Hinduism Virashaivism
R. Blake Michael
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0152


As ardent devotees of Lord Shiva, the Virashaivas’ very name means “heroic” or “firm” worshippers of Shiva. They always wear about the body a small stone emblem (linga or ishtalinga) signifying the presence of Lord Shiva in the heart of each believer. Indeed, their alternate name, Lingayata, meaning “linga bearer,” derives from this characteristic practice. They also distinguish themselves from Brahminical Hindus by their rejection or renunciation of the caste system, their emphasis on the rights of women, their rejection or diminution of the Sanskrit shruti tradition, and their avoidance of elaborate temple rituals. Paradoxically, they often evince, across all strata, characteristics that Hindus expect of the highest caste or stage in life; for example, strict vegetarianism and burial (as opposed to cremation) of the deceased. At the heart of Virashaiva tradition lie the vachanas—Kannada-language devotional poems. These are attributed to a remarkable gathering of spiritual adepts—called sharanas or “worthy spiritual abodes”—from the 12th and 13th centuries in northern Karnataka. As reputed founder and, from his position as royal treasurer, official patron, Basava led the movement. Other spiritual leaders of the movement include his nephew, Cennabasava; his mystical mentor, Allama Prabhu; the preeminent female devotee, Akkamahadevi (a.k.a. Mahadeviyakka); the intense ascetic, Ekantada Ramayya; and numerous others. Alternatively, some attribute the origin of the movement to an earlier era when five miraculous saints established the tradition long before Basava’s revitalizing reforms. Nonetheless, the vachana poems represent a creative and energetic outpouring of devotion that characterizes Virashaiva development. The vachanas exhibit a certain lilting beauty but intentionally lack the elaborate poetic artifices of Sanskrit mahakavya. The vachanas’ strengths lie, rather, in their intensely devotional sentiments, uncompromising ethical exhortations, and insistence that all true devotees, regardless of social or economic status, are worthy of being called sharanas of Lord Shiva. The Virashaiva tradition has subsequently developed internal complexity and external accommodation. Doctrinal and political disagreements have led to denominational or affiliational divisions, such as the pancharadhya and the virakta monastic lineages. Mitigation of early radical egalitarianism has led to caste-like stratification, including priestly family lineages, and gender ascriptions. The pervasive authority of Brahminical Hinduism has led the movement away from its exclusively vernacular roots to textual expressions such as the Shrikara Bhashya (Vedanta Sutra commentary) and the Lingadharana Chandrika (celebration of wearing the linga), both in Sanskrit. The ardent but simple piety of the early vachanas has been supplemented by a sophisticated philosophical system called shatsthala claiming a place within orthodox Hindu philosophical classification as Shaktivishishtadvaita, or sometimes Shivavishishtadvaita. Today, for ten to fifteen million persons, the simple intensity of the vachanas and the sophisticated complexity of the tradition as a whole combine and continue to provide the moods and motivations by which they faithfully pursue an intense spirituality or simply seek a fruitful and meaningful life.

General Overviews

Virashaivism has long provided interesting material for polemics as well as for theory in the works of Western scholars and observers, ranging from the Abbé Dubois to Max Weber. More systematic and comprehensive descriptions of the movement began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Preeminent among those is an article in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Enthoven 1916). It remains a surprisingly useful overview of the movement’s origins, social structure, relationship to Brahminical Hinduism, etc. A more recent article-length overview is Michael 2011, which touches on many of the same issues but also gives greater attention to the philosophical and literary traditions of the movement. Of book-length overviews, one stands head and shoulders above the others—namely, Ramanujan 1973. This brief work manages to introduce and analyze the poetic form of the vachana (devotional poem), the philosophical system known as shatsthala (six spiritual stages), and the social implications of the Virashaiva movement. All the while it provides the most aesthetically pleasing and ethically motivating translations of selected vachanas available in English. Other useful overviews include the standard for half a century, Nandimath 1979, with its emphases on philosophical and literary aspects of the tradition. Likewise, Thipperudra Swamy 1968 provides an overview of philosophical, mystical, and literary Virashaivism through its vachana tradition. More-recent works are Ishwaran 1983 and Chekki 1997. Both exhibit an effort to balance sociological, ritual, and historical concerns with the literary and philosophical heritage.

  • Chekki, Dan A. Religion and Social System of the Vīraśaiva Community. Contributions to the Study of Anthropology 8. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

    This useful and readable, if somewhat uneven, overview of Virashaivism consists of fifteen essays on aspects of Virashaivism. Those on the social system (chapters 8–15) are more original and insightful than those on religious culture (chapters 1–7). Not to be missed are the two bibliographic essay chapters (16 and 17) and the extensive bibliography.

  • Enthoven, R. E. “Lingayats.” In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 8, Life and Death–Mulla. Edited by James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray, 69–75. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1916.

    Largely ethnographic in nature, this article explores little of Virashaivism’s philosophical and devotional heritage, completely neglecting the piety and poetics of the Kannada vachanas. Yet it presages many issues that fuel modern Virashaiva scholarship—issues of origins, “Hindu” nature of the movement, caste versus caste-less structure, priesthood, temple worship, etc.

  • Ishwaran, Karigoudar. Religion & Society among the Lingayats of South India. New Delhi: Vikas, 1983.

    Striving to advance sociology’s understanding of “great” versus “little traditions,” this work utilizes the Lingayats as a case study of a “populist” tradition. Exploring both the social realities and the devotional, poetical, and philosophical ideals of the movement, it presents a complex and nuanced overview of Lingayat religion and society.

  • Michael, R. Blake. “Liṅgāyats.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3, Society, Religious Specialists, Religious Traditions, Philosophy. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 378–392. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    A thorough but terse overview of Virashaiva poetry, philosophy, piety, and practice, this article summarizes numerous debated issues. It explores the “Hindu” nature of the movement, Lingayata versus Virashaiva nomenclature, origination theories, denominationalism, public and private rituals, metaphysics, thanatology and funerary practice, etc. Several vachana translations somewhat enliven the analysis.

  • Nandimath, S. C. A Handbook of Vīraśaivism, 2d rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

    A reissue of Nandimath’s classic 1942 handbook (Dharwar, India: Literary Committee, L. E. Association). More catalogue than discursive overview, this work contains extensive lists and descriptions of major and minor vachana writers, stages of spiritual progress, sacramental rituals, metaphysical analyses, inscriptional histories, psychological inventories, etc. Though sometimes overwhelming, these help protect against overly simplistic views of the movement’s origins, members, doctrines, and practices.

  • Ramanujan, A. K. Speaking of Śiva. Appendix by William McCormack. Penguin Classics 270. Harmondsworth, UK, and Baltimore: Penguin, 1973.

    This best-of-all introduction to Virashaivism is a remarkable coalescence of the poet’s muse with the scholar’s mind. Focus on select vachanas is offset by essays on poetics and philosophy and (by McCormack) on culture. The result is beautiful testimony to the power of language when it is the language of devotion.

  • Thipperudra Swamy, H. The Vīraśaiva Saints: A Study. Translated by S. M. Angadi. Mysore, India: Rao and Raghavan, 1968.

    Thipperudra Swamy distinguishes Virashaiva tradition from the Shaiva Siddhanta by utilizing the vachana literature to expose the sharanas’ philosophical thought, spiritual discipline, religious practice, and mystical path. His is a careful and clear insider’s overview of the tradition.

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