The Buddha wandered the land speaking to those who cared to hear, Jesus was the messiah, the tirthankaras forged their own way of seeing the world, the prophet brought together the tribes of Saudi Arabia under Allah’s care, while the Vedic tradition solidified itself in form and practice as Hindu. No one can argue the historical validity of these emergences, but we must wonder when and how beliefs and reflections of individuals or select communities became distinctly marked religions. What determines religious separateness? When is a movement intra-religious and when can it be accepted as extra-religious? At the heart of the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate on whether caste needs to be treated as a Hindu disease that can be expunged only if the super-structure is destroyed, or as an inner-Hindu ugliness that needs cleansing from within, lie answers to these questions. It is unlikely that we will find definitive pronouncements, nevertheless this enquiry is essential.

In Karnataka, the Lingayat upheaval that has ​gathered steam and courted religious, social and political controversy over the past year has become most intriguing. Religion, caste, economy and political might have collided providing us observers with a ringside view of how it might have happened with the other religions. Keeping aside the historical, philosophical, religious, ritualistic and structural complexities that make the Lingayat demand for a separate religion debatable, this entire exercise reveals the inextricable bond between the ethereal and real, elevated and political, the mystical and obvious. How inseparable these presumed opposites are in determining who we are.

Question of philosophical distinctiveness

The elites among scholars and religious activists argue over Lingayat distinctiveness and claim that the community’s demand for separate religion status, which the Karnataka government granted last month, is based more on possible minority benefits and not anchored in theological understanding. Some seem to deride this as socio-economic opportunism and suggest that this has no place in religious belief. The question that arises is: How much of the distinctiveness of each religion is manufactured post-facto by its storytellers, scholars and rule-makers? And significantly what leads to the creation of these identities? Do they evolve from within the faith or are other forces at play?

Be it Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism, every religion drew from the past, assimilating, consolidating, re-engineering and manipulating beliefs, theories, texts and places of worship to suit their story. Even when they reject the past they remain part of a derived continuity​. The discarding of what is has resulted in some form of rebirth. At times newer interpretations and entirely new modes have taken shape inspired by older texts. When many have been subsumed, internally consumed or appropriated within the existent faiths, it is still a mystery how some of these tectonic shifts have resulted in the dawn of a new religion.

For instance, the Tamil Vaishnavite bhakti movement (5 CE to 10 CE) had all the ingredients to separate from its brahminical parentage and establish its own order, but that did not happen. Though it did not directly reject Vedic heritage, many elements of its being and becoming, questioned and challenged established frameworks. A bit of a groundswell and a charismatic leader who believed in its uniqueness might have pushed for a break.

In the 11th-12th century, much like the Lingayat philosopher Basava, the Vaishnavite philosopher Ramanuja might have succeeded if he had moved further in socio-religious realisation. But he, like Gandhi, saw these as internal issues. Consequently the discourse did not move beyond the Hindu spectrum. But energy also needs to come from community members and political structures. When the powers in place look in a certain direction, everything falls within that purview. It would need an enormous amount of ground-level traction to apply pressure that might lead to a buy in, albeit reluctantly.

Spiritual and temporal

All nascent systems of faith received accreditation only after they negotiated with the socio-political and economic worlds. When members of a faith were unable or incompetent they remained within or vanished into oblivion. The presence of an insightful seer with a considerable body of work and following was never good enough for an organised religion to evolve. Politicking was and is a necessary tool.

Every powerful guru today, including Jaggi Vasudev, Ramdev and Ravi Shankar, does not shy away from corporate honchos and political bigwigs. In what is very clearly a power game, they have established their own independent spiritual persona and tussle for attention. If Jaggi Vasudev tomorrow claims, that inner-engineering is a nouveau religious persuasion (he has already created a new deity) there will be no such hue and cry from the elite. He might even succeed. I do not remember people complaining with any great vigour when the Ramakrishna Mission wanted their sect declared a minority religion. The demand was not on philosophical grounds, it was directly necessitated by legal complications.

On a related subject, an often heard accusation from members of the majority religion, Hinduism, is of unbridled state interference in their religious institutions. Independent of the goings-on in minority institutions, in states like Tamil Nadu the government has taken over and jeopardised the functioning of innumerable temples. There is very little care, unless it is a temple that remains in the public eye. Without any doubt the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department is​ o​ne of the most cash rich bodies within the government. And we know what an overabundance of cash can do. There is definitely an urgent need to address this anomaly. Some claim that this is also one reason why minority status is demanded. But whatever may be the case none of this is new, it is the very same principle of political collusion.

Neither the Buddha nor Christ announced the arrival of a new religion. The consequent establishment of a religious order in their names was to a large extent a political occurrence, which was necessitated by mass following and politico-economic backing. And even more importantly, it came out of competition. Every religion contested each other’s beliefs and vied for a larger vote share. They were and are no different from political parties. Depending on their current state, they work mechanisms of marketing to garner a large enough vote share. In some cases the most powerful person such as the monarch is targeted, and the order comes right from the top. When the Pallava King Mahendravarman (reigned circa 600CE to 630 CE) converted from Jainism to the Saiva faith, it directly had an impact on every aspect of the lives of his subjects. Today, if Narendra Modi was the dictator of India, through action, inaction, words and the unsaid, the Hindutva brigade would have forced a violent Ram rajya on us. Thankfully, democracy functions differently.

The present Lingayat demand is not a new voice and within its own chambers there are multiple sonic counters. With a complex history that is entrenched in caste discrimination, aspiration and socio-political power, it is but natural that this demand arises. Every religious structure came into being in exactly the same way, using politicians, business leaders and grabbing at all possible opportunities to make it happen. At the moment of separation ritual, philosophical variance do ​not really matter, it has and will always be about socio-political brawn.