Basava and Womanhood


Much has been said and written on Basava and his valuable services to mankind. One, among his manifold contributions towards the rejuvenation of the contemporary tradition-ridden society, was his recognition of woman’s individuality and her rights. There is no denying the fact that the position of woman in any society is a significant pointer to the level of culture of that society. In a progressive society as woman’s position improves, her subjection diminishes. The ideal society envisaged by Basava and the Sharanas in the 12th century was a significant step towards the emancipation of women, And we shall he in a better position to estimate their epoch-making contribution if we take a review of the status of women in the earlier period.

There is good evidence to believe that in the early Vedic age’s women enjoyed equal rights with men. The wife and husband were regarded equal in every respect and both took equal part in all duties religious and social.[1] Women also took part in the intellectual and spiritual life of the community. Some of the hymns of the Rigveda were composed by women. Višvavara, Apalã, Lopamudra, Ghosa, Indräni and Sachi are mentioned among others as composers of hymns. That woman continued to enjoy freedom and respect even in ages following the Vedic period can be inferred from references in Dharma Šhãstras. But the period is very brief. The dark period of subjugation of women seems to have begun soon thereafter. Manu has something good to say about women. Where women are honoured, he ordains, there the Gods arc pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards[2]. But the deprecatory remark which he heaps on them almost outweighs the good ones. He regards them as morally low creatures. “It is the nature of the woman to seduce man in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.”[3] Such verses abound; and it is needless to multiply them. Manu lays down that a woman is never fit for independence. Her father protects her in childhood, her husband in youth, and her sons in her old age[4]. They are not entitled to offer prayers, to practise penances, to undertake pilgrimages, to recite Vedic Mantras and to worship Gods! As we shall be noting later, among the many old and evil practices of Hinduism against which Basava revolted was this criminal treatment of woman - the refusal to grant her the status of a human being. Such a religion could not last long. Buddhism and Jainism marked a revolt against the class distinctions preached by the followers of decadent Brahmanism. Her salvation appeared to be near at hand, yet not complete.

Buddhism recognised the individuality and independence of women and their title to salvation in their own right whether married or single. This right was best recognised in the case of the nuns who could work out their Karma, independent of others, just as monks. We have the Theris or lady elders, who composed religious hymns. The Thëri Gãtha (Songs of the Thëris) includes compositions by seventy-three nuns. However, it is interesting to note in this context that the Buddha himself did not seem to have had a very high opinion of woman. Ananda, wishing to know how the monks were to conduct themselves before women, asked the Buddha’s advice. “Do not look at womankind”, replied the Master. “But if we see women, what are we to do?” pursued Ananda. “Abstain from speaking to them”, ordered the Sire. “But if they speak to us, what are we to do?” pressed Ananda. “Keep wide awake,” was the stern warning of the Buddha! We may also note here that the Buddha had originally turned down the proposal to found an order of nuns. He gave his consent only when pressed by Ananda!

Jainism did admit women to the religious order of nuns. But there were some differences of opinion between the Digambaras and Svetãmbaras, regarding their title to liberation. The former hold the view that they cannot become perfect without getting reborn as men; while the latter maintain that they can, in their own right. The Jains maintain that in the monastic life, the nun is inferior to the monk!

In the eighth-ninth century of the Christian era a three-cornered fight among the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Jams ensued. Brahmanism emerged victorious; and Jainism escaped the fate of Buddhism by making many concessions to Brahmanism.

The twelfth century society in which Basava was born was the same as the traditional post-Vedic society ridden with blind beliefs and faiths. It was a society where women were treated as slaves and chattels. And it was left to Basava to redeem women from the traditional fetters and give them an honourable existence. Basava was the main force behind the founding of Anubhava Mantapa, the forum for religious discussion and experience. It was nurtured mainly by him with the aid of Allama Prabhu and Chennabasava. So, a closer study of the functioning of the Mantapa is bound to give us a more definitive idea of Basava’s attitude towards womanhood. The Mantapa had a good number of women as its members. By introducing the ceremony of ‘Linga Dikshã’ Lingayatism threw open its doors to men and women alike, of all castes and creeds. Women were regarded as in no way inferior to men in spiritual matters. Consequently the contributions in religious experience from women were not only heartily welcomed but also highly appreciated and encouraged. The discussion that took place between Akka Mahãdëvi and Allama Prabhu is one of the most glorious chapters in the Shunya Sampãdane.

There are seven[5] vachanas where Basava makes reference to how woman is to be looked upon. In all these vachanas the main Point which Basava drives home to his followers is that to desire another man’s wife is a sin; and to look upon a woman not otherwise as sister or mother is a deadlier sin. Thus, he lays down a code of conduct for his followers. One cannot collect a good number of his vachanas and say that this collection is as good as a treatise of Basava in the cause of woman’s emancipation. Such a theoretical treatise is unthinkable of Basava. He was, more than anything else, a mystic with unrivalled practical knowledge of the world. He thought that practice was better than either pleading or Preaching. We get evidence of his broad view of woman in his treatment of his wife, Nilambike and a good number of women-saints who participated in the religious discussions at Anubhava Mantapa. Some of these women-saints were married and some single. Basava, who was himself happily married never laid down that a wife could be an obstacle to high spiritual attainment. Nilambike, it appears, enjoyed a good deal of freedom. They were certainly close followers of husband, always by his side, helping him in the discharge of his duties — political and religious. At the same time, they participated in the discussions of the Anubhava Mantapa on their own and wrote their own vachanas. His sister, Nãgalãmbike, it is believed, was also closely associated with him. An event in the last days of Basava throws a good deal of light on the stature of their own they had attained under his influence. After being disillusioned about the state of affairs in Kalyana, Basava decides to leave Kalyana for good. He departed for Sañgama, where he would become one with Liñga. His wife at Kalyãna. Perhaps, he did not consider it proper on his part to have left them behind. He therefore sends Hadapada Appanna to bring her to Sañgama. Nilambike, on receiving the message, asks herself why Basava asked her to go to Sañgama. Could she not seek her salvation in Kalyãna itself?[6] Liñga is there, but Liñga is here, too. And Basava is always in her thoughts. On second thoughts, she starts off, but never to meet Basava. Hardly had she reached Tañgadigi, the sad news of her husband’s death reaches her, and she becomes one with Liñga then and there.

On the other hand, Nagalambike, it is understood, joins the army of the Sharanas to fight Bijjala and his followers, who were, in the name of religion, indulging in atrocities. It is said that she died fighting. It may be noted here that Nilambike and Nagalambike are the products of Basava’s influence. Their fully blossomed personalities, their capacity to think and to act on their own is an indication of how Basava had inspired them to grow and develop. Woman shows herself at her best when encouraged by her parents or husband. Basava had heralded an age of honour, economic and social equality for women. The wind of change which softly blew made many more women grew to the full stature they were capable of growing. Ãyadakki Lakkamma had the good sense to advise her husband to go back and bring rice just sufficient for them both, for one day, and not more! Greed is not worthy of Sharanas[7]. It is believed that there were hundreds of women-saints. Unfortunately we have at present vachanas of only thirty. The one who excelled ail is Mahãdeviyakka. She received highest words of praise from Basava, Allamaprabhu, Chennnabasava, Siddharãmayya, and Madivalayya. She leaves home for her spiritual salvation. Then ail roads led to Kalyãna. So, she paves her way in that direction. On the way, she had to face a number of difficulties. The idea of a woman asserting her own, moving out without protection was strange and unthinkable. Had not the Šãstras laid that woman at no stage was fit to enjoy freedom? She has beautifully narrated the difficulties; she had to face on her way. She had to go to wells and ponds when she felt thirsty. She had to resort to old temples when she felt weary. The woman who was subjected to only angry looks and sneering questions from society comes to receive kind hospitality in the house of Basava at Kalyana! She refers to Basava as her spiritual father[8]. And Basava, on the other hand, looks upon her as his mother[9]. She was in age younger than he, but in her pursuit for spiritual salvation, he notes, that she was superior to him. It speaks of his humility and at the same time his recognition of Mahãdëviyakka’s greatness. And in honouring her he has honoured womanhood. It is significant to note here that it is he who introduces her to Allamaprabhu[10]. Then a spiritual discourse ensues wherein Mahãdëviyakka is tested by Allama and other Šharanas. And Mahãdëvivakka emerges as the Saint among Saints. Basava along with others joins in the chorus of her praise:

enna bhaktiya Shaktiyu nine.
enna muktiya Shaktiyu nine.
enna yuktiya Shaktiyu nine.[11]

Women could not have been honoured better. There are a good number of reformers who worked for securing social, economic and political rights for women. None, however, worked to secure equal rights hi the field of religion, too. The Jams and the Buddhists opened doors to woman, but after a lot of hesitation. Basava is the one and only one who declared that Woman is entitled to religious initiation and salvation same as man! Often, the Sociologists trace the history of the movement of woman’s emancipation from Raja Ram Mohan Roy. There is no denying the fact that Roy’s contribution for the cause of woman in the modern period is significant. But let us remember that woman’s emancipation with Basava was not merely a matter for merely a social reform (although to proclaim the doctrine of the equality of sexes in. that dim 12th century was an achievement in itself) but a veritable article of faith. He not only anticipated hut lived and practised the spirit of the Hindu Code Bill.

[1] Rigveda V-61-8
[2] Manu-Smruti III-56
[3] Ibid. II-213
[4] Ibid IX-3
[5] Basavannanavara Vacanagaii ed. by Prof. S. S. Basavanal (1962 edition). Nos. 445, 446, 640, 641, 643, 676 and 735, 154
[6] Alligennanu barahelidarante allirpa Sangamanillillave?
Alli illi emba ubhayasandehavu balla mahatmarigidu gunave? – Shivasharaneyara Charitregalu ed. By P.G. Halakatti p.145.
[7] Aseyembudu arasingallade Shivbhaktarigunte ayya?
Roshavembudu yamadutarigallade ajatarigunte ayya?
Isakkiyase nimageke? Ishvaranoppa
Amareshvaralingakke dura marayya - Shivsharaneyar Charitregalu ed. By P. G. Halkatti p.45
[8] Basavannana maneya magalagi badukidenagi,
Tanna karuna bhaktiprasadava kottanu -Shunya Sampadane, p.293, ed by Prof. S.S. Bhusnurmath (1965).
[9] Enna hetta taayi Mahadeviyakkana nilva nodayya Prabhu -Ibid v.8 p 280.
[10] Ruhilladarige olidavarige tanuvina hangunte?
Manavilladavange maccidavarige abhimanada hangunte?
Digambarange olidavarige kaupinada hangunte?
Kudala Sangamdevayya Mahadeviyakkanemba bhaktege Ava horeyu noda Prabhuve! - Ibid v. 9, p280
[11] Shunya Sampadane v. 61, p.292

[This Article is from the book: Sri Basavesvara, Eigth centenary commemoration Volume, Pub: Government of Mysore (Karnataka), Bangalore, 1967.]

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