Veerashaivas: 12th Century Rebels Against Religious Orthodoxy in India

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


V.S.Naipaul, the celebrated writer of Indian ancestry from the Caribbean, wrote a harshly critical book on India in 1964: India: An Area of Darkness. Then, in 1977 he muted his critique by writing another book, India: A Wounded Civilization. His understanding of India culminated finally in India: Million Mutinies Now, the book he wrote in 1990 at the end of his own long, inward journey. Here he portrays ordinary Indians he interacts with struggling against great odds to change the stifling systems. The land of darkness morphed into a mutinous land.

No wonder many anglicized Indians think India was static and resistant to change till Turkic, Afghani, and Mongol marauders brought Islam in the 10th century and the European colonizing occupiers brought Christianity to India in the 16th century. For them, real reforms in India started with the europeanized, persianized Raja Ram Mohan Roy (early 19th century.)

In reality, though, since Vedic times, India always had a native intellectual tradition of people campaigning for change whenever society became ossified or exploitative. The teachers of the Upanishads, Jain Teertankaras, Gautama Buddha, Sankara, and Ramanuja are great examples, if you consider the social condition of their times. Such rebellions are in line with the Hindu idea of the need for periodic reforms: “I make myself appear again and again to restore Dharma whenever Dharma decays and corruption becomes widespread.” Rebellions are built into the Hindu ethos.

In this tradition of rebellion come the 12th century Veerashaivas in Southern India, against the Vedic Brahmin orthodoxy. The movement got its impetus through the works of Basavanna, Allama Prabhu, and Mahadevi Akka. Anna (elder brother), Akka (elder sister) and Prabhu (gentleman) are respectful appendages to their names. Some scholars believe Jedara Dasimayya (10th century) was a forerunner in this Movement.

Basava, Allama and others used to meet at the Anubhava Mantapa (Pavilion of Experience) in Kudala Sangama, a temple town, now a pilgrimage place in Bagalkote district in Karnataka State. They debated on Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (Knowledge), and Vairagya (detachment) for bringing egalitarian changes in society.

The Veerashaiva Movement campaigned against the ossified caste division of its time. Even though millennia ago, this division had a rationale for organizing society in terms of skills, it got stratified as “high” and “low” castes in later centuries. By the 10th century India, the system was further fossilized, based exclusively on birth.

Veerashaivas rejected the authority of the Vedas, the need for an intermediary priest and empty rituals. It was a radical idea, like today Jews, Christians, and Muslims rejecting the need for rabbis, priests/pastors, and maulvis to get through life’s transitions. The Veerashaiva idea of Godhead is Shiva, the Supreme One, who causes the entire gamut of creation, preservation, and dissolution, going in endless cycles.

Even as they rebelled against the ossified Vedic system of their time, Veerashaivas accepted its cultural bearings such as pursuit of knowledge, logical analysis, bhakti, jnana (wisdom); discipline, contemplation and liberation; karma and rebirths; and the need for Gurus in Man’s spiritual quest. The teachings of the Veerashaivas are in Vachanas, literally “Sayings,” some of which are iconoclastic. Kabir Das, Ravi Das, and Bulleh Shah, also known for their acerbic iconoclastic verses, came many centuries later, in the 15th, 16th, and 18th centuries, respectively.

In one of the vachanas, Basavanna, using vivid imagery, sarcastically reproves the Vedic Brahmin priest. In this, the priest, who worships fire as divine, has no qualms cursing the fire when it suits him. Basava himself being a Brahmin only shows he was, indeed, a true rebel. Here is the vachana, first in Kannada:

The contents of the Vachana in English:

The pandit in his house worships fire as deity, offering cooked rice  as oblations to the fire;  

The fire goes wild with the flames burning down the house.

They dump the gutter water and dirt from the street to douse the fire, and scream for help from all around.

Forgetting their worship, they curse the fire.

O, Koodala Sangama Deva (The Lord of the Meeting Rivers)!

Veeerasaivas are scattered throughout the Peninsular India in Maharashtra, Andhra/Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. In today’s Karnataka, the contribution of Veerashaivas in primary, secondary and tertiary education (arts, science, engineering, law and medicine) is substantial. Their impact in Karnataka’s public life — arts, literature, politics, and administration — is important too. Their presence and impact in other parts of Southern India are also noteworthy.

It is ironic that Veerashaivas, who fought so passionately against the caste system, ended up being a dominant caste in Karnataka.  More on this here.  ♣

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.