Friday, October 21, 2016

Bhakti Version of Social Justice:

An example from Karnataka

This paper intends to examine the case of 12th century Karnataka Bhakthi  movement as an illustration of the way in which Bhakti tradition contributes to social justice. In the following, I shall elaborate the meaning and implications of the concept of social justice and present a brief account of the Vachana   version of the Bhakti movement.  

While in some form or other, social justice has been at the heart of modern sociological theory or politics. We need not go into the complex historical developments which together pushed the concept in to the center of sociological attention and focus. Suffice it here to note that the historical fact of systematic decolonization of most of the non-western world- leading to its political independence raised the issue of social justice as a central issue in politics,  literature and indeed in the social science as a whole. Theoretical discussions and formulations reflected the concern for the practical problems of social justice in modern societies. As a consequence, the concept came to be mixed up with political realities of our time complicated by the near end of political imperialism in the non-western world.

One important consequence of this situation was that social justice became historically tied to the process of development which had brought the modern west into existence over a period of centuries since Renaissance. We may name this as the ethnocentric phase in the development of the concept of social justice. In this early phase, much theoretical energy was spent in constructing patterns, sequences and structural functional models of social justice, all equating uncritically western historical development as the only pattern of social justice.  In terms of theory, this exclusive concentration on a narrow historical experience led to a dichotomous frame in which traditional judiciary system and modern system were cast in polar roles. The traditional judiciary was conceptualized simply in negative relation to what was a modern judiciary. The model presumed in this frame work was that of a highly urbanized, industrial society run economically on the lines of a capitalistic system of competitive free enterprise, characterized sociologically by increasing individualism leading to dissolution of traditional structures and characterized politically by the nation state. In this conception of justice it was clear that the country like India was doomed never to catch up with the west, since there remained an eternal gap between the west and east. Therefore we have to work with the concept of justice as a process by which any society at any time transforms itself structurally and functionally to realize the values of Individual freedom, equality, rationality, and community. Further we must hold that social justice can not take place unless all the four values are co-present in some proportion.  

Bhakti movements in India:

Before considering the vachana movement in some detail, it is better to have a brief general account of Bhakti movements in India. A careful consideration of the Bhakti movements in general shows that they tend to get organized and function with in the existing socio-cultural order. In the Tamil linguistic region it emerged as far back as the sixth century, and continued for the next three and half centuries. It was carried on in the Shaiva represented by the Nayanar saints.  Their modality of action was temple building and Sanskritization, and among their positive achievements was the creation of a Tamil linguistic cultural consciousness cutting across political divisions. But such popular consciousness was neutralized and comprised since the movement was essentially geared not to eliminating the Hindu Brahminical system but to making it more workable and acceptable to the discontented masses. The movement was also mystifying in the sense that it diverted ordinary people’s actions and consciousness from their mundane lives and problems through emotional outbursts of personal devotion to God. These movements therefore could be integrated easily into the mainstream elitist Sanskritic, Brahminical Hinduism. These comments apply equally to the Vaishnava bhakti movement and to the Dasa in Karnataka, who also attempted to renovate, and streamline Brahminical Hinduism to make it acceptable to the masses who were groaning under the inequalities of the caste order. The saint poets of Maharashtra in the period from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, while more vocally universalistic and egalitarian were not ready for any organized confrontation with the establishment. The much discussed Warkari saints were more socially oriented, but this orientation had the objectives of making religion easier to practice socially. In the north the outstanding case of Kabir shows that the movement as in the south and in Maharashtra had egalitarian and humanistic aspirations. This frame work was continued in Nanak, Dadu Dayal and others. The examples of poets like Surdas and Tulasidas is very significant because it illustrates the unresolved contradiction in the Bhakthi movement in general between a rejection  of caste inequality at the level of an intensified bhakti mode of religious action and the acceptance of the hierarchy in other secular contexts.

The vachana and Dasa Movements:
While there is some controversy about whether Basavanna and Purandara dasa  were was the founders of Vachana and Dasa movements,  or whether they merely revitalized a pre-existing traditions, there can be no controversy whatever about the fact that they were the persons who forged it into a well organized ideologically articulated and mass-based movements in the 12th and 14th century Karnataka.  They all challenged the existing social order and worked for the new order with more social justice to the lower strata of the society. Thus the Bhakthi movements were therefore born as a movement that aimed not at reforming the existing order but at overthrowing it and replacing it with a new order based on Shaiva bhakthi and  Vaishana Bhakti visions of human freedom, equality, rationality and brotherhood.  Most of the writers  acted in the name of a universalistic and humanistic ideology.
Bhakthi model of social justice:

Through an examination of the ideas of vachana writers and Dasa writers , we can evolve a Bhakthi model of Social justice. Both ideologically and in its subsequent efforts at institutionalization of its value, this is very close to our formulation of the concept of modern Judiciary system. As I said in the beginning of my paper the process of social justice may be conceptualized best as a process of realizing the values of respecting individuality, equality rationality and community in any given setting.


The society in which the movement was active was based on the caste-system. This system implied two things- a) there was a hierarchy of castes in the sense that each caste had its own gradation in the social structure, b) each caste had its own occupation to pursue and a person born in to one caste was expected to pursue its particular occupation. In the social hierarchy the Brahmins were at the top and the untouchables were at the bottom. Between these came other castes like merchants, agriculturists’, weavers, potters, and others. The Dalits were not only untouchables but also invisibles.

It is possible, as we shall show, to relate Shiva Sharanas ideas, objectives, aspirations and vision to the modernistic social values. From a sociological point of view, Sharanas rejected a major principle of social organization underlying the Brahmanical Hindu tradition-the caste hierarchy. Basavanna, by birth was a Brahmin, asserts-

  • The son of the slave in Cannayya’s house
(Channayya was an untouchable man)
The daughter of the maid in Kakkayya’s house
Those two went to the fields for dung and fell together.
I am the son born of these two.
Kudalasangama deva is my witness.

  • Our untouchable Chennayya is father
Drummer Kakkayya is grand father
Look, Chikkayya is our father
Kinnari Bommayya is brother
How can they not know me?.

  • My mother is Nimbavve
She is a water carrier
My father is Cannayya
He carries the king’s weaponry
You say I have no kin
My sister cooks at Kanchi
You say I have no kin
Out of your hand I received
The devotion my ancestors
Have generated.

Basavanna demystified Brahmanism by giving his own examples. He clearly stated- “the birth less has no caste distinctions, no ritual pollution”. In another place he states that true self knowledge would dissolve the ignorance that gives to caste distinctions. He says- “To him who has self understanding, there is but one caste”. Rooting his rejection of caste in a humanistic ideal of equality, Basavanna exclaims- “The murderer is an untouchable, the eater of filth is untouchable”.

The equality of man is associated with his equal right to have access to god. Thus man’s belief in god becomes the basis of Basavanna’s equalitarianism. Further, the assumption of equality is related to individuality, since a man should be judged not by the ascriptive criterion of who he is, but rather by the achievement criterion of what he has done. Due to this strong commitment for the casteless society, Basavanna was able to arrange a marriage between an untouchable boy and a Brahamin Girl, which was termed as viloma Vivaha, completely rejected by the traditional Hinduism even today, sparkled the fire at 12th century and burnt few people. How ever Sharans concept of casteless society is still remained as dream.  


Sharans rationality based on there faith in the power of human reason, led them to reject Hindu Brahminical ritualism and its uncritical adherence to sacred texts such as Vedas. Bsavanna states-

  • ‘Shall I call Shastra great?
It glorifies Karma
Shall I call Veda great?
It enjoys animal sacrifices’

Basavanna some time moves close to a position which may be termed divine humanism. At other times he moves closer to what appears to be a different position-naturalistic humanism. In Basavnna’s thinking, however the two positions stem from the same assumption-that god creates man but he also creates nature as man’s context.

Basava’s humanistic rationality results in his outright rejection of supernatural sanction, traditionally formulated in the concepts of heaven and hell. He advances his position as follows-

  • There is no other heaven and hell
Truth speaking is heaven, lying hell
Performance of right conduct, heaven,
Its non performance hell

In these lines Basavanna maintains that the natural human world of experience is the only context in which human life must be lived. It does not need any supernatural point of reference.

Anthropologists like Robert Redfield and Milton Singer speak of Great and little traditions in Indian civilization, other pair of terms have been proposed popular/learned, folk/classical, low/high, parochial/universal, peasant/aristocratic etc. The native Indian tradition speaks of Marga (classical), and Desi (Folk). The Sharanas reject not only the great traditions of Vedic religion but the little traditions as well. They not only scorn the effectiveness of the Vedas as scripture they reject the little legends of the local gods and goddesses. Following are two examples which mocks the orthodox rituals and recitations-

  • ‘See-saw watermills bow their heads
So what?
Do they get to be devotees?
Or the master?
The tongs join hands
So what?
Can they be humble in service?
To the lord
Parrots recite
So what
Can they read lord?

  • The sacrificial lamb brought for the festival
Are up the green leaf brought for the decorations
Not knowing a thing about the kill
It wants only to fill the belly
Born that day to die that day
But tell me
Did the killers survive?
O lord of the meeting rivers
Religions set apart certain

The general belief is that if you die in Varanasi, which is an epicenter of Hinduism   you will go straight to heaven. The following vacana represents the contempt of the saint for all sacred space and sacred times-

  • ‘There’s no dawn
No new moon
No noonday
Nor equinoxes
Nor full moons
His front yard
Is the true Varanasi
O Ramanatha’

The Sharanas do not believe that religion is something one is born with or into. An orthodox Hindu believes that a Hindu is born not made. With such belief there is no place for conversion in Hinduism. A man born to his caste or faith cannot choose and change, nor can others change him. But if he believes in acquiring merit only by living and believing certain things, then there is room for choosing and changing his beliefs. He can then convert and be converted. If as these Sharanas believed he also believes that his god is the true god, the only true god, it becomes imperative to convert the misguided and bring light to the benighted. Their monotheism lashes out in an atmosphere of animism and polytheism-

  • How can I feel right?
About a God who eats up lacquer and melts
Who wilts when he sees fire?
How can I feel right?
About Gods you sell in your need
And Gods you bury for fear of thieves
Self born one with himself
He alone true god.

  • The pot is a God
The winnowing fan is a God
The stone in the street is a God
The comb is a God
The bowstring is also a God
The bushel is a God and the
Spouted cup is a God.
Gods Gods there are so many
There is no place left for a foot
There is only one god
He is our lord

Basava’s rejection of polytheism and his acceptance of one God should not be seen as inconsistent with his rejection of the supernatural. The position is a great deal more complicated. What Basavanna does is to use the doctrine of one god as the basis of human equality and the bonds of community. Basavanna rejects the Brahmanical Hindu notion of Karma and rebirth as being outside his frame work of naturalistic or divine humanism.  He holds for instance that the activists committed to the Sharana movement, the Sharanas, were not bound to Karma because they had negated it. Basava’s ideology recommends a rigorous commitment to empirical reality, the here and the now, blocking any escapist route towards a non existent past or the future. He clearly says-

  • Let what is supposed to come tomorrow,
Come to us today itself
What is supposed to come today?
Come to us this moment
Who is afraid of this?   Who is upset by this?

Basavanna’s rejection of the supernatural order, ritualism and the sacred texts implied a rejection of priestly class. Following is an excellent vachana-

  • The rich will make temples for Shiva
What shall I a poor man do?
My legs are pillars
The body the shrine
The head a Kalasha of gold
Things standing shall fall
But the moving ever shall stay.

He emphasizes an active life commitment to this world and its problems. All the social problems could be solved by this type of world commitment. His statement -‘The world of empirical reality, Samsara is our salvation’ really sums up epigrammatically his whole ideology and philosophy. ‘Kayaka is Kailasa’- which means ‘doing work is heaven’, is the final manifesto of the Sharanas.

This type of arguments constitutes a system of ideas in which the individual, his freedom and his rationality are defined with in a communitarian and egalitarian context. This ideological structure became a basis of the first major effort in Karnataka to establish a society based on what may be characterized as socialist society.

Basavanna was no mere philosopher but great institutional innovator. His efforts to build an ideal community with the help of his devoted colleagues, remains the first monumental effort in Karnataka to establish a community based on social justice. The Sharanas established Anubhava Mantapa or a House of experience, a forum where the Sharana leaders developed a critical and progressive consciousness as necessary preparation for the challenging task of building a universal, egalitarian community of free rational and equal individuals who had broken through the fetters of the prevailing Brahmanical Hindu structures. The Institution of Dasoha also tended to generate a sense of sharing between free and rational individuals. Unlike Buddha or Mahavira, the Virashiva saints do not appear alone; they seem to appear in droves, in interacting groups of three or four in these early times. They often form a composite Sharana each taking on a different face of the religious experience. Basavanna is the struggling reformer, Allama Prabhu is extraordinarily metaphysical, imperious, the master, Akka Mahadevi, the women saint is in love with God, and God to her is a sensual and aesthetic experience, Jedara Dasimayya is fierce, even crude at times and hates those who do not sees, Chennabasavanna  is a theologian aptly the son in law of Basavanna. Each saint has a different signature line, expressive of his/her special identity – Kudalasangama deva (lord of the meeting rivers), is the signature for Basava, who yearns for social unity and equality. Guheshwara (Lord of caves) for Allama Prabhu, obsessed with knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, given too dark sayings and twilight language. Chennamallikarjuna (My lord white as jasmine) for Mahadeviyakka, who is all eyes for the beauty of her lord, and Ramanatha, the Shiva who was worshipped even by God Rama, for Jedara Dasimayya .Each saint chooses an aspect, an epithetic, for his God that suits his own temperament and career. Thus the Virashiva movement was not made by any one of the saints, but by this composite. They thought of as one, singular yet plural in writings, an excellent image for contemporary India.


Many of the male saints like Basavanna and Dasimayya have families; they do not reject family life as most of the female saints do before they pursue their careers as saints. Whereas men may retain their families and in some instances direct their poetry toward social reform, women continue to choose love as the subject of their poetry, despite the enormity of the social protest implicit in their lives as they reject parents, husband, children, house hold, and shelter even cloths. However Sharanas made it clear that there is no difference between men and women. Jedara Dasimayya writes-
  • If they see
Breasts and long hair coming
They call it woman,
If beard and whiskers
They call it man,
But, look the self that hovers
In between
Is neither man
Nor woman,
O, Ramnatha

However the crusading militancy at the heart of Bhakthi makes it double edged bisexual as expressed in poems like the following-

  • Look here dear fellow
I wear these men’s clothes
Only for you
Only for you
Sometimes I am woman
O Kudalasangama Deva
I will make war for you
But I will be your devotee’s bride

Manu says in a notorious passage-‘in childhood woman should be protected by her father, in youth by her husband, in old age her son, verily a woman does not deserve freedom’. It means woman should live always under man. But Sharane or saint like Mahadevi found it difficult and ultimately impossible to settle their traditional marriage with her inherent urge to love the lord. In fact this symbolizes the tension between Bhakti and Dharma. God is their first love. Unlike upper caste male saints they need not undergo conversion. They challenge their parents, by escaping marriage in one of several ways. They attain God by single minded love as Andal does, or win him by extreme forms of worship and sacrifice, and as does Rekavve, who use a piece of her own flesh to complete the Lords garland because she can not find a flower. Or they may obtain their divine lover as a courtesan; this is how Virasangavva manages to win Shiva. Another possibility to become transformed into an unmarriageable old woman, like Avvai, or into a male God’s grace, as Tilakavve does. Finally the woman may simply renounce marriage. Goggavve is so stubborn that she refuses to marry the disguised Shiva; even when he threatens to kill her she does not yield. The woman saint like Akkamahadevi however is not typically bound to a man.  Instead she is dedicated at an early age to god-
  • .I love the handsome one
He has no death
No decay or form
No place or side
No end or birthmarks
I love him O Mother Listen
I love the beautiful one
With no bond nor fear
No clan no land
No landmarks
For his beauty
So my lord,
Is my husband

  • Take these husbands who die
Decay, and feed them
To your kitchens fires

She does not care for the living as she has full faith on what she does-

  • For hunger
There is the town’s rice in the begging bowl
For thirst there are tanks, streams, wells
For sleep there are ruins of temples
For soul’s company I have you O lord

  • Make me go from house to house
With hands stretched for alms
If I beg make them give nothing
If they give make it fall to the ground
If it falls before I pick up
Make a dog to take it

It is very significant that Mahadevi is called ‘Akka’ i.e. elder sister, which separates her from marital roles. Her devotion was no mere mental discipline which enabled her to achieve liberation while performing traditional roles. It was an all-consuming, disruptive emotion which turned the normal world of social roles upside down.

In the next phase the woman saints further defies social norms and taboos. For instance they rebuke men for the sexual advances, and teach them a lesson when they treat them as a sex object. In Tamilnadu, Karaikalammai turns into a skeleton before a lust obsessed male. Akka Mahadevi boldly throws away her clothes and with them the investment in society that the division between male and female that differential clothing signifies, abandoning modesty, she walks naked, covered only by her hair. Some of Akka’s most touching poems are in defense of her nudity. This is the most excellent type of protest I ever heard, perhaps only one in human history.  In this phase, like the untouchable and low caste saint, the woman often defies caste hierarchy. She usually teaches a lesson to an upper caste man, a priest, an elder, or even a senior saint, by some miracle or piece of wisdom. Feminists may have to get inspiration from these types of protests and philosophy.   


It is said that Mahatma Gandhi while presiding over the Indian National congress in Belgaum, Karnataka, remarked that what he was trying to do in India had in a way been done by Basava in the 12th century. Sharanas tried to integrate their radical and revolutionary ideology into a strategy of radical and revolutionary re-structuring of society in Karnataka along lines which challenged the ruling system on every crucial issue.

No comments: