Karnataka elections: Meet Mate Mahadevi, the monk driving the Lingayat agenda


Dressed in a crisp white cotton saree, Mate Mahadevi walks with a halting gait and her hair is tied in a big bun atop her head with a garland of jasmine around it. A string of thick rudraksha beads adorns her neck and she sits on a ‘Gadduge’, a ritual wooden throne used by religious figures in Karnataka.

But the demure exterior hides a fiery orator and religious leader who is the driving force behind the demand for a separate religion for her community, the Lingayats. The 73-year-old monk has crisscrossed the state to address countless rallies, woo influential mutts and other leaders, and lobby politicians for a separation from Hinduism. In her recent success, she has driven a wedge between communities and transformed the politics of the poll-bound state.

But first, some context: In Karnataka the Veerashaiva – Lingayats (till recently both terms were used interchangeably) are around 14 to 17% of the 650 million population of the state, making them the largest individual block.

Their votes are believed to be decisive in at least 90 of the state’s 224 constituencies, especially those located in the less-developed northern Karnataka. The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in March recommended to the Centre that Lingayats be given separate religion status and all benefits conferred on minorities. This controversial decision was immediately criticised as a move to divide the vote-bank of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which the Lingayats are considered more sympathetic towards. The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa is also a Lingayat.

Before the conversation begins, Mahadevi calls for a glass of buttermilk as the sun bears down on the third floor of her ‘Basava Mantapa’, the functional Bengaluru headquarters of her organisation. She runs a clutch of orphanages and educational institutions, mainly in north Karnataka. “Lingayats are separate from Hindus. In fact, in the 12th century, Basavanna, founder of Lingayat religion, rebelled against practices of Hinduism. We have nothing in common. Why is BJP upset we are seeking a separate religion status? Aren’t Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and other Indic religions by their own definition, patriotic? Why damn all those who seek a separate religious status for Lingayats?”

“Veerashaivas, as the name itself says, is one of the seven Shaivaite cults in Hinduism. They worship the Hindu god Shiva who is described as Umapati (husband of Uma), Lingayats worship their ‘Ishta Linga’ who is formless. They have a system of ‘Panchacharyas’ (five recognised heads) and they proudly claim that Jangamas – Brahmin converts – can only become a Jagadguru (world teacher) or a peetadipathi (one who leads a Matha). We reject Hindu Varnashrama (separation into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras) and the Vedas. We worship Basavanna, his vachanas (religious sayings) and the jangamas (one endowed with true knowledge).

“Basavanna brought into the Lingayat fold 99 different sects following various occupations like the washerman, potter, barber, footwear maker and the poorest of poor, which Hindu society had rejected. Anybody in Lingayats can become a Dharmaguru. The irony is Basavanna fought for a casteless society and the Veerashaivas made it into another caste in Hindu society, where only Brahmin converts could become religious heads.”

Almost breathlessly, Mahadevi animatedly adds, “Lingayats don’t believe in horoscopes, idol worship and other Hindu practices. For us, Kayakave Kailasa (work is worship). We want Basavanna’s ideal of casteless, classless, gender-equal religion that treats everybody with dignity.”

But is she the minority voice in the broader Veerashaiva-Lingayat community? “Do you think the 250 swamis and sharanas (one who has surrendered to God) who participated in our fight, with lakhs taking to street, are a minority? I might be the face of the protest but there are nearly five crore community members spread across Karnataka, Maharashtra, TN as well as nationally and internationally.”

Has she become a pawn in the political game? Didn’t the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government reject a similar demand in 2013? “Didn’t Yeddyurappa himself sign the petition for a separate category of Lingayats last time? It was some procedural mistakes that made UPA reject it. While benefits reserved for minorities being extended to Lingayats is welcome, the core fight is to get status as a separate religion from Veerashaivas and Hinduism. Siddaramaiah is a good man and recognised truth in our fight. So all Lingayat peetadipathis have asked voters to support Congress.”

But what’s next if the ruling National Democratic Alliance rejects the demand? “PM Modi is a pragmatic man. He will realise that one cannot stop a demand whose time has come. I think the results of Karnataka election will also serve as a remainder. I am sure of victory for our fight.”

Courtesy: Hindustan Times