Basaveshwara, colloquially known as Basavanna, was a 12th-century CE Indian statesman, philosopher, poet, social reformer and Lingayat saint in the Shiva-focussed bhakti movement, and a Hindu Shaivite social reformer during the reign of the Kalyani Chalukya/Kalachuri dynasty. Basava was active during the rule of both dynasties but reached the peak of his influence during the rule of King Bijjala II in Karnataka, India.
Basava spread social awareness through his poetry, popularly known as Vachanaas. He rejected gender or social discrimination, superstitions and rituals but introduced Ishtalinga necklace, with an image of the Shiva Liṅga, to every person regardless of his or her birth, to be a constant reminder of one’s bhakti (devotion) to Shiva. As the chief minister of his kingdom, he introduced new public institutions such as the Anubhava Mantapa (or, the “hall of spiritual experience”), which welcomed men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds to discuss spiritual and mundane questions of life, in open.
The traditional legends and hagiographic texts state Basava to be the founder of the Lingayats. However, modern scholarship relying on historical evidence such as the Kalachuri inscriptions state that Basava was the poet philosopher who revived, refined and energized an already existing tradition. The Basavarajadevara Ragale (13 out of 25 sections are available) by the Kannada poet Harihara (c.1180) is the earliest available account on the life of the social reformer and is considered important because the author was a near contemporary of his protagonist. A full account of Basava’s life and ideas are narrated in a 13th-century sacred Telugu text, the Basava Purana by Palkuriki Somanatha.
Basava was born in 1131 CE in the town of Basavana Bagewadi in the northern part of Karnataka, to Maadarasa and Madalambike, a Kannada Orthodox Brahmin family devoted to Hindu deity Vishnu. He was named Basava, a Kannada form of the Sanskrit Vrishabha in honor of Nandi bull (carrier of Shiva) and the local Shaivism tradition.
Basava grew up in Kudalasangama (northwest Karnataka), near the banks of rivers Krishna and its tributary Malaprabha. Basava spent twelve years studying in the Hindu temple in the town of Kudalasangama, at Sangameshwara then a Shaivite school of learning, probably of the Lakulisha-Pashupata tradition.
Basava married Gangambike, a cousin from his mother’s side. Her father was the provincial prime minister of Bijjala, the Kalachuri king. He began working as an accountant to the court of the king. When his maternal uncle died, the king invited him to be the chief minister. The king also married Basava’s sister named Nagamma.
As chief minister of the kingdom, Basava used the state treasury to initiate social reforms and religious movement focussed on reviving Shaivism, recognizing and empowering ascetics who were called Jangamas. One of the innovative institutions he launched in the 12th century was the Anubhava Mantapa, a public assembly and gathering that attracted men and women across various walks of life from distant lands to openly discuss spiritual, economic and social issues of life. He composed poetry in local language, and spread his message to the masses. His teachings and verses such as Káyakavé Kailása (Work is the path to Kailash [bliss, heaven], or Work is Worship) became popular.
Several works are attributed to Basava, which are revered in the Veerashaiva Lingayat community. These include various Vachana such as the Shat-sthala-vachana (discourses of the six stages of salvation), Kala-jnana-vachana (forecasts of the future), Mantra-gopya, Ghatachakra-vachana and Raja-yoga-vachana.
The Basava Purana, a Telugu biographical epic poem, first written by Palkuriki Somanatha in 13th-century, and an updated 14th century Kannada version, written by Bhima Kavi in 1369, are sacred texts in Veerashaiva Lingayat.
Other hagiographic works include the 15th-century Mala Basava-raja-charitre and the 17th-century Vrishabhendra Vijaya, both in Kannada.
Scholars state that the poems and legends about Basava were written down long after his death. This has raised questions about the accuracy and creative interpolation by authors who were not direct witness but derived their work relying on memory, legends, and hearsay of others. Michael states, “All ‘Vachana’collections as they exist at present are probably much later than the 15th-century [300 years post-Basava]. Much critical labor needs to be spent in determining the authenticity of portions of these collections”
Basava grew up in a Shaivite family. As a leader, he developed and inspired a new devotional movement named Virashaivas, or “ardent, heroic worshippers of Shiva”. This movement shared its roots in the ongoing Tamil Bhakti movement, particularly the Shaiva Nayanars traditions, over the 7th- to 11th-century. However, Basava championed devotional worship that rejected temple worship and rituals led by Brahmins and replaced it with personalized direct worship of Shiva through practices such as individually worn icons and symbols like a small linga. This approach brought Shiva’s presence to everyone and at all times, without gender, class or caste discriminationHisBasava’s poem, such as Basavanna 703, speak of strong sense of gender equality and community bond, willing to wage war for the right cause, yet being a fellow “devotees’ bride” at the time of his or her need.
A recurring contrast in his poems and ideas is of Sthavara and Jangama, that is, of “what is static, standing” and “what is moving, seeking” respectively. Temples, ancient books represented the former, while work and discussion represented the latter.
will make temples for Shiva,
What shall I,
a poor man do?
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.— Basavanna 820, Translated by Ramanujan
Basava emphasized constant personal spiritual development as the path to profound enlightenment. He championed the use of vernacular language, Kannada, in all spiritual discussions so that translation and interpretation by the elite is unnecessary, and everyone can understand the spiritual ideas. His approach is akin to the protestant movement, states Ramanuja. His philosophy revolves around treating one’s own body and soul as a temple; instead of making a temple, he suggests being the temple. His trinity consisted of guru (teacher), linga (personal symbol of Shiva) and jangama (constantly moving and learning).
Basava established, in 12th-century, Anubhava Mantapa, a hall for gathering and discussion of spiritual ideas by any member of the society from both genders, where ardent devotees of Shiva shared their achievements and spiritual poems in the local language. He questioned rituals, dualism, and externalization of god, and stated that the true God is “one with himself, self-born”.
How can I feel right
about a god who eats up lacquer and melts,
who wilts when he sees a fire?
How can I feel right
about gods you sell in your need,
and gods you bury for fear of thieves?
The lord Kudalasangama,
self-born, one with himself,
he alone is the true god.— Basavanna 558, Translated by Ramanujan
While Basava rejected rituals, he encouraged icons and symbols such as the wearing of Istalinga (necklace with personal linga, symbol of Shiva), of Rudraksha seeds or beads on parts of one body, and apply Vibhuti (sacred ash on forehead) as a constant reminder of one’s devotion and principles of faith. Another aid to faith, he encouraged was the six-syllable mantra, Shivaya Namah, or the shadhakshara mantra which is Om Namah Shivaya.
Bhakti marga as the path to liberation
The Basava Purana, in Chapter 1, presents a series of impassioned debates between Basava and his father. Both declare Hindu Sruti and Smriti to be sources of valid knowledge, but they disagree on the marga (path) to liberated, righteous life. Basava’s father favors the tradition of rituals, while Basava favors the path of direct, personal devotion (bhakti).
According to Velcheru Rao and Gene Roghair, Basava calls the path of devotion as “beyond six systems of philosophy. Sruti has commended it as the all-seeing. the beginning of the beginning. The form of that divine linga is the true God. The guru [teacher] of the creed is an embodiment of kindness and compassion. He places God in your soul, and he also places God in your hand. The six-syllabled mantra, the supreme mantra, is its mantra. The dress – locks of hair, ashes and rudrashaka beads – place a man beyond the cycle of birth and death. It follows the path of liberation. (…) This path offers nothing less than liberation in this lifetime.”
Roots in the Vedanta philosophy
Sripati, a Virasaiva scholar, explained Basava’s philosophy in Srikara Bhasya, using the Vedanta Sutra, suggesting Basava’s Lingayat theology to be a form of qualified nondualism, wherein the individual Atma (soul) is the body of God, and that there is no difference between Shiva and Atma(self, soul), Shiva is one’s Atma, one’s Atma is Shiva. Sripati’s analysis places Basava’s views in Vedanta school, in a form closer to the 11th century Vishishtadvaita philosopher Ramanuja, than to Advaita philosopher Adi Shankara. However, Sripati’s analysis has been contested by other scholars.