Shri Basaveshwara: A Prophet

- Kumara Swamiji

Basava was a great prophet and his greatness lay in his ability to live as a prophet and die as a prophet. Real greatness belongs to different types the manifestation of the heroic in man in different forms is to be found in a small number of men. Greatness is thus found on a graduated scale and higher the form of greatness, slower is the recognition that comes to it. Men to whom the distinction of greatness is given as a title are sometimes no benefactors of humanity.

What does the world owe to Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte? They sacrificed thousands of human lives to their own ambition of conquest, and brought sorrow and lamentation to thousands of peaceful homes. They have left neither enduring monument of good work nor anything to promote the happiness of the peoples over whom they ruled. Other men who are now recognised as great received neither appreciation nor reward in their life-time. Homer was no more than a wandering singer who probably lived on the charity of other people. Shakespeare was an obscure play-actor who frequented the anterooms of titled patricians. These are now remembered with gratitude and Shakespeare’s birth place has now become a place of pilgrimage. The greatest men are prophets and sages who, sometimes, were rewarded with punishment and death.

Basava appeared at a time when the Hindu society was at the lowest ebb. The religious and social institutions were defunct. He strove to regenerate the institutions with a missionary zeal and succeeded to a very considerable extent in his stuff. But all was smooth; he was met with opposition by the orthodox people of vested interests. All human institutions have a tendency to move along a fixed groove and any innovation is looked upon with suspicion and alarm.

A new doctrine or a new truth is always regarded as a menace to the existing order of things. Great men do not keep pace with the ordinary run of mankind. They do not accept with credulity the beliefs or customs that have been fo1loed for many generations. They find a society comfortably ensconced behind old beliefs and old institutions hardened with times, but they try to question their validity by their “new-fangled doctrines” or the new truths they claim to have found. Every form of authority, whether it is a hierarchy, an oligarchy or the rule of one man, insists on submissiveness for the smooth working of its regime. It will not tolerate any challenge to its sovereignty nor brook any hesitation in obeying its law. The world is accustomed to mediocre and men who do not deviate from the beaten path.

History is full of instances of the persecution of great men innocent of any real offence, but supposed to have offended against some prevailing belief or some law in operation at the time. Socrates was put to death by the Greeks in Athens; Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem by the Jews and Romans; Latimer was burnt at the stake in England by the Christians; Gandhiji was murdered by a Hindu and Kennedy was shot by an assassin. Instead of being a shield and buckler, greatness is frequently a challenge to the law which is another name for physical force. It is only after the lapse of some time that a man condemned by the law is called a martyr, when posterity discovers his greatness.

Basava, one of India’s outstanding religious teachers, was also a statesman and a man of letters. His vachanas, or sayings, started a new genre unique in Kannada literature. Basava was principally a reformer but his reform through vachanas was imbued by bold philosophy as well as beautiful poetry. Philosophy need not be the cold speculation of logic. There was a time when philosophy was the handmaid of logical intellect. Today stale intellect has made room for fresh intuition. The watchword of philosophy is no longer more logic but more life. Once philosophy begins to deal with life the barrier between poetry and philosophy becomes thin. If the aim of poetry is the worship of beauty, the aim of philosophy is the worship of truth, hence the two are not opposed, for truth is beauty and beauty truth.

In the sayings of Basava we find a harmony of poetry and philosophy, of truth and beauty. Basava often enjoys the mystic moods and rises to poetic rapture and bursts into inspired sayings. Most of his lyrical sayings are born under mystic exaltations. In the mystic mood he feels the presence of Reality and is seized with real joy. Art springs from real joy and his lyrical joy and his lyrical sayings bear the stamp of poetry. “The nearest approximations to the sayings of Basava would be the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’ and Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’. Alliteration and antithesis are often resorted to by Basava, and his sayings remind us of the Hebrew prophets.”

Basava was not an academic philosopher. He never schematised his views nor did he build what is called a philosophical system. Indian commentators and reformers arc mostly non-academic, for they care very little for theories, immune from logical errors. Moreover, Indian thinkers, whether academic or non-academic, only explain the old Indian philosophy and their originality lies principally in matters of interpretation. Basava is no exception to this. Following the Agamic tradition he preaches the reality of God, of man and of the world. This robust outlook enlivened Basava to be wakeful to the flow-rides and ebb-tides of the material life.

There is much that is common between Buddha and Basava. Both raised their voices against caste system; both emancipated women from slavery; both preached their religion in the language Of the Common man; both advocated the purity of character. Basava, like Buddha, strongly insisted on the sacredness of life. According to him, he is really high-born whose compassion and kindness goes out to all living beings. Man cannot give life and therefore he should not inflict death. Man stands on a higher level than other creatures. The tiger and hawk kill for food but man has no need of animal food since the earth gives him enough from her abundance. Basava lays stress on the purity of food, purity of thought and purity of action as essential for man’s salvation. Buddha preached the doctrine of individual salvation; Basava, though he was alive to the importance of individual salvation, did not ignore the law of association. For Basava, salvation did not lie in self-immolation, but it lay in suffering for the sake of others. Both condemned sacrifices and opined that the sacrificial offerings were like bribes to win the goodwill of Gods who are powerless to intervene ¡n the workings of the law of cause and effect (Karma).

Buddha ignored the economic side of life, for he was more a contemplative, while Basava was a man of stern and bold action without ignoring the contemplative side of life. Basava was pained to see the appalling poverty and ignorance of the masses. He grew indignant at the wretched condition of the labourers and strove hard to ameliorate their condition. He forthwith set up a Brotherhood of Labour, preached the dignity of manual labour and raised the status of labourers in the eyes of society.

It is no wonder if the rank and file of Basava’s followers consisted mainly of labourers. He was a friend of the fallen and a brother of the destitute. Basava went directly to the motives. He dealt supremely with the labour problem, with the poor and the lowly. For this reason, whether we read his denunciations of the rich or of his tenderness towards the suffering poor, his outlook is always the same. What he aimed at was the healing of the body of wounded humanity by a vast inflowing of divine love. Permanent improvement in human conditions of labour is possible only where this spirit of love and unselfish service is realised and understood. Without this inner spirit, all labour movements are little else than the building up of houses on the sand of sea-shore to be washed away by each incoming tide.

This condition of labour and its amelioration had its counterpart in Christ and the Christian movement. Labour in the Greek and Roman world was mainly performed by slaves. ‘We must understand clearly the immense significance of this fact and mark the treatment which these slaves received. In the domestic life, among the Romans, there seems to have been only occasional cruelty slaves. But on the large estates in the country and on the huge sea-galleys which brought corn to Rome, the sufferings of slaves were appalling. It is difficult even to picture how vast that cruelty was and how terrible the slave mortality. Desperate efforts at revolt on the part of the slaves were always followed by the most savage acts of repression, till fear entered into their very bones, and revolt became impossible on account of terror. Slavery was probably the greatest of all the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It corrupted the rulers themselves and made them in turn the slaves of their own vices and evil possessions.

A very large portion of the early Christian converts was gathered from this slave community. For many Centuries the slaves must have outnumbered the freemen in the Christian Church. Nietzsche is accurate in his picture to this extent. Christianity was a slave religion, in so far as the slaves welcomed its message first and were the most numerous early disciples. This fact, however, was not its shame but its glory. For Christ came to seek and to save those that were lost.

Basava had to face the problem of capital next in importance to that of labour. Among the ancient Hindus, an elaborate social organisation which was codified in religious law, made any capitalistic system of trade arid industry carried out on an extensive scale impossible. The reason for this is not far to seek. Religion in the East, whether in India, Palestine or Persia, has been intimately interwoven with the social and domestic life making a dharma for each individual. Owing to this the area of self-interest was strictly and duly limited. But after the fall of the Republics in India, the social and religious restraints upon the accumulation of capital suddenly broke down. The scope for unlimited competition and for capitalism on a large scale became practical for the first time in India.

The opportunity was seized by greedy adventurers, and the noble families succumbed to the temptation of getting rich quickly. This undermining of the whole economic structure of society began under the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka saw the danger and enlisted every support of literature and statesmanship in order to bring back the simpler living of the old Republican days. But the vicious circle of capitalism, once entered, it is not easy to escape from it. Its effect in degrading the poor, in oppressing the slave, in establishing vast areas of luxurious wealth told upon the vital energies of the state.

Similar was the capitalistic condition in the days of Basava. What Basava brought to the solution of the problem of capital, was the social idea of possession. In his Brotherhood of Labour no member possessed any property as his own. There was a continuous redistribution of wealth, a constant re-apportionment according to need, instead of according to greed. The world is not slow in learning that this teaching of Basava is eminently practical and that wealth accumulated abnormally in the individual hands becomes a monstrosity. We are beginning to understand that there are no fixed individual rights of property, rights fixed and final like the laws of nature. On the other hand, there are definite duties of property, if the principle of Brotherhood is to be observed.

Basava showed by his precept and example, that family is the unit of life and that inviolability of the married life is the essence of family. In India there has been a deep religious spirit which penetrated the domestic life and made it pure and healthy. This sacramental ideal of the family has been the greatest purifying thought which has saved Indian civilization from decay. But in our own generation, a terrible injury has been done to the home life, owing to the pressure of the new industrial conditions. If no Steps are taken, this wrong which has already penetrated, may soon become irreparable. In the neighborhood of the great modern Indian towns, the social and domestic fabric of the villages which is built upon the sanctity of marriage is rapidly being broken up. There can be no longer any doubt with regard to this fact and its alarming moral consequences.

To Adam Paradise was home, to a good man home is paradise; for the felicities of home are the most delightful that earth can afford. There is a proverb which says that a hundred men may make an encampment, but it takes a woman to make a home. That is why Basava says that woman is the angel of home. Next to the home comes, in the opinion of Basava, Math or monastery, which then served as the school. Man’s future will be determined by the home and school. The child becomes largely what it is taught in the school. Charity begins at home. We build our character there, and what we become is largely determined by our training in the school and our living in the home environments. For true education is to realise at every step how our training and knowledge have organic relation with our surroundings.

While Basava so practically upheld the sanctity of the family a life, he carried its idea into the wider social sphere. The smaller family of the individual home is to be realised in the larger sphere of humanity itself, for humanity is the family of God. Finally the Kingdom of God is to be established here upon earth. All prophets proclaimed: “The Kingdom of God is within you, and it must be brought upon earth.” There is a long line of prophets who have been at work to achieve the balance, but it eludes the grasp. The idea of establishing the kingdom of God upon earth remains a far off ideal.

An idea of religion as adumbrated by Basava may be deduced from his sayings. Basava does not deny the world and man, for he says, that world is the workshop of God and man is his hand work. His religion is centered on man, the divine man. Human personality is not a mean thing; its value is great since it can come in union with the Divine personality. There are enough possibilities in man and his duty or religion consists in expressing them fully. The higher self of man is to be realised and the lower self-sublimated. Love is the best expression of the true self and all the virtues that emanate from love such as kindness, charity, sympathy and non-violence are to be welcomed. These virtues are to be realised through self-effort and the service of man or Dasoha (ದಾಸೋಹ). This is the sum and substance of Basava’s religion; and in this idea of religion Basava anticipates many a modern prophet like Rama Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda, Vivekananda and Gandhiji.

The epoch of modern Hinduism began with Rama Mohan Roy, for he started the new spirit of the age. He was born at a time when Hinduism was at its lowest ebb. His spirit was essentially the spirit of a reformer who could see the needs of his age and supply the motive force for re-construction His interest in religion was not merely academicals but he lived it. It is said that he went through Tantric and Vedantic disciplines to prepare himself for direct spiritual knowledge. He was fond of the worship of God through Gayatri, just as Basava was pleased with the worship of God through Shadakshari or Om Namaha Shivaya. In Gayatri Ram Mohan found the saving grace and illuminating power, as indicating the unity of the cosmic spirit with the individual soul. Like Basava Ram Mohan pinned his faith on the supreme creator and was the consistent preacher of monotheism. His saying runs thus: “None of the ecclesiastical gods can be inferred from the various assertions of the Vedas because the Vedas prove nothing but the unity of the Supreme Being.” Ram Mohan founded the Brahma Samaja which was a prayer-house open to all. Here the one omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God is to be contemplated.

The Brahma Samaja founded by Ram Mohan gradually drifted towards Christianity, and in the hands of Keshab Chandra Sen it became westernised. Against his attempts and his Samaja, Dayananda rose in revolt. His revolt was purely a revolt against westernisation. Dayananda, a profound Vedic scholar as he was, founded the Arya Samaja with a view to revive the Vedic studies and discipline in India. Like Basava Dayananda was a critic of the social system prevalent in his time. Fitness is not by birth hut by character; was his motto. He recognised the aristocracy of character and selected his disciples even from the men of low castes. He abolished early marriages, encouraged foreign travels, admitted students both male and female to his Guru Kula; allowed the females to read the Vedas and opened the sacred lore to the Harijans (low born). Dayananda read life synthetically and saw the economy of all the forces in life, as Basava found it in the hierarchy of Shatasthala. He was never for the elimination of any one of them — Karma, Upasana and Jnana (knowledge) — in any stage of life; for full adaptation to life requires all these as integral forces.

In the present day cultural and religious life of India Sri Ramakrishna together with Vivekananda is a potent force to be reckoned with during the early years of Ramakrishna the Brahma Samaja had its heyday. The intellectual spirit of Ram Mohan together with the aestheticism of Devendranatha and ecstatic faith of Keshab Chandra Sen had made the Brahma Samaja a strong and effective movement amongst the cultured people. Orthodox Hindu faith was shaken to its foundation.

Ramakrishna by virtue of intense Sadhana realised and proved the dynamism and potentiality of the orthodox faith. He imparted this realisation to Vivekananda to give it practical shape. Vivekananda organised a church, which’ like the Anubhava Mantapa of Basava, had embodied the social and spiritual principles. He saw God in every human being and his heart bled for the poor, the weak and the down-trodden. To serve them was to serve Narayana. His Church does not observe caste rigidities, for it welcomes people of all castes; the fitness is of character and not of birth. Basava was meek like a lamb but brave like a lion. In his personality is seen the harmony of humility and valour, of love and power, of Bhakti and Shakti. In the life of Vivekananda we find a similar strain. He was bold and heroic yet he was mild and humble. The blending of the mutually conflicting qualities has given a fine shade to the character of Vivekananda. He was attracted by the divine love but felt that the delicate plant of love could not flourish on the soil of earth without the constant protection of power. In the words of Basava Bhakti cannot thrive without the protecting hand of Shakti.

Another prophet, who makes religion the basis for social reform like Basava, is Gandhiji. Gandhiji believed in the Vedas but he did not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas. Basava also believed in the Sruti, whether it is Veda or Agama, but he did not accept every word of the Scripture as infallible. Such truths of the Scripture were acceptable to him as are true to reason and experience. Gandhiji believed in Varnashrama Dharma based more on quality than on caste. Basava never favoured the four-fold division of mankind either on the basis of quality or on the basis of caste. All men are equal, he said, and fitness is not by birth but by character. To Basava Kayaka is Kailasa, work is worship. Gandhiji also struck the same note when he said, “The noblest of all aims is the worship of God and the highest form of worship consists in doing the work of God by living in obedience to the moral law and by disinterested service to humanity.” Gandhiji founded an Ashrama which was characterised by the observance of vows like the vows of celibacy, of truth, of non-violence, of non-thieving and non-possession. There was yet another important vow, known as the vow of the Swadeshi. Basava was very fond of observing the vows; it is said that he himself practiced thirty six vows including the above ones. He admonished his followers to lead a moral life based on vows. Basava gave a fillip to the development of cottage industries by encouraging the various occupations like farming, weaving, dying, and numerous others which were then considered as base and unholy. He taught the dignity of manual labour by giving it a religious significance. Thus he laid a new foundation for the economics of the land. Gandhiji too upheld the dignity of manual labour and caused the cottage industries to develop in the face of the big industries. The follower of Gandhiji have analysed the benefits accruing from the cottage industry. They say that cottage industry in contrast to big industry is, by its very nature, socialistic in character. The essence of socialism is non-exploitation and equality or near equality of incomes. It is difficult to justify the labour theory of value upon which Marx and Engels based some of their important conclusions. No economist, worth the name, considers today the theory sound or correct. But granting its correctness, cottage industry satisfies the best requirements of the theory. It leaves no surplus value for any employer. If this is true Basava might be considered as the forerunner of socialisms.

Basava had great respect and regard for women, for he saw in every woman Mahadevi, the divine Mother. He gave to her an equality of status, an independent outlook and freedom of movement. Basava never called woman weaker sex for he knew that she is the reservoir of spiritual strength. Gandhiji’s regard for woman is no less great. He castigates man for his brute nature and woman for falling a victim to man’s lust. He once said, “I wish I could be a woman under such circumstances and try out whether I could successfully resist the brute in man.” Again he remarked, “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel, it is man’s injustice. If by strength is meant brute strength then indeed is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not great courage? Without her man could not be. If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”

Basava was a great prophet. The greatness of man does not consist in his isolation from his fellow-men. A man, no matter whether he is regarded as a prophet or an incarnation of divinity, lives as other men. The physical plane is the same for all and the only distinction is in the moral and spiritual spheres. Christ was a carpenter’s son and lived an humble life and mixed with humble folk. Buddha obtained his daily bread by begging and lived on terms of familiarity with his disciples. Basava led simple life mixing with the common men, though he was a minister. These prophets were only different from other men in their thoughts, in their manner of speech and in their moral and spiritual vision. The evidence of history and the trend of human nature would be belied if there were f no discordant notes in the chorus of admiration elicited by Basava’s work and character. It may be stated as a fact that the greater the man, the larger the number of his detractors. The time comes when the voices lifted in blame are stilled and the worth of a man is placed beyond criticism. Pilate, priests and the Pharisees have passed away; who now speaks ill of Jesus? Buddha was maligned by Devadatta and others spoke ill of him, but time has silenced those voices. Basava was criticised by the calumniators, but their voices are now drowned. Today Basava is acknowledged as one of the great prophets that the world has ever seen.

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

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[1] From the book "Vachana", pub: Basava Samiti Bangalore 2012.