Basava: Founder of the Lingayat Sect

Basava (Basavanna) was an Indian twelfth-century philosopher, poet, statesman and the founder of the Lingayat sect which originated as a reactionary and oppositional force against Hinduism in the twelfth century (Leslie 1). Basava is regarded as a Lingayat saint in the Siva-focused Bhakti movement as well as a social reformer during the reign of the Kalyani Chalukya and Kalachuri dynasty (Leslie 2). Basava was born in 1106 CE named in honor of Nandi (carrier of Siva) and was devoted to the Hindu deity Siva (Samanta 1). Basava spent his early life growing up in the Hindu temple of Kudalasangama, where he spent twelve years undergoing studies. Basava would go on to marry a cousin from his maternal side of the family (Somanatha 57). Basava’s father in law was the provincial prime minister of the Kalachuri king. Due to familial connections, Basava would find work in the court of the king as an accountant for a time before he would eventually replace his father in law as chief minister (Somanatha 64). Now that Basava was chief minister of the kingdom he sought to use the treasury to initiate social reforms and a religious movement focused on reviving the worship of Siva, thus giving birth to the Lingayat sect of today.

Basava’s life and ministry were detailed by numerous hagiographies and various writers before and after his death, such as Hirihara who wrote Basavarajadevara Ragale, Shadakshari who wrote Basavaraja Vijayam, and Bhima Kavi who wrote the Basava Purana (Samartha 3). All these works were written centuries apart from one another which has illustrated some unique similarities and contradictions among the literature, some of which pervade the typical hagiographic tradition. Many poets recorded a theme of viewing Basava as a divine incarnation from heaven itself; however, there are a few discrepancies that result in conflicting contradictions as is expected with religious texts (Samartha 3). Since the authors had been committed to the affirmation of Basava’s divinity and incarnation they found it difficult to portray the humanity of Basava and thus focused on a simplistic and pious account of Basava’s history which limited it to mainly ideological differences during his upanayana (rites of passage) (Samartha 4).

Detailed in the Basava Purana, is Basava’s early life and most prominently, the refusal of the thread ceremony during his upanayana and an argument with his father. In this excerpt, Basava questions his father’s worship of Siva, declaring him to be a fool. Basava argues that, once a person has been purified in a previous, birth it is degrading to become twice born in the current life (Somanatha 56). Basava believes that his father is trying to drown him in an ocean of karma and argues that once someone has gone beyond caste and lineage why should you once again become dependent on caste clan by undergoing a thread ceremony (Somanatha 56). Basava’s father is outraged by the disobedience of his son. He exclaims that the Agamas (religious texts) prescribe sixteen rituals for purification, and if missing even one of these rituals a man will have no place among the first rank of the highest caste (Somanatha 57). Basava’s father ultimately mentions that Basava’s failure to complete his thread ceremony would result in the destruction of the family. Furthermore, Basava’s father mentions that if he does not complete the ritual, they will be forced to disown him from the family in fear of being viewed as immoral savages (Somanatha 57).  Basava is outraged and says that his father has failed to recognize the differences between devotion and Brahminism, exclaiming that they are different teachings with different gods, mantras, and preceptors (Somanatha 58). Basava exclaims that a brahmin must worship all the gods and if he fails to, he is no longer a brahmin and if one does worship all the gods then devotion is dead (Somanatha 58). Basava states that devotion is like the stability of married women while Brahminism is the path of harlots (Somanatha 58). In closing, Basava states that if his father continues with his Brahminism he will be meaningless to him and declares Siva to be the true path to devotion (Somanatha 58).

Detailed in the Basava Purana, are the recollections of Basava’s adulthood and most prominently, Basava’s rise to power as the commander in chief of King Bijjala. Following the arguments with his father, Basava and his sister Nagamamba decided that it would not be wise to stay home any longer and went to seek shelter at the house of his friend, Phanihari (Somanatha 59). It was during this time that Basava met Baladeva, who was King Bijjala’s treasurer and commander of the army (Somanatha 59). It was said that Baladeva had promised that he would marry his daughter Gangamba to a devotee of Siva and not give her to a bhavi (one who sits below the throne) (Somanatha 59). It is not entirely clear how Basava ended up meeting Baladeva; however, he was eventually married to Baladeva’s daughter Gangamba. After marriage and completing all the necessary rituals, Basava would travel to Kappadisangamesvara, where he received high praise from the occupants for his devotion (Somanatha 61).

 Upon Baladeva’s death, King Bijjala gathered a council of Baladeva’s friends and family seeking a replacement for the position of commander in chief (Somanatha 64). During this council, Basava was suggested as a replacement due to his humble speech, purity, and mastery of arts (Somanatha 64). King Bijjala was ecstatic about Basava as a replacement for Baladeva and immediately sent ministers and advisors to meet Basava and offer him the title of commander in chief (Somanatha 64). Basava would receive high praise from the advisors sent to meet him regarding him as a lord above all, far above even the king (Somanatha 65). Basava would accept their offer thinking about the welfare of devotees (Somanatha 65). Basava would eventually reach the city of Kalyana in southern Kalachuri, where he received immense praise from all, declaring him to be on the pure path of Siva (Somanatha 66). Basava was viewed as an incarnation of heroism, a destroyer of evildoers, a destroyer of sin, and one that had transcended the darkness of ignorance (Somanatha 66). It is described that King Bijjala then joyfully gave Basava authority over his entire realm including an immense army and treasury (Somanatha 66). Basava was then tasked with the welfare of the entire empire and lord of King Bijala’s life and wealth (Somanatha 67). As Basava garnered great renown he also garnered growing popularity among the masses. Basava made an immense amount of vows to regard every devotee of Siva as Siva himself (Somanatha 68). These vows were then reciprocated by many devotees (Somanatha 68). Eventually, due to his spreading renown, many devotees sought to see Basava in person to verify his devotion and garner devotion themselves from his presence. During this time, Basava further showed his devotion to Siva and character that was renowned among the masses.

The poetic hagiographies and Basava’s own vachanas (sayings) are the majority of sources that reconstruct the life of Basava all with different methods such as orally or in manuscripts and inscriptions (Samartha 2). In these hagiographies such as the Basava Purana, they consistently regard Basava in a semi divine way and reflect how Basava’s life and actions were interpreted by the masses during their respective times (Samartha 2). Despite their obvious exaggerations, these hagiographies provide vital geographical and biographical information which is especially useful when exploring the Lingayat sect of today which Basava is credited for founding (Samartha 2). From the information in Basava’s hagiographies, his philosophy and values can be interpreted as teachings for the Lingayat sect (Samartha 13). By portraying Basava in a semi divine incarnation, the hagiographic poets set out to solve the problems of society with the support of the masses (Samartha 13). They did this because it was difficult for people to follow the teachings of someone who was merely a human (Samartha 13). As a side effect of this, many aspects of Basava’s life that showcased his humanity were lost (Samartha 13). Regardless of the contradictory and confusing hagiographies, Basava eventually went on to champion the tradition of Lingayat Hindus through his values of equality and social reform which serve as his legacy.

            The Lingayat sect refers to the worshippers of the Hindu deity Siva. The Lingayats are a large sect of Hinduism that can still be found today that reside in the Kannada speaking region of southern India (McCormack 1). Two prominent features of Lingayats are the wearing of lingas which are a symbol of Siva and the strict practice of vegetarianism (McCormack 1). Lingayats recognize the religious leading of Basava who they credit for leading the Lingayat movement in the twelfth century that focused on overcoming caste exclusiveness and focusing on social reform (McCormack 1). This ideology of social reform is the direct rejection of the caste system used in India which separates people into different classes. Basava had previously spread his ideas through his poetry and the introduction of new institutions that ignored the caste system such as the Anubhava Mantapa which was a place that welcomed all men and women from varying castes to discuss spirituality (Schouten 2). All was going well until the new king, King Bijjala II began to disagree with the ideals of Basava, particularly regarding Basava’s belief of dissolving the caste system (Schouten 3). Under King Bijjala II’s rule, Lingayats became increasingly repressed causing some to relocate (Schouten 3). This Lingayat repression eventually came to a head when King Bijala II was assassinated by Lingayats (Schouten 5). The assassination of the king created animosity between Jains (King Bijala II) and Lingayats which resulted in the majority of Lingayats relocating into different regions of India and taking the teachings of Basava with them (Schouten 6). After the death of Basava, the old ideals began to fade and Basava’s nephew Channabasava began organizing some of the scattered Lingayat population and moving them towards the mainstream Hindu culture (Schouten 14). Eventually, in the fifteenth century, a Lingayat revival would occur in northern Karnataka in the Vijayanagara Empire. It is theorized that the Lingayats were likely a reason for how the Vijayanagara succeeded in territorial conquest against the Deccan Sultanates (Schouten 15). Due to their success, a Virasaiva family and eventual dynasty were appointed governance over the coastal Karnataka Kanara region where they built major shrines and seminaries of Lingayatism (Schouten 15). It is through this rebirth that the Lingayat sect once again grew to prominence and the teachings and legacy of Basava were reinvigorated.

There exist numerous interpretations that explain the life of Basava, these varying interpretations have resulted in a mixture of contrasting and similar literature. The legacy of Basava survives to this day due to his poetry and teachings that live on today in the form of the Lingayat sect. The Lingayat credits Basava as their founder and as such takes a great deal of inspiration from his teachings.


Leslie, Julie (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 61(2), 228-261. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:

McCormack, William (1963) “Lingayats as a Sect.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 93(1), 59-71. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/2844333.

Samanta, Priya (2006) “Basava: A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 67, 1066-1066. Accessed February 2, 2020. Retrieved from

Samartha, M. (1977) “Basava’s Spiritual Struggle.” Religious Studies. 13(3), 335-347. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:

Schouten, Jan (1995) Revolution of the Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Vīraśaivism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Somanatha, Palakuriki (1990) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Translated by Velcheru Rao and Gene Roghair. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Article written by: Corey Hironaka (Feburary 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.