Vīraśaivism, one of the important aspects of Śaivism, more popular in Karnataka, owes its development and popularity mainly to Basaveśvara, also called Basavaṇṇa or Basava, who flourished in the 12th century. Though attempts have been made to project him as the founder of the faith, others in the tradition have not accepted it, since quite a few teachers of the same school have preceded him.
The socio-political condition of the people of Karnataka during the latter part of the 11th and early part of the 12th centuries, was ripe for the advent of a rebel-reformer and Basaveśvara fitted into it admirably. The brāhmaṇas with the strength of their learning in the traditional lore and secular sciences as also their cultural roots, wielded enormous power both in the political field and in the social set-up. The caste system had an iron grip over the society and persons of lower castes enjoyed few privileges but several disabilities. Their colossal ignorance and arrant superstition had created many a deified spirit, the fear of which had led to several ridiculous practices.
Women in general were always treated as inferior to men. Jainism, as a result of constant conflict with the various cults of Hinduism, had lost its popular appeal.
Basaveśvara was born as the son of a śaiva brāhmaṇa couple—Mādirāja and Mādāmbā, at Bāgevāḍi in the Bijapur district of modern Karnataka. Since he was born after much austerity and prayers to Vṛṣabha or Nandinātha (the bullmount of Śiva) he was christened ‘Basava’ (= vṛṣabha). Though brought up in the Vedic brāhmanical tradition he could not reconcile himself to many of the customs that obtained during his times like immolating animals in Vedic sacrifices. Most unwillingly and under protest, he underwent the upanayana ceremony (the ceremony of investiture with the sacred thread called yajñopavīta). He was given a good education which he could assimilate well, due to the unusual powers of comprehension. However, he could not bring himself to accept the various rituals of Vedic origin. Nor could he tolerate the injustice being heaped upon the lower caste groups by the upper classes. This gradually led to a lot of bad blood between him and his parents as also the elders in the contem-porary society. Meanwhile his parents passed away leaving him an orphan. He thought he was now free to come out of the clutches of brāhminical orthodoxy, which he did, by tearing off the sacred thread that symbolized it. He then went to Kappaḍi Saṅgama, a holy place situated at the confluence of the rivers Malaprabhā and Kṛṣṇā. He settled down near the temple of Saṅgameśvara and started his spiritual quest through the worship of the Śivaliṅga there. A holy man Īśānya-guru by name, is said to have given him shelter there.
It is not known how long Basaveśvara stayed at Kappaḍi Saṅgama. Once Śiva appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to go to Maṅgaḷiveḍa and meet the King Bijjaḷa. He did so, though most unwillingly.
Bijjaḷa of the Kalacuri race, who had been a governor of the Cālukyas had, gradually grown in power and had usurped their kingdom during the period A.D. 1157-62.
Being impressed by the appearance and personal magnetism of Basaveśvara, Bijjaḷa appointed him as an employee in his treasury under Siddha Daṇḍādhipa. After the latter’s demise, Basaveśvara took over as the chief. Soon after this, he got married to Gaṅgādevī and Nīlalocanā, daughters of two high-ranking officers.
Neither wealth nor power, nor even happy family could deflect Basaveśvara from his chosen path: worship of Śiva and serving the jaṅgamas and śaraṇas (Vīraśaiva ascetics and devotees). His hospitality and generosity soon attracted all and sundry to his house in the guise of devotees of Śiva. Though sometimes, he had to suffer their quixotic behaviour, he would do so with infinite patience and cheerfulness.
Sometime later, Basaveśvara shifted to Kalyāṇa, the capital of Bijjaḷa. Though he worked honestly and efficiently, rumours floated by persons inimical to him—like misuse of state funds for entertaining his personal guests—gradually soured his relationship with Bijjaḷa. Added to it was the attempt he made to bring about a social revolution that would transcend caste barriers, accord an equal status to women and stress the importance of honest physical labour as an integral part of religious or spiritual life. This he did by founding an institution called ‘Śivānubhava-maṇṭapa’ (‘religious house of experience’). This was, perhaps, the birth-place or cradle of Vīraśaivism as known to us today. It was a spiritual as well as a social institution organized by Basaveśvara and presided over by Allama Prabhu, the greatest saint of the times. It acted as a nucleus round which gathered persons of all ranks and professions including women, to take part in the discussions that ranged from the most sublime spiritual truths to social problems, norms and conduct.
The social revolution that was initiated by this movement developed from a ripple to gigantic waves resulting ultimately in the marriage of a brāhmaṇa girl to a Harijan (untouchable) boy since both the families had embraced the Vīraśaiva cult. This naturally led to a great commotion and social unrest resulting first in the plucking out of the eyes of the fathers of the couple by Bijjaḷa and then in the assassination of Bijjaḷa himself at the hands of Basaveśvara’s followers as a reaction. In the melee that resulted, Basaveśvara escaped to Kappaḍi Saṅgama; and later, he voluntarily drowned himself at the confluence of the rivers there.
Basaveśvara, though a social revolutionary, was basically a spiritual aspirant who rose to saintly heights. His devotion to his Lord, ‘Kūḍala Saṅgamadeva (Śiva),’ was as intense as his keen intellect. He used everything he had—wealth and possessions, power, good name—in the service of his Lord and His devotees. He was a byword for magnanimity and generosity.
He has left behind him a large number of his sayings as ‘vacanas.’ The vacana is a class of Kannada literature, midway between prose and poetry, and couched in the common language of the masses. The topics dealt with range from the deepest philosophical reflections, to simple ethics or problems and parodies of the day-to-day life.
His philosophy may be summarized briefly thus: Have a great ideal in life, to live by. Try hard, try sincerely, to stick to that ideal or to reach it. Be fearless and face all the problems that may have to be encountered while trying to live that life. Do not neglect the life here and now; because, if it is lived well ‘here,’ you can live well ‘there’ also. Do some constructive physical labour to earn your livelihood or to deserve the food that you eat. Be contented with what you have and try to share the good things of your life with others. Since spiritual evolution is more important than the status in society brought about by caste, the latter has to be overlooked in favour of the former.
There is no doubt that Basaveśvara was one of the brightest luminaries that adorned South India, especially the Karnataka region, in the 12th century.