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LOCATION: India (Karnataka state)
POPULATION: 15 million (estimate)
RELIGION: Lingayat
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India


Lingayats are members of a religious sect in India that dates from the 12th century ad. The name is derived from linga and ayta and means "the people who bear the linga (phallic symbol)." This is a literal description, as members of the sect wear a small stone phallus somewhere on their body. Men carry it in a silver box suspended on a thread or scarf around the neck, while women wear it on a neck-string under their clothes. The linga is the symbol of the god Shiva, and Lingayats are also called Virashaivas because of their passionate devotion to this deity.

The Lingayat movement began as a revolt against Brahmanical Hinduism. It is based on the teachings of Basava (c. 1125- c. 1170), who lived in Kalyana, a small town in central India in what is now northern Karnataka State. A Brahman himself, Basava (also Basavana) rejected the supremacy of Brahman priests, ritualism, concepts of ritual pollution, caste, and many other features of contemporary Hindu society and religion. He preached instead a populist message of equality, fraternity, and individuality. Basava's teachings spread through the region, where they became deeply entrenched among the local population. Even today, over 800 years later, Lingayats form a significant element in Karnataka culture and society.


Lingayats are distributed throughout Karnataka, with their greatest concentrations in the northern regions. Census returns in 2001 indicated that around 20% of the state's population were Lingayats (estimates made early in the 20th century place the percentage of Lingayats between 14% and 20% of the population). Assuming this proportion did not change much by 2008, the number of Lingayats in Karnataka would be close to 12 million. With Lingayats in Maharashtra numbering several million and several hundred thousand in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, a current estimate of around 15 million people is reasonable. In the Lingayat heartland, as many as 67% of the people follow the religion. Small Lingayat communities are also found in the states of Goa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. A few Lingayat families are to be found among Indian immigrants in the United States and Canada.

The cultural heartland of the Lingayats is located in the interior of the Deccan Plateau. In the north of the region lie the hills and escarpments of the southern edge of the Maharashtra plateaus. These soon give way southwards to the lower lands of the middle valley of the Krishna River and its tributaries (the Bhima and the Tungabhadra). Further south, the terrain begins to rise towards the Mysore Plateau. The western margins of the region are defined by the Western Ghats, but there is no clear physical boundary on the east. Elevations of the plateaus vary from around 455-760 m (1,500-2,500 ft) in the north to over 1,100 m (3,600 ft) in the south. Climate is of the tropical monsoon type. Mean monthly temperatures at Bellary in eastern Karnataka vary from 23°c (73.4°f) in winter to 33°c (91.4°f) in summer. Annual rainfall averages between 40 cm and 80 cm (16-31 in) throughout the entire region, except for the extreme western areas. Areas not under cultivation carry a poor scrub cover or open deciduous or thorn forest, except for a narrow belt of evergreens in the more humid west.


Lingayats fully identify with Kannada, which may be seen as the language of Lingayat culture. Basava, the founder of the sect, specifically set out his teachings in Kannada rather than in Sanskrit so that he could reach the common people. The boundaries of Karnataka State (called Mysore at the time) were redrawn in 1953 and 1956 to unite the Kannada-speaking peoples in a single administrative division. Kannada is one of the four major languages of the Dravidian language family. It is related to the other Dravidian tongues of South India (Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam) but is written in its own script.


Basava, the founder of the Lingayat movement, and the other saint-mystics (e.g., Basava's nephew, Cennabasava; and Allama Prabhu) who helped spread its teachings are enshrined in the lore of the sect. Their own sayings and legendary accounts of their lives have entered the folk idiom of the Kannada people. The imagery and ideas presented in these works provide interesting contrasts between Lingayat beliefs and those of the Brahmanical tradition. The crow, for instance, is a messenger of death in Brahmanical Hinduism. Many Hindus feed crows as part of their death rites, believing they are ancestors returned from the dead. In Lingayat culture, by contrast, the crow is an auspicious symbol of fellowship and sociability, known for its deep commitment to its community.


The Lingayats do not label themselves as Hindu. Their beliefs have been drawn from Tamil Shaivism and other Indian sources, but they have evolved a uniquely Lingayat character. Their doctrines represent a sweeping departure from those of orthodox Hinduism. Lingayats revere the Vedas (the sacred texts of Hinduism) but they do not accept the Brahmans' authority to interpret them. They reject the caste system and proclaim all wearers of the linga to be equal. They do not believe in rebirth and, consequently, have abandoned the doctrine of karma (the principle that actions in one life determine the nature of subsequent incarnations). Lingayats recognize the spiritual power (śakti) of Shiva; they worship him as the only god and do not recognize the other deities of Hinduism. In modern practice, however, Lingayats have taken to worshiping many gods in addition to Shiva. The doctrines and ideals of Lingayat religion and society are set out in the eight supportive systems (ashtavarna), the five principles of conduct (pañcha-âchâra), and the six-stage path (sat-sthala).

The Lingayat guru (spiritual leader) and jangama (priest) exert a considerable influence in the community. Priests, who can be male or female, officiate at life-cycle rituals. Some are also itinerant healers and astrologers, administering to the needs of the local people. Lingayats have their own temples, and their monasteries (matha) are flourishing centers of religious culture and education. Pilgrimages are undertaken to places such as Kalyan and Ulive, which are held sacred because of their association with Basava and other Lingayat saints.


Lingayats celebrate the birthdays of their saints, that of Basava being of particular importance. Two religious processions reported to be unique to the Lingayats are Nandi-kodu (Nandi's horn) and Vyasantol (Vyas' hand). Nandi is the sacred bull of Shiva, and the story goes that Nandi once lost a horn in a fight with a demon. His followers found the horn and triumphantly paraded it around. Lingayats follow the custom of carrying Nandi's horn (a long bamboo pole on which two brass bulls are fixed) through the streets in procession. On another occasion, a cloth hand is made and tied to Nandi's horn and paraded in the streets. This represents the hand of Vyas, reputed to be the author of the Purânas. In addition to their own celebrations, Lingayats also observe Hindu festivals such as Holi, Divali, and Ugadi (New Year's Day).


After birth, the family guru ties a linga around the neck of the newborn child, smears the child with ashes, and places on the child a garland of rudra beads (seeds of the tree Elaeocarpus ganitrus). These are said to be the tears of Shiva. The guru recites a prayer to Shiva in the baby's ear. The priest is sent for, and when she or he arrives, her or his feet are washed by the child's parents. The water is poured over the linga tied to the baby, who is then presented to Shiva by the priest. The priest is fed, and a small portion of food from the priest's dish is placed in the baby's mouth (this ceremony is known as prasâd, i.e., sacred offering). These rituals involve each of the elements in the eight supportive systems and symbols of the Lingayat religion (guru, linga, ashes, rudra beads, prayer, priest, the water that washed the priest's feet, and sacred offerings). Even today, the marks on the forehead (usually in white lime rather than ashes), the strings of rudra beads, and the linga around the neck serve to identify a follower of the Lingayat faith.

Death for the Lingayats is a cause of gladness because the dead person has exchanged the cares of this life for the joys of Shiva's heaven (kailaś). The body is bathed and laid out in the home. A priest reads passages from the Lingayat scriptures to help the soul in its flight to heaven. A feast is thrown for jangams (priests), and they are given money and clothes. The body is then placed on a gaily decorated chair and carried in procession to the grave. Lingayats always bury their dead, with the corpse seated cross-legged in the grave. Funeral rites end when the mourners return home and take purifying baths.


Lingayats conform to the customs of their local communities in their interpersonal relationships. Villagers meet in the streets, at tea shops, and at the panchâyat (village council) building to gossip and exchange news. Available leisure time is closely tied to the agricultural cycle.


Lingayat dwellings reflect regional house-types and rural settlement patterns. Northern Karnataka is an area where North Indian and South Indian patterns meet, with the shapeless, nucleated villages of Maharashtra giving way to the compact, square settlements—often with a tributary hamlet—found in southern areas. Houses are typically built of mud and stone, though cement is becoming more common. The house of a well-to-do Lingayat farmer typically has a roofed veranda in the front, built on a raised platform. This is used for resting and entertaining visitors. A doorway, with carved figures of Basava, leads into the living quarters, which include the kitchen, a room set aside for worship, and stalls for cattle. Hay, cow dung for fuel, and other goods are stored behind the house. Furnishings reflect the occupation, taste, and resources of the occupants.


Although Basava preached against caste and proclaimed all persons equal, the Lingayats have a complex system of social stratification that functions very much like a caste system. Women have a higher status than in traditional Hindu society. They exercise equal religious authority with men in household rites and festive ceremonies. In village communities, however, women still tend to occupy a subservient role. Considerable emphasis is placed on having male children, who are seen as essential for security in old age and salvation in the life to come.

The extended family is common in rural areas, but urban Lingayats tend towards the nuclear family. Marriages are arranged, though marriage practices are becoming much less restrictive among Lingayats with the spread of education. Residence is patrilocal (i.e., the bride and groom become part of the father's household) in rural areas, but newlyweds in urban areas often set up independent households. Divorce is uncommon. Widow remarriage is permitted.


Apart from the ishta-linga ("personal" linga) worn around the neck, Lingayat dress resembles that of the region where the community lives. Thus, in central Karnataka a Lingayat farmer wears the dhotî (Indian loincloth), a long, collarless shirt, and a turban. He may throw a shoulder cloth across one shoulder. Women wear a bodice and sâri, with the upper end passed across the front of the body and draped over the head. Ornaments include a variety of necklaces, nose rings, earrings, bangles, and anklets. The wealthy prefer gold, while the poorer classes wear silver. Men, also, are fond of jewelry. In urban areas, men tend to follow the trend of wearing Western-style shirts, pants, and jackets.


Lingayats are strict vegetarians, their staple food being rotî (flat breads) made from millet, eaten with pulses, vegetables, chilies, onion, garlic, and condiments. Wheat, maize (corn), and rice also form part of the diet, as do milk, curds, and ghî (clarified butter). The use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs such as opium is forbidden. Although theoretically an egalitarian sect, Lingayats have dining restrictions similar to those found among Hindus. For instance, members of the higher castes from which the jangams (priests) and leading merchants come do not eat with lower-ranked Lingayats who are primarily from various artisan groups. In the past, if a Maratha, a Muslim, or anyone not wearing the linga came into one's house and saw food, it would have to be thrown away.


Education and literacy levels vary considerably among the Lingayats depending to a considerable extent on where they live. Literacy provides access to the professions, and thus the Lingayats appear to be well represented in law in Bombay compared to Lingayats in Karnataka. In a rural context, however, the typical attitude towards formal education among Lingayats is one of indifference or resistance. Although the Indian Constitution makes provision for free and compulsory education—from ages 6 to 14, attendance at school is low. Children, especially in a rural setting, are seen as much more valuable in helping support the family than in learning to read, write, and do arithmetic. A recent study in two villages in northern Karnataka (Dharwar District) dominated by Lingayats showed extremely low literacy rates (30.2% and 25.7% for the two villages, with the rates for women being 18.5% and 12.9%). Th is is in contrast to the overall literacy rates in Karnaatka, reported as 67.4% by the 2001 Census of India (76.29% for males and 57.45% for females). Lingayat monasteries, such as the Manvi Monastery in Belgaum, play an important role in modern education. Found in towns, both large and small, across Karnataka, the monasteries run schools and colleges and have provided many poor people with free board and lodging in urban centers to help them acquire an education and better themselves.


Lingayats have a literary tradition that dates back to the 12th century ad. Their sacred literature includes the short lyrical sayings (vâchanas) of Basava, as well as the poetry and devotional hymns of over 200 writers. Of particular note is the fact that these are in the Kannada language rather than in Sanskrit and are accessible to the common people without reliance on Brahmanical interpretation. Lingayat literature is thus an important element in the regional culture of Karnataka. Several important Lingayat writers, such as Basava himself, writing in Kannada, have made important contributions to Karnataka culture, while Karnataka folk culture, in turn, forms part of the environment in which Lingayats live and work.


Lingayats are involved in a wide range of activities. Many are farmers, living in villages and leading lives not too different from other agriculturalists in northern Karnataka. Others provide the services on which the agricultural economy depends, such as carpentry, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and oil-pressing. Lingayats with the necessary educational background are also represented in government service and the professions, as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and professors. In urban areas in Karnataka, Lingayats dominate small trade, commerce, and the textile industry.


There are no games or spectator sports associated specifically with the Lingayat faith.


Lingayats have access to the same entertainment and recreational facilities as the general population of Karnataka. In villages, much of their enjoyment is derived from traditional pastimes (e.g., wrestling, bull-chasing, and folk-singing) associated with periodic fairs, festivals, and folk culture. In urban areas, television, movies, and modern sports activities are also available.


There are no specific arts, crafts, or hobbies identified with the Lingayats. Lingayats share in the broader currents of folk traditions in Karnataka.


Lingayats face many of the problems of the general population of northern Karnataka. In rural areas, there are some Lingayats who have to deal with low living standards, poverty, and debt. Many, however, own land, and Lingayat villages are an integral element in the rural landscape of northern Karnataka. The Lingayat movement originated as a reaction against feudal Brahmanical society and rejected many aspects of traditional Hinduism. Lingayats do not wear the sacred thread and, even though they reject the caste system, they have a social stratification system that is akin to caste and, to all intents and purposes, are placed in the Shudra varna by Hindus. Although they have reacquired some aspects of the Hindu religion (a process for which there are many historical precedents), the Lingayats preserve a distinct identity in central India. Their commitment to populist ideals stands in direct contrast to the rigid hierarchy of traditional Hindu society. This has helped Lingayats modernize and in many ways achieve a status as one of the more progressive religious communities in modern India.

Despite rejecting the Hindu caste system of India, Lingayats have emerged as the dominant caste in many areas of Karnataka. Not only that, but they have managed to obtain political power and representation by getting themselves classified as an OBC (Other Backward Class) in Karnataka and thus gaining the benefits of this status (Lingayats, along with the Vokkaliga, another group classed as an OBC, have cornered the lion's share of seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and OBCs). It does not matter how wealthy or educated one is, if one is classed as belonging to an OBC, one is entitled to apply for a reserved seat. On 30 May 2008 a Lingayat (B. S. Yeddyurappa) was sworn in as Chief Minister of Karnataka State. Lingayats formed a major voting bloc that put Yeddyurappa's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power.


Lingayat religious ideology encompasses the principles of individuality, equality and fellowship and rejects inequalities based on gender, class or occupation. Therefore, Lingayat women do not occupy the subordinate role in which they tend to placed in Brahmanical society. Women exercise equal religious authority with men in household rites and festive ceremonies, and can even become priests. Lingayats traditionally do not favor child marriage and widow remarriage is allowed, although divorce is uncommon. In village communities, however, women still tend to occupy a subservient role, with considerable emphasis being placed on bearing male children, who are seen as essential for security in old age and salvation in the life to come. It is not uncommon for a Lingayat woman to wear a gold fertility necklace as a charm for obtaining a son, the necklace having thirty pendants, each with symbolic meaning connected to fertility.

Lingayats follow the Hindu law of inheritance and succession, but if a family does not have a son, a woman can inherit from her mother, whether gold, money or land. If a woman does not have a son, she tends not to adopt a male, as is the custom among Hindus, and passes on her wealth to her daughter.

Given their lack of commitment to Hindu principles of caste, Lingayat women tend to be in the forefront of modernization. However, in rural areas, they are still subject to poverty, low living standards, illiteracy, debt and lack of access to educational facilities—in fact, they suffer from the same problems as low caste Hindus.


Chekki, D. A. Religion and Social System of the Virasaiva Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Ishwaran, K. Speaking of Basava: Lingayat Religion and Culture in South Asia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

———. Religion and Society Among the Lingayats of South India. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983.

Michael, R, Blake. The Origins of Vîraúaiva Sect: A Typo-logical Analysis of Ritual and Associated Patterns in the Úűnyasampâdane. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

Yaravintelimath, C. R., trans. Vacanas of Women Saints. Bangalore: Basava Samithi, 2006.

—by D. O. Lodrick