-G. S. HALAPPA
Asia in general and India in particular cannot boast of a long tradition of free thinking, although their contribution to the intellectual heritage of mankind has been quite substantial. In the west the dogmas of religion began to be challenged by rationalist school of thought resulting in the growth of scientific attitude. Social and political ideas were both the cause and effect of these developments. The spirit of enquiry, political consciousness and rational outlook became the valuable legacy of the west. This explains the dynamism of the European society and its supremacy in modern history.
The impression of the western observers has been that Indian society historically has been unchanging, and even today it is strongly tradition-bound. Some critics have further alleged that on account of the lack of free thinking and of action-mindedness, the people of India were destined to remain a backward society.
Though the above allegation cannot be taken as wholly true, the fact remains that free thinking in India was not encouraged. Excepting a few flashes during the period of the Upanishads, and during the rise of Buddhism, the story of India has been one of intellectual stagnation. Even under the western impact social change does not seem to be as quick as it should have been. Viewed from this angle, the contribution of Basava to the cause of free thinking should be regarded as unique.
The historic role of Basava has not been adequately assessed from the standpoint of the growth of rational outlook in India. Many have admired him as a great religious reformer. He has been compared to Martin Luther. He has also been hailed as the chief architect of a new literary style and tradition in Karnataka He occupies a distinct place in the religious and literary history of the land. Innumerable poets from the 12th century to the present time have paid high tributes to his qualities of head and heart. But there does not seem to be a true appreciation of his Personality as a free thinker.
Basava is to be regarded as an epoch-maker in the social history of Karnataka because he initiated a bold and revolutionary social movement, and left a great legacy of free thinking. Basava launched his new movement with the loftiest ideals. His movement aimed at the abolition of all inequalities and removal of all obstacles arid inhibitions and social disabilities inherent in the traditional social order. Basaveshwara’s achievements have been genuinely acknowledged by many thinkers.
Arthur Miles observes thus in his book, ’The Land of the Liñgam’: “Whatever legend may say about Basava, the fact is pretty clear that he was the first Indian free thinker. Fie might be called the Luther of India. The acknowledged leadership of the priests was in full swing when Basava came upon the stage, and there was a movement afoot to replace caste and the priestly authority with intelligence and free thinking”.
“Basava mounted the rostrum of the abolition of caste and ceremonies and preached that all men by birth are equal, that one sect was as important as another...”
The Times of India in its Editorial of 17-5-1918, observes thus: “It was the distinctive feature of his mission that while illustrious religious and social reformers in India before him had each laid his emphasis on one or other item of religious and social reform, either subordinating more or less other items to it, or ignoring them altogether, Basava sketched and boldly tried to work out a large and comprehensive programme of social reform with the elevation and independence of woman hood as its guiding point. Neither social conferences which are annually held in these days in several parts of India, nor Indian social reformers, can improve upon that programme as to the essentials. As was in substance remarked by the late Sir James Campbell, whose knowledge of Indian history, Customs and manners was almost phenomenal, the present-day social reformer in India is but speaking the language and seeking to enforce the mind of Basava.”
Basava did away with caste distinctions and liberated women and the untouchables from social tyranny; his movement was the beginning of a renaissance. It gave free scope for discussion, and taught the dignity of labour. Basava inculcated the spirit of looking upon any work as worship. He emancipated the people from age-long social Superstitions and restored in them self-reliance, self-confidence, the spirit of freedom and initiative. He thus not only achieved social solidarity on democratic foundations, but also made the common man pulsate with new energy and enthusiasm. He gave the country a new literature called Vachana Saahitya, heralding a new epoch in the history of the land. In a word, Basava achieved a great social transformation in the life of the nation. He brought about a synthesis of head, heart and hand, jnyana, Bhakti and Kriyã. In all these ways his movement tended to elevate the nation in general, and women in particular.
Basava’s movement has few parallels in the history of the world. Through his peaceful technique of converting the opponents to his way of thinking, he anticipated Mahatma Gandhi’s method of self-imposed suffering. During his time, the practice of standing wooden sandals with pointed nails was adopted. Those who did so were known as men of mullavigeya Kaayaka (demonstration of standing on spiked footwear) whereby the innocent suffered for the delinquent in order to call him to repentance. This method of discipline made the nation strong and released the latent energy of the masses, which could be utilised for national regeneration. The uncommon spirit of patriotism arid fellowship which was manifested in the foundation of Vijayanagar and later was due, to a considerable extent, to the new awakening affected by Basava’s popular social experiment. Although heroism and discipline were not unknown to Kannadigas in earlier times, the spirit that was generated by Basava was responsible for new manifestations of these virtues in the age that followed. A decadent people were inspired and quickened, ready to face any danger which confronted them. Scholars have called the Age of Basava the age of people’s emancipation and Basava the maker of Swãtantrya Yuga. For he asserted human rights and thereby lifted society to great heights from the morass into which it had fallen. It was no mean revival; it was a veritable revolution indeed, as the new society he created began to throb with new values and a new outlook. Basava can be regarded as Swãtantryadiksha Guru, for he was at once the apotheosis and symbol of freedom of thought and action. Basava’s movement influenced the thought and life of the country for centuries.
The many-sided achievements of Basava are pretty well known. He has carved out a permanent place for himself in the religious and social history of our country by his splendid work as a great reformer. He was not only a reformer, but was the creator of a new tradition in the literary history of our land. His vachanas show how Kannada language can be made flexible and at the same time be invested with new vigour and strength. The loftiest thoughts of this great humanitarian have issued in the form of vachanas. As Šri Alur Veñkata Rao has aptly remarked: “His profound thoughts and words are gems of rare beauty and charm, which strike the heart as well as understanding.”
Basaveshwara not only struck a new path in Kannada literary expression but he has placed the world under a deep debt of gratitude through his social and religious ideas and ideals. He can he regarded as a great champion of human rights, who revived the humanitarian outlook of the Buddha and enriched it in his own way.
The essence of Basava’s message may be summed up in the expression ‘Universal man’, because his teaching represents the dimensions of Universal moral values. He revolted against social tyranny and pleaded for liberation of man. The aim of his movement was to restore the status of man in all his human dignity. He emphasised man’s basic rights without which free development of man is not possible. At a time when we are trying to build a new society, based on new democratic values we can draw inspiration from the teachings and work of Basava. In the national history of our country as a free thinker and a great reformer Basava ranks with such great souls as Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. There is need for a better understanding of his life’s mission, and a wider appreciation of his teachings.
[This Article is from the book: Sri Basavesvara, Eigth centenary commemoration Volume, Pub: Government of Mysore (Karnataka), Bangalore, 1967.]