A Progressive 12th Century Religion In India

By Shivanand Kanavi

A prolific efflorescence of Bhakti literature emerged in the form of vachana – short poetic prose or free verse poetry – in simple Kannada in the 12th century, in North Karnataka. To this day about 12,000 vachanas of this period authored by over a hundred spiritual seekers and saints, including over 30 women have been discovered. These poet saints called themselves ‘Sharanas’. They hailed from almost all classes of society, professions, and castes – including outcastes or “untouchables”. 

They declared that they are a new community to which all those who believed and practiced certain foundational tenets could join on initiation. 

These tenets included: 

1) Equality and mutual respect of all Sharanas no matter what their past caste or community. 

2) Equality among seekers, the Sharanas, without any gender discrimination. 

3) Form of worship was personal and private to a symbol they called ‘Ishta Linga’. It was primarily meditative and yogic. The Ishta Linga could be carried on your body like a pendant and worshipped anywhere. Hence the name Lingayata — one who worships his personal Ishta Linga.

4) They considered all forms of labour and means of livelihood (‘kayaka’) a form of worship, provided the honest earnings from labour (kayaka) are primarily used for social redistribution, called ‘dasoha’. 

5) They stressed the importance of being a compassionate and socially productive human being in this world and in this life. They ignored the other worlds of heaven and hell, as well as theories of rebirth.

6) By asserting the importance of socially productive and honest labour as a form of worship to attain spiritual enlightenment, Sharanas also ignored renunciation and ascetic ‘sanyasa’ as the dominant and preferred path to enlightenment, as preached by the existing forms of Vedic, Agamic, Buddhist, Jain, and other traditions. Thereby they showed a path to spiritual enlightenment for all ordinary householders, farmers, traders, artisans and all working men and women.

7) They insisted on eating together among Sharanas defying the taboos imposed by caste discrimination, as they were all spiritually equal.

They lucidly expressed their views in the people’s language of the region, Kannada, on their spiritual pursuit. They primarily conceived their god as personal and formless. They also critically and incisively commented profusely on prevalent precepts and practices such as: meaningless Vedic and Agamic rituals, animal sacrifices during such rituals, and intermediation of priests in any form of worship. They also opposed rituals associated with animism and polytheism. They rejected temple-based worship dominated by priests and rituals.

They opposed discrimination against women in the spiritual field. They broke the Brahminical taboos which regarded women as inferior and unfit for spiritual self-realisation, because of their natural biological functions of menstruation and child birth. 

Critics of ritual

The Sharanas – also called ‘Vachanakaras‘ – not only ridiculed the Karma Kanda or Vedic and Agamic rituals of yajnahomahavana, animal sacrifice and elaborate temple worship, but they also confronted all those Vedantins and Advaitins who merely spoke of the abstract high falutin ideas of atma-brahma but blatantly practised caste and gender discrimination. Vachanakaras frequently called such hypocrites as ‘vagadvaitins (‘advaitins only in words’).’

Among the Vachanakaras of 12th century, those that stand out with their incisive commentary are Basavanna (1105–1167) and his contemporaries, Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi. Many other Sharanas, over a hundred, also contributed to creating the new ethos and the new community’s norms as well as its metaphysics.

What they advocated in words as well as deeds was spiritually liberating and attracted a large number of working people of all castes including ‘untouchables’, artisans, farmers, traders, and some enlightened Brahmins as well. 

(This article courtesy The Wire, April 2023 edition)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s