The Indian religious movement of the Vīraśaivas ("heroic Śaivas")—also known as Liṅgāyats ("bearers of a liṅgā ")—appeared as a reformist Śaiva sect in Hinduism probably in the middle of the twelfth century in the border regions of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Its founder is said to have been a brahman named Basava or Basavanna (1106–1167), though the main reformist role may have been that of Ekantada Ramayya, a contemporary of Basava. The Vīraśaiva doctrine was probably further elaborated in the following centuries.
The sect now has about six million adherents, mostly in Karnataka, where, though officially classified as "backward," they are a not unimportant group. Vīraśaivism may have appeared as a reaction of Dravidians against Brahmanic (and therefore Aryan) domination. Temple worship, sacrifice, and pilgrimages are condemned as useless. The caste system is rejected, the sexes are declared equal, child marriage is forbidden, and widows are allowed to remarry. Caste distinctions tended, however, to reappear in the course of time. There are, for instance, hereditary priests, the jaṅgamas, while the sect itself is regarded as a caste.
All Vīraśaivas must belong to a group connected with one of the sect's five main religious centers or matha s (Kedarnath, Śrīsaila, Balehalli, Ujjain, Varanasi). All must have a guru, undergo initiation, and carry a small liṅgā in a tube fastened to the neck or arm (hence the name Liṅgāyat). The sect mark is a white dot on the forehead. The dead are buried, not cremated.
Though they condemn all ritual, Vīraśaivas still admit some rites, but these are performed by jaṅgamas, not brāhmaṇas, the main rite being initiation (dīkṣā ) of male children. They must also pay homage at least twice per day to the small liṅgā they wear. Fundamental to their religion and deemed indispensable for salvation are the so-called eight covers (aṣṭāvaraṇa ): the guru, who is even more revered than God; the liṅgā; the jaṅgamas ; holy water (padodaka ); returned offerings (prasāda ); holy ashes (vibhūti ); the rosary (rudrākṣa ); and the mantra "Namaṇ Śivāya." Vīraśaivas believe in reincarnation, except for those who attain a certain degree of holiness in this life.
The metaphysical creed of the Vīraśaivas is "qualified dualism" (viśeṣādvaita ), a Śaiva variant of Rāmānuja's doctrine, from which it may derive. Śiva acts through his energy (śakti ), which divides itself into the Lord as manifested in the guru and the liṅgā and into all individual souls (aṅgas ). Māyā is the cause and origin of the material world. Liberation from this world is gained by devotion to God and through a sixfold practice, the six phases (sthala s) of which will eventually bring the devotee to union with Śiva (united with Śakti), a union that is not, however, complete identity with God.
The literature is in Sanskrit, Kannada, and Telugu. That in Sanskrit is mostly doctrinal; some Ᾱgamas include Vīraśaiva elements. The most important and popular texts are in Kannada, the main part being made up of vacana s ("sayings"). These are sermons, poems, and mystical utterances of the great Vīraśaiva saints and masters (Basava, Kasimayya, Mahādēviyakka, Allamaprabhu). This literature, in which bhakti and Tantric elements combine to form a very remarkable synthesis, is often of great poetic beauty.
For the doctrine and practices of the Vīraśaiva, and historical facts, any of the good histories of Indian religions may be consulted, for instance Jan Gonda's Die Religionen Indiens, vol. 2, Der jüngere Hinduismus (Stuttgart, 1963). The best introduction to the subject is probably Speaking of Śiva, translated with an introduction by A. K. Ramanujan (New York, 1973), a short but excellent anthology with very useful and perceptive commentaries. A vast collection of vacana s in the original text and English translation, Śūnyasampādane, 5 vols., edited and translated by S. S. Bhoosnurmath et al. (Hubli-Dharwar, 1965–1972), is interesting but difficult to find.
Nandimath, Sivalingayya Channabasavayya. Theology of the Saivagamas: A Survey of the Doctrines of Saiva Siddhanta and Veerasaivism. Thiruvananthapuram, 2001.
AndrÉ Padoux (1987)