India has a long tradition of bright minds poking holes in some distinctly un-bright ideas. And one such mind lived over eight centuries ago in the south, blowing a hole so large through that disastrous institution called caste that a flood of people—about 6.5 million today—escaped the old order, arriving at an identity of their own. Of course, this identity, when formalized, invited its own peculiarities and contradictions, but now, as a section of the Lingayat community seeks legal recognition as a faith outside all-subsuming Hinduism, custodians of the majoritarian cause are gripped by understandable anxiety. And this despite the feelings that Basava, the 12th century intellectual preceptor of the Lingayats, expressed about such self-appointed custodians in his own day. “Loaded with the burden of the Vedas," he pithily remarked, “the Brahmin is a veritable donkey."
Basava could get away with saying outrageous things because he himself was a Brahmin. But he was a Brahmin repulsed by Brahminism, and the intellectual and material debilitations wreaked on society by caste. “False, utterly false," he declared, “are the stories of divine birth. The higher type of man is the man who knows himself." His was a kind of humanism that rejected man-made inequalities justified in the name of the divine, wedded though it was to the worship of Shiva. “On the same earth stands," one of his vachanas goes, “the outcaste’s hovel, and the deity’s temple. Whether for ritual or rinsing, is not the water same?" So too, just like the outcaste Chandala, the Brahmin too was born from a human womb. Or “is there anybody in the world," asked Basava, “delivered through the ear?" Those who were meant to supply the answer stewed instead in anger.
Basava, son of Madiraja and Madalambike, was born around 1105 in Bagewadi. Poets subsequently embellished his tale with typical apocryphal excess—that his arrival was a boon from Shiva, or that the baby only opened his eyes when an image of the deity was dangled before him. But myth-making aside, the boy was sharp—at 16, he discarded the Brahminical thread, and by 28 he was clear in his vision of a society without caste. In the fashion of his day, the vocabulary of his reform was also religious. And so Basava sought to break the monopoly temples and priests had over god by popularizing the portable Ishtalinga, a symbol of Shiva worn around the neck. From his centre in Kudalasangama, the idea of the temple was diluted, as was the popularity of polytheism. “Gods here, gods there, with no space for our feet!" Basava exclaimed. Shiva alone was, he felt, a truly divine force in an ocean of pointless divinities, and Shiva became to Basava what Krishna would be to Meera.
But then Basava, who had simultaneously been a career bureaucrat since 1132, having advanced from royal accountant to chief minister at the tumultuous, fractious court in Kalyan, went one step too far. Already, his Hall of Experience (Anubhava Mantapa) attracted men and women from all castes to meet freely and to express radical new thought with even greater liberty. Then he proceeded to eat meals with untouchables, flouting age-old law. What could have been written off essentially as a new, somewhat irritating Shiva cult now began to shake the very pillars on which powerful social hierarchies were perched. “Today he dines with (the lowborn). Tomorrow he will encourage mixed marriages," vented the orthodox, fearing “caste mix-up" and the “utter ruination" of the status quo. Their fears were, as it happens, valid, for Basava did proceed to intermarriage. The king was prevailed upon to warn his minister to behave—and the king was politely disobeyed.
The event was seminal—and not just because it was happening in 1167 in a country where inter-caste unions still provoke violence and murder in the 21st century. The daughter of a Brahmin called Madhuvarasa was wedded to the son of Haralayya, an untouchable. The monarch and the establishment were apoplectic—the respective fathers, it is said, had their eyes gouged out, after which they were thrown under elephants to painfully meet their maker, casteless in death. Basava himself survived the calamity, but the whole of the kingdom descended into political chaos (chaos which was building also on account of other factors—after all, Basava was a political figure too, and politically motivated charges of corruption, for instance, had been used to topple his reform movement earlier). The last thing the king wanted on his hands at a time of turmoil was social disorder. Basava’s career ended, and he returned from Kalyan to Kudalasangama, to the riverside where he had first declared his love for Shiva.
The man did not live for long afterwards, however, and for over two centuries after his death in 1168, his sharanas (followers) kept the movement alive but quiet. It was only in the 15th century that the Lingayat identity reasserted itself after one of their own became minister to the Vijayanagara king. By now Basava’s vachanas had been compiled, and the movement invested with a structure of its own. In order to survive, however, a certain accommodation with the Brahminical order was arrived at, essentially turning the Lingayats into one of the very many other castes that existed in Indian society. To Basava himself, such an ironic compromise might have seemed unfortunate, but he had long departed and those left behind had to be pragmatic in the face of hostility. Now, several centuries later, as they seek a second divorce from the Hindu fold, it is the latter who must find an accommodation, seeking to retain Basava’s children within their order, not so much due to a difference of vision as much as due to the plain demands of numbers and the everyday expediencies of calculated politics.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
The writer tweets at @UnamPillai