OverView of Veerashaivism and the Social relevance of Vachanas in the modern world

Excerpts from guest lecture presented by Dr.G.S.S Prasad at the Veerashaiva Samaj of UK (VSUK) London, February 2012

Born into a Veerashaiva family, I was introduced to vachanas at a very young age and I was taught some of the vachanas which I used to recite as a daily ritual being oblivious to the meaning. It is only in my school days that I was able to grasp the meaning of vachanas which were included in the Kannada curriculum. My Interest in vachanas was kindled further through the great musicians who have popularised Vachanas and taken them to the common man. There is a lot to learn from this ocean of Basava Literature.

Being in the Medical field, working as a consultant in the National Health Service UK and doing a full time job as a Specialist, I acknowledge my limitations in the depth of my knowledge of veerashaivism and vachanas but I have accepted your invitation and I see this as my humble contribution to the service of veerashaivism. I am no literary scholar and I am sure there are many in the audience likely to be more knowledgeable in this field. I have referenced and accessed many of the documents on Veerashaivism on the web and have included some of the information here.

Let me begin my talk with this vachana which teaches about being modest. Following the vachana is my English translation of the same.

ಏನಗಿಂತ ಕಿರಿಯರಿಲ್ಲ ಶಿವಭಕ್ತರಿಗಿಂತ ಹಿರಿಯರಿಲ್ಲ
ನಿಮ್ಮ ಪಾದಸಾಕ್ಷಿ ಎನ್ನ ಮನ ಸಾಕ್ಷಿ
ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮ ದೇವ ಎನಗಿದೆ ದಿಬ್ಯ

Here I stand humbled
None yet inferior
than thyself
None yet superior
than the learned cardinals
In the Sharana order
True to my conscience
Here I stand to affirm
Touching thy holy feet
dear oh lord who sits at
The confluence of rivers
Realization of where I stand
In this divine hierarchy
Shall be my enlightenment

I have endeavoured to translate the Vachanas into English to reach our second generation Veerashaivas. All the translations in this lecture are from my collections. Translating poetry whether it is a modern verse or the holy vachanas is indeed a daunting task. Verbatim translation (which is word to word) doesn’t make it an effective translation. I would like to quote one of Dr GSS poems which reads….

ಬರಿ ಪದಕೆ ಪದ ಜೊತೆಗಿದ್ದ ಮಾತ್ರಕೆ ಪದ್ಯವಾದಿತು ಹೇಗೆ?

Mere words side by side don’t make a poem

I believe it is important to get the gist, emotion and feelings right. I have also used old Northern England and Biblical English to give it an antique effect. I have the conviction that such a style may cater to the wider public who may be alien to veerashaivism and Indian culture. I also strongly believe in reinforcing the poetry format (Kavya Swaroopa) and at the same time conscious about keeping the ideas and concepts as close to the original Vachana. I acknowledge that there are several eminent writers who have translated vachan into English. Notable one is; “Speaking of Shiva” by AK Ramanujam of Illinois University, USA.

I would like to cover brief historical perspective, evolution of veerashaivism and then look at the social relevance of vachanas in the present era.

Veerashaivism came into existence during the 12th Century. During this period there was a decline in Shaivism followed by a raise in Jainism and Veerashaivism Before 12 century Shaivism had 5 great prophets known as Panchacharyas; Revanaradhya, Panditharadhya, Marularadhya, Ekoramaradhya and Vishwaradhya who established the five major veerashaiva centres in India and have propagated the Veerashaiva philosophy. Veerashaivism was a movement founded and nurtured by Basavanna during the latter half of 12th century. During the 13th & 14th century kannnda poets like Harihara, Raghavanka have contributed to verashaiva literature. In the 15th century the Vijaya nagara emperor Immadi Devaraya played a significant role in promoting Veerashaivism. Over the next 500 years until now the veerashaivism has been propagated by many Shiva Sharans who are the members of the religious order.

Speaking of Basavanna the man himself; the story goes he was a reincarnation of lord Shiva, also known in Kannada “Avathara”. Lord Shiva delegated his trusted companion “Basava” the bullock who transports Shiva to go to earth in the Avathara to restore peace and understanding when the morality of the people was at the lowest ebb and religion was threatened.

Basavanna was born in Basavana Bagevadi which we know today as Bijapur district. It is rather impertinent to probe into what caste he was born. He served as prime minister to King Bijjala and in charge of his treasury and was a well trusted by the king. At the height of his fame while serving under Bijjala, Basavanna and his followers had to face stiff opposition and there were clashes with the traditionalists and there was blood bath. Basavanna could not bear to see the violence and he returned to Sangamma where he preached for a while and became one with the koodala sangamma to end his reincarnation.

Basavanna was the founder of the veerashaiva movement and the caste or religion whatever people wish to identify with, bringing a new dimension and perspective to Shaivism. It may be worth noting the background in which this social reformation has taken place.

By the 12th century great saints like Buddha and Shankaracharya had come and gone. There was an intellectual and spiritual void. Adi Shankar’s teachings were in Sanskrit and not accessible to common people. There was appalling ignorance, superstition was rife and there was exploitation of the commoners by the priest class in the name of religion and God. Even today in certain parts of India, innocent people still are being cheated by self-proclaimed sadhus and Babas. Basavanna challenged the very hierarchical Caste system and believed in social justice and highlighted the concept that work is worship. He encouraged people from all section of the society i.e. people from both high and low castes to come together. He removed the artificial barriers against women. Women were, probably for the first time in history, given the privilege to worship and were welcome in the “Anubhava Mantapa” and allowed to contribute to the scholarly pursuits.

One of the monumental Works that Basavanna did was establishing the “Anubhava Mantapa” along with his nephew Allamaprabhu and Channabasavanna. Anubhava Mantapa as the name suggests was an academy of people with rich experience who gathered under one roof. Here people discussed religious matters and the deliberations ranged from religious to social topics. This was indeed the birth place of vachanas.

Some of the key features preached by Basavanna were one of non-violence, non-exploitation and non-acceptance of Gifts (Dakshine). Interestingly some of these principles are the same taught by Buddhism, Jainism and later on strongly upheld by Mahatma Gandhi.

Basavanna taught dignity of labour giving it a religious significance and said “Kayakave Kailasa” implying work is worship. He was the first to preach that poverty is not a spiritual sin but a social evil which is true because people easily believe in Karma or fate and bad luck and accept certain misfortune rather than trying to find a way out. He said that people should earn bread by their sweat and condemned beggary even if it was for a religious reason and saw that as a curse. It is worth recollecting that such social values upheld 800 years ago are still highly relevant even today.

Veerashaivism was in fact was a very rebellious concept in those days and was successful in moving away from the mainstream religious practices. It may be worth noting that Veerashaivism is not based on the preaching’s of Veda, Puranas and Bhagavadgeetha. Veerashaivism rejects Homa, Yagna or sacrifice which are the integral main stream Hindu rituals. Veershaivism is strictly monotheistic which stem from the Greek word monos meaning one and theos meaning god. It is founded upon the idea that there is but only one all-powerful god. This does not mean that Veerashaivism calls for rejecting or disrespecting other religions. The other monotheistic religions are Christianity and Islam. The way Veerashaivas worship is a very personal affair which is in the form of worshipping the “Ishttalinga” which is hung by a thread around the neck, negating the need to go to temple, bypassing the priest and other rituals. Veerashaivism does not believe in the 4 fold caste system of Brahmins, Ksahtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras which is known as Varna Dharma dividing people based on one’s occupation. Such divisions were a social evil created by mainstream Hindus, which segregate people and create a hierarchical society. Veerashaivism was one for integrating people from all aspects of the society providing equal opportunity, social justice and bestowed the privileges to worship thus making the religious practice Worshipping, very accessible and personal act.

Moving onto vachanas;

Vachanas are basically the rich experience of Basavanna which is full of socio-religious code of conduct put into eloquent poetic format. It has led to subsequent literary renaissance. Vachanas have been the foundation of Kannada Literature, which has paved way for this unique style of delivering the worldly messages in 4 or 5 line short poetry format ending with the name of “Koodala Sangama”, which were subsequently taken up by Akka Mahadevi ending her poems with the name “Chenna Mallikarjuna” and many years later by purandara dasa and others the using choice of their god their signature

The beauty of Vachanas lies not only in its content but also in the simplicity of the language which can be easily understood by the common people. One must remember that until then all the religious teachings were in Sanskrit and inaccessible to the common Illiterate man. Vachanas cover social, religious and Bhakti themes while in comparison the other saintly people mainly covered the Bhakti rasa with indirect reference to the social moral code of conduct. It is said that “Sharanas throughout the century have imparted the teaching through vachanas with vigour of an ascetic, the love of mother, the sympathy of a friend, the zeal of a reformer and the strength of a saint” which is why it has stood the test of the time and of course being highly relevant through the centuries and even today.

Let us look at some of the Vachanas with reference to the social relevance keeping aside the religious and Bhakthi context.

Mercy or Kindness is a very fundamental and basic virtue of any religion. This is explained in the following Vachana:

ದಯವಿಲ್ಲದ ಧರ್ಮ ಅದಾವುದಯ್ಯ
ದಯವೇ ಬೇಕು ಸಕಲ ಪ್ರಾಣಿಗಳಿಗೆಲ್ಲ
ದಯವೇ ಧರ್ಮದ ಮೂಲವಯ್ಯ
ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಯ್ಯ ನಂತಲ್ಲದೊಲ್ಲನಯ್ಯ

A religion is no religion
that does not preach kindness.
For kindness is a basic virtue
of all the living.
Mercy is the essence of all religion
For the ones without;
would be rejected by my lord,
who sits at the confluence of Rivers.

Let us analyse this further and look at what other religions think about this; there is so much reference to kindness and mercy in Christianity and all of us are familiar with this saying in the gospel. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek turn the other to him” To quote from the chronicle 16:34 in the bible “O give thanks unto the lord; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever” These teachings tell us so much about self-restraint and how not to lose one’s patience. In the holy Quran the prophet has said “whoever is unkind to others Allah is not kind towards him” and further “unfortunate is the person who is devoid of feeling of mercy and kindness”

Mahatma Gandhi had conviction about the power of non-violence. The testimony for its power is best exemplified by the way Indians got rid of the mighty British Empire from India. Let us remind ourselves that Basavanna upheld this non-violence 800 years ago, which is evident in this Vachana…..

ಕಳಬೇಡ ಕೊಲಬೇಡ ಹುಸಿಯ ನುಡಿಯಲು ಬೇಡ
ಮುನಿಯ ಬೇಡ ಅನ್ಯರಿಗೆ ಅಸಹ್ಯ ಪಡಬೇಡ
ತನ್ನ ಬಣ್ಣಿಸಬೇಡ ಇದಿರ ಹಳಿಯಲು ಬೇಡ
ಇದೆ ಅಂತರಂಗ ಶುದ್ಧಿ ಇದೆ ಬಹಿರಂಗ ಶುದ್ಧಿ
ಇದೆ ನಮ್ಮ ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮ ದೇವ ನೋಲಿಸುವ ಪರಿ

Thou shall not steal, cause no bodily harm
Nor ever lie
Thou shall not remain vexed nor discriminate
Thou shall neither
glorify thy own persona nor disgrace others
Such wisdom I believe
shall cleanse thou body and soul
and please thy lord
Who sits at the confluence of Rivers.

Basavanna believes that gods did not hide somewhere far away in another planet being inaccessible, but he sees god within us and feels he is very much around us here in this mortal world. He also casts his doubt about the concept of heaven and hell. He feels that one doesn’t have to go to a sacred place like Varanasi the holy shrine of Shiva and that any place where there is a service to god is a holy shrine. And even takes this a step further to relate one’s sincere work as worship bringing in the ethics of work culture. Basavanna feels that one should be truthful and a law abiding decent citizen for such values are heavenly. I would like to recollect a saying that was inscribed at my medical school which is vivid in my memories and is about how saintly it is to serve the man kind and it reads “The Greatest temple on earth is built where man works hardest for his mankind” echoing what Basavanna has said centuries ago. Here is the Vachana about work is worship.

ದೇವಲೋಕ ಮರ್ತ್ಯಲೋಕವೆಂಬುದು ಬೇರೆ ಮತ್ತೆ ಉಂಟೆ
ಈ ಲೋಕದೊಳಗೆ ಮತ್ತೆ ಅನಂತ ಲೋಕ: ಶಿವಲೋಕ ಶಿವಾಚಾರ್ಯವೈಯಾ
ಭಕ್ತ ನಿರ್ದತಾಣವೇ ದೇವಲೋಕ, ಭಕ್ತ ನಂಗಳವೇ ವಾರಣಾಸಿ
ಕಾಯಕವೇ ಕೈಲಾಸ! ಇದು ಸತ್ಯ ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವ
ಸತ್ಯ ನುಡಿವುದೇ ದೇವಲೋಕ ಮಿಥ್ಯವ ನುಡಿವುದೇ ಮರ್ತ್ಯಲೋಕ!
ಆಚಾರವೇ ಸ್ವರ್ಗ ಅನಾಚಾರವೇ ನರಕ
ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವಾ, ನೀವೇ ಪ್ರಮಾಣು

Could there be another world out there
where the gods and angels reside?
isn’t it here with in us,
in this mortal world?
Any mind in divine indulgence
is the gods kingdom
Where there is a divine service
there is a holy shrine
Any work is worship
Isn’t this true my lord
who sits at the confluence of Rivers
To be truthful is divinity
To falsify is human
obedience is heavenly
criminality is hell
so do I testify and you the witness
Oh Holy Father
who sits at the confluence of Rivers

I would like to quote this poem by GSS, which I suppose was inspired by Basavanna’s concept that god is ubiquitous and the poet’s concept goes even a step further that he lives in the sweat and tears of poor people, he is writhing in the dust and hungry like others however grand and spectacular he appears and it is also about the perception that he is with us during our difficult times.

ಉಡುಗಣ ವೇಷ್ಟಿತ ಚಂದ್ರಸುಶೋಭಿತ
ದಿವ್ಯಾಂಬರ ಸಂಚಾರಿ
ಕಣ್ಣ ನೀರಿನಲಿ ಮಣ್ಣ ಧೂಳಿನಲಿ
ಹೊರಳುತ್ತಿರುವರ ಸಹಚಾರಿ
ಬಾಂದಳ ಚುಂಬಿತ ಶುಭ್ರ ಹಿಮಾವೃತ
ತುಂಗ ಶೃಂಗದಲಿ ಗೃಹವಾಸಿ
ದೀನ ಅನಾಥರ ದುಃಖಿದರಿದ್ರರ
ಮುರುಕು ಗುಡಿಸಿಲಲಿ ಉಪವಾಸಿ!

Basavanna advises that one should mind their own business and put their house in order before meddling others’ affairs. He says not to embark on task like correcting the world which is so lopsided. He feels there is nothing much to gain by shedding tears for neighbours misery. This is very pertinent in our world today where some of us try to patronise others, political parties, institutions interfere with each other’s business and at international level we see some ‘Big brother’ countries trying to police others all over the world let alone their neighbours. And the vachana reads…..

ಲೋಕದ ಡೊಂಕ ನೀವೇಕೆ ತಿದ್ದುವಿರಿ
ನಿಮ್ಮ ನಿಮ್ಮ ತನುವ ಸಂತೈಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳಿ
ನಿಮ್ಮ ನಿಮ್ಮ ಮನವ ಸಂತೈಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳಿ
ನೆರಮನೆಯ ದುಃಖಕ್ಕೆ ಅಳುವವರ ಮೆಚ್ಚ

Why tinker the lopsided mortal world
why not mend thy own soul
and gratify thy mind
Why brood over the neighbour’s misery
For such sympathy hold
no value for my lord
who sits at the confluence of Rivers.

The way we communicate with each other is an art. Working in the NHS we get lots of tips and Training about how to talk to others, how to be pleasant and be very effective in our communication skills. In the modern day the key for any success lies in effective communication. Well… look at what Basavanna had to say 900 years ago;

ನುಡಿದರೆ ಮುತ್ತಿನ ಹಾರದಂತಿರಬೇಕು
ನುಡಿದರೆ ಮಾಣಿಕ್ಯದ ದೀಪ್ತಿ ಯಂತಿರಬೇಕು
ನುಡಿದರೆ ಸ್ಫಟಿಕದ ಸಲಾಕೆಯಂತಿರಬೇಕು
ನುಡಿದರೆ ಲಿಂಗ ಮೆಚ್ಚಿ 'ಅಹುದಹುದೆನಬೇಕು'
ನುಡಿಒಳಗಾಗಿ ನಡೆಯದಿದ್ದರೆ
ಕೂಡಲಸಂಗಮದೇವ ಎಂತು ಒಲಿಯುವನಯ್ಯ

When you speak;
Your words
shall be a string of beautiful pearls
Your words
shall be a shining lamp of precious gems
Your words
shall be sharp as a sapphire spear
Your words
shall get the angels to concede
But if thou shall not abide by thy words
displeased will be thy lord
who sits at the confluence of Rivers
shall not grant thee, the grace thy seek

Basavanna is emphasising that one should keep to his commitment and abide by words. This reminds of a famous line in Hindi “pran jaye per vachana na jaye” implying you may lose your life but not your word.

Desire is one of the basic aspirations of all human beings in this materialistic world. Our minds are preoccupied with amassing wealth, buying or possessing valuable jewels, clothes, gadgets and also indulgence of our senses and pleasures. We have seen not long ago the riots on the streets of London where there was senseless looting and day light robbery by young people who were very greedy.

Basavanna has cautioned that a mind full of desires is no place for Koodala Sangama . He also says that one has to be a very genuine person, for a soul full of pretence is no place for the Lord. He compares this to the state of affairs in the house where there is no Master and where there is nothing but dust and clutter. And this comes across nicely in this Vachana;

ಮನೆಯೊಳಗೆ ಮನೆ ಒಡೆಯ ಇದ್ದಾನೋ ಇಲ್ಲವೊ?
ಹೊಸ್ತಿಲಲ್ಲಿ ಹುಲ್ಲು ತುಂಬಿ ಮನೆಯೊಳಗೆ ರಜ ತುಂಬಿ
ಮನೆಯೊಳಗೆ ಮನೆ ಒಡೆಯ ಇದ್ದಾನೋ ಇಲ್ಲವೊ?
ತನುವಿನೊಳಗೆ ಹುಸಿ ತುಂಬಿ ಮನದೊಳಗೆ ವಿಷಯ ತುಂಬಿ
ಮನೆಯೊಳಗೆ ಮನೆ ಒಡೆಯನಿಲ್ಲಾ

Is there a master in the house?
A house with no master
is dusty and unkempt
the forecourt, rife with weeds
Is there a master in the house?
A soul full of pretence
and a mind full of desires
is no place for my master
who sits at the confluence of Rivers

Coming back to the topic of greed and possession, we see that 300 years after Basavanna, Purandara dasa, another great son of Karnataka, a merchant who renounced his worldly finite assets in pursuit of the infinite divine wealth, said in his poems

ಇಷ್ಟು ದೊರಕಿದರೆ ಮತ್ತಿಷ್ಟು ಬೇಕೆಂಬಾಸೆ
ಅಷ್ಟು ದೊರಕಿದರೆ ಮತ್ತಿಷ್ಟರಾಸೆ
ಕಷ್ಟ ಬೇಡೆಂಬಾಸೆ ಕಡುಸುಖವ ಕಾಂಬಾಸೆ
ನಷ್ಟ ಜೀವನದಾಸೆ ಪುರಂದರವಿಠಲ

Finally putting it together;

Here he mocks at the people’s greed, who seek comfort without having to work and wonders how we try and desperately nurture this mortal body. This I feel is very pertinent now amidst us here in England we see people who live eternally on social benefits, seek benefits by dubious means and abuse the system.

There are more than 1000 vachanas which are words of wisdom by Basavanna upholding basic human values of mercy, kindness, compassion, and human dignity. Basavanna condemns exploitation, discrimination and violence. He fiercely argued for social justice, equal opportunities and for the dignity of labour and he was responsible for the social revolution and reformation. The vachanas have been interpreted by different scholars and at different time periods. Whichever way it is interpreted the core values are highly relevant even today and I am sure will be relevant for many years to come.

Just before I conclude I would like to pause for a moment and see what is happening around us in the world today; many wars are still being fought in the name of religion. We are increasingly familiar with words like “Crusade” and “Jihad”. Basavanna has given us this pearl of Wisdom….. ‘Devanobba Nama halavu’ which implies - There is only one god but bears different names.

Let me finish this talk with a poem by an unknown poet who must be a great soul who reiterated what Basavanna said centuries ago and this Hindi poem was adored by Mahatma Gandhi who sang this at his daily prayer:

ರಘುಪತಿ ರಾಘವ ರಾಜಾರಾಂ
ಪತಿತ ಪಾವನ ಸೀತಾರಾಂ
ಈಶ್ವರ ಅಲ್ಲಾ ತೇರೆನಾಮ್
ಸಬಕೋ ಸನ್ಮತಿ ದೇಭಗವಾನ್

Which translates as; Oh lord the only one but called by different name grant thy children the wisdom and the prudence they need.

If people only understood the meaning of these words our world today would be a much safer and better place to live! *