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ETHNONYM: Virasaiva


Identification. The Lingayats speak Kannada, one of the four major Dravidian languages spoken in the south of India. They are called Lingayats because they worship istalinga, the symbol of Shiva, and they always wear it around their necks or across their chests. They are also called Virasaivas because of their deep love and commitment to their God, "the Omnipresent and Ever Compassionate."

Location. Lingayats live in all nineteen districts of Karnataka State in south India, which stretches from 11°05 N to 19°00 N and from 74°00 E to 78°06 E and along the Arabian Sea. The north and central regions are their heartland, although Lingayats are found also in the four neighboring states of Maharashtra and Goa to the north, Andhra Pradesh to the east, and Tamil Nadu to the south. The climate is basically a tropical monsoon type and the temperatures change periodically, varying between 15° and 40° C.

Demography. The census of 1981 places the Karnataka population at 37,135,714 with a population density of 194 persons per square kilometer. Assuming that the Lingayat population has grown at the rate of the general population of Karnataka, the Lingayat numbered about 5,600,000 then.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kannada language is classified in the Dravidian Family, and the Lingayats fully identify with it. It is related to the Tamil, Telugu, Tulu, and Malayalam languages but it has its own script, which consists of thirty-four consonants and fourteen vowels. Its first poetics, Kavirajamarga, and first grammar, Bhasa Bhusan, were written in the early ninth and eleventh centuries, respectively, and its literary history spans well over 1,000 years.

History and Cultural Relations

The contribution of Lingayats to the cultural heritage of Karnataka is significant. Kannada literary historians have identified some 1,148 Kannada writers between the eighth and the end of the nineteenth century; of these, there are 453 Lingayats, 377 Brahmans, and 175 Jains, while the rest represent other groups. Basava, the founding father of Lingayat religion, was also in some ways the first to lead a successful crusade in the early part of the twelfth century a.d. against domination by the Sanskrit language in order to make Kannada, the language of the common man, the medium of literary expression. He set an example by recording his Vacanas (sayings) in Kannada and the tradition set by him continues to flourish in modern Lingayat writings. The ideology of the Lingayat culture also begins with Basava, who rejected the feudal orientation of Hindu Brahmanism and substituted for it a new social order similar to Gandhian populism and based upon the principles of individuality, equality, and fraternity. The cooperative, communitarian movement initiated by Basava continues to flourish in the modern political life of Karnataka. The Lingayat monasteries, spread across contemporary Karnataka's small and large towns, run schools and colleges with free room and board for needy students. These monasteries serve not only as centers of religious culture but also as centers of education; they can claim a record of fifty years of contribution to the educational progress of the state, unrivaled by other educational institutions. The Shiva worshiped by the Lingayats does not belong to the Hindu pantheon. He is formless, qualityless, and an embodiment of love and compassion. Lingayats worship him as a symbolic manifestation of the universe and call him their personal God, istalinga. For them Sanskrit (like church Latin) is the vehicle of feudal values, inherited inequalities, and priestly prerogatives; so they identify with Kannada and contribute to its literary richness and variety. Their cultural heritage therefore follows neither the marga (way of seeking) nor the desi (way of instruction) traditions; it rejects the institutions, cultural prescriptions, notions, and values characteristic of both these Hindu traditions. It represents, in fact, partly a selective blending and partly a selective conflict Between the two. It comes very close to a populistic tradition, with its own institutions and values rooted in the 27,000 Villages and some 300 towns of Karnataka.


Lingayat villages are usually nucleated with houses built close to each other. The population of a village may vary anywhere from 250 to 3,500 persons. Villages are dispersed and connected by paths and main roads that link them to the national highways. Farmers' houses are made of either mud, stone, or cement. A well-to-do Lingayat farmer's house, made out of mud and stone, consists of three sections. The first section is a porch with a raised platform, usually open but sometimes closed, which is used for visitors and resting. A threshold and a door frame with carved figures of Basava lead to the second section, which consists of units used for housing the cattle and for domestic purposes, including a kitchen, a storeroom, and a puja (worship) room. The third section of the house, the backyard, is used for storing hay, fuel, etc.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The economy of a Lingayat village, which is predominantly agricultural, reflects the Lingayat culture. Their social structure is populistic, with birth and occupation intertwined. Lingayats are engaged in an entire range of occupational activitiesagriculture, commerce and trade, teaching and scholarship, blacksmithing, carpentry, weaving, oil pressing, hairdressing, etc. Traditionally, Lingayat farmers produced partly for local consumption and partly for a market economy, and plowed their land with metal-shod wooden plows powered by pairs of bullocks. Much of economic life was regulated by the aya system, in which exchange of goods and services took place. The local artisan groups and labor depended upon the farmers for their survival. With independence in 1947 and the launching of five-year plans and community development projects, the traditional mode of cultivation is being gradually modernized by the use of chemicals, fertilizers, lift pumps, irrigation, etc. Rural life, once characterized by exchange relationships, is giving way to competitive interests revolving around the Economic realities of supply and demand. For example, the artisan community in the village has nearly closed its doors to local customers, as it now seeks new opportunities in the nearby city market in its traditional specialities. And the Village washerman's family also is involved in the city electric laundering establishment, the cobbler in its shoe stores, the blacksmith in tool-making jobs, and the goldsmith in the jewelry store. So traditional work is becoming modern work, and traditional skills are becoming modernized in the process. The village farmers, who once produced primarily for Domestic and local purposes, now prefer cash crops such as sugarcane, cotton, chilies, fruits, and vegetables for export. But such concerns do not seem to have eroded traditional values as indicated by the increasing number of cooperative societies in Lingayat villages. Urban Lingayats are found equally in all occupations and dominate small trade, commerce, and the textile industry in Karnataka.


Kin Groups and Descent. The kinship universe of the Lingayats can be described in terms of two categories: effective and noneffective. Relationships among effective kin are close, intimate, obligatory, and reciprocal, whereas those among noneffective kin are less intimate and functionally insignificant. Effective kin are those closely related by descent and marriage, and mate selection among such kin is preferential. Noneffective kin are remotely related and rarely remembered, and meaningful interaction between them is absent. Ideally, Lingayat kinship emphasizes the patrimonial principle, but in reality matrilineal orientations prevail both in sentiments and obligations. Kin groups among rural Lingayats maintain and reinforce their kinship relations through uncleniece, cross-cousin, and exchange marriages. Affinal relationships are recognized only if they are involved in preferential marriages.

Kinship Terminology. Lingayat kinship may be described as multilateral with partly descriptive and partly generic kin terms. Father's brothers and sisters, for example, are described as "big" or "little" "fathers" and "mothers" depending on relative age; terms for paternal and maternal grandfathers and grandmothers are treated in the same way.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A common practice among Lingayat parents is to arrange their children's marriages. About five decades ago, a bride and bridegroom could see each other's face only at the marriage pedestal, but increasing education and widespread urbanization have crept into the villages and slowly affected the ways of traditional matchmaking. These days "love" Marriages are heard of even in the countryside. In educated Lingayat families, younger generations enjoy some freedom in the choice of partners, a practice unheard of half a century ago. The use of horoscopes is conspicuously absent among the Lingayats. Divorce and separation are uncommon and marital breakdowns are frowned upon. Precautions against possible disintegration are taken by arranging interkin Marriages, which help to strengthen the marital bonds. In the event of a breakdown, however, Lingayat attitudes toward divorce, especially in comparison with some other religious groups, are liberal and tolerant. They are equally liberal in encouraging widow remarriages, which are condemned by the Hindu-Brahmanic society. Residence is patrilocal among rural Lingayats. Upon marriage, the bride goes to live with the groom's household. Among urbanites they are expected to live independently. For an educated Lingayat couple, neolocal residence is the norm.

Domestic Unit. The extended family is regarded as the ideal arrangement among rural Lingayats, although the nuclear family is actually more common and there are occasional instances of conjugal family arrangements. Nuclear or conjugal, the family does not live in isolation, as it is always embedded in the larger kin group. Since the collective solidarity of the kin group is the prime value in the community, family autonomy and privacy are never its concerns. All related families are held together by a sense of mutuality and complementarity. Such interdependence is seen on occasions of births, weddings, fairs, and festivals. The urban Lingayat Family is primarily nuclear but it too maintains its ties with its rural kin by providing shelter, hospitality, and employment opportunities, when needed.

Inheritance. Traditionally, legal rights favored the patrilineage. Upon marriage, a girl took her husband's surname and all the legal claims that went with it. Her loss of a share in her parental family property, however, was met through adequate gifts of jewelry and gold during her marriage and on successive visits to the natal family. Her parents and siblings fulfilled their moral obligations to her, especially in times of crisis. Such customs and conventions generally created an environment in which brother-sister relations continued even after the parents' deaths. The Succession Act of 1956 that gave guaranteed equal rights to surviving children of deceased parents altered the bonds that once united the conjugal and natal families and brother-sister relationships. It is not uncommon these days for brothers and sisters to behave like rivals over the sharing of parental property and to take their claims to court.

Socialization. The socialization of a Lingayat child begins immediately after birth when the priest, the jangama, visits the home, names the child, and initiates him or her into the Lingayat faith by tying a linga around the child's neck. His role in communicating the values of his faith continues throughout the life of the named child, especially during some major life stages. Among other agents of socialization, mother, grandmother, father, siblings, and other extended relatives are significant, in that order. Among the nonfamilial agents, priest, peer group, elders, and teachers are effective. Socialization within the family is primarily informal and learning occurs there mostly by observation and imitation. Obedience and respect for elders, trust in their god and Religion, hard work, and generosity are some of the values that Lingayat parents like to see in their children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Lingayat system of social stratification is built largely around wealth, power, and prestige in both secular and religious spheres. Occupational and social mobility are open to everyone. Lingayats are therefore involved in all sectors of the economy. Their work ethic flows directly from their ethic of kayaka (rites and observances performed with the body, hence the spiritual value of labor); their role in community building comes from their practice of dashoha (community sharing of one's own labor), and their identification with society at large from their notion of aikya (being with the linga is being with society). Lingayat Economic behavior therefore stems from the values enshrined in their ideology.

Political Organization. Lingayats are actively involved Politically through participation in the democratic establishment in Karnataka. Its political history records the successful mobilization of Lingayats in achieving power at the village level, in unifying a single united Karnataka that was divided among several adjoining states prior to 1956, and in promoting village links with the center. In carrying this out, they have long been aware that social mobilization could not be achieved without a political orientation. The hundreds of biographies of successful Lingayats (published by the Gadag Tontadarya monastery) provide ample evidence of this awareness. The secular and religious leaders steer their community, mediated by its middle- and lower-middle-class core, well beyond communal polities into the universal polity, and from premodern polities to a modern, liberal one.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Lingayat religion is the largest established religion in Karnataka. Other established religions include Brahmanism, Jainism, and Islam. Lingayats do not label themselves Hindus and claim an independent status for their faith. The Lingayat theological doctrine of saktivisistadvaita (a qualified monistic philosophy characterized by Sakti, the spiritual power of Shiva); its socialization agents, the guru and the jangama (monk) ; and its notion of istalinga are distinctively Lingayat in character. Its system involving astavarnas (eight supportive systems), panca acaras (five principles of conduct), and sat stalas (six stages related to social and religious progress) has helped to transform Lingayatism into a distinct framework. Their ethical and behavioral norms have given them a capacity to coexist with other sociocultural groups and at the same time preserve their religious and cultural homogeneity and identity. The beliefs and behavioral patterns of Lingayats are expounded in the compositions of Basava, whom they regard as their founding father as well as a dominant influence in the works of his colleagues. These compositions, collectively known as the Vacanas, have the status of sacred literature, are taught to Lingayats from childhood, and are internalized by them. Lingayats believe in a one-and-only God and worship him in the form of istalinga, which resembles the shape of a globe. Lingayats are antimagic and antisupernatural in their religious orientation. They do not worship stone images and the deities of the desi tradition. They believe that devotion to Basava and the other Lingayat saints will bring them their blessings and guard their lives.

Religious Practitioners. They have their own priests who officiate at the various life-cycle rites, of which the prominent ones are those dealing with birth, marriage, and death. Priesthood among Lingayats is not ascriptive and is open to all irrespective of sex. Lingayats do not consider the world as maya, an illusion, and reject the Hindu notions of karma, rebirth, purity, and pollution.

Ceremonies. The Lingayat ritual calendar gives prominence to the birthdays of their saints, the first in importance being the birthday of Basava. In addition, they celebrate Hindu festivals such as Dipavali, Yugadi, and Sankramana. Their centers of pilgrimage are at Kalyan, Ulive, and Srisaila, the places where Basava, his nephew Cennabasava, Allama Prabhu, and Akka Mahadevi are laid to eternal rest.

Arts. Although Lingayats in past centuries were noted for their religious poetry and philosophical writings, today the chief arts are the singing and playing of hymns. There is no marked ability shown in the visual arts.

Medicine. Lingayat priests (called ayya or swami ) are also astrologers and medicine men, often dispensing herbal remedies to sick villagers. This is a useful craft for them to possess, rather than a learned profession.

Death and Afterlife. For Lingayats there is no life after death. They believe that there is one and only one life and that a Lingayat can, by his or her deeds, make this life a hell or heaven. At death, he or she is believed to have returned to God and to be united with him. They call this state aikya (unity with linga). Since the dead person is believed to have attained the status of Shiva, the body is washed, clothed, decked with flowers, worshiped, and carried in a procession to the burial yard accompanied by singing in praise of Shiva.

See also Badaga; Kanarese


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