Why are India’s Lingayats vying for an identity separate from Hinduism?

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India’s centuries-old caste system has been drawn into another debate off late. This time it is about Lingayats – a prominent and politically powerful community – which is seeking an identity separate from Hinduism, the country’s biggest and most prominent religion.

With elections approaching in Karnataka - a state where Lingayats are in large numbers - thousands of members of the community have poured onto the streets to renew their demand for a separate identity.

Lingayats demand that they should be recognized as an independent religion. This demand is likely to add another layer to this critical electoral battle, which is likely to shift balance decisively in the favor of the ruling dispensation in India.

Who are Lingayats?

Lingayats are followers of Basaveshwara, a social reformer, philosopher and poet who lived in the 12th century. Members of the Lingayat community argue that the premise of Basaveshwara’s rebellion was rooted in opposition to Hinduism.

It is believed that Basaveshwara opposed Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, Agamas, Shastras, Puranas and even Vedic religious practices. Lingayats today have sizeable presence in at least five states across India.

According to reports, such demands have been in existence since the late 19th century. The Lingayat movement has a social base, and it is a sect which seeks to transcend caste, a deep caste basis.

Distinguishing factors

Lingayats have held several rallies in recent months to press for their demand. They have expressed anger against those who call Lingayats as an integral part of Hinduism and also those who argued Lingayat and the Veerashaiva sect were one and the same.

They emphasize that Lingayats had neither been part of the Hindu religion nor were a synonym for the Veerashaiva sect. According to them, there are two main religious streams in Hinduism — Shaivas and Vaishnavas.

Veerashaiva is one among the seven sects of Shaivas. Both Shaivas and Vaishnavas uphold Vedas, Agamas, Shastras and Puranas and follow the Vedic religious practices. However, Lingayat founder Basaveshwara vehemently opposed them.

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