Basavanna


Basavanna
(Basavesvara)
(ca. 1106–ca. 1167)
   Basavanna is generally considered to be the leader of the group of poet-saints of the bhakti sect of Vīra´saivism. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Vīra´saivis (“militant devotees of ´Siva”) shaped a religious movement in the Karnataka region of southern India devoted to ´Siva, one of the three chief gods of Hinduism. The group, also called the Lingayats, formed a reformist religious community that opposed unthinking ritualistic religious practice as well as the traditional Hindu caste system. Hence the bhakti were committed to radical ideas of equality and social justice. Like other Vīra´saivist saint-poets, Basavanna composed short poems called vacanas (literally “sayings” or “utterances”) in Kannada, the language of Karnataka. Thus Kannada is the oldest literary language in southern India, with the exception of Tamil. The vacana were composed in the colloquial language of everyday speech, but typically contain arresting natural imagery and occasionally radical ideas.
   Many of the poets involved in the Vīra´saivist movement tended to be from the lower castes and were illiterate.However Basavanna, reputed leader of the movement, was actually born into the Brahman caste, from which came priests and scholars. He went through a brahmanical initiation in 1114. His parents apparently died when he was a child. His foster father, Madiraja, was apparently a scholar and from a young age Basavanna seems to have been involved in Sanskrit learning. As a youth, Basavanna is reputed to have come under the influence of a bhakti guru or spiritual teacher, and was initiated into the sect. Tradition says he spent some time wandering before becoming minister to King Bijjala of Kalyana, whom ´Siva told Basavanna in a dream to visit. Bijjala may have been married to the daughter of Basavanna’s foster father, and so would have known Basavanna as a young man. Despite being the king’s treasurer, he devoted his efforts to building a spiritual community focused on religious and caste reform.
   Bijjala, spurred on by conservatives to oppose the egalitarian sect, sentenced some of them to death after an inter-caste marriage ceremony.When extremists among the new community failed to listen to his pleas against violent retaliation, Basavanna left Kalyana for Kappadisangama, where he died shortly thereafter. In the meantime Vīra´saivist extremists assassinated King Bijjala and ultimately were scattered by retaliatory persecution. Basavanna is known to have written more than 900 vacanas, in which he advocates the ideals of his movement. In some, he denigrates ritualistic practice in favor of a religion of the heart: “I worship with my hands,/the heart is not content./What else shall I do?” (Ramanujan 1973, \#487, ll. 7–9), he asks in one poem. In other vacanas, he asserts ideals of social justice, rejecting the caste system as a vehicle for the rich to dominate the poor: “The rich will make temples for ´Siva./ What shall I,/a poor man,/ do?” (Ramanujan 1973, \#820, ll. 1–5), he asks.
   The colloquial nature of Basavanna’s poems, their striking imagery, and their militant ideals place them among the most interesting and readable literature of medieval India.
   Bibliography
   ■ Ramanujan, A. K., ed. and trans. Speaking of ´Siva Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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