'The Static Perishes, The Dynamic Perishes Not'

(In memory of Prof. Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi via a journey through Sharana literature’)

Talking about the society of his time, Basveshwar tells his sister Naglambike, “Yes, sister. It seems as though in the society of bad people, it is the worst fellows who will be the leaders. These people seem to think that they can do anything in the name of religion, if they have a little money and a few evil followers. But the time is not far when this money, these priests and their followers, will prove to be the death of this monastery.” (From Prof. Kalburgi’s play The Fall of Kalyan based on English translation of Basvaraja Naicker’s book, p 29)

It appears that on August 30, those who do not hesitate to do anything ‘in the name of religion’ murdered Kalburgi with the evil strength of money and contract killers. Angered by the news on August 30, ‘It is possible he was killed for having condemned idol worship’, a friend called me and said, “If Dayanand Saraswati or Nirala who wrote ‘Bille Sur Bakriha’ were alive today, even they would have been killed by them.”

Prof. Kalburgi's Philosophy

The leitmotif “The static perishes, the dynamic perishes not” is heard repeatedly in Kalburgi’s play based on the life of Basavanna, ‘Kettitu Kalyan” (The Fall of Kalyan). Kalburgi’s philosophy of life, which was influenced by the 12th century revolutionary saint Basaveshwara, echoes in these lines. This play is not only about the revolutionary life and philosophy of Basaveshwara; Kalburgi’s interpretation conveys its contemporary relevance. Though the forces of inertia and status quo have murdered him, his lively and dynamic views cannot be destroyed. Seeing the remarkable similarities in the life and philosophy of Basavanna and his amazing interpreter Kalburgi, a placard at a protest held at the Town Hall of Bengaluru against Kalburgi’s murder said, “Basavanna yesterday, Kalburgi today.”

Basavanna also lived and died for his ideas. The Fall of Kalyan, presents in three parts the three aspects of Basava’s life and philosophy. The move from ritualistic society to true dharma in Bagewadi, from physical nature to spirituality in Kudala –Sangama and from spiritual culture to social culture gets completed in the big city of Kalyana.

The dramatization by Kalburgi of the dynamism of Basava’s life-philosophy in a way proposes that the culmination of the entire Lingayat movement was social revolution.

A Historian Who Took On The Powerful To Uphold Truth

Kalburgi is one of the key people in the world of Kannada literature, who revealed the history of the Karnataka region with greater scientific rigour than many trained historians. This contribution towards scientific history writing by Kannada litterateurs like Kalburgi, Rahamat Tarikere, D. R Nagaraj, M. Chidanandmurthy, N.P. Sankaranarayanan and others, has no parallel in the literature of any other modern Indian language.

In a speech given in June this year, Kalburgi while summing up up his vision of history said, “There are two kinds of researches on historical facts. One ends with the discovery of truth and the other moves beyond to guide the present. While the former is for the sake of academic research, the latter guides the path of present. The need of the hour is to focus on second type of researches that address present-day issues in the light of historical lessons.”

It is this emphasis upon the relationship of history with the current challenges that made him take on the institutions of religious and political power.

As a result of his rationalistic and realistic vision, he also got into conflict with the Lingayat religious establishment. In 1989, he attempted to reveal the historical realities underlying various myths surrounding Basavanna’s life and relationships (of whose life and philosophy he was the best interpreter). This led to his having to bear the anger of the Lingayat community conservatives. He had been threatened with death even then.

In the Marga series of books, which had a compilation of his well-researched writings on Kannada literature, history and culture, two chapters from Marga 1 had to be removed because of intense pressure of the Lingayat community leaders. Distressed by the incident, he had said, “I did it for the safety of my family, but I also committed intellectual suicide the same day”. Whatever he may have said in exasperation at that time, but his fearless journey of the mind continued and Marga 4 of the series also fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006.

Voices of protests had risen across the country even in 1989 against the threats. Expressing protest in a Letter to the Editor of the May 20, 1989 issue of Economic and Political Weekly Bishwaroop Das, Sudhir Chandra, Leslie Lobo, Ghanshyam Shah, Arjun Patel, SS Punlekar, Sonal Shroff, Paramjit Singh, Achin Vinayak, Kiran Desai, Satyakam Joshi, KS Raman and other intellectuals wrote:

“The drift towards political authoritarianism is enough of a threat to academic freedom; combined with sectarian authoritarianism and fundamentalism, it simply makes the intellectual’s vocation in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’ times what it was for Socrates and Galileo. Also, in Kalburgi’s persecution it is impossible to miss the cruel irony that it is the followers of the great radical saint Basava who are organising the witch-hunt. Have they forgotten that it was with ideas that Basava had exposed the pretensions and follies of the orthodoxy of his day? Have they themselves formed today the kind of orthodoxy that Basava had considered it his duty to defy and to reform? Otherwise they would have joined issue with Kalburgi in a spirit of honest enquiry, and not silenced him with the might of organised religion.”

India of 1989 is very different from that of 2015. Now, the campaign to silence intellectuals and rationalists has gone beyond the use of religious might to the use of guns. In the last three years, Narendra Dabholkar, Comrade Pansare and Prof. Kalburgi have been similarly silenced. What kind of history will it be where facts themselves are strangled? What kind of science will it be where logic itself disappears? What kind of Academy will it be where ideas will be publicly killed? These urgent questions face India today as never before, demanding an answer.

In 2012, the Ministry of Culture, Government of Karnataka, set up a panel headed by Prof. Kalburgi to translate the entire body of literature created under the dynasty of Adil Shah from Persian, Arabic and Urdu into Kannada. The conservation of this enormous literature is also necessary as it is a rich source of information on the history of Bijapur. Its literary value is also no less. Prof. Kalburgi was given this responsibility as a linguist, scholar of culture and folk literature and an eminent epigraphist.

Mr Kalburgi considered the rule of Adil Shahi dynasty in the Deccan Plateau as a period of cultural integration and religious tolerance and he declared Ibrahim Adil as the Akbar of South India. In the final days of his life, he was engaged in completing the first phase of the task of translating Gulshan-i-Ibrahim authored by Ferishta (Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah), Tareekh-e-Ali Adil Shah by Kazi Nurullah and 20 other books. MS Asha who is editing the translations by Kalburgi says that his next work was focussing upon the reasons for decline in women’s writing in Kannada between 12th century and 16th century, when the priestly class among the Lingayats had suppressed the oral tradition in literature.

Inheritor of the Rational Sharana Tradition

Tireless research led to the compiling of vachanas of 259 saints in 15 parts of Samagra Vachana Samputa. Prof Kalburgi had edited this project. What is said in the ‘Vachana Sahitya’ of which he was a renowned scholar? Did these saints (Sharanas and Sharanis) not satirise the Vedas and ridicule the rituals? Did they not reject the worship of gods and goddesses? After his murder, the VHP representatives went on television channels to accuse Kalburgi of having shown contempt towards gods and goddess, indirectly justifying the murder in the name of people’s anger. Would these people then also go into the past to take revenge against Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Channa Basavanna, Dohara Kakkaya, Chennaya, Siddharama, Ghanachar and hundreds of Sharanas and Sharanis? Given below are quotations from some of the prestigious literary texts of the Vachana literature. After reading it, think whether anything more can be said against rituals, idolatry and hypocrisy? Does Mr Kalburgi say anything different or more than this?

1. Basaveshwara says, “Worshipping a Ganesha idol made of cow dung with Champa flowers does not make it lose its stink.” (R. Shri Mugali, History of Kannada Literature, New Delhi, 1971, p 93, cited from Bhartiya Sanskriti aur Hindi Pradesh Part-2, Ram Vilas Sharma, Kitabghar, New Delhi, 2009, p 119)

2. Long after the death of Basaveshwara, the 15th century Telugu poet Vemana says, “Can you attain salvation by frequent baths? Well, then all the fishes must be the liberated ones. Can you get salvation by smearing yourselves with ashes? Well, then a donkey wallows in ashes. Can you reach corporeal perfection by making a religion out of vegetarianism? Well, the goat scores easily over you. If the son of a Shudra should necessarily be a Shudra, how can you venerate Vasishta as the best Brahmin? Was he not the son of Urvasi, a Shudra woman, although a celestial courtesan? Again, if the husband of an untouchable woman should also be treated as an untouchable, how can you take pride in Vasishta? Was not his wife, Arundathi, an untouchable? When you perform a vedic sacrifice or visit a pilgrim center, a barber sprinkles water on your head to shave it, and a priest to save your soul. None can say how effective is the water sprinkled by the priest, but you have, in a clean-shaven head, clean proof of the effectiveness of the water sprinkled by the barber.” (R. Shri Mugali, History of Kannada Literature, New Delhi, 1971, p 52, cited from Bhartiya Sanskriti aur Hindi Pradesh Part-2, Ram Vilas Sharma, Kitabghar, New Delhi, 2009, p 122)

3. Poetess Kalavve asks in a stanza, “You call them high-born who eat goat, fish and fowl/ You call them low-born who eat cow, which provides Panchamrita milk for Shiva /How are those high-born, and these low-born?” (‘Barahwin sadi ki Kannada Kavyitriyan aur stri vimarsh’‘, L Kashinath Amblage, page 73)

Kalburgi was the inheritor of the rationalist tradition of these Vachankars and Sharanis. It is amazing that whatever was being said in Sutras and Smritis about Sudras, the oppressed castes and women and the terrible torture prescribed for those marrying inter-caste (long before the Veershaiva movement) do not ‘hurt the sentiments’ of the custodians of Hindu religion and culture, while the same custodians cannot tolerate interpretations of the Vachanas or poems of the Sharana tradition even today.

More than a thousand years ago, Lingayat thought refuted Vedic authority, caste discrimination, the four ashrams of life and the four varnas, polytheism, brahmanism, animal-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, sati, karmic bonds, duality of God and soul, temple worship, untouchability and notions of heaven and hell. The energy and inspiration of this movement is still preserved in the Vachana Sahitya and Sharana Sahitya, which Kalburgi found more relevant for social progress than any scripture or prayers. The creators of the Sharana literature comprising prose-poems, considered organised religion to be pro-establishment power centres. According to them, these were stagnant organisations promising people security and an assured future, while for the Sharanas, religion was dynamic, spontaneous and free from salvation ‘bargains.’ According to Allama Prabhu,

Feed the poor

tell the truth

make water-places

for the thirsty

and build tanks for a town -

you may then go to heaven

after death, but you’ll get nowhere

near the truth of Our Lord.

And the man who knows Our Lord,

he gets no results.

[tr. AK Ramanujan]

Unfortunately, with the passage of time, as happens with many radical religious movements, many things that had been refuted by Basaveshwara got incorporated in Veershaivaism. Worship at the temple resumed, about which Basava had said:

The rich will make temples for Siva
What shall I, a poor man, do?

My legs are pillars, the body the shrine,

the head a cupola of gold.


O lord of the meeting rivers,

things standing shall fall,

but the moving ever shall stay.

[tr. AK Ramanujan]

Rituals came back, the practice of students giving gifts to gurus resumed, social differences widened and under the Jangama hierarchy the teacher-pupil guru-shishya relationship became institutionalised in a highly individualised form. The Lingayat movement under which Basavanna presided over the marriage of a Brahmin woman to a young man who was a cobbler because they were both Lingayats, ceased to be a movement and went on to become a caste in itself.

The institutionalisation of the Lingayat thought and movement as a religion began long back in the medieval period, but the contemporary competitive politics of Indian democracy converted castes into votes, as a result of which social groups based on a specific ideology began to define themselves as castes on the basis of numerical strength. The caste consolidation of the Lingayat movement is hence a modern phenomenon.

Kalburgi continued to resist the assimilation of the Veerashaiva ideology within a political and religious establishment that was based on inequality and exploitation. According to him there was no place for individual striving or salvation or individual advancement in Veershaiva thought, instead its sole aim was social liberation. His position on this matter led to confrontations with the Jangama sect and its five Peeths. In the play, The Fall of Kalyan, there is a passage in which Basava says, “Universal experience is nothing but socialization of spiritual experience. Every individual should partake of the universal experience…it is, therefore, not possible for people until and unless they destroy the old order of society and create the new.” [Fall of Kalyan, p.33].

To focus upon the concept of social liberation, Kalburgi differentiated the 12th century Sharan movement from the Bhakti movement. In a speech in June this year (previously cited), he said, “The Bhakti movement emphasised individual salvation and deification of an individual. The Sharana movement, however, focused on social transformation. While the former got confined to individual wellness, the latter strived for social progress.”

It is possible that his statement may sound strange to some of us, because we from the Hindi-Urdu areas are familiar with the social views of Kabir. But Basaveshwara was born two centuries before Kabir, and the entire poetic literature of the Sharnas and Sharanis was imbued with the idea of ​​social revolution. Until we familiarise ourselves with this entire body of literature we will not be able to fully understand its differences and similarities with the Bhakti movement. Most of this literature based on the Vachanas was composed by saints who were called untouchable, Shudra etc. and by women saints, while the founder Basavanna himself was born in a Brahmin household.

Kalburgi had initiated a struggle against the traditional religious powers and capitalist state power which had, for its own benefit, separated the Veerashaiva movement from its core consciousness rooted in social revolution and the rationalist tradition. A colleague of his in this struggle, well-known writer and journalist Linganna Satyampete was murdered about three months ago in Gulbarga and his body thrown into a gutter. On June 12th last year, leaders of the Sangh Parivar RS Muthalik, SL Kulkarni, Pramod Katti, Mukund Kulkarni, Anil Poddar had given statements in Bengaluru demanding action against the statements made by Kalburgi on idol worship which they claimed had hurt Hindu sentiments. Recently Kalburgi had said that Lingayats were not part of Hinduism, further angering the RSS.

The outrage was not simply over the interpretation of faith and knowledge, but was political in nature as in Karnataka the biggest base of BJP apart from Brahmins include the Lingayats. The BJP chief minister sworn in 2004, Yeddyurappa, also comes from the Lingayat community. However Kalburgi had not given the statement for any immediate political reason. These were his views based on historical and rationalist considerations. In the first five parts of the Samagra Vachana Samputa, there are a number of incisive verses composed by the Sharanas and Sharanis, denouncing the Vedas and even Vedanta. Dr NG Mahadevappa, differentiates Veerashaiva thought from Hindu religion because of negation of Vedic authority, polytheism, Vedic rituals, Brahmin priests, the caste system, asceticism, pilgrimage, temple worship etc (See http://lingayatreligion.com/Lingayat/Lingayatism_An_Independent_Religion.htm). Only because of the concept of one Brahm and the principle of unity of all life, many people place Veershaiva within the Advaita thought of Vedanta. But there is no reason to believe that Advaita had only one source or tradition. According to Mahadevappa, “There is a general misconception that Lingayatism is a sub-sect of Shaivism, which is itself a sect of Hinduism and that Lingayats are Shudras. But the truth based on textual evidence and reasoning is that Lingayatism is not a sect or sub-sect of Hinduism, but an independent religion.”

The reality is that in India, there have been a number of reform movements within Hinduism and outside it. The Bhakti movement of the medieval period, the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj movement of the modern era are examples of the movements within the religion. But several times reformers came to the conclusion that rigidities were far too entrenched and there was no scope for reform from within. This was not only about ethics but also at the level of philosophy and those outside the Hindu mainstream include Charvaka, Lokayata, Buddhist, Jain and other movements. Kalburgi and Mahadevappa place Lingayats in the same category. In the modern era, the Periyar and Ambedkarite Movement also come in this category. This is a very big tradition which is Indian even as it is outside the Hindu mainstream.

Today after the martyrdom of Kalburgi, to give lasting life to his inspiration, the cultural and social struggles for a new kind of Indian identity are just as important as the struggles for political freedom and economic equality. Today when we see murders of young couples for having loved or married outside caste and religion, it reminds us of the sutras of Gautama, Vashishta and Manu (see Dharmshastra ka itihas, P.V Kane) prescribing terrible punishments and death for those men and women who married outside their caste. Recall that Basaveshwara got a Brahmin woman married to a young shoemaker and went on to bear the consequences of his act. Which way should the new India go?

A Symbol of Original Thinking in the Mother Tongue

Prof Kalburgi was one of the leading figures of the 1980s Kannada language movement (Gokak agitation). Kannada actor Rajkumar was its leader and there were hardly any leading Kannada writers who was not part of this movement. Kalburgi was among the first Satyagrahis.

He wrote 103 books and proved that even today it is possible to touch the highest peaks of research and thought with works in the mother tongue. His work is hardly available in English, and even translations are few. Unlike his many illustrious contemporary Kannada writers, such as AK Ramanujan, he did not write both in the mother tongue and English. While creative literature is often written in the mother tongue, scholarly work is done mostly in international languages like English, particularly in India and especially among top scholars. Kalburgi however refrained from this. He was a strong advocate of teaching in the mother tongue and recently he had demanded that the Karnataka government must ask the central government to clarify its language policy.

The killing of Prof Kalburgi, Comrade Govind Pansare, and Narendra Dabholkar and free thinkers and rationalists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, indicate that in spite of being in power, it is becoming increasingly difficult for communal, patriarchal, capitalist and casteist forces to deal with true and rational ideas merely through law, politics and ideology. Therefore, they have fallen back on individual killings.

It is our responsibility to popularise, through creative efforts among people, the principles ideals and thoughts of these vanguards of a new India, which are essential for a people’s awakening for which they dedicated their lives and which is the only hope for India’s future.

(Translated from Hindi by Radhika)

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