Sri Basavesvara's Philosophy of Life

- M. Yamunacharya

The philosophy of Basava is not the dry as dust philosophy of the Scholastics. It is not a 'ballet of bloodless categories' to borrow a phrase from the British philosopher F. H. Bradley. Basava's is a philosophy of life pulsating with the rhythm of life. Learned men may reel out of it this and that ponderous system of doctrine and dogma. But this is not to our purpose here. We are interested in his philosophy of life, nearest to man and his struggles of life. What is the life that we live here? How do we live and by what do we live? 'What are the inner life which is within us and the life that we live without? What is the nature of the world in which we live? Is the world in which we live a curse or a blessing or a challenge or an opportunity? Do we live alone in this world? Or are we enveloped by a Divine Being who is in us, in the world outside us, in the stars, in stock and stone, a Divine Being who is immanent and yet transcendent? This inscrutable Divine Being - is He an object of our knowledge? Do we know Him as we know the other things? Or do we feel His presence in our innermost being? How do we reach Him? By what means do we realise Him here and now? These are the questions which Basava seeks to answer. The answers to these questions arise as sparks struck on the anvil of life. God, the individual soul and the world are the three truths of the philosophy of life of Basava on which he throws the great light of his intellect with which is fused his great emotion of devotion turned towards that Divine Being without whom, without remembering whom, Basava finds it difficult to live. His entire philosophy may be summed up in three propositions viz. God is real, the world is a challenge and an inspiration and the goal of life is to attune itself to living in communion with the Divine Being and making life a harmony (Linganga Saamarasya).ಲಿಂಗಾಂಗ ಸಾಮರಸ್ಯ

In Basava we find synthesized the life of contemplation and the life of action. His is not a philosophy of complete withdrawal from the world of men and thus seeking one's own salvation. His again is not a philosophy of mere hectic activity in life, of one who merely becomes involved in mundane affairs paying heed to success as the world calls it and paying no heed to the treasures of one's own inner life. His philosophy strikes a balance between Pravrutti or the participation in the world's work and Nivrutti or a withdrawal from the world's work. On the one side there is the philosophy of activism which was upheld by the Bhagavad Gita and pursued by many a great Karma Yogin in India. On the other is the most intimate private life of the individual in the depths of which man is in eternal communion with God, the soul of his soul, the 'immanent dweller' or Antaryamin to use the expression of the Upanishads. This is an aspect of religion indicated by Professor Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of 'what one does with his solitariness' as constituting the essence of the inner life of religion. The balance between the outer and the inner in man, thebahiranga and the antaranga is a very delicate balance and this has been very successfully maintained in the philosophy of Basava. He was an active reformer and at the same time Bhakti Bhandari, the very treasure of devotion. In Basava's philosophy we find a confluence, a harmony and a synthesis of the three aspects of human personality - thought, feeling and action (Jnana, iccha and kriya ). Only all these three elements have been transformed, transmuted and chastened in Basava, so to say. In his philosophy, intellectual understanding and an emotional rapport with God are found fused. He has had the thrill of ecstasy, or Ananda, which became his and suffused his every activity. He walked on earth like an illumined individual radiating life eternal round about him. This philosophy of life of Basava has to be gathered from his sayings which have come floating to us down these eight hundred years and more. Out of the innumerable sayings ascribed to him there are plenty of those sayings which ring so true and authentic that we can cull out of them the genuine philosophy of life of Basava. The flavour of his life, the fragrance of his being come to us in an intimate way when we hear his vachanas recited. One hundred and eight sayings of Basava have been culled by Dr. L. Basavaraju in his ' Basava Vachanamruta' published by Basava Samiti, Bangalore. I base my own rendering of the philosophy of Basava on the vachanas chosen from this collection of sayings. I have translated them in my own way and have employed them on the basis of my exposition of the philosophy of Basava rendering the ideas in as direct and simple a manner as possible. The translations I have made are rather free and my hope is that they bring out the substance of the vachanas relevant for my thesis.

Basava confesses his ecstasy of knowing God's love by saying

Basava is impressed by the all-pervading presence of God and says:

"It was like warmth hidden in water,
Like the taste concealed in the juicy plant
Like the fragrance with which the flower is redolent
And like the fresh sweet love of a virgin bride"
"Look where I will, I find Thee there
The vast expanse that meets my eye is filled by Thee
Thou art the eye of the Universe
Thou art its beaming face
Thine hands are outstretched everywhere
O Kudala Sangama Deva, I find
Thy footprints evident everywhere"


"Thou art as wide as the Universe
As high as the heavens
Vaster still than all these
Thy feet are planted there
In all the depths of this world
But Thy crown or diadem
Shines forth beyond this vast Universe
Thou art difficult of access,
Thou art invisible and Thou art peerless.
And yet, O lord Thou hast constricted
Thyself in order that
I may hold Thee in the palm of my hand."

Basava's monotheism expresses itself in these words which are Ti an echo of the Vedic saying 'Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti' - 'What exists is one but sages speak of it variously'.

"God is one but his names are legion!
He is one and one only like the
Husband who is one and one only for a faithful wife.
O Kudala Sangama, what shall
I say of them who wander away
From this one God and vainly
Worship at the shrines of false Gods".

Basava enumerates these false gods for whom offerings are made for fear of them and to placate those blood-thirsty God-lings in whom there can be no real shelter for the human soul. Here Basava does clearly distinguish religion which is the religion of fear and full of superstition from the religion of love and selfless devotion in which alone is the final resting place for the human spirit.

To be blessed with this true religion one needs the grace of God. Basava has an undiminished faith in the abounding grace of God. Basava gives expression to his experience of the grace of God in these words:

By Thy grace even the dry twig
Becomes green and sprouts afresh
By Thy grace anything sterile becomes fertile
By Thy grace will poison itself turn into nectar
By Thy grace all things become profuse and abundant,
O Lord Kudala Sangama Deva."

Religion is a matter of sincere faith in the existence of God. Often those who have no real faith in God pretend to believe in His existence. They also make a show of it. They are pompous demonstrative in their worship of' the Deity. But Ostentation is no real piety. They are hypocrites who call out 'Lord, Lord' for everyone to hear but really speaking they are men with little or no faith. Of them says Basava:

"They have no faith in God, no trust in Him
And so when they call on Him, it is all empty and hollow
These know not what faith means
If one full of faith calls on the
Lard he responds 'Lo, I am here'.
I one who has no faith in Him
Calls on the name of God he is
Like one who blows his trumpet
From the top of a tree to which
Nobody pays any heed".
teachers have similarly spoken of this as 'Maha Vishvasa', the great faith that God is our Redeemer. That God really responds to the cry of the human heart when this cry is the cry of intense love and devotion is expressed thus:

"Some say that God pays heed to song
Some others say that he heeds the words of scripture
But to my mind God does not favour song or
Scripture but favours only the deep unspoken
Affection of the human heart."

Life is compared by Basava to a bazaar where all things that men need are attractively exhibited. He who pays a fair price for them may get them. God's shop is a fair price shop. He does not extort but demands a just price. Basava says that this bazar has God as its merchant. He neither wants profit nor is prepared to suffer loss. The price that he demands is honest labour. Labour is the honest price that he demands for things that he may buy from the market of this world, the merchandise of which is controlled and regulated by God, the great shop-keeper. These ideas are presented by Basava in one of his sayings. The import of this saying is that no one gets any reward in this world without work. The lesson is 'Labour ye, therefore' to get the good things of life. They are not for those who do not work for them. To work is to worship ( Kayakave Kailasa).

The man who has set his heart on God has all evil in him purged. His desires become chastened. His passions are purified. Basava expresses this idea of his in this saying:

"One who loves the Lord can have no lust in him
One who resorts to God has no irritation in him
One who was reaped the profit of love
Has no love for any other profit
One who is tranquil has no delusions in him
Purity of heart is impossible to him
Who is full of pride and jealousy
The Lord resides only in those who are ripe of soul "

This idea is reaffirmed when he says that 'the Lord resides within those whose deeds correspond to their words'. Sincerity thus is the keynote of true devotion which must express itself in every act of its votary as Gandhi would say.

Basava, the great devotee that he is, is filled God. His heart Pulsate for God as the thirsty heart in the wilderness pulsates for water. This intense longing is constant in him and will not cease until he has attained God. His longing for God is expressed thus:

"The bird Chakora is filled with longing for the moon
The lotus is filled with longing for the sun
The bee is filled will longing for the flower's nectar
And I am filled with longing for Kudala Sangama Deva".

That the ultimate resort of man is in God and nothing else can save him or salvage him from the slough of despondency is echoed picturesquely in these following lines:

"A poor beast has fallen into a pit.
What can it do to save itself except;
To helplessly kick its legs hither and thither?
It cries out 'Lord, Lord,
Pull me out of this morass' -
Am I not the beasts (Pashu) and
Thou the Lord of beasts (Pashupati)
Save me ere the world beats me to death
And ere the world puts the blame on you".

In this saying there is the suggestion of the three philosophical principals of Shaiva philosophy hinted. The three principles referred to are Pashu, Paasha and Pashupati, the beast, the bondage, the Lord of beasts.

Basava likens his body and soul to a Veena and prays to Kudala Sangama Deva thus:

"Make this body of mine the body of thy Veena
Make my head the gourd of it on which it rests.
Make my nerves the strings and my fingers the tuning sticks
Play then thy music through me O Lord Kudala Sangama
Strike your music on this musical instrument of my body.

Man must fashion himself as the instrument for the Divine Musician to play his Music on him. It means that man must live in such a way and must develop his sensibilities in such a manner that his body, mind and spirit all come to be attuned to the universal harmony of God, It calls for an idea like that of Aurobindo that the individual soul must become a channel of expression of the Divine life which marks a Coalescence of the individual will with the universal will. It is a perfect attunement or at-one-ment (Aikya) of the individual with God.

Basava longs to become filled with God in such a way that his whole being-his body, his senses, mind and spirit become merged in Him. He says:

"I shall fill my words with the nectar of your name!
I shall fill my eyes with Thy beautiful form
I shall fill my mind with Your sweet memory
I shall fill my car with words of Thy fame
O Kudala Sangama Deva,
I shall fill myself whole and entire in Thy lotus feet".

When one is thus filled with God the world in which one lives becomes the stage which is set for the advance of the soul towards perfection. The way in which Basava looks upon the world and the life in the world as a necessary prelude to a perfect life is characteristic of hi in. W ha t he says reminds us of what the poet Keats said in one of his oft quoted letters that 'this vale of tears is the value of soul-making'. Basava refers to this world as God's smithy:

"This world of mortals is the smithy of God
Where souls are minted as so many coins
The coin that rings true here rings true hereafter".

And so the life that we live here in this world is the preparation, prelude, and probation for a higher life of perfection. So this life has not to be spurned. The life that we are given to live in this world is a challenge and an inspiration. This world is a ladder to heaven. You must ascend to heaven by these very steps. So, says Basava, Stir yourself up betimes before it becomes too late. Catch hold of the opportunities so that you may get the best of the life that you live here. Do not postpone living the good life. Procrastination is the thief of time. If you do neglect your opportunities you will find yourself too soon in a helpless condition sans strength, sans health and sans energy. So says Basava:

"Ere the temples above thy ear begin to show grey
Ere the jaw sags of senility
Ere the teeth fall
Ere the back becomes bent
Ere you become helpless
Ere you need crutches to walk on
Ere your frame becomes wasted and
Inclines itself to lie low in death
Come, come to worship the Lord".


"Do not say then and now, or sometime hence
Surrender thyself at this very moment to the lord
Today is the day of thinking of the Lord and reaching Him
Now is the auspicious moment
Do not postpone it to the next day
is better than tomorrow to

Worship the Lord in devotion and Love".

Mere learning will not lead to devotion so one should not pride in his learning or his other accomplishments. All accomplishments are vain without one's heart being filled with God. Says Basava:

Do you sport? Do you sing? Do you read?
All this is vain if you do not yield
Yourself in unqualified servitude to God
Even the peacock sports,
Even the strings of a Musical instrument sing,
Even the parrot repeats.
The Lord will not own any on who has
Not love for Him in heart."

That people think of the world of the immortals and the world of the mortals as two distinct worlds is the greatest delusion according to Basava. He states this in the following words:

"O my brothers, don't you see that
The world of the Gods and
The worlds of the mortals are not two distinct worlds.
Speaking the truth is to be in the world of the Gods
Speaking falsehood is to be in the world of the mortals
Good conduct is heaven
Evil conduct is hell
O Lord Kudala Sangama,
You are the eternal witness to this truth".

Here is the blending of religion and ethics in the philosophy of Basava.

That the Divine Being is immanent in the human heart is the eternal miracle. God is so vast and high, man is so limited and low but the marvel of marvels is that man becomes the vehicle of God and that lie mirrors d in him. The Macrocosm is reflected in the Microcosm.

"Tue world is in Thee and
Thou art in me.
The huge elephant is reflected in a tiny mirror
So likewise Thy image in me
O Lord Kudala Sangama."

Rich and pious people build temples to proclaim the glory of God but poor Basava confesses that he is unable to do what these people do. So he says that he is going to dedicate his own body as the temple of God:

"Those who have, build a temple to God
But what can a have not like me do?
My legs are the pillars of the temple
That I am going to build.
My body itself is that temple.
My head is the golden pinnacle.
Listen O Lord,
The temple built of brick and mortar
Tumbles down in decay but this
Moving temple of Thine knows no ruin."

All this is a matter of spiritual endeavour or Sadhana but Sadhana is not an easy matter. As one of the Upanishads puts it, it is sharp like walking a razor's edge ksurasya dharaa nisita duratyayaa. It calls for a spirit of adventure. It calls for a heroism which is not deterred by any obstacle. Humility there is and at the same time there is need for heroism. What makes one feel humble and small is the sense of the difficulty of ascent. But this should not make one feel unnerved at the difficulty of ascent to the Goal. Basava cheers one who has embarked on this endeavour. He puts heart in him in these encouraging words:

"The elephant is huge but the goad that controls it is small, but is it indeed to be called small for the control that it effectively exercises on the elephant? The rocky hill is big but the diamond that is quarried from it is insignificantly small in size. But is it indeed to be called small for the value of scintillation that it has? Darkness is dense but the tiny candle that dissipates it is small. But is it to be regarded small on this account? The mind that contemplates Thee is small but its remembrance of Thee can no longer be counted as small, O Kudala Sangama Deva."

Basava then says:

"The power of knowledge destroys ignorance.
The power of light dissipates darkness.
The power of truth is the foe of all untruths
The Sharana's experience of God is the sole cure for worldliness"

Basava reprimands all those who revel in pomp and grandeur neglecting the development of soul's excellence in these words:

"You ride an elephant or a horse
You smear your bodies with unguent
But with all this finery you have
Not striven to know the truth.
You have not sown the seeds of virtue
You ride the elephant of pride
And precipitate yourself for a fall
You have created a hell to yourself
Without knowing Lord Kudala Sangama."

Basava spurns the wearing of the external symbols of piety without real inward piety in these words: "Of what use is the wearing of the symbols of piety on your person when you lust for feeding your body with rich food and when your eyes lust for other women? When you do not tread the path of piety? Wearing these symbols of piety is vain."

Every individual must first think of reforming himself before he goes out to reform others. Says Basava:

"Who are you to strive to straighten the
Crookedness of this world
Think of straightening yourself first,
Rectify first your body and your mind
Our Lord Kudala Sangama Deva
Will not approve of those
Those grieve for others;
Instead of grieving for one's own imperfections."

The true devotee of God is marked by great courtesy of life with which he conducts himself in the world. Says Basava: "The true devotee is one who bows to every other devotee.

"Soft speech is for him the repetition of the holy word
Soft speech is the severest austerity
Humility is the one quality which is liked by Lord"

In a beautiful saying Basava proclaims the art of good speaking in the following words:

"When you speak the words that come out of you
Must be like a string of pearls.
The words you speak
Must be like the gems of the purest ray serene
The words you speak
Must be clear like crystal
The words you speak
Must be such as would be applauded by the Lord
The words that you speak must be
In consonance with the deeds that you perform
Otherwise, Lord Kudala Sangama
Will have none of it."

Mere asceticism will not carry us far. Mere mortification of the body has no special virtue and the one thing that matters is the purity of heart. This idea is expressed by Basava Thus:

"The ant-hill has a serpent in it
If you beat the ant-hill with a stick
Will the serpent in it be killed?
Similarly you may crucify the flesh
But unless the heart is purified, the Lord
Will not approve all this physical mortification."

Basava condemns all worship of God by proxy. To arrange to get worship done by another, by a priest has no virtue in it. Worship has to be a personal communion between the devotee and God. The Guru is just a mediator and his work ceases the moment the devotee and God are brought face to face with each other. Basava says:

"Worship you must yourself
Worship of God by proxy is just
A conventional ceremonial -
Thou art difficult to be known that way, O Lord."

Basava disapproves mere philosophical debate, for like Omar Khyayam he feels that those who wrangle, "argue about it and about and come from the same door through which they went." The one thing that really matters is not to decide whether dvaita is right or advaita is right but to be aware of the presence of God in the world and have a heart which melts with love for God and The Godly. Says Basava:

"Of what use is it to debate on Dvaita or Advaita?
Unless your heart melts for God and the Godly"

Unless you believe that all the unmoving and the moving are strung together in a single thread, what good will a web of words do for you?

A merely prolonged life on earth which is not filled with good deeds is a useless protraction of days. Instead, a crowded hour of glorious life is better than many years of an inglorious one. Says Basava:

"A five-day span of a good life
A four-day span of a good life
A three-day span of a good life
A two-day span of a good life
A one-day span of a good life
Is the day that is really worth living - All else is vain".

A life of honest labour is the life of one who is really dedicated to God. It is much better to earn one's living with the sweat of his brow than carry on a parasitical existence. Says Basava:

"Work on the soil, toil hard with
Your limits - consecrate to the Lord
The food that you thus earn and share it with others
Show me O Lord, the feet of such a devotee
As this - His body is pure,
His mind is pure, his conduct is pure
The words that he speaks are holy.
That teacher is great who has such a one as his disciple.
His home is the veritable Kailasa.
Enter ye into this and worship the Lord. I bow to
Such devotees I place my
Trust in them- O Kudala Sangam."

There is neither high nor low among men. What makes one high is love of God and what makes one low is lack of faith in God. What makes one high is good conduct and what makes one low is bad conduct. Says Basava:

"To me all the lovers of God are one.
Such is my faith. There ¡s not
The slightest doubt in me about this
There is no high - born for me
Nor low - born"

To Basava there is no occupation which is high or low. He believed in the dignity of labour. He enumerates a number of saints who were great lovers of God but who pursued their own humble avocations as washer men, as potters and the like.

Siriyala, Machayya, Kakkayya, Chennayya were saints who worked at their own avocations and became men of God. Basava thus does not attach importance to the caste or class in which a saint is born. The one thing that really mattered to him was what sort of an individual he himself was despite his caste or community, family or clan.

Basava finally came to the conclusion that compassion was the root of religion. He advocated kindliness to all things that exist. He refused to accept anything as religion in which there was no room for kindliness or compassion. Any religion that does not have this as its core was to him no religion. He thus gave a criterion by which to judge religion as true or false, as genuine or spurious. This is the criterion of universal religion which we have in Basava.

According to Basava the truly well - born are those who wish well of all beings. Sarvodaya is the keynote of their life. The ordinary ethics of life which he propounded is to be found in the following famous words of his:

"Do not kill, do not steal, and do not tell a lie
Do not be wrathful; do not be intolerant of others.
Do not praise yourself nor reprimand others.
This is internal purity, this is external purity.
This is the only way by which you can commend yourself to
God and win his approval."

Here is the sum and substance of the ethical teachings of all the religions of the world. This teaching is in perfect consonance with the fundamental ethical teachings of all the great prophets of the world like Buddha, Mahavira, Zoroaster, Confucius, Jesus and Prophet Muhammad.

In uttermost humility Basava conceived of himself as the lowest of the low and yielded superiority only to those who loved the Lord. I am the least of men (Enaginta Kiriyarilla) said he, expressing his extraordinary humility. He looked upon all those who would show him his imperfections as the greatest friends and well-wishers. The words of those who sought to praise him were compared by him to golden spears (honna Shula) thrust into him. They caused him great pain instead of satisfaction. Such was his freedom from all egotism.

This is the story of the spiritual endeavour of Basava. This is the philosophy of life by which he lived. This is the torch of illumination that he has left as a precious legacy for mankind. This light shines evermore after eight hundred years after the birth of Basava. This is Basava's perennial philosophy of life, which is bound to have a universal appeal to mankind in all ages and climes

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

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