Perhaps the most revealing test of the sincerity of any drive for reform lies in how welcoming it is of the voices of women. When Basava sparked the 12th century movement that we now recognize as Lingayatism, many were those of dazzling intellect who joined him. Tired of social shackles and determined to chart an alternative course, they found in Basava’s anti-caste, egalitarian crusade a resonance that has survived the ages, down, indeed, to our times. Gauri Lankesh, the slain journalist, for instance, lent her voice to the Lingayat cause, and there is today an entire political class that seeks to reaffirm the principles Basava upheld, prominent among which is a commitment to the autonomy of women. Indeed, of the 210 saints associated with Basava, as many as 35 were female, 14 of them unmarried. These were women of uncommon brilliance who, in addition to their battles against caste and inequality, also challenged patriarchy’s grip over their bodies and thought. As with many in the Bhakti tradition, their ideas were expressed in the language of devotion, evoking, as the scholar Vijaya Ramaswamy tells, “very strong sexual imagery" that was “erotic in style and metaphor". Thus, for instance, we have the saint Remmavve of the weaver caste who sang ecstatically of her union not with a mortal consort, but with the patron deity of the Lingayats, Shiva himself: All husbands have seeds/My husband has no seeds/All husbands are above/My husband below, I am above him!
Like elsewhere, women in medieval Karnataka ordinarily found their lives cemented in patriarchal norms: father, husband, son and family was their universe. Those seeking freedom from this prescribed existence received sanctuary in Basava’s reform movement, also insulating themselves from social reaction through a pronounced commitment to god. The celebrated Akka Mahadevi left her royal husband’s palace behind, wandering naked and singing praises of Shiva. “You shall be doomed if you touch the woman married to (the lord)", she warned, but even then the road was not always safe. In a version of the Shunyasampadane that holds the Lingayat vachanas, there is an honoured figure who attempts to violate Mahadevi. “She is not," we are informed, however, “desecrated". Leaving aside mythmaking, the point was simply that even with their voice couched in terms of spirituality, women thinkers—then, as now—were not always safe and had more battles to fight than their male counterparts could know or imagine.
Basava, cognizant of this, went out of his way to promote equality between the sexes as much as he fought for equality among the castes. Menstruation, for instance, entailed ritual pollution for women ordinarily, but Basava rejected this—women could continue to worship Shiva regardless of whether or not there was blood.
When Mahadevi’s nudity became a point of discussion, he came to her defence and asked: “Does the one who has loved the sky-clad one, have need of a girdle cloth?" So too he raised questions of institutions built around gender. “Look here, dear fellow," goes one of his vachanas. “I wear these men’s clothes only for you. Sometimes I am man, sometimes I am woman." The singular Mahadevi, meanwhile, argued the opposite. “A woman though in name, I am, if you consider well, the male principle." Clothed in Shiva’s “light", she was not bound by shame. “Where is the need for cover and jewel" when she was under the benevolent gaze of the divine? It was all about devotion but within it lay also an assertion of who Mahadevi was.
Also Read: Basava and the emergence of Lingayat identity
If these were more personal expressions of individuality in a time when community reigned supreme, Basava and the Lingayats had questions for society too. Their age was one of Brahmin ascendancy, and the orthodox did not welcome Basava’s call for a society unrestricted by caste, open to introspection and embracing of women. The Lingayats were dismissed as contrarian for the sake of it, their female saints simply branded strange. Strange, in fact, even the men must have looked in any case—a fellowship of rebels from diverse backgrounds. Basava was born Brahmin; Allama Prabhu a drummer; Siddharama a cowherd; Maccayya a washerman; and Kakkaya, a skinner of dead cows. What was infuriating, however, was their pointed criticism of conservative Brahminical hypocrisy. As Basava put it, They say: Pour, pour the milk/When they see a snake image in stone/But they cry: Kill, kill!/When they meet a snake for real. The old scriptures were all, in theory, open to new ideas and thought. But custodians of these books were, in practise, merely custodians of their own privilege.
Basava’s movement was, in the end, violently crushed after the Lingayats dealt patriarchy and caste a combined blow by getting a Brahmin’s daughter married to an untouchable’s son. And in the centuries that followed, though Lingayatism retained its identity, it reached an accommodation with the power of the Brahmins. What was an “expressly anti-Brahmanical and anti-caste" movement transformed itself into a caste in a few centuries. “Defiance," after all, as scholar A.K. Ramanujan said, “is not discontinuity." Like Protestants in Europe, who sought a less corrupted version of the Christian faith, the Lingayats were a group that challenged tyranny and gave a voice to the marginalized. They may have resisted the Brahmin, but they are part of the same all-encompassing Hindu order that embraces everyone from the tree-worshipper to the atheist.
Today, however, the Lingayats question this classification. Are they, who celebrate Basava’s heterodox teachings, who uphold the vachanas of many remarkable women, who bury their dead and go to no temples, really Hindus? Proponents of Hindutva insist they are—where majoritarianism is the goal, one can hardly allow the dilution of the majority. In the medieval past, after Basava and his saints were gone, it was not easy to resist those with the power to insist and enforce. But armed with the freedoms of modernity—ideas that in the 12th century animated the minds of Lingayat thinkers—voices from within have been raised to assert precisely this claim of difference. M.M. Kalburgi said it, and Gauri Lankesh said it: the Lingayats are not Hindus. They are their own. The tragedy of course lies not in whether this is the right answer or whether it is wrong. It lies in the fact that both raised questions, and both are now dead.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
He tweets at @UnamPillai