Basava: A true visionary
Perhaps one of the most celebrated proverbs, nay, a truism in Kannada is the saying, ‘Kayakave Kailasa –Work is the Mount Kailasa,’ a slogan promoted by the great philosopher and social reformer Basava, about eight centuries ago. But like many remarkable saints, his name remains largely unknown nationwide.
Although there is no certified or official biography of Basava, a lot of reliable sources exist for us to know about his life. These sources include Basavarajadevara Ragale composed in Kannada language by Harihara during 1230 CE. The second source of information is the collection of short compositions in poetic prose by Basava himself and his contemporaries, known as Vachanas. The third source is the Basavapuranam by Bhimakavi which was a translation of the original Telugu by Somanatha.
Based on these sources, many stories concerning Basava grew in the medieval era. This article is an attempt to give a summarized version based on available and reliable works.
Basava was born in 1131 CE to a devout couple, Madarasa and Madalambike in a village called Bagewadi which is presently located in Karnataka. Madalambike in her desire to have a son worshiped Shiva every day, and one night she dreamt that Shiva had sent his bull Nandi to the mortal world. Basava was soon born.
Madarasa’s guru, upon the birth of the child, smeared the vibhuti or scared ash on the forehead of the new born and claimed that the child would promote Dharma in the world and work for the well being of mankind. The name Basava is the Kannada form of the Sanskrit word Vrishabha.
The society at that time was steeped in excessive ritualism and there was generally an all-round corruption in the matters of religion. Nowhere was it clearer than the rigid caste structure which placed the Brahmins at the top of the hierarchy and the Holeyas or outcastes at the bottom. Traditionally, Brahmins were considered to be the repositories of learning and traditions. Kings relied on them for advice on duties of the state. Many times a king or an eminent citizen of the kingdom would donate large acres of land to Brahmins called agraharas. These agraharas became great centres of learning and housed eminent scholars. The Vedas were taught there along with grammar, logic and basic arithmetic. In some cases, Brahmins would chose a leader under whose guidance the agrahara would function. Basava was the son of one such leader.
Unfortunately, these scholars would sometimes give false interpretations of the scriptures to suit their needs, as signified by Basava’s statement “Scriptures show one way and the Brahmins follow another”.
Even among the lower castes, there were again different rankings and each caste had its own social privileges. The position of the untouchable holeyas was pitiable. The fear of harsh punishment prevented the member of any caste to do speak against these falsehoods.
Basava in his early childhood received the basic education that the agrahara provided but his inquisitiveness and bold personality put him at odds with the elders of the society. The child Basava would never miss a prasanga, a religious discourse where tales of devotees were narrated. He was fond of listening to tales of saintly figures like Kannappa, Madara Channayya and Devara Dasimayya. The tales of these saints gave the message that caste was never a standard by which a man’s devotion or knowledge can be measured.
With time it became difficult for Basava to quietly accept the prevalent social injustices. At the time of his upanayana ceremony, Basava angered his family members as well as society elders by asking many questions related to the sanctity of rituals. On being reprimanded, he refused to wear the sacred thread. Due to Madarasa’s standing in society, this act of dissent by Basava was allowed to pass. But Basava had to wear the sacred thread to keep his father’s honor.
From student to visionary
Following the upanayana, his formal education began and he studied grammar, music, arithmetic, and Vedas in detail. Having the ability to grasp these teachings, Basava would openly point out fallacies the teachers often taught as Dharma angering them in the process. He also began to protest against the unjust treatment of the lower castes. All these actions made his situation in the village unendurable so he left for a town called Kudalasangama in the present day Bijapur district. It was a holy place and a centre of pilgrimage for the devotees of Shiva.
Traditions state that when Basava entered the temple, he was driven to great joy and recited his first Vachana. In addition to composing songs and poems, the priests of the temple assigned him the role of the caretaker. His poems and songs began to attract people from the nearby areas, making Basava widely popular. The serenity of the temple charmed him so much that he wished to become an ascetic.
But the depravity that crept into society changed his mind. He realized that if he could work and earn, he himself could get assistance to clear the societal rubbish. During that time there was a feudatory ruler under the Kalyana Chalukyas named Bijjala whose capital was Mangalavedhe. Basava decided to join the court of king Bijjala as that would give him a proper platform to impart his teachings.
Now there are different accounts of how Basava got to join Bijjala’s court. One states that he was the nephew of Siddhadandanatha, the Chief of Treasury, so it was on Siddhadandanatha’s request that Bijjala appointed Basava while another account claims he proved his competence in arithmetic and became an accountant in the state administration.
Both accounts however agree that with time the king impressed with Basava’s adeptness made him the Chief Treasury Officer. Basava who once aimed to live the life of an ascetic, now thought differently. In one of his vachanas he argued in favor of married life and has remarked that the suppression of sexual instincts can lead to problems of various kinds.
But married life did not dilute his vision to cleanse the society of its filth. Now being at a stable position, the visionary set in motion the plan to implement his vision. He would welcome people from all walks of life to his residence and share his views with them. Slowly he gained many followers and they came to be known as Lingayats. The term Lingayat meant someone who wears a small Shiva linga on their body. The small linga is called the ishta linga (the chosen linga) as opposed to sthavara linga (fixed linga) of the temple. There are other features of the Lingayat faith but describing them is beyond the scope of this article.
Basava’s in-depth knowledge and honesty made many of the residents in the kingdom idolize him as a saint. But Basava forbade them from giving him such a position. He would sit together with his followers and spend the nights, singing and chanting the names of Shiva. His poems and songs due to their simple language and luminous message appealed to both the rich and poor.
During this period Bijjala had usurped the Chalukyan throne and moved his capital to the much bigger city of Kalyana (today a small town in Bidar district called Basavakalyana, named after Basava). This made Basava the Chief Treasurer of the empire. His new position gave him the authority to setup a democratic as well as spiritual institution naming it ‘Anubhava Mantapa’.
Piety and willingness to learn were the sole requirements to join Anubhava Mantapa. Every member was to be given equal rights, regardless of caste or gender. Discussions on religious and social matters were held in Anubhava Mantapa. In these discussions every member had the right to give valid opinions on important manners, even if the said opinion contradicted that of Basava’s. The members of Anubhava Mantapa actively ignored the societal rules associated with the caste by allowing untouchables to have food with them.
The most renowned members of this institution were Prabhulinga, a farmer turned ascetic who Basava considered to be an erudite saint and Akkamahadevi , an excellent poetess whose devotion to Shiva prompted her to divorce her husband.
A radical concept preached at the Mantapa was Kayaka. It meant every individual should take up the job of his/her choice, perform it with all sincerity and not be a burden on society. Basava declared:
‘We should realize God through the work we do. Persons must share a part of his earnings with the poor. No occupation is inferior or superior to another.’
Basava and his colleagues encouraged the women to work, take up spiritual practices and express themselves through song and poetry.
These occurrences made many in the King’s court jealous of Basava. To take revenge on him, they reported to the King that Basava was feeding a large number of his followers by taking money from the King’s treasury. When Bijjala asked Basava about it, Basava answered:
“The expenses of Mantapa are met by the earnings of several devotees. I am a devotee of Shiva and do not want other people’s money. If you have suspicions, well, I shall tender my resignation this very moment. Before that let there be a detailed inquiry about these charges. The cash and all accounts of the treasury may be checked this moment.”
Upon this Bijjala himself checked the accounts and the cash, and found the charges on Basava to be untrue. Bijjala then requested Basavanna to continue as the chief officer. But Basava finally clashed with Bijjala over a sensitive issue.
Madhuvarasa, a Brahmin and Haralayya, a cobbler, had joined Anubhava Mantapa and considered each other equals. Also Madhuvarasa’s daughter was in love with Haralayya’s son. As a result, with the approval of Basava and all the others of Anubhava Mantapa, Madhuvarasa and Haralayya made plans for their marriage.
The orthodox elements in society rose in violent protest against this marriage. They demanded that the duty of King Bijjala should be to punish both families. Sadly their pressure on the King was very strong which caused him to sentence both families to death.
Angered by this injustice and frustrated with the prevailing orthodoxy, Basava left Kalyana , returning to Kudalasangama. While in Kudalasangama, he preached to the people about humanity, the dignity of labour, and equality of all human beings. According to traditions he passed away in 1195.
The Vachanas penned by him are relevant for all time. Sadly, only his followers in Karnataka know about it, while his name is not even known in other parts of India. Those of us who speak of Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg as radical thinkers should attempt to know of Basava and his teachings. A correct interpretation of his vachanas will show that he was more than just a religious teacher. Consider the following translation:
The rich will make temples for Shiva. What shall I, a poor man, do?
My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay
Notable quotes on Basava:
The Speaker of The British Parliament John Bercow on 21 January, 2013 in the Westminster hall during a thanksgiving occasion organized by The Lambeth Basaveshwara Foundation said:
“It’s amazing and extraordinary that Basaveshwara professed, campaigned and advocated genuine democracy, human rights, gender equality way back in the 11th century even before anyone in United Kingdom had even thought about it”.
The Times of India in its issue dated May 17, 1918 mentioned:
It was the distinctive feature of his mission that while illustrious religious and social reformers in India before him had each laid his emphasis on one or other items of religion and social reform, either subordinating more or less other items to it or ignoring them altogether, Basava sketched and boldly tried to work out a large and comprehensive programme of social reform with the elevation and independence of womanhood as its guiding point. Neither social conferences which are usually held in these days in several parts of India, nor Indian social reformers, can improve upon that programme as to the essentials. The present day social reformer in India is but speaking the language and seeking to enforce the mind of Basava.
Appropriation of Basava
As stated previously, this true visionary is not known to most Indians. Even in the writings of many of our national leaders like Kulapati Munshi, Babasaheb Ambedkar or Veer Savarkar, Basava’s name is hardly mentioned. This kind of laxity made it easy for the communists to appropriate Basava as their own.
Many communist intellectuals who have no regard for Indian culture boastfully speak of Basava as one of the first communist leaders, diluting the saint’s great vision to suit their needs. Their claim is based on Basava’s concept of Kayaka which stated every individual should take up the job of his/her choice and perform it well.
But they should explain how come someone who equated ‘work’ with ‘worship’ of the god Shiva can become a communist as the latter equates worship of god to smoking opium. More importantly since Basava preceded the communist movement by eight centuries wouldn’t that make communism an offshoot of the Lingayat movement? Hence the said intellectuals should claim leaders like Lenin and Khrushchev to be modern day Lingayats.
Nonetheless these kinds of attempts at appropriating Basava will continue till people get to know of his life and teachings in detail, since they are part of India’s great intellectual heritage.