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The Kannada Shiva Bhakti Movement: Continuity and Departure


The 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti (Sharana) movement has captured the mind space of academia for its seemingly revolutionary and rather radical discourse. It was and in some cases is seen as quintessentially iconoclastic and protestant in contrast to the established Hindu religious traditions. A whole host of western and Indian writers have harped upon this “Protestant vs Catholic” meta-narrative which also seems to have gotten traction among a large section – which is also the vocal and assertive – of the votaries who have inherited this bhakti tradition. The problem with this narrative is that it isolates the multitudes of diverse voices and underplays the theistic/ philosophical underpinnings of the movement which are based on the cumulative development of the Shaiva religion over centuries of interaction with orthodox and heterodoxical traditions. Moreover, the meta narrative – which is now the mainstream narrative – tries to superimpose alien theological concepts that appear suggestive but on close examination is anachronistic to the normative practices of the faithful (Virashaiva/ Lingayata). Concepts like monotheism, rejection of idol worship, shunning of temple congregation and pilgrimages etc. are some concepts that are anachronistic to the religious praxis of a vast number of votaries within the tradition. In recent times however emphasis on these concepts have been made in a move to bring in regimentation in accordance with the imagined ideals of the 12th century Kannada Shaiva saints (Sharanas). In this paper I shall problematize the all-pervasive meta-narrative “Protestant vs Catholic” which is a construct of colonial vintage and I shall try to relate some of the Sharana discourse with traditions having roots in the Tamil Shaiva bhakti movement and the pan Indian Shaiva religion as expounded in the puranas and agamas. Even while doing so I shall make an attempt at highlighting the departures of the Kannada Shiva bhakti from the previously known normative Shaiva traditions.


My entry point into the world of Virashaivism started with A.K Ramanujan “Speaking of Siva”. To my young mind the message of the book was revolutionary and touched the right notes of my “English educated sensibilities”. The vachanas appeared as modern at the same time ancient, even crossing the temporal threshold by emerging timeless. The news in all its forms gave a different dimension to my perceived mental map of what comprised Virashaivism/ Lingayatism. The many narratives of the religion, in circulation only helped in confusing the data points mapped meticulously after reading Ramanujan. The resultant picture was that the religion appeared heterodox and in constant conflict with society around it. This picture persisted until I finally decided to read what the literature of this religious tradition had expressed itself. This brought me to the vachanas of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhaktas called the Shiva Sharana. The poems of these saints were ideologically diverse and did not fit into the current narrative which appeared erroneous and unbalanced. For example, the vachana (poems) of Saurashtra Addayya and the Karana Hasige of Chennabasava[1] appear theologically disparate to the vachanas attributed to Allama, although there might be an underlining similarity that we cannot perceive.

The din of diverse voices of the vachanas makes a harmonious whole when one approaches the early narrative literature of Hampeya Hariharana as Gil Ben-Herut has shown in his book “Siva’s Saints”. According to Ben Herut the ideology of the early twelfth century Kannada Shaiva saints was still in its nascent stage until the political urges of the Vijayanagara period (circa 15th century) forced theologians of the tradition to create a cohesive religious ideology. Such pressure did not drive the early narrative makers (Circa 13th century) like Hariharanato compose his Ragales whose only locus was Shiva bhakti.[2] Over the period, the political scenario changed and with it changed the mainstream narrative of the Virashaiva/ Lingayatas and their imaginaire of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti movement (henceforth referred to as KSBM) with Kalyana as the arena for the unfoldment of “revolutionary” acts.

In the colonial era a whole host of western and Indian writers harped upon this “Protestant vs Catholic” meta-narrative. The seed of this meta narrative was sown by Charles Philip Brown, an officer of the British East India Company in 1840. He posited the theory that pitted the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhaktas against the Brahminical order. Basava was revision-ed as the champion of the downtrodden and the anti-varna crusader quite opposed to the image of him being the Dwitiya Shambhu.[3] According to V.M Boratti the theory espoused by C.P Brown did not go well with the Lingayata elites who were aspiring for Brahminical status. [4]Halakatti[5] with all his noble intention to publish and recontextualise the vachana for the modern times unwittingly contributed to the Protestant vs Catholic narrative. In 1933 Arthur Miles in his book the ‘Land of the Lingam – A disparaging account of Hindus’ reinforces Brown’s theory by referring to Basava as the Luther of India who mounted a rostrum to replace caste and priestly authority with intelligence and free-thinking.[6] This meta narrative achieved a critical mass with Sakhare’s writings where he pitches for the lingayata disunion. The impact of Caldwell’s and Pope’s line of argument seemed to have left a deep imprint on Sakhare’s works. Both Caldwell and Pope were involved in the Dravidian/ Shaiva versus Aryan/ Vedic discourse.[7] Although Caldwell did not make the link between Dravidianism and Shaivism but he sufficiently inspired P. Sundaram Pillai – one of the major proponents of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta- to do so.

The colonial narrative brought in ideas that where hereto before alien to the communities practicing the religion of the Sharanas. Concepts like:

  1. Sanskrit v/s Local languages itself an offshoot of the Aryan v/s Dravidian debate.
  2. Caste, untouchability as inherent in the Hindu/ Vedic religion but not part of Lingayatism.
  3. Ishtalinga as opposed to idolatry.
  4. Hostility towards temple worship,

were being dished out as unique traits of the Lingayata/ Virashaiva religion founded by Basava in the 12th century.

(Figure 1: Credit: Dreamstime – Basavanna)

In this paper I intend to answer these points of contention by citing vachanas of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakta that, give a contrarian view to these propositions and places the Kannada Shiva bhakti movement in context with the broader Shaiva religion. By doing so I shall decolonize the narrative on Virashaivism/ Lingayatism and suggest continuity and departure in the KSBM by using a nuanced line of argument.

Tracing the lineage of the Kannada Shiva bhakti

In the Indic traditions, the vamshavali (lineage) is at the centre of the identity of a given tradition – be it spiritual or temporal. In case of a spiritual tradition, it essentially serves dual purposes, primarily the transfer of knowledge and secondarily the writ of legitimacy that it offers as a sampradaya. The phenomenon of lineage is natural to traditions where knowledge was traditionally passed down from the word of mouth. As such the act of oral transmission is open to accretions and omissions owing to the dynamicity of the medium. In such cases the weight of a lineage serves as a mark of veracity and unalloyed transference of knowledge – knowledge which is jealously guarded and scrupulously transmitted generation after generations from guru (mentor) to shishya (mentee). Traditions are built on the foundations of their predecessors even if the predecessor were not in a stream of linear succession and/ or are spatially and temporally far removed from the tradition itself. Take for example, the Bauddhas and Jainas, these traditions have a pre-history which attest their origination to past Buddhas and Tirthankaras who were spatially and temporally distant from the historical Buddha and Mahavira respectively. This is also likely the case with the Kannada Shiva bhakti movement, the pre-history of which is closely tied to the historical and mythical Shiva bhakti strands from which it draws inspiration. We can sample this in a vachana (utterance) penned by Basava, the main protagonist of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti movement.

“What is the nature of Bhakti?

It is like the deeds of Dasayya

What is the nature of Bhakti?

It is like the deeds of Siriyala

What is the Nature of Bhakti?

It is like the deeds of our Sindhu Ballala

What is the nature of Bhakti?

Kudalasangamadeva it is like you waiting at the doorstep of Bana.”

 This vachana of Basava explicitly seeks to draw inspiration from three different strands of Shiva bhakti traditions. The first strand is the localised Pre-Basava Kannada Shiva bhakti tradition which is idealised in the character of the 10th century Kannada Shiva bhakta. Dasimayya.[8] The second strand comprises the trans–local Tamil Shiva bhakti tradition as idealised in the characters of Siriyala and Sindhu Ballala[9] and the third strand i.e. the pauranika and hence the pan Indian Shiva bhakti tradition as idealised in the character of Bana. The first strand is temporally apart spatially closer to the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti Movement. The second strand is both temporally and spatially distant to the KSBM but singularly connected with the KSBM through the sole affiliation of Shiva bhakti. The third category of Shiva bhakti strand is the pauranika which in context to the KSBM is placed extra-spatially and extra-temporally, but with Shiva bhakti being the sole affiliation. To put this more succinctly the twelfth century Shiva bhakti movement appropriates through emulation of the past Shiva bhakti traditions and becomes a successor in the ideological lineage of the three strands of Shiva bhakti traditions.

The language of bhakti

While the language of the vachanas is predominantly Kannada, the usage of Sanskrit words are nowhere scarce There does not seem to be the slightest hesitancy in the free usage of Sanskrit words, for that matter, even quoting entire Sanskrit passages from the Vedas and other Sanskrit literary corpuses verbatim. Siddharama, one of the early sharanas contemporary to Basava in one of his vachanas quotes verses from the Rudrashtadhyaya of the Yajurveda[10]. Basava, who is hereto considered the most radical of the sharanas[11] too is not exempt from employing such a hybridised style in the composition of some of his vachanas[12]. Wherever the sharana quotes a Sanskrit verse, there it is made with the intent to substantiate his/her arguments. Some of those arguments pertain to radical concepts like equal treatment of all sharanas irrespective of their caste and social standing. We shall cover the topic of caste in the KSBM in detail later.

The Sanskrit quotes employed by the sharanas in their vachanas are most likely from a pool of scriptures which would have been authoritative texts in orthodox Shaiva circles. The Sanskrit quotes when used in the vachanas at times served as a legitimising device employed with the intent to normalise concepts that were non–normative to the orthopraxis of the diverse Shaiva society[13] in particular and the Brahminical society in general. Even as the sharanas draw legitimacy from the vast Sanskrit sacred textual corpus they are at the same time nonchalantly dismissive of the same. They approach the question of what comprises true knowledge with a schematic sense of epistemic hierarchy. For example, this epistemic hierarchy is evident in Siddharama’s vachana where he places importance on the aptavakya of the puratanas

“We like to follow the words of our elders (puratanas)

Let the Smritis sink in the sea

Let Shrutis go to Vaikuntha

Let Puranas fall into fire

Let Agamas be blown by wind

Let our words be inscribed in the heart of

Kapilasiddha Mallikarjuna Mahalinga”[14]

Here Siddharama prioritises the “words” of the puratanas or the Shaiva bhakti saints over Sanskrit sacred texts like the smritis, shrutis, puranas and agamas. This does not tantamount to the altogether rejection of the sacred canonical literature but plays the role of subordinating mores of Sanskrit canonical literature to the requisitions of Shiva bhakti. Besides quoting verses from the Sanskrit sacred texts, the sharanas preferred to use Sanskrit technical terms which were unique to the tradition of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti movement. Terms like Karasthala, the dyad of Linga-Anga,[15]the triad of GuruLingaJangam,[16] the pentad of ShivacharaLingacharaGanacharaBhrityacharaSadachara[17].Although it must also be noted that Allama Prabhu often uses the Kannada term bayalu synonymously to shunya, which is the highest state of spiritual realisation- at least in Allama’s own theology. The vachanas of the sharana also stands in contradistinction to the pathigams of the nayanmars, in that the former prefers usage of Sanskrit while the latter prefers the exclusive use of Tamil. Wherever Sanskrit is used its Tamilised form is preferred in contrast to pure Sanskrit word.[18] This shows that the KSBM was in some form aligned with the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition -At least in its literary expression- by its preference for the usage of Sanskrit words for key theological terminologies rather than localised Kannada words.

Bhakti beyond caste and untouchability

Of the many arguments for the KSBM being markedly different from the Shaiva religion[19], the most posited argument is that the sharanas disregarded the norms of varnasharamadharma which was a common social practice among the Shaivas of 12th century. According to the protagonists of this theory, the varnashrama dharma is in some sense synonymous to and inalienable from the Vedic religion and hence its rigorous practice is the cardinal expression of a Hindu’s faith. Therefore, Shaivism because of its affiliation to the Vedas inter alia, also is a part of the Hindu faith and hence opposed to the ideals of the 12th century sharanas. Sakhare is one such theorist who highlights these differences between Shaivism and Virashaivism/ Lingayatism in his commentary to the Lingadharanachandrika. He proposes that Basava in a short span of time revolutionised the Shaivite faith and “Shaivism rose triumphant over the trammels of varnashrama dharma and the result was Veerashaivism”.[20] According to Sakhare, the rejection of the varnashrama dharma and image worship is what led to a schism which eventually gave rise to a new religion.[21] The approach adopted by Sakhare shows parallels in the split between Judaism and Christianity with Jesus being the catalyst for this split although, he did not profess to create a new religion. Sakhare applies the same yardstick to the 12th century KSBM and places Basava as the catalyst who brought the split between Shaivism and Virashaivism/ Lingayatism.

Sakhare’s writings show the anxiety of the late modern Virashaiva/Lingayata community who were at pains to trace the origins of their faith to a historical personality, a “prophet”[22] figure in keeping with the concepts like “rational and scientific” of secular discourse[23]. Even as they were negotiating their modern identity the Virashaivas/Lingayatas were acculturating themselves to the colonial meta-narrative of Shaivism where it was purported to be the “non-Aryan and therefore anti-caste” religion[24]. Sakhare played to the needs and social aspirations of these socially mobile classes of Virashaiva/ Lingayatas of his era who were acquainting themselves with occidental concepts of Liberte-Egalite-Fraternite. To be fair to Sakhare, he has elsewhere in his commentary acknowledged the disregard of caste norms of commensality and social intercourse[25] among the sixty three nayanmars and the influences of these Tamil Shaiva bhakti saints on the 12th century sharanas.[26] But he seems to remiss the reverential attitude of the nayanmars towards the Vedas and all things associated with the culture of the Vedas which argues as essentially Hindu.

Caste relativism among bhaktas was not a novel idea for the Shaivas or for that matter any other theistic Hindu tradition. A conspicuous verse in the text like the Shivapurana– a religious text which is acclaimed by most practicing Hindus and even by the orthodox adepts of the religion-says:

“Even a Candala who wears Rudraksa over his body and the Tripundra on his forehead, is worthy of respect. He is the most excellent of all castes”[27]

Although the verse has a hyperbolic tone and it takes a reductionist approach towards bhakti by limiting it to the external markers of piety and even though these statements ordinarily might never have any tangible effect in actual sociological terms. None the less, they carry a degree of sanctity because of their placement in a text that is largely viewed as authoritative– degrees may vary among sects and therefore such ideas would have had legitimacy albeit without social acceptance.

Such caste relativist statements were in no regards unique to the Shivapurana or the Shaiva sacred literature. The Bhagavata purana, which is held in high regards among non-Shaiva Hindus, sacred to Krishnaite Vaishnava traditions, also has similar verses that extol the greatness of the bhakta. In fact, it goes one step further to the Shivapurana by admitting the socially outcaste into the most sacred of arenas- sacrificial grounds and makes him a participant in the Vedic rites with the proviso that he has heard the name of the lord at least once. The author of the purana makes these statements with the intent of reinforcing the theological concept of the purifying effects of Harinama rather than instigating a societal reform. Despite the core idea is to underscore the purifying qualities of the lord’s name it still gives validity to the peripheral idea of the admittance subaltern groups into the orthopractic sphere if he/she happens to be a bhakta. Following are the verses from the Bhagavata Purana:

“Oh glorious Lord, even a Candala (lit. a dog-eater) immediately becomes worthy (like a performer) of the Soma Sacrifice, if he has but once heard or uttered your name or bowed to you or remembered you. What need be said of a person (like me) who has (directly) seen you?

“Oh how wonderful it is that even a Cândala (the lowest-born person) becomes superior and worthy of respect simply because Your name is on the tip of his tongue.”[28]

Such unorthodox ideas might have become mainstream through the medium of narrative literature like the puranas. The audiences – who would have had sectarian allegiances – would have lapped up these ideas and put it into practice. Very early in the history of Shaiva bhakti in south India Tirunavukarasu of the Vellala caste also fondly called Appar (father) by the Brahmin child saint Tirujnansambanda declared that a social outcaste is worthy of being raised to the rank of god only if he was a devotee of Shiva. Jnanasambanda- based on the narrative accounts- put to practice by having Nilakantha Yazhpanar, an outcaste musician[29] accompany him on his Shaiva missions.

(Figure 2: Credits: Dreamstime – Thirugnana Sambandar, a Shaiva saint)

If one compares both the composition of Tirunavukarasu and Basava we can safely say, that a few centuries later the Kannada Shiva Bhaktas adopted and amplified the values of caste relativism in the realms of Shiva Bhakti which were here to sporadic references in hymns of the Puratanas (Nayanmars). Sample the similarities in the two:

“Even if both Sanka Nidi and Padma Nidi are,

Along with the rulership of earth and heaven,

Vouchsafed to them by (competent) men,

we would not Deem as worthy,

the opulence of those who are not exclusively Devoted to Maha Deva,

and who will eventually fade away;

Be they pulaiyas (outcasts) whose bodies are wasted by festering leprosy and who flay the cow,

Eat its flesh and wallow (thus in sin)!

If only they are the devotees of Him who conceals the Ganga in His matted hair,

Lo and behold!

It is they whom we abore as our God.”[30]

Speaking in the similar vein as Appar, Basava says:

“In their left hand a knife, in their right-hand meat,

and at their mouth a jar of liquor,

But let the god be round their neck,

Then I shall call them linga,

I shall call them the community,

O lord of the meeting rivers (Kudalasangamadeva)

I shall call them the linga’s face.”[31]

This concept of caste relativism in the realms of bhakti is referred to as samashila by Harihara in his narrative compositions on the life of the sharanas[32]. Samashila loosely translates to equal treatment of all the bhaktas and as a concept it is attributed more to Basava[33].Ben-Herut, although proposes a nuanced treatment of the concept of samashila.

The KSBM outflanked other bhakti traditions by amplifying the concept of caste relativism in the realm of bhakti which, the other bhakti traditions in India made strides in those directions but could not achieve critical mass to bring about such a social transformation. Having said, untouchability in the late medieval and modern period among the Lingayatas/ Virashaiva community needs to be studied in-depth vis a vis the concept of bhakta and bhavi. So also, the study of pollution and ritual purity in the Lingayata/Virashaiva community needs a thorough appraisal.

Symbols and theology of bhakti

(Figure 3: Sisitatu – IshtaLinga)

Sectarian marks like the urdhvapundra and the tripundra are visible throughout the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. In Karnataka the Virashaiva/ Lingayatas bear marks which are widely held to be Shaiva in character. The lines on the forehead of Virashaiva/ Lingayata are always three horizontal strokes, drawn with ashes made from cowdung (Gomaya) which are identical to those displayed by Shaivas and Smartas throughout south India. The linga worn by the Virashaiva/ Lingayata is a miniature effigy of the sthavaralingacalled the panchasutrilinga – Which, is covered with a paste of resin called Kante. In Sakhare’s estimation these symbols of Virashaiva/ Lingayata piety have a different meaning independent of their Shaiva provenance. [34] Mate Mahadevi, the firebrand Lingayat leader and the first female Jagadguru of the Lingayata tradition goes a step further by declaring Virashaivism and Lingayatism as two distinct religions. One of her major arguments for difference between the two factions was that the Virashaivas worship Shiva who is one in the triad along with Brahma and Vishnu. The Lingayatas – referring to a schismatic group within the Virashaiva/ Lingayata community- according to her, worship the ishtalinga which is different from the Shiva of the Virashaivas.[35] Her attempt here was to reinterpret the tradition and disassociate its form in Shaiva context.[36] She was partially successful in creating this schism between the two factions. Her arguments gathered steam with many voices coalescing with her opinion. Over the years a movement to declare Lingayatism as a separate religion gathered force putting the state of Karnataka in state of political crisis. In contrast to arguments proposed by Sakhare and Mahadevi we shall see how the symbols like vibhuti, rudraksha and the mantra Namah Shivaya professed by the 12th century Sharanas had their origins in the Shaiva tradition and how the sharanas make reference to the puranic Shiva and a puranic pantheon of deities even while they adore the Turiya Shiva.

(Figure 4: Credit: DeccanHerald – Mata Mahadevi, first female Jagadguru of Lingayata tradition)

Some of the distinguishing signs of a Shiva bhakta/ Shaiva is the donning of sacred ashes on his forehead and limbs, wearing the rudraksha beads on his neck and chanting the mantra Om Namah Shivaya. This was true of the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhaktas who speak of them in affirmative terms.[37] The Shaiva symbols like the tripundra and rudraksha serve dual sociological purposes firstly it affirms the bhakta’s affiliation to the broader Shaiva faith and secondly it projects his Shaiva identity amongst a sea of varied religious markings. If the sharanas intended to stand in contradistinction to the Shaivas as a different religion it would have been unlikely, they would have borrowed symbols that are uniquely Shaiva in character and would expect to be identified as unrelated to the Shaiva fold. The rudrakshas and tripundra are so deeply associated with Shaivism that even Smartas,[38] who sport them, are mistaken by the non-initiated to be Shaivites, despite a substantial number of the Smartas being devotees of deities other than Shiva and his kin.

In addition to the ashes and rudraksha beads the 12th century sharanas carried a small portable linga (charalinga) on their person called the ishtalinga. A ritual praxis which was known to have been observed by some early Shaiva groups[39] but, did not acquire such popularity in the ritual life of the Shaivas as it received in 12th century Karnataka.  The Linga is the unmistakable mark of Shiva. It is for a Shaiva what the cross is for a Christian[40] and as such its Shaiva context is undenial.

(Figure 5: Credits: Bangaloremirror – Ishtalinga Karasthala Puje by great lingayat Shaiva saint Sri Shivakumara Swami)

Another ritual concept that is closely associated with the ishtalinga is the Karasthala puja. The act of performing ritual worship to the ishtalinga by placing it on the palm of one’s hand. This ritual praxis is viewed as idiosyncratic and unorthodox by lay Hindus and also by the faction of Lingayatas themselves who consider Lingayatism as alien to Shaivism. Reference to this form of ritual worship is prescribed in the Shivapurana where it goes by the name of Karapuja[41] and is suggested for the ascetics. A lapidary representation of this form of ritual praxis performed by a Kalamukha ascetic is found in a niche of the 10th century Kedareshvara temple at Balligave Karnataka.[42] The Kalamukha tradition is considered to be the precursor of the Virashaiva/ Lingayata tradition. In all likelihood the Virashaivas may have inherited the ritual praxis of worshiping the ishtalinga from the Kalamukha ascetics. In this regard it is also worth mentioning post-mortem rite of the non-ascetic Virashaiva/ Lingayata is very similar to mainstream Hindu ascetic. He is carried on a palanquin just like the mainstream Hindu ascetic and buried in the very same way. Rituals of pollution, associated with death are not observed by Hindu ascetics and Virashaiva/ Lingayatas alike. In essence the ishtalinga transposes the merits/values of asceticism on the non- ascetic bearer of the ishtalinga.

(Figure 6: Credits: Tripoto – Kedareshvara temple at Balligave, Karnataka)

The ashes and the rudraksha beads are mentioned in every text of Shaiva provenance. The ritual of smearing sacred ashes on every limb of the body is called as the PashupataVrata. A detailed treatment of this religious vow is given in the Shivapurana, Linga purana and the Atharvaveda Parishishtha[43]. The ritual requires the adept to wear the sacred ashes by chanting varied mantras and worship the linga under the guidance of a guru. The period for this vow can range from one day to an entire lifespan of the adept.[44]  In one of his vachanas, Basava also extols the pashupatavrata as a vow unachievable by those overwhelmed by their senses.[45] Another vachanakara by the name Sangameshwarada Addanna whose, period is not known also speaks of the pashupatavrata along with another vrata called Shambhava as being practiced by the vedic rishis.[46] The reference of these symbols by the sharanas with the names by which they are known in the Shaiva lexicon and their endorsement of rituals that are inherently Shaiva in character, in which these symbols were an integral part of, only affirms the Shaiva character of the movement and its appropriation of all things Shaiva was just a natural corollary. Attributing these symbols to a different source of origination only stands counter to the socio-anthropological realities of these symbols which are attested markers of Shaiva piety.

Now we shall address the question of whether the god worshipped by the Lingayats is a different entity to those worshipped by the Shaivas as propagated by the separate Lingayata faction of the Virashaiva/ Lingayata sect. The theological understanding of this concept, the Shiva the far more layered and nuanced as we can see in Addayya – another 12th century sharana– vachana:

“While linga is in the palm

that palm is Kailaasa, that linga is Shiva. That’s why Kailaasa is here, Shiva is here.

Therefore thinking that there is some other silver

hill called Kailaasa Rudra staying there is Shiva

Do not fall into the delusion of going to and

coming back from


In the above vachana Adayya makes a clear distinction between Shiva and Rudra. The difference between the entity Shiva and Rudra is that the former is all pervasive and unembodied whereas the latter is confined and embodied. However, the imagery that permeates the vachana is inherently Shaiva in character. The dual forms of Shiva and Rudra are not unique to the theology of the 12th century sharanas. This doctrinal paradigm is found in the Agamas and other theological works inspired by them. We shall not delve on the complexed polemics of theology as this paper is not the locus for an in-depth analysis of the same. But we shall point out the many pauranika references in the vachana where the pauranic Shiva and his pantheon has been mentioned in no uncertain and affirmative terms. [47] For example, in one vachana Akka Mahadevi refers to Shiva as Kamari and Somadhara. These words are attributes of the puranic Shiva, the third person in the trinity. The epithet Kamari – literally the foe of Kama-conferred on Shiva is connected with the puranic episode in which Kama, the god of love is burnt to ashes from the gush of flames emanating from the third eye of Shiva. The second epithet Somadhara is associated with the puranic lore in which Shiva crows his crest with the waning crescent moon, Soma as an act of compassion. If the puranic references from Akka Mahadevis vachana were not proof enough, Allama gives a detailed description of the Shaiva pantheon stationed at Kailasa.[48] A host of ganas like Skanda, Nilalohita, Vrishabha, etc. find a place of honour in his vachana. It is also noteworthy to mention that the Hindu time cycle of krita, treta, dwapara and kali are also listed in the same vachana. Although concepts like shunya as propounded by Allama Prabhu mark as significant shift from conventional Shaivism. The puranic imagery and Shaiva sectarian symbols adopted by the KSBM kept them moored to the Shaiva religion.

The body as a temple

The sharanas and their vachana’s were popularised in the west and the anglophone world – which includes India- by AK Ramanujan’s anthology of select vachanas titled speaking of Shiva. The introduction to this anthology was harkened by a rather radical tone of one of many vachana where Basava is at his critical best. This was the vachana eulogising the body as a temple and critiquing the lapidary structure. The anthology was compiled by keeping modern sensibilities at heart and voicing them through the vachanas which according to Ben Herut is the personal voice of Ramanujan articulated through the vachanas – a voice that resonates deeply with the sensibilities of the modern and progressive individual.[49] The blanket view that virashaiva/ lingayata were opposed to temple worship became rife in the anglophone world and for the past few years the anti-temple stance became a dogma and spouted at every occasion where the question of distinctness of Virashaivism/Lingayatism from Shaivism/ Hinduism was up for debate. The disapproving attitude towards temple worship more specifically sthavaralinga worship is endemic to the Virashaiva/ Lingayata doctrine, but here too nuance is the key to understand the difference between disapproval and anathema and, doctrine and practice. Virashaivas/ Lingayatas for example prefer the ishtalinga over the sthavaralinga but in practice they do worship at places where the deity is a sthavaralinga or a samadhilinga of their gurus. Places like Srisaila Mallikarjuna, Solapur Siddheshvara, Male Mhadeshvara etc. have Virashaiva/ Lingayatas officiating as priests. One of Akka Mahadevi’s vachana is key to understanding the nuances of this behaviour. Quoting a verse from the Shivadharma purana which warns devotees of being cursed for worshiping the tirthalinga while disbelieving the potency of the ishtalinga[50] Akka tries to reinforce the primacy of the ishtalinga consecrated by the guru for the personal worship over the sthavaralinga which is consecrated for the public at large. The ishtalinga then just does not embody the god but it embodies the efficacy of the initiation to grant liberation, the knowledge of which is transmitted through the line of gurus. Hence, prioritising the sthavaralinga over the ishtalinga is a sacrilegious act of dishonouring the guru and that which is given by the guru. Therefore, worshiping the sthavaralinga per se is not frowned upon by the sharanas but, the act of not placing the worship of the ishtalinga over the worship of the sthavaralinga is chided by them.

It is also interesting to note that the signature line, called as the ankita of each sharana is signed with the name of their favoured deity which, is the name of a sthavaralinga enshrined in a temple. For example the ankita of Basava is Kudalasangama and that of Akka Mahadevi is Chennamallikarjuna. Both the ankitas correspond to shrines which were prominent pilgrimage places and both have had historical linkages with the tradition of the Kannada Shiva bhakti movement. In fact the Mallikarjuna temple has been significant in the development of the Virashaiva/Lingayata tradition from the period after the 12th century.[51]

Concluding thoughts

The 12th century Karnataka was a potpourri of many religious sects like the Kalamukhas, Jainas, Natha siddhas, Vaishnavas etc. Kings patronised every sect in their domain even while swearing allegiance to a particular sect of their choice. This was also the era of religious eclecticism and crosspollination. Diverse ideas migrated along with the movement of people.[52] In such a dynamic environment the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhakti movement saw its genesis. The multitude of voices in which the sharanas expressed themselves is itself the product of crosspollination of ideas fostered by the socio-political condition of the 12th century Karnataka. The Sharanas interacted with their environment – which is evident in the vachanas. They borrowed ideas from different sects but still remained true to their mother tradition, Shaivism. As we saw the sharanas drew their legitimacy from the three different strands of Shaiva bhakti traditions. First the local Kannada Shiva bhakti tradition, the second the trans local Tamil Shiva bhakti tradition which had the greatest impact on the KSBM and the third the pan Indian puranic Shiva bhakti tradition. Based on the ideals of these three traditions the sharanas styled their devotional practice which was at once rigorous and unflinching. Unlike their predecessor who emphasised on the precedence of the vedas and agamas the sharana placed more value on the sayings of their predecessors, the nayanamars and the puranic Shiva bhaktas. The language of their Bhakti was Kannada which was highly inundated with Sanskrit verses and terminologies from the vedas, agamas and other sacred literature contrary to what the opposite camp would want us to believe. This hybridised form of literature is not evident in the Pathigams of the nayanmars – Tamil predecessor of the sharanas- which were written in chaste Tamil with only limited use of Sanskrit which, is tamilised to sync with the predominantly Tamil content. In this way the 12th century Kannada Shiva bhaktas departed from previous norms of Southern Indian Shaiva literature.

Like the eclectic use of language, the KSBM was open to people of diverse backgrounds. The community of bhaktas represented individuals from every walk of life, be he a treasurer of the king or the socially backward cobbler. All were treated equally in obedience to concept of samashila (equal treatment). The concept of equal treatment was not novel to the KSBM. The nayanmars who preceded the sharanas preached and at least in one case practiced equal treatment of bhaktas before the advent of the 12th century. The KSBM however differ from the previous tradition by implementing the words of the texts into practice.

Speaking of symbols and theology it suffices to say the flavours of the vachanas are deep Shaiva. All symbols of Shaiva piety find endorsement in the vachana with the addition of lingadharana which has become synonymous with Kannada Shaivism. The lingdharana was a ritual practice reserved for the ascetic in the KSBM; the non-ascetic is made to part take in this right and all the ritual characteristics of an ascetic is devolved after initiation with the linga. In this way the KSB tradition departs from mainstream Hindu traditions.

The body invested with a linga literally becomes a temple and hence the bhakta (adept) is not incumbent to visit a shrine and adore the sthavara. Although visiting the temple is discouraged the modern day Lingayatas/Virashaivas officiate as priest at many a Shiva temple and samadhi shrines. In this regard the narrative tradition has incidence where the temple is the locus for transformation like in the case of Basava and Kinnari Bommaya. The sharanas also bear the name of the deity enshrined in the temple as their ankita (pen name). This shows that the temple is not rejected by the tradition but it takes the secondary position to the ishtalinga which is the main object of ritual praxis.

From the above set of arguments, we can infer that the 12th century KSBM was in pith and substance a continuation of all the Shiva bhakti traditions prior to it. It identifies itself with the pan Indian Sanskritic tradition and draws legitimacy from its sacred literary corpus at the same time downgrading it. It is an open society of bhaktas where the sole criterion is bhakti. A concept which levels social markers like caste etc., the KSBM while staying true to the traditions of yore, reinterprets old static concepts with new dynamic ones, as in the case of the temple vis-a-vis the ishtalinga. It invents its own vocal style by using a blend of Kannada and Sanskrit, very distinct to the literary outpourings of the nayanmars. The KSBM unfolds as a tradition which that mediates between continuity and departures.

Primary Sources

  1. Atharva Parishishta
  2. 1965. Vacanas of Basavanna: A Selection. Translated by Armando Menezes [and] S. M. Angadi. India: AnnanaBalaga,
  3. 1956. Chennabasava Sahitya. Edited by AnnadanaiahPuranik. Hyderabad: Sahajivanaprakashana.
  4. Fleet, John Faithful. 1888.Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and Their Successors. India: Superintendent of Government Printing,
  5. Samagra vachana Sarasamputa (
  6. Vachana. Edited by MM. Kalaburgi: Basava Samiti
  7. The Bhagavata-Purana Part 1: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 7. N.p.: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.
  8. 2017. The Siva Purana Part 4: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 4. Motilal Banarsidass,

Secondary Sources

  1. Ben-Herut, Gil. Siva’s Saints: The Origins of Devotion in Kannada According to Harihara’sRagalegalu. United States: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  2. Ishwaran, K. 1992. Speaking of Basava: Lingayat religion and culture in South Asia. United Kingdom: Avalon Publishing.
  3. Kanakasabhai, V.. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. India: Higginbotham, 1904.
  4. Lorenzen, David N. 1972. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects. United States: University of California Press.
  5. Marcus, George H.., Kramrisch, Stella. Manifestations of Shiva. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1981.
  6. Michael, R. Blake. 1992. The Origins of Vīraśaiva Sects: A Typological Analysis of Ritual and Associational Patterns in the Śūnyasaṃpādane. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers,
  7. Miles, Arthur. 1933.The Land of the Lingam. United Kingdom: Hurst & Blackett, Limited,
  8. Nandimath,SivalingayyaChannabasavayya. 1979.AHandbookof VīraśaivismIndia: Motilal Banarsidass.
  9. Nation Work: Asian Elites and National Identities. United States: University of Michigan Press,
  10. Ramanujan, A.K. 2000. “ Speaking of Siva” Penguin Books, 1985, p.91-93
  11. Ripepi, T. The feet of the jangama, Kervan – RivistaInternazionale di studiiafroasiatici vol 6.
  12. Sakhare, M. K.., Nandikesvara, son of Mahesacharya. History and Philosophy of Lingayat Religion, Being an Introduction to Lingadharanachandrika of Nandikeshwara. N.p.: n.p., 1942.
  13. Schouten, Jan Peter. 1995. Revolution of the Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Vīraśaivism. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
  14. Vaithees, V. Ravi. “Forging a Tamil Nation: The Politics of Language, Race, Caste, and Gender.” In Religion, Caste, and Nation in South India: MaraimalaiAdigal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876–1950. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2015. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199451814.003.0005. Cf 91-93
  15. Vijayakumar M. Boratti (2010) The ‘Discovery’ of Vachanas: Notes on FakirappaGurubasappaHalakatti’s Secular Interpretation of the Texts and the Lingayath Community in Colonial Karnataka, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33:2, 177-209, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2010.493279

[1] Cf. (Chennabasava 1956)

[2] Cf. Ben-Herut, Gil. Siva’s Saints: The Origins of Devotion in Kannada According to Harihara’sRagalegalu. United States: Oxford University Press, 2018.

[3] Vijayakumar M. Boratti (2010) The ‘Discovery’ of Vachanas: Notes on FakirappaGurubasappaHalakatti’s Secular Interpretation of the Texts and the Lingayath Community in Colonial Karnataka, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33:2, 177-209, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2010.493279

[4] Ibid

[5]Halakkatidisovered the vachanas for the first time and published them in his magazine Shivanubhava. The format for this present select vachanas to appeal to the modern audience.

[6]Miles, Arthur. The Land of the Lingam. United Kingdom: Hurst & Blackett, Limited, 1933.P.111

[7][7] Cf. Nation Work: Asian Elites and National Identities. United States: University of Michigan Press, 2000. P.61&65

[8]Ramanujan, A.K. “ Speaking of Siva” Penguin Books, 1985, p.91-93 and

[9]Siriyalaand Sindhu Ballal corresponds to Chiruthondar and Iyarpakai respectively of the TamilShiva bhakti tradition.

[10]Om Namo SomayachaRudrayacha, Namastamrayachaarunayacha, Namasshivayachashivatarayacha, these are those verse that are taken from the Rudrashtadhyayaof  the Yajurveda. SamagraVachana SarasamputaVol 4 Vachana no. 1897 henceforth (SVS.Vol.Vachana number)

[11] Revolution of the mystics: On theSocial Aspects of Virashaivism. Jan Peter Schouten

[12]SVS.1.718, SVS. 1.389

[13]There are no signs of formal affiliationsof laity to a Shaiva order in the 12th century. The affiliation if at all was more initiatory with nominal control of the clergy over the laity.

[14] Lingayat religion 1029, VSS 4.1614

[15]SamagraVachana Sarasamputa1.1179, 5.58, 5.358, 5.314


[17]SVS 5.314

[18]In the very first pathigam (Decad) Tirujnanasambanda uses the Tamilised word Piramapuram for the Sanskrit Brahmapuram, Sirkazhi the city of Brahma. This is format of Tamilising Sanskrit words is seen all throughout the tevarams

[19]The word Shaiva Samaya/Shaiva Shasana are some of the Sanskrit terms used to refer to the Shaiva religious tradition. I have used the word religion in a restricted sense to capture a complex theological pattern of Indian theistic traditions which are more than just sects and less than religions.

[20]Sakhare, M. K.., Nandikesvara, son of Mahesacharya. History and Philosophy of Lingayat Religion, Being an Introduction to Lingadharanachandrika of Nandikeshwara. N.p.: n.p., 1942.

[21] Ibid. xii


[23] Vijayakumar M. Boratti (2010) The ‘Discovery’ of Vachanas: Notes on FakirappaGurubasappaHalakatti’s Secular Interpretation of the Texts and the Lingayath Community in Colonial Karnataka, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33:2, 177-209, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2010.493279

[24]Vaithees, V. Ravi. “Forging a Tamil Nation: The Politics of Language, Race, Caste, and Gender.” In Religion, Caste, and Nation in South India: MaraimalaiAdigal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876–1950. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2015. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199451814.003.0005. Cf 91-93.

[25]Sakhare P.220

[26]Sakhare, P.413

[27] The Siva Purana Part 1: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 1. N.p.: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.P.159

[28] The Bhagavata-Purana Part 1: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 7. N.p.: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.p461

[29]Kanakasabhai, V.. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. India: Higginbotham, 1904. P.132

[30]Appar  VI:95:10

[31]SVS.1.720, and Basava. Vacanas of Basavanna: A Selection. Translated by Armando Menezes [and] S. M. Angadi. India: AnnanaBalaga, 1965.

[32] Ben-Herut (2018) p.233

[33] Ben Herut calls it non-discrimination but I prefer the use of the term equal-treatment. Ref Ben Herut (2018) p.100

[34]Sakhare. Cf p 384

[35]Ripepi, T. The feet of the jangama, Kervan – RivistaInternazionale di studiiafroasiatici vol 6.  2007

[36] Ibid. p 88

[37]“Ayyā., śrīmahāvibhūtiyindakaṇḍe ā nim’madivyabeḷaginahoḷaha, ī ennakarasthaladoḷage. Ayyā, śrīmahārudrākṣiyindakaṇḍe ā nim’madivyamūrtiyagūḍhava, ī ennakarasthaladoḷageayyā, śrīmahāpan̄cākṣariyindakaṇḍe ā nim’madivyavaktraṅgaḷa, ī ennakarasthaladoḷagenābayasuvabayakekaisārittindukūḍalasaṅgamadēvā” VSS.1.1006

[38]It must be noted that Smarta are non-theistic Hindus who in South Indian predominantly profess the Advaita philosophy which does not acknowledge a form and name for the highest reality. The tradition of wearing Rudraksha and Vibhuti among southern Indian Smarta Brahmins owes greatly to Shaiva influence on Hinduism as practiced in south India.

[39](The Jamb copperplates of Pravarasena II makes a reference to a peculiar act of wearing the linga on the shoulders by theBharashivas) see. Fleet, John Faithful. Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and Their Successors. India: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1888. P.241

[40] Marcus, George H.., Kramrisch, Stella. Manifestations of Shiva. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1981.

[41] He who has renounced the world (the Nivrtta) shall perform Karapuja (worship in the palm of the hand). He shall offer that food to the deity which he is accustomed to take himself. The subtle phallic image is specially recommended for the Nivrttas. Vidyeshwara Samhita: 8.35

[42] This was brought to my notice by Dr Shalvapille Iyengar who is an archaeologist and has worked on temple in Karnataka. He has documented his finding on his facebooktimeline.

[43]Atharvaveda Parishishta 40.1.1

[44] The Siva Purana Part 4: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 4. N.p.: Motilal Banarsidass, 2017. P1892

[45]Bāradubāradu, bhaktaṅgeparadhanaparasati,bāradubāradu, viṣayigepaśupatibratavu,

bāradubāradu, bhavabhārigekūḍalasaṅgamadēvanaokkudakoḷabāradu. SVS: 1.77

[46] SVS: 9.296

[47]Kāmāriyagelidanubasavānim’minda. Sōmadharanahiḍitappenubasavānim’makr̥peyinda. Nāmadalliheṅgūsembahesarādaḍēnu? Bhāvisalugaṇḍurūpubasavānim’madayadinda. Atikāmicennamallikārjunaṅgetoḍarikkieraḍuvariyadekūḍidenubasavānim’makr̥peyinda

S.V.S: 1.160

[48]Kr̥tayugadallinīnuskandanembagaṇēśvaranāgirdudaballenānu. Trētāyugadallinīnunīlalōhitanembagaṇēśvaranāgirdudaballenānu.DvāparadallinīnuVr̥ṣabhanembagaṇēśvaranāgirdudaballenānu. Kaliyugadallinīnubasavanembagaṇēśvaranāgi, sarvācārasampannanāgiBhaktijñānavakanderaveyamāḍi, śivācāradaghanadabeḷavigeyamāḍi,Śivabhaktiyadhvajavanettisimartyalōkadoḷageharahidabhēdavabhēdisinōḍiānuaride. GuhēśvarasākṣiyāgininnamahātmageNamōnamōenutirdenukāsaṅganabasavaṇṇā

S.V.S: 2: 1131

[49]Ben-Herut, Gil. Siva’s Saints: The Origins of Devotion in Kannada According to Harihara’sRagalegalu. United States: Oxford University Press, 2018.

[50]Hālahiḍidubeṇṇeyanarasaluṇṭe? Liṅgavahiḍidupuṇyatīrthakkehōgaluṇṭe? Liṅgadapādatīrthaprasādavakoṇḍuan’yabōdhean’yaśāstrakkehāraisalētakke? Iṣṭaliṅgaviddantesthāvaraliṅgakkeśaraṇendenādaḍetaḍeyadehuṭṭisuvanuśvānanagarbhadalli. Adentendaḍeśivadharmapurāṇadalliiṣṭaliṅgamaviśvasyatīrthaliṅgasyapūjakaḥ ī śvānayōniśataṁgatvācāṇḍālagrahamācarēt || u endudāgi, idanaridu guru koṭṭaliṅgadalliyeellātīrthaṅgaḷūellākṣētraṅgaḷūiddāvendubhāvisimuktaraphtudayyā, intallade guru koṭṭaliṅgavakiridumāḍitīrthaliṅgavahiridumāḍihōdātaṅgeaghōranarakatappadukāṇācennamallikārjunā S.V.S:5.417

[51]Cf.Fisher, Elaine. “The Tangled Roots of Vīraśaivism: On the Vīramāheśvara Textual Culture of Srisailam.” History of Religions, 2019.

[52] Some of the kalamukha ascetics were know to be immigrants from places as far as Kashmir. See Lorenzen (1991)

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