offensive against the BJP and its chief ministerial face, B.S. Yeddyurappa, a powerful Lingayat leader seen as being able to carry the community with him on election day, is aimed at widening its own stagnating electoral support base beyond the minorities, the backward classes and Dalits (known as the AHINDA vote bank). The move is widely perceived to be the brainchild of current chief minister Siddaramaiah, one of the last surviving regional Congress leaders with heft.

The issue, swathed in layers of complexity, puts the spotlight on how democratic politics shapes caste and religious identities, and the contingent discourse around reservation benefits. But in a more immediate context, it brings into play tricky questions surrounding Lingayat identity with an aim to unsettle the existing equations – the undiluted backing of the community is crucial for the BJP to come to power in the 2018 polls. It also plugs into a larger political debate with national implications. For by supporting the demand, the Congress in the state stands to be seen as chipping away at the BJP’s, and its parent organisation RSS’s, attempt to forge a unified Hindu identity. This could be leveraged by the BJP for deadly electoral impact, as it was in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls.

The history of Lingayat identity
The separate religion demand has captured all-round attention in Karnataka politics. The Lingayats are what political scientists call a ‘caste-sect’, and fall within the OBC category in the state. It is a community that is made up of different castes within Hinduism, united by their allegiance to the teachings of Basaveshwara, a 12th-century social reformer and a poet-saint within the Bhakti movement. Basavanna, as he is popularly known, fought the inequalities of the Hindu social order by establishing a new egalitarian religious stream or sect of Shiva worship called Veerashaivism, which attracted followers from different sections of society.

The position that the Lingayat religion is separate from Hinduism has been stated from time to time within the community. It gained momentum in the past decade. During the 2011 census, some Lingayat community organisations had campaigned to convince community members not to register as Hindus. However, for the first time the demand for a separate religious identity was made at a public Lingayat gathering attended by 50,000 or more people at a rally in Bidar on July 19.

In addition to their demand, the faction of religious and political leaders at Bidar held that Lingayats and Veerashaivas were not one and the same, as they are commonly held to be. According to them, Veerashaivism was a sect of Shiva worship within Hinduism, whereas the Lingayat religion was an independent religion based on the Vachanas or the poetic corpus left behind by Basavanna. This, according to them, was the founding text of Lingayat worship. Therefore, they ought to be recognised both as separate from Veerashaivas (who were one of the many sects within the Lingayat community) and Hindus.

The numbers at the rally notwithstanding, the issue got a shot in the arm after Siddaramaiah, almost on cue, said that he was willing to make a representation on the matter to the central government if the Lingayats were unanimous about asking for separate religious status. Soon, Yeddyurappa hit back by describing the Congress’s support as aimed at dividing the community on a religious issue for electoral benefits. He dismissed the separate religion claim completely. “There is no difference between the Veerashaivas and Lingayats, and they are very much part of Hinduism,” he was quoted by the Times of India as saying. These statements by the two chief ministerial candidates, in turn, unleashed a series of claims, counter claims and arguments by various sections of the Lingayat community, including some by chiefs of religious muths.

The Congress has deployed a group of ministers to tour the state and build opinion in favour of the issue, while the BJP plans to do the opposite. Even Janata Dal (Secular)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy, whose party is seen as the custodian of the Vokkaliga community’s votes – the other big powerful voting bloc to rival the Lingayats – has jumped into the fray, disparaging the Congress’s actions.

Political experts, however, see the ferment within the Lingayat community over the move as closely linked to the assembly-election cycle rather than a widespread call to move out of the Hindu fold. “Demands erupt because of assembly elections…There would be pro-Congress groups (making the demand). They can also challenge the dominant Hindutva identity of the BJP,” said Rajeshwari Deshpande, professor of politics at the University of Pune, who has written extensively on the caste associations of Lingayats.



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