Even though analysts have been debating the historical differences between Lingayats and Hindus, for the aam aadmi in Karnataka’s villages, these differences are a mystery.

Welfare Sops, Not Religion, Will Sway Voters in Lingayat Country

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Dressed in long white robes and matching headdress, the day begins well before the crack of dawn, at 4am, for young seers-in-the-making at Shivayogi Mandir. Recruited at the age of 12, these young men who are training to be future religious leaders of Lingayat mutts learn yoga, perform poojas and even attend school.

The Shivayogi Mandir, located barely 10 km from the heritage city of Badami, is one of the few centres that trains future seers.

Trainees at Shivayogi Mandir.
Trainees at Shivayogi Mandir.

The curriculum at the institute has been a topic of debate in the recent past, following the Congress government’s recommendation for a separate Lingayat religion. Why? Because the recruits here are taught both the Upanishads and Vachanas of Lingayat leader Basavanna, and for those campaigning for a separate Lingayat religion, mixing Vachanas and Upanishads is unacceptable.

The reason is that the Vachanas were the outcome of a rebellion by a 12th century social reformer Basavanna, who was opposed to Vedic culture and casteist practices in the Hindu religion – Lingayats who follow Basavanna do not practice Vedic rituals and studying the Upanishads, which encapsulate Vedic culture, runs counter to Basavanna’s rebellion.

But regardless of the opposition from the Basavanna followers, at the Shivayogi Mandir, future Lingayat leaders are taught both sacred texts.

CC Hiremat, the headmaster of the Shivayogi Mandir, along with this trainees. 
CC Hiremat, the headmaster of the Shivayogi Mandir, along with this trainees. 

Although the debate over the historical differences between Hindus and Lingayats continues among spiritual leaders, academics, and politicians, in north Karnataka, the Lingayat heartland of the state, the difference between a Hindu and Lingayat is a non-issue.

While Siddaramaiah’s recommendation for the religion status was termed a political masterstroke by some, the lack of awareness among the people has relegated it to a non-issue in the upcoming elections.

Nuanced Argument Limited to Academics

The Lingayat movement in the state has witnessed a top-down approach, where the demand for the separate religion was spearheaded by Mutts, political activists and politicians.

The argument for the claim is nuanced. Despite the common perception that Lingayats are just a sub-sect of Hindus, the 1871 census of Karnataka had classified Lingayats as a separate religious group – although subsequent censuses reclassified them as a sub-sect.

The fundamental difference between Veerashaivas and Lingayats is that the Linga, for the Veerashaiva, represents Lord Shiva. But for the Lingayats, the Linga represents the entire universe. Lingayats also do not follow traditional Hindu religious practices such as yagnas. They pray to the god of their choice in a personal manner.

Unlike the Shiva Linga of the Veerashaivas, Lingayats wear the Linga around their neck, which represents the conscience of the universe. 
Unlike the Shiva Linga of the Veerashaivas, Lingayats wear the Linga around their neck, which represents the conscience of the universe. 

The new religion was recommended based on these historical differences, but only the academicians and activists are aware of this history – for the common folk in the villages, these differences have dissipated over the centuries.

Siddaramaiah Is Dividing Us, But He Gives Us Rice

With Vibuthi (sacred ash) on his forehead and Linga around his neck, Hanumanthappa, a 55-year-old farmer from Kuttanakeri village in Bagalkot district, is a practising Lingayat. Until the government announced the decision to create a separate Lingayat religion, he didn’t know the difference between Lingayats and Veerashaivas. “You don’t need to be smart to understand he is trying to create a divide in our community. This is politics,” he says.

Hanumanthappa
Hanumanthappa

When this reporter asked Hanumanthappa whether he was aware of Basavanna’s 12th century rebellion against Hindu, vedic rituals, which resulted in the creation of the Lingayat religion, he posed a counter question. “You could be right, but what is wrong with the current system? We all are happy with how we are now. Why should we change?”

But does that mean he won’t vote for Siddaramaiah?

We don’t want to mix our faith with politics. Yes, I’m not happy about the creation of the new religion, but it hasn’t done us any harm either. But Siddaramaiah provides my family with free rice every month. No government in the past has done this.
Hanumanthappa
Bheemappa Kori
Bheemappa Kori

Bheemappa Kori, a village senior from Banihatti in Gadag district, added that Lingayats voting en bloc for a party is a myth. Many gullible people fall for it, but people vote for who is best for them, he explained.

We might be uneducated, but we are not unaware. Until the last minute, when we are pressing the button on the ballot machine, there will be several things running in our head. What our head tells us at the last minute, will be our vote.
Bheemappa

Explanation That the Aam Aadmi Is Yet to Understand

Until the government’s recommendation for religion status for Lingayats, the apex body for the Lingayats was the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabaha (AIVM). But soon after the recommendation for the new Lingayat religion, a new organisation, Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha, was formed to take on the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha in the campaign for a separate status for the Lingayat faith.

Although educating the common Lingayat about how their faith is different from Hinduism is the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha’s agenda, they say they will start their campaign only after the elections. SM Jamdar, a former bureaucrat and the National General Secretary of Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha, says:

Yes, there is a lack of awareness among the laymen about the historical differences between Hindus and Lingayats. But we don’t want to do the awareness campaign now as it would be like an election gimmick. We believe in the cause and we will start the awareness campaign after the elections.

Mutts to Play a Crucial Role

Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha claims to have the support of 3,000 mutts in Karnataka who want a separate Lingayat religion. At the same time, there are many mutts that are equally opposed to this religious division, and many that are yet undecided.

Whether the Lingayat issue will be the poll-decider will depend on how effectively the competing mutts can influence the otherwise unaffected Lingayat voter.

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