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BJP, Congress race to salute Basavanna. Karnataka polls aren't far after all

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 1 May 2017, 14:16 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute to Swami Basava on the International Basava Convention on 29 April 2017 in New Delhi, India. Prime Minister also unveiled translated volumes of Vachana, penned by 12th century social reformer Basavanna and other saints in 23 Indian languages, on the social reformer's birth anniversary. Vachana is a prosaic form well known in the Kannada literature which propagates values of universal brotherhood. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The birth anniversary of Basavanna, a 12th-century social reformer widely revered, especially in Karnataka, provided the perfect platform to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. The two took their competitive politics of appropriating Basavanna’s legacy to bizarre heights, with an eye on the Karnataka Assembly elections scheduled for next year.

Taken aback by BJP’s master strategy to project Basava’s philosophy at the national level with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance, the Siddaramaiah government hastily decided, just three days ago, to order all government offices, schools and colleges in the state to display Basavanna’s portraits along with those of Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar.

Apart from conducting a series of programmes across Karnataka to extol the contributions of Basavanna, the state government mandated the state information department to select an appropriate portrait of the poet-saint and mail it to around two lakh institutions to prepare 12’/18’ photos to be displayed.

Though some offices were able to do so by Saturday itself, the majority will take up the work on Tuesday as the sarkari babus are on a three-day holiday, including May Day on Monday.

Matter of books

In New Delhi, it was a grander affair. In the first ever celebration of Basava Jayanti at the national level, Modi not only garlanded a bronze statue of Basavanna, but unveiled translated volumes of Vachanas, the philosophical poems penned by Basavanna and three of his contemporary saints. The translated volumes have been brought out in 23 languages.

Ironically, these volumes, published by Bengaluru-based Basava Samithi, were edited by late scholar MM Kalburgi. Kalburgi was gunned down by a possible right-wing extremist two years ago and his death still remains a mystery.

Kalburgi had employed more than 200 translators for the Rs 2.5 crore project that was partly financed by the state government.

This year's Basava Jayanti celebrations coincided with the golden jubilee of the Basava Samithi set up by former vice-president BD Jatti, a staunch Lingayat leader, who was twice the acting president of India.

At the ceremony, as can only be expected, Modi waxed eloquent about 'Bhagwan Basaveshwara’s' contribution to democratic thinking, equality of classes, women empowerment etc and equated them to his own government’s theme of ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas.’

 But, never mind the politics involved, there is no doubt that Basavanna or Basaveshwara, as he was known, deserves to be feted as a national icon as he was a great people’s poet and a visionary statesman far ahead of his times.

Who was Basavanna?

Lingayatism, also known as Veerashaivism, began as a social transformation movement in the 11th and 12th century. Basavanna (1134-1196 CE), though born a Brahmin, rebelled against the prevailing rigid practices of the caste system and began expounding his philosophy with the concept of a casteless society as its core. He started attracting a large number of people.

Starting as an accountant in King Bijjala’s kingdom, he rose to become the prime minister. With Bijjala’s backing, Basavanna continued his evangelical work of breaking caste and class barriers and set up Anubhava Mantapa – a vibrant, grand experiment in inclusive democracy, perhaps one of the greatest this country has ever seen.

Anubhava Mantapa was open to everyone irrespective of caste, creed or gender and discussions on philosophical, social and economic issues went on for days together before decisions were taken to be implemented by Basavanna and other ministers.

The Anubhava Mantapa used to be held at Basavanna’s residence, which came to be known as ‘Maha Mane.’

As his popularity grew, Basavanna made enemies, who complained to the king that the treasury funds were being misused for the ‘glorification of an individual'. Basavanna maintained that Anubhava Mantapa was being run through voluntary contributions and offered to resign if proved otherwise. His critics were silenced.

Low caste people such as the mochis, barbers, plumbers and carpenters who had joined Basavanna’s movement and found themselves elevated in their social ranks. Proclaiming ‘Kayakave kailasa’ (work is worship or heaven), Basavanna had managed to bring about remarkable parity in the social hierarchy and the upper castes seemed to be in complete disarray.

But, of course, it was too good to last. There were enough people to poison Bijjala’s mind, and soon Basavanna was divested off all his powers. However, he tried to keep the momentum of social reformation going, but ultimately, he too became a victim of ego and self-righteousness which led to the disintegration of his movement.

Apart from politics and social reforms, Basavanna is also remembered for his contribution to Kannada literature. He, along with his fellow reformist saints like Devara Dasimaiah, Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi wrote prolifically, works which came to be known as Vachanas.

Glimpses of the universal wisdom contained in the Vachanas are already available in some of the translations brought out by the celebrated linguist, AK Ramanujan’s book, The Speaking of Shiva.

One of the more famous translations of Basavanna’s Vachana by Ramanujan reads thus:

The rich

will make temples for Shiva.

What shall I,

a poor man do?


My legs are pillars,

the body the shrine

the head the cupola of gold.


Listen, O Lord of the meeting rivers,

things standing shall fall

but the moving ever shall stay.

 It was an example of Basavanna’s recurring theme of ‘stavara’ and ‘jangama’, that is, what is static and standing and what is moving and seeking constantly. He believed that temples and ancient books represented the former, while work, discussion and dialogue represented the latter.

Looking at Basavanna’s legacy, some of the scholars have pointed out that perhaps one of the mistakes he did was to ask his followers to wear the ‘Istalinga’, an image of Shiva Linga tied to a thread around the neck.

His intention was to remind them of their devotion to Shiva, but it became a symbol for followers belonging to the Lingayat caste.

From then to now

Over a period of time, those known as Lingayats, have split into several sub-castes, but together they form the single largest community in Karnataka.

Their socio-economic and political domination, especially of north Karnataka, is unquestionable. Seven of the first 10 chief ministers belonged to this community.

Though of late, their influence on contemporary politics is on the decline, the Lingayats have the ability to sway the results in nearly half of the 224 seats in Karnataka Assembly.

So, leaving Basavanna’s grand ideal of a casteless society aside, for the likes of Narendra Modi and Siddaramaiah, it is important to woo his followers – however brazenly.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 1 May 2017, 12:43 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramakrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.