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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2022



Basaveswara and Mahatma Gandhi: A Comparative Study of their Ideas

Dr. Basavaraj Naikar, Professor Emeritus, Former Professor & Chairman, Department of English, Karnatak University, Pawate Nagar, Dharwad 580003


Only in the long intervals there emerge in the world rare personalities with the examples of their lives and teachings to guide the erring humanity to nobler paths and heights. The light shed by these luminaries shines like a beacon light in a benighted and disordered world. The message of these great souls is meant for the whole of humanity and not for any particular country or community. It is the appearance of these bearers of divine light, which gives a meaning to the common humdrum lives of men and women. Both Basaveswara (1130-1167) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) belong to this exalted band of supermen of supreme wisdom and universal love. Basaveswara’s movement has few parallels in the human history. Through his peaceful technique of converting the opponents to his way of thinking, he anticipated Mahatma Gandhi’s method of self-imposed suffering. Both were the epoch-making personages and revolutionaries who wrought great transitions in their respective societies

Arthur Miles observes in his famous book, The Land of the Lingam that “Whatever legend may say about Basava, the fact is pretty clear that he was the first Indian free thinker. He might be called the Luther of India.” 1 When Mahatma Gandhi came to know rather late in his life about the philosophy of Basaveswara through his Karnataka disciple, Hardekar Manjappa (known as the Gandhi of Karnataka), he was impressed by his ideas so much that he praised Basaveswara as the earliest free thinker of India.

That the great minds of the world think alike in spite of great temporal and spatial distance and difference between them is easily borne out by a study of the similarities of ideas between Basaveswara and Mahatma Gandhi. As Basaveswara belongs to 12th century Karnataka and Mahatma Gandhi, to 20th century India, the contexts are slightly different from each other and therefore the languages used by them are different from that of each other. Basaveswara is known as Jagajyoti (Light of the World) and Viswaguru (World Teacher), whereas Gandhi is known as the Mahatma (Great Soul).

But one is easily struck by the similarity of ideas between them in spite of other dissimilarities between their personalities, environments and backgrounds. We may see some examples of conspicuous similarities between the two.

Kayaka and Dasoha:

‘Kayaka’ is one of the most important concepts preached and practiced by Basaveswara. The word ‘kayaka’ consists of ‘kaya’, (which means ‘body’) in it. It therefore means manual labour which includes mental labour as well, because body naturally includes mind. Basaveswara’s concept of kayaka easily corresponds to the Marxian concept of labour. The progress of all civilization depends upon the labour power. Basaveswara and Karl Marx had realized this truth rightly in their life. But the only difference between the two was that whereas Basaveswara was a believer in God, Karl Marx was a thorough atheist and materialist. An important aspect of Basaveswara’s concept of kayaka or manual labour is that it is work, task or labour done in the name of God or dedicated to God. Thus Basaveswara’s concept of kayaka has a religious undertone as it recognizes the sacro-sanctity and dignity of all work. In other words, there is no discrimination among professions and no work is either superior or inferior. Hence there is and should be no discrimination between high work and low work and high caste and low caste. He expresses this concept in one of his fine sentences as follows: Kayaka itself is Kailasa  (Work itself is worship).

The concept of ‘kayaka’ is connected with another allied concept of ‘dasoha’ which means service of society or mankind in general. The devotee of Lord Siva should earn his livelihood by his hard labour and serve the society around him selflessly.

Mahatma Gandhi, like Basaveswara, believes in the dignity of labour, especially manual labour, which should not be considered as inferior to mental labour. He believes that every work should be attended to the accompaniment of Rama nama. Like Basaveswara, Gandhi also spiritualized his social and political life. That is why when Gandhi was in South Africa, he engaged himself and inspired his companions in manual labour like building the cabins for his printing press, shoe-making and even cooking etc. In spite of being a Barrister at Law from London, he did not hesitate to do such menial jobs. In his later life, he even preached the scavenging or cleaning of his own lavatory without any hesitation. Thus his belief in the dignity and sanctity of labour easily corresponds to Basaveswara’s concept of ‘kayaka.’ Such similarities between the two great souls may be easily multiplied. Although Mahatma Gandhi does not use the word ‘kayaka’ he comes to the same concept via Ruskin’s Unto This Last.

“I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life… The teachings of Unto This Last I understand to be:

  1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
  2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, in as much as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
  3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third and last never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.

I talked over the whole thing with Mr. West, described to him the effect of Unto This Last had produced on my mind, and proposed that Indian Opinion should be removed to a farm, on which everyone should labour, drawing the same living wage, and attending to the press work in spare time. Mr. West approved of the proposal, and ₤ 3 was laid down as the monthly allowance per head, irrespective of colour or nationality (Auto, pp.224-5.).
Like Basaveswara, Gandhi highlighted the importance of labour (both mental and physical). Without labour civilization cannot progress. Like Basaveswara, who insisted on ‘dasoha’ Gandhi also believed in the importance of service to society or humanity. For him service of humanity was tantamount to service of God. He says, “If I find myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own. And service for me was the service of India, because it came to me without my seeking, because I had an aptitude for it” (Auto, p.118).2 It is quite obvious here that Gandhi’s concept of service of society, which is another name for service of God is equivalent to Basaveswara’s concept of ‘dasoha.’


Both Basaveswara and Gandhi fought against the hierarchical caste system and the attendant untouchabilty during their time. But Basaveswara’s time was more rigid than Gandhi’s. Basaveswara had to fight against the varna system as sanctioned by Manu’s Dharma Sastra and practiced rigorously by the orthodox people, especially Brahmins. During those days the panchamas or sudras or dalits were considered as untouchables. They could not enter a village or town from their untouchable colonies without announcing their arrival thereby alerting the high caste-people to move away from there, lest their purity of caste should be contaminated. Sometimes they had to drag a small thicket of thorny bush behind their back in order to wipe out the traces of their footprints on the road. Some of them had to flay the dead animals and eat their flesh. Some of them had to carry on their heads baskets filled with human excreta from the lavatories of the upper-caste people to the places to throw it in the far off places. They could not touch or inter-dine or inter-marry with the upper caste people. Thus they were systematically and totally oppressed by the evil of the caste-system prevalent then. But Basaveswara rebelled against that evil of hierarchical caste-system by advocating the democracy of devotion and by treating all the human beings with humanitarian compassion. Once a man becomes a sarana (one who has surrendered himself to God) by choice, he loses the taint of his former caste. Basaveswara not merely taught the principle of caste-less  utopia, but also practiced it sincerely in order to set a personal example to others. For example, he partakes of his lunch at the house of Nagimayya, an untouchable. But when King Bijjala conducts an enquiry into Basaveswara’s so-called crime, the latter replies that Nagimayya is no longer an untouchable, as he  has become a sarana now by choice; and that he has become Siva-Nagimayya now. Basaveswara’s protest against untouchability culminates in his permission given to the inter-caste marriage of a Brahmin girl, (Daughter of Madhuvarasa, a brahmin) and an untouchable young man (son of Haralayya, the cobbler). This event is quite revolutionary in those days of feudal atmosphere. The event sparks off a great turmoil in the traditional society of Kalachuri Kingdom and hastens the resignation of Basaveswara from the post of Finance Minister and his subsequent departure from the city of Kalyana to Kudala-Sangama, the confluence of Krishna and Malaprabha Rivers. He says that a man’s caste is decided by his profession and not by his birth:

You are a blacksmith if you heat;
A washerman if you beat,
A weaver, if you lay the warp;
A Brahmin, if you read the books!
Is anybody in the world
Delivered through the ear?
Therefore, O Kudala Sangama Lord,
The well-born is the man who knows
The nature of Divinity! (No.589) 3  

On the contrary he says that an untouchable is not one who is born in that caste but one who indulges in violence and evil habits and bad conduct:
He who kills the animals is a madiga;
He who eats the dirty flesh is a holeya;
What is then the meaning of caste?
The saranas, of our Lord Kudala-Sangama
Who wish well of all the individual souls
Are really people of noble caste. (Translation Mine)

This vacana shows that the caste should be decided by his good or bad conduct rather than by his birth. This was a revolutionary idea in those days of feudalism in India and was in direct opposition to Manu’s Dharma Sastra. All these activities hold mirror to Basaveswara’s inclination for social reformation and his revolutionary bent of mind.

Like Basavewara, Gandhi also fights against untouchabilty and racism in his life-time. When he starts his well-known Ashram at Sabaramati, he feels disconcerted by the problem of untouchability. The so-called high caste Hindus do not tolerate the entry of untouchable members initially, but gradually they get used to the situation and keep quiet. “The question of untouchabilty was naturally among the subjects discussed with the Ahmedabad friends. I made it clear to them that I should take the first opportunity of admitting an untouchable candidate to the Ashram if he was otherwise worthy” (Auto.P.297).

Likewise the high caste Hindus do not allow the untouchables to draw water from the well. Then Gandhi feels disconcerted by the inhumanity of man. But when he allows the untouchable people to draw water from the well all the donors of high caste stop their monetary help to the Ashram. “But their admission created a flutter amongst the friends who had been helping the Ashram. The very first difficulty was found with regard to the use of the well, which was partly controlled by the owner of the bungalow. The man in charge of the water-lift objected that drops of water from our bucket would pollute him. So he took to swearing at us and molesting Dudabhai. I told everyone to put up with the abuse and continue drawing water at any cost. When he saw that we did not return his abuse, the man became ashamed and ceased to bother us. All monetary help, however, was stopped. The friend who had asked that question about an untouchable being able to follow the rules of the Ashram had never expected that any such would be forthcoming. With the stopping of monetary help came rumours of proposed social boycott. We were prepared for all this” (Auto.p.299). As Gandhi felt deeply annoyed by the practice of untouchability, he later grew bold enough to describe them as ‘Harijans’ (People loved by Lord Hari) thereby helping them to overcome their inferiority complex. It is because of the extraordinary popularity of Basaveswara that his sarana-companions of all castes used to consider and address him endearingly as Brother Basava (Anna Basavanna) and by his official designation as minister. Likewise Gandhi was also so popular with the people of South Africa that they never addressed him by his professional title as lawyer or vakil but as ‘Bhai’ (Brother), which testifies to their deep love for him.

Thus there is a lot of similarity between the thoughts of Basaveswara and those of Gandhi. Just as Basaveswara considered all the downtrodden people as equal to the high caste people once they are enculturated into saranas, Gandhi considers the untouchables as ‘Harijans’ thereby helping them to overcome their inferiority complex. Thus both Basaveswara and Gandhi fought for the abolition of caste-system and introduction of social equality in life. Both of them brought in a psychological revolution in the    minds of the downtrodden people known as untouchables and lifted them from the quagmire of helplessness.

Devotee of Truth:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi were the devotees of Truth, although their contexts were slightly different from each other. All through his life Basaveswara fought for Truth and opposed the cruelties of caste-system and rituals based on untruth. He opposed the evils of priestly class, temple-craft, empty rituals and exploitation of women and helpless men of lower classes and castes. His personal god, Lord Kudala-Sangama was an incarnation of Truth for him. When he could not pursue his path of Truth due to King Bijjala’s support of falsehood for his political security, he resigned his post of Finance Minister for Kalachuri Kingdom and retired to Kudala-Sangama in the present Bagalakoti district in North Karnataka in pursuit of Truth. He says that he is an exponent of Truth and opponent of Untruth. He says that he is afraid not of King Bijjala but of Untruth. He expresses his view in one of his vacanas as follows.

Do you think an elephant is afraid
Of the trident in itself? No.
But it mistakes the trident for the tiger’s claws
And therefore becomes nervous.
Do you think I am afraid of King Bijjala?
No. I am afraid of you, O Lord Kudala-Sangama,
Who is compassionate to one and all.
(Translation Mine)

Like Basaveswara, Gandhi was an ardent votary of Truth. That is why he has sub-titled his autobiography as The Story of My experiments with Truth. All through his life, he fought for the realization of Truth. That is why he described his mission as Satyagraha. Gandhi was ready even to die for the sake of Truth. Although many of his friends suggested different names for his new Ashram, he decided to name it as Satyagraha Ashram.”The first thing we had to settle was the name of the Ashram. I consulted friends. Among the names suggested were ‘Sevashram’ (the abode of service), “Tapovan’ (the abode of austerities), etc. I liked the name ‘Sevashram’ but for the absence of emphasis on the method of service, ‘Tapovan’ seemed to be a pretentious title, because though tapas was dear to us we could not presume to be tapasvins (men of austerity). Our creed was devotion to truth. I wanted to acquaint India with the method I had tried in South Africa, and I desired to test in India the extent to which its application might be possible. So my companions and I selected the name ‘Satyagraha Ashram’, as conveying both our goal and our method of service” (Auto, p. 298).

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi fought for the realization of Truth in their own ways. Whereas for Basaveswara God or Lord Kudala Sangama was an embodiment of Truth, for Gandhi Truth itself was God. Thus both of them conceived of Truth in different ways because of the difference in their personalities, backgrounds and contexts. Basava believed in the principle that speaking truth itself is Heaven and speaking lies is hell. All through his life he lived and struggled for the realization of Truth. His famous view about ‘kayaka’ is closely connected with Truth. Any action or labour done in the name of God and dedicated to God becomes ‘kayaka.’ In other words work becomes worship and holy because it is done with a sense of devotion and dedication to God. It is because he was interested in upholding the truth of his great humanism, social and gender equality that he came in conflict with the orthodox Brahmins helplessly supported by King Bijjala. He had therefore to resign his post as the Finance Minister of Kalachuri Kingdom. Although King Bijjala knew the moral height and greatness of Basaveswara, he had to accept the latter’s resignation due to the pressure of orthodox people who were powerful in his court and administration. Ultimately Basaveswara left the capital city of Kalyana and went to Kudala-Sangama, the confluence of Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha to spend the rest of his time in the meditation of God and attain the realization of Truth.

As for Gandhi, Truth was of paramount importance as he considered Truth itself as God. Whereas Basaveswara was basically a socio-religious reformer, Gandhi was basically a socio-political reformer. Therefore there is a slight difference between their targets and modes of action. As Gandhi was a Barrister at Law fresh from London, he had decided to take up only genuine cases and fight for Truth. Lawyers are generally nicknamed as ‘liars’ but Gandhi never took false cases to fight for both in South Africa and in India. Truth is not fixed and final, but is in the process of emergence in human experience. “So far as I can recollect, I have already said that I never resorted to untruth in my profession, and that a large part of my legal practice was in the interest of public work, for which I charged nothing beyond out-of-pocket expenses, and these too I sometimes met myself… As a student I had heard that the lawyer’s profession was a liar’s profession. But this did not influence me, as I had no intention of earning either position or money by lying. My principle was put to test many a time in South Africa. Often I knew that my opponents had tutored their witnesses, and if I only encouraged my client or his witness to lie, we could win the case. But I always resisted the temptation” (Auto, p.273). Gandhi was so strict about his devotion to Truth as he was deeply influenced by the story of King Harischandra. Many people read the story of King Harischandra, but they never undertake to follow the path of Truth. It must be said to the credit of Gandhi that he never wanted to swerve from the path of Truth. And his intention was never to amass money illegally and immorally but to serve the society sincerely. In this sense he is nearest to Basaveswara who declared that speaking truth is Heaven and speaking lies is Hell and that following the moral path is Heaven and following the immoral path is Hell. In one of his famous vacanas he says:

The mortal world and the celestial world
Are not different from each other.
Brothers, please note this truth.
Speaking truth itself is the celestial world;
And speaking lies itself is the mortal world.
Leading a virtuous life is itself Heaven;
And leading a vicious life is itself Hell.
O Lord Kudala-Sangama, you are a witness to this truth. (Translation Mine)

For example, referring to his desire  for simplicity in life Gandhi made his companion Mr. Kallenbach  throw away the binoculars into the sea while sailing from India to England. Mr. Kallenbach instantly threw away the binoculars in deference to Gandhi, in spite of his attachment for it. Thus simplicity was part of Truth which had to be realized every moment in our experience. Gandhi makes it clear, “Every day we had to learn something new in this way, for both of us were trying to tread the path of Truth. In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred etc, naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain. A man who is swayed by passion may have good enough intentions, may be truthful in word, but he will never find the Truth. A successful search for Truth means complete deliverance from the dual living such as of love and hate, happiness and mercy” (Auto, p.221).

Protest against Injustice:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi fought against injustice in their respective ages as they were free thinkers, who believed in democratic principles. Whereas Basaveswara fought against the systematic injustice to and exploitation of the sudras by the people of high castes, the exploitation of devadasis by the rich people, the empty rituals  practised by the inhabitants of agraharas, illegal financial transactions in Saiva temples and monasteries, though his mission was not supported by the orthodox brahmins. When the orthodox brahmins led by Manchanna ( a courtier) complained against him to King Bijjala, the latter grew helpless and had to take a drastic step against Basaveswara. Basaveswara, who could not compromise with the traditionalists, voluntarily resigned his post as the Finance Minister of Kalachuri kingdom and went to Kudala-Sangama for his spiritual pursuit.

Like Basaveswara, Gandhi also fought against injustice whenever he felt disturbed by noticing it. One difference between Basaveswara and Gandhi happens to be with regard to the scope of their activities. Whereas Basaveswara’s field of action was confined to his kingdom, Gandhi’s field of action happens to be far wider. For example, Gandhi rebelled against the evil of racism practiced by the white people against Negroes in South Africa. Like Basaveswara, Gandhi had a questioning spirit and moral courage required for that. Later Gandhi rebelled against the Rowlett Act introduced by the British Government in India. Likewise he fought against the British imperialism by pleading for Swadeshi and Home Rule and popularizing the non-violent Non-Cooperation Movement. His leading role in the Salt March of Dandi is another gesture of his against the British injustice to and exploitation of the Indians. His fight against the Indigo Planters in Champaran was aimed at removing the injustice done to the helpless land owners, who were forced to grow Indigo in their farms to supply it to the mills run by the British owners.

Such examples testify to the fact that both Basaveswara and Mahatma Gandhi were ever ready to fight against injustice as it was the central mission of their life and were ready to lose their jobs or languish in jail for the noble cause. Whereas Basaveswara tried to establish his utopia of casteless society, Gandhi tried to establish Ramarajya in India.

Leadership and Organizing Capacity:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi exhibit extraordinary qualities of leadership and organizing capacity. Both of them had the charismatic personalities of their own supported by their sterling moral uprightness and disarming honesty. Basaveswara joined the court of King Bijjala as an ordinary Accountant, but as days went by he was promoted to the position of the Finance Minister of the Kalachuri Kingdom mainly because of his efficiency, honesty and charisma, which were noticed and appreciated by the king. Although Basaveswara was officially the Finance Minister and highly efficient in his duty, he wielded high influence on the spiritual seekers called saranas outside the office in his private life. Because of his charisma and dynamism he, like a powerful magnet, could attract a large number of seekers from different parts of Bharata like Kashmir, Saurashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and from different professions like shoe-making, ferrying, rice-gleaning, hair-cutting and so on. They were all deeply impressed by his sincerity, courage of conviction, rational thinking, democratic attitude, humanism and mystic height. As he had the qualities of a leader he could command their love and respect and provide a forum for their self-expression in his Mystic Academy (Anubhava Mantapa). He was endearingly called the Treasurer of Faith (Bhakti Bhandari). All those saranas obeyed the instructions of Basaveswara and participated in the discussions in the Mystic Academy voluntarily and freely. His Mystic Academy is comparable to Plato’s Academy. In the Mystic Academy the saranas (both male and female) used to discuss their religious and philosophical problems openly and consolidate and codify their mystic experiences into beautiful poetic utterances known as vacanas. Thus he freely distributed his wealth of devotion to them thereby introducing a democracy of devotion and building  a fraternity of saranas. Every sarana had to wear a symbol of internal God known as istalinga on his chest just as every community has to possess a card of membership with him. It is only because of the qualities of his leadership and organizing capacity that Basaveswara could attract a large number of spiritual seekers and started a socio-religious revolution in the kingdom. The new religion that he propounded was called Virasaivism (Protestant Saivism) or Lingayatism, which protested against the karma-kanda of Vedas and the caste-system upheld by Manu’s prejudicial Dharma Sastra. His ultimate aim was to establish a utopia of casteless and classless society.

Like Basaveswara Gandhi also had the qualities of leadership and organizing capacity. Whereas Basaveswara’s field of action was relatively small (as it was confined to the kingdom),  that of Gandhi was very wide. Being a man of sterling morality and a Barrister at Law from London, he could easily argue rationally and convince people around him whenever they sought his help. He had a charismatic personality, which explains why people were easily attracted to him. (He easily brings to our mind Bhagavan Buddha who had a similar charismatic personality and who could attract the disciples at the earliest due to his moral dynamism.) Besides, Gandhi, like Basaveswara, had no personal or selfish interest in any act that he engaged himself in. In fact, there was no difference between his private self and public self in Basaveswara as well as Gandhi. Both of them were interested in social service, which was equivalent to religious service. Right from the days when Gandhi went to South Africa, he openly engaged himself in social service. His sound knowledge of Law helped him to help the poor and helpless people to get out of their difficulties and free themselves from exploitation into which they were trapped by their poverty, ignorance and exigencies of life. For example, Gandhi fought to release the indentured labourers in South Africa by legally fighting with the British authorities and getting a law passed about the cancellation of indentured labour. When he returned to India, he fought for the labourers and against the Indigo Planters in Champaran. He fought against the British Rule in India, protested against the Rowlett Act, started a Khadi Movement, Swdeshi Movement and Home Rule Movement and Non-Cooperative Movement and led the Salt March to Dandi. He could lead all such public movements and be successful only because he could attract a large number of disciples and followers due to his charismatic personality, qualities of leadership, moral dynamism and organizing capacity.

Gender Equality:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi pleaded for gender equality in their life-time. Comparatively speaking, Basaveswara’s fight against gender inequality was more heroic than Gandhi’s, because Basaveswara had to deal with the rigid feudal society of the twelfth century of Karnataka, whereas Gandhi had to deal with modern life when society had grown less rigid. Basaveswara did not discriminate between men and women because the soul within them is neither male nor female. He implicitly believed that man is not superior to woman or vice versa. That is why many women (especially wives of saranas) felt encouraged by his liberal policy and not only composed their vacanas in Kannada, but also participated in the open colloquy held in the Mystic Academy (Anubhava Mantapa) under the presidentship of Basava). Their participation in the philosophical issues with the other saranas easily brings to our mind similar discussions held by Maitreyi and Gargi in the ancient days. More than 33 women saints like Akkamahadevi, Satyakka, Sankavve, Remmvve and Kalavve and so on composed their vacanas, which are a valuable contribution to mystic poetry. Earlier to Basaveswara, no woman had dared to come out of her domestic bounds, but during the days of Basaveswara’s revolutionary reformation of the society, so many women came out of their kitchens, composed vacana poetry in Kannada and freely discussed them in the Mystic Academy. This was a marvellous and unprecedented achievement of Basaveswara.

Like Basaveswara Gandhi also believed in and pleaded for gender equality. During his early exilic days in South Africa and after his return to India Gandhi recognized the talent and guts of enlightened women like Saraladevi, Sundaribehn and so on and encouraged them to participate in all his socio-political movements like Khadi Movement, Swadeshi Movement etc. Women not only participated in his movements actively but also contributed their jewellery and money generously for the cause of national freedom. Thus there is a lot of similarity between Basaveswara and Gandhi in fighting against the gender inequality.


Both Basaveswara and Gandhi were great humanists of the world as they recognized the divinity and equality of man. That is why they believed in the view that service to mankind is equivalent to service to God. Due to his great humanist philosophy Basaveswara considered the people of his kingdom as equal and tried to convert the twelfth century society from hierarchical feudalism to the democracy of devotion. He educated the lower class and caste people by preaching his liberal and progressive philosophy thereby instilling a new self-confidence in them, who suffered from inferiority complex and utter humiliation and helplessness. Basaveswara lifted them from the lower status to the higher one by encouraging them to attend the colloquies in his Mystic Academy (Anubhava Mantapa) where they could express their poetic talent as well as learn from the experience of other participants. After undergoing education and enculturation in the presence of the charismatic personality of Basaveswara, the so-called sudras were promoted to the higher status of saranas and abandoned their former psychology of inferiority.  Basaveswara found God in his service to humanity. That is why he distributed the wealth of the royal treasury to the deserving and needy saranas. He arranged the distribution of agricultural tools to the needy farmers of lower castes. Likewise he encouraged the prostitutes to leave their ugly profession and settle down to happy and secure married life and become respectable housewives. Due to the influence of his charismatic personality people from different parts of Bharatakhanda including a king from Kashmir flocked to the city of Kalyana to be enlightened by him. Nobody can fail to notice the strand of humanism in his life and philosophy. His humanism is articulated in all the vacanas composed by him.

Like Basaveswara Gandhi also believed in the service to humanity. He found a special pleasure in serving the people in their needs. While struggling to liberate the indentured labourers by legally getting the practice abolished, Gandhi felt an inexplicable pleasure and satisfaction in serving the poor people. He says, “Service of the poor has been my heart’s desire, and it has always thrown me among the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them” (Auto, p.114). For Gandhi, as for Basaveswara, socio-political life was not different from religion. Both of them sincerely tried to spiritualize their public life. Both of them achieved God-realization in their service to humanity. Gandhi, therefore, states clearly, “If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realized only through service. And the service for me is the service of India, because it came to me without my seeking, because I had an aptitude for it. I had gone to South Africa for travel, for finding an escape from Kathiawad intrigues and for gaining my livelihood. But as I have said, I found myself in search of God and striving for self-realization” (Auto, p.118).

Communal Unity:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi struggled all through their life to bring about unity among the people. Basaveswara tried to remove the evils of varna-system and unify them into a fraternity of saranas. After becoming saranas, the devotees of different communities discarded their former habits and psychological attitudes and developed a healthy attitude to life and a greater confidence in themselves as dignified human beings. But Basaveswara’s field of action was rather limited, as compared to Gandhi’s, as it was confined only to Hindu society as a whole. He had no necessity of fighting against either conflicting religions like Buddhism, because Hindu religion alone was prevalent and powerful in South India during the twelfth century.

Compared to Basaveswara’s field of action, Gandhi’s was undoubtedly wider and more challenging. Gandhi had to struggle against racism in South Africa where he perceived the discrimination against the Negros by the White community. He was pained to observe it and therefore tried his best to sympathize with the Negros with whom he came into contact. Later, after his return to India, he had to struggle against the communalism of Hindus, who discriminated against the non-brahmins and untouchables. He described the untouchables as Harijans (Children of Lord Hari) thereby helping them overcome their inferiority complex and feel one with the larger human kind. Then again Gandhi had to face the greater problem of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. Both Hindus and Muslims disliked and distrusted each other secretly or openly. Muslim leaders developed a separatist point of view. Especially Jinnah was very particular about having a separate country, Pakistan. Although Gandhi tried very sincerely and seriously to bring about the unity between Hindus and Muslims, he could not succeed in it. The challenge that he had to face was far greater than Basaveswara’s, but his failure in the great task may be said to be a ‘grand failure.’ But the fact that he did his best to bring them together was admirable. Speaking about Gandhi Rabindranath Tagore said, “Perhaps he will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and as Christ failed to wean men from their inequities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come”(Vishwa Bharati Gandhi Memorial Peace Number, p.13).4 This can also be said about Basaveswara and all other prophets of the world.

Mystic Academy:

Basaveswara had established a Mystic Academy (Anubhava Mantapa) wherein all the male and female seekers of Truth could participate freely and discuss their socio-religious and philosophical issues and finally codify their experiences into the form of vacanas (lyrical and mystic utterances). Basaveswara’s Anubhava Mantapa is easily comparable to Plato’s Academy where the members used to engage themselves in serious dialogues for clarification and consolidation of their views. It is said to be the first religious parliament in India. It provided a forum for the members to express their views freely and enlighten themselves to lead a pious and noble life. Several male and female devotees used to attend the sessions of discussion in the mystic Academy and produced a large number of vacanas, which happen to be gems of their mystic experiences.

Gandhi’s establishment of Satyagraha Ashram at Sabaramati is parallel to Basaveswara’s establishment of Anubhava Mantapa. The Ashram helped Gandhi to realize his humanist philosophy of life. He started the task of spinning in the Ashram by admitting people from all castes. Thus he expedited his Khadi Movement, which was aimed at discarding the clothes of British Mills and unifying people of all castes and communities. Though initially high-caste people hesitated to have any contact with the low caste people in the ashram, gradually they overcame their sense of discrimination and began to live together. Just as istalinga, the symbol of inner God was a unifying object for all the saranas, the charkha was a Gandhian symbol of unifying Indians for self-reliance and protest against the British goods. Thus both Basaveswara and Gandhi tried to unify their people for one common cause. But there is one slight difference between the two. Whereas Basaveswara’s Anubhava Mantapa was basically religious in its orientation Gandhi’s Satyagraha Ashram was basically political.


Basaveswara easily resembles Bhagavan Buddha in teaching the necessity and extraordinary importance of compassion for all the living creatures of the world. He had to highlight the importance of compassion against the background of animal sacrifice and inhuman treatment of sudras by the high-caste Hindus. He, therefore, said that compassion is the very foundation of all religions. In his famous vacana he says:

What sort of religion can it be
Without compassion?
Compassion needs must be
Towards all living things;
Compassion is the root
Of all religious faiths;
Lord Kudala Sanga does not care
For what is not like this. (Vacana No.247)

Like Basaveswara Gandhi also taught the importance of compassion for all the helpless people in the world.  In his view the principle of ahimsa or non-violence is closely connected with compassion. While he was engaged in his Satyagraha, he clarified his views on compassion and ahimsa as follows: “Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives in life has a deep meaning in it. Men cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa…” (Auto, p. 264). Though both the thinkers used different words, they meant the same thing. Whereas Basaveswara highlighted the positive side Gandhi highlighted the negative side of the same ideal.

Grace of God:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi were men of God having their ultimate aim in bringing the kingdom of heaven upon earth. They believed in the grace of God and their faith enabled them to fight for Truth and struggle against injustice. Basaveswara expresses his belief in the grace of God in his famous vacana:

O Lord, with Your grace
Even a dry log of would burgeon forth;
O Lord, with Your grace even a barren cow will become a mulch cow;
O Lord, with Your grace even poison will turn into nectar;
O Lord, with Your grace, all the gifts will be heaped up before me;
O Lord Kudala-Sangama!  (Translation Mine)

Everything he did in his life was in the name of his personal God, Lord Kudala-Sangama, which happens to be his signature in all the vacanas that he composed. Whereas Basaveswara has offered a broader definition of God, Gandhi has personalized his faith in the grace of God. Although Gandhi is widely known for his great work in politics and social reforms he was essentially a man of religion. His aim was to attain deliverance (moksa) through the service of humanity. “I claim to be a man of faith and prayer, and even if I was cut to pieces, God would give me the strength not to deny Him but to assert that he is” (Young India, dated 0612-1927, p.10).5

Like Basaveswara, Gandhi also believed in the grace of God. He says that he had made a rule that the inmates of the Sabaramati Ashram should not kill the snakes, which may easily enter the building accidentally. He followed it for more than twenty five years in his life only because of the grace of God that he must have enjoyed. “The rule of not killing venomous reptiles has been practiced for the most part at Phoenix, Tolstoy Farm and Sabaramati. At each of these places we had to settle on waste lands. We have had, however, no loss of life occasioned by snake bite. I see, with the eye of faith, in this circumstance the hand of God of Mercy… Even if it be a superstition to believe that complete immunity from harm for twenty five years in spite of a fairly regular practice of non-killing is not a fortuitous accident, but a grace of God. I should still hug that superstition” (Auto, p.324). Gandhi obviously shows how the grace of God has helped him to maintain his vow of not killing any snakes or other animals. But Basaveswara’s belief in the grace was more comprehensive than Gandhi’s, which was rather personal than philosophically universal. Likewise, Gandhi believed in the efficacy of Ramanama, which had been taught him by his nurse in his boyhood to ward off his fear of spirits and ghosts. As he grew older, his belief in the efficacy of Ramanama grew more and more powerful. For example, speaking about his success in maintaining brahmacharya, he confesses and attributes it to the efficacy of Ramanama and grace of God. “Saints and seers have left their experiences for us, but they have given us no infallible and universal prescriptions. For perfection or freedom from error comes only from grace, and so seekers after God have left us mantras, such as Ramanama hallowed by their own austerities to His grace, complete mastery over thought is impossible. This is the teaching of every great book of religion, and I am realizing the truth of it every moment of my striving after that perfect brahmacharya” (Auto, p. 238). This holds mirror to Gandhi’s firm belief in the grace of God. His belief in Ramanama is equivalent to Basaveswara’s belief in Lord Kudala-Sangama.

But what is significant is that both of them believed in a higher power of God, which would help them to follow the path of morality and acknowledge it gratefully.


Basaveswara strongly opposed the animal sacrifice during the twelfth century, because of his rational and compassionate attitude to life.  His opposition to the animal sacrifice presupposes vegetarianism. He indirectly pleads for vegetarian diet, although it was not necessary for him to make it explicit as Gandhi did. All the saranas were supposed to practice non-violence to both men and birds and beasts. That is why Basaveswara says in one of his famous vacanas that an untouchable is one who kills the animals; that an untouchable is one who eats the dirty flesh and that the saranas are all known for their compassion to man, bird and beast.

But in the case of Gandhi, vegetarianism becomes an important issue because of his encounter with British culture in England where he had to continue his education in Law. He was surrounded by the British people who were used to eating meat and drinking liquor. But Gandhi could not force himself to eat meat or touch wine or woman as he had promised his mother that he would not touch those things. But when he read Mr. Salt’s book, Plea for Vegetarianism he was extremely pleased and emboldened by it to practice his vegetarian diet with a great firmness of mind. He not only practiced it himself but also persuaded others to follow the vegetarian diet. He strongly believed that non-vegetarian food is not necessary for human sustenance. “I read Salt’s book from cover to cover and was very much impressed by it. From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow before my mother. I had all along abstained from meat in the interests of truth and of the vow I had taken, but had wished at the same time that every Indian should be a meat-eater, and had looked forward to being one myself freely and openly some day, and to enlisting others in the cause. The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which henceforward became my mission” (Auto, p.35). One may easily see how the same idea is expressed differently by Basaveswara and Gandhi. Whereas vegetarianism is implicit in Basaveswara’s opposition to killing animals, in Gandhi’s plea for vegetarianism, violence to animals is implicit.

Sacred Thread:

Another conspicuous similarity between Basaveswara and Gandhi is that both of them rebelled against the traditional ritualistic practices like wearing the sacred thread and growing tuft on their heads. Basaveswara, though born in a Kamme Brahmin caste in the twelfth century, rebelled against the wearing of the sacred thread when he was a boy of about twelve years. Being a precocious child he had an original thinking and a radical approach to life. When his parents asked him to undergo the ritual of wearing the sacred thread across his chest, he boldly rebelled against it by tearing off the sacred thread and by describing it as a ‘creeper of karma’ and a symbol of dehumanization and exploiting and dividing the society. He was so independent in his approach to life that he did not oblige his parents at all to undergo the ritualistic ceremony. On the contrary he left home and went to Kudala-Sangama to pursue his liberal education in the school there.

Though Gandhi, being a Vaisya by birth, wore the sacred thread in India, he dispensed with it when he had to tour around in the world. When he went to different countries like England and South Africa, he gave up the wearing of the sacred thread and growing a tuft on his head, because he realized that the external symbols are irrelevant once a man internalizes their spirit and meaning. When a sanyasi in Hrishikesh accosted him and enquired about whether Gandhi wore the sacred thread and the tuft on his head, Gandhi replied in the negative thereby disappointing the sanyasi. “As I grew up several well-meaning attempts were made both in India and South Africa to re-invest me with the sacred thread, but with little success. If the shudras may not wear it, I argued, what right have the other varnas to do so? And I saw no adequate reason for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom. I had no objection to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it were lacking” (Auto, p. 295). Then Gandhi replied to the sanyasi in clear terms, “I will not wear the sacred thread, for I see no necessity for it, when countless Hindus can go without it and yet remain Hindus. Moreover, the sacred thread should be a symbol of spiritual regeneration, presupposing a deliberate attempt on the part of the wearer at a higher and purer life. I doubt whether in the present state of Hinduism and of India, Hindus can vindicate the right to wear a symbol charged with such a meaning. That right can come only after Hinduism has purged itself of untouchability, has removed all distinctions of superiority and inferiority, and shed a host of other evils and shams that have become rampant in it. My mind therefore rebels against the idea of wearing the sacred thread. But I am sure your suggestion about the sikha is worth considering. I once used to have it, and I discarded it from a false sense of shame…I shall discuss the matter with my comrades” (Auto, p. 296). One may easily see the similarity between Basaveswara and Gandhi as far as their rationality and rebellious spirit are concerned, in regard to the meaninglessness of the rituals.

Internal and External Purity:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi pleaded for the achievement of inner purity as well as external purity in man’s life. Basaveswara severely attacked the fake believers, who followed the path of achieving external purity in terms of taking bath twice or thrice a day and performing the rituals like the worshipping of the symbol (istalinga) on their left palm and wearing it on their chest or treating the jangamas rather peremptorily, without realizing the deep truth hidden behind them. He insisted on the unity of being and strongly advocated the harmonization of inner purity and external purity. In one of his famous vacanas he says:

Thou shall not steal or kill;
Nor speak a lie;
Be angry with no one;
Nor scorn another man;
Nor glory in thyself;
Nor others hold to blame;
This is your inward purity;
This is your outward purity;
This is the way to win our Lord
Kudala-Sangama. (Vacana No.235)

Here Basaveswara has offered five moral commandments to be followed by all people to lead a happy and noble life. These five commandments form the very essence of all the religions of the world. They help man to harmonize his inner purity with his outward purity.It is only the believer who has achieved the harmony between the two, who can achieve union with God or God-realization. Although Basaveswara taught this principle in the religious context, it is supposed to be observed in all walks of life.

Like Basaveswara, Gandhi also pleads for self-purification, which is connected with his concept of ahimsa. Gandhi makes this observation at the end of his autobiography. One may easily notice how his political life has attained the height of spirituality: “Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance of the law of Ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification therefore must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings. But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant striving for it. That is why the world’s praise fails to move me, indeed it very often stings me…. The experiences and experiments have sustained me and give me great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility” (Auto, p.283). One may easily see how Gandhi has made his entire political life a part of religion and spirituality as testified to by his own words. His desire to be considered as the last among the fellow creatures is parallel to Basaveswara’s declaration that none is smaller than him and none, greater than the saranas. Both of them have clearly shown the extraordinary importance of the harmony between inner purity and external purity and affirmed the principle of unity of life, which enables them to achieve self realization which is identical with God-realization.

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi believe in the view that morality is the basis of all the religions of the world. They want to be away from the path of evil. Basaveswara says in his famous vacana as follows:
Make me, O Father, a crippled man
Who will  not wander here and there.
Make me, O Father a sightless man
Whose glances will not rove astray.
Make me, O Father hard of ear
Lest I should hear of aught but Thee.
O Lord Kudala-Sangama,
Keep me from all enticements free,
But what will draw me to Thy feet. (Vacana No.50)

He requests his personal God to make him a cripple so that he may not wander about in search of sensuous pleasure. He requests Him to make him a blind man so that he may not see anything evil. Likewise he requests Him to make him a deaf man so that he may not hear anything blasphemous. A similar message is conveyed by Gandhi’s keeping a doll of triple faces on his mantle-piece. One face has closed its eyes so that he may not see anything evil; another face has closed its ears so that he may not hear anything evil; and the third face has closed his mouth so that he may not talk anything evil. Thus there is a close correspondence of ideas between Basaveswara and Gandhi.

The End:

The end of the lives of both Basaveswara and Gandhi was tragic. Whereas Basaveswara had to relinquish his post as the Finance Minister of the Kingdom and go to Kudala- Sangama, his great mission of establishing the utopia of casteless and classless society was obstructed by the forces of orthodox Brahmanism and varna-system. After his departure from the city of Kalyana, his disciples like Jagadeva and Mollibomma killed King Bijjala as a consequence of which the soldiers of the king chased and slaughtered many saranas en mass. On hearing these tragic events Basaveswara felt deeply sad. Similarly Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity was not tolerated by both the communities and a Hindu, Nathuram Ghodse shot him dead. Thus the lives of both Basaveswara and Gandhi ended on a tragic note. But it cannot be forgotten that their entire life was an epic struggle with the mighty forces of communalism, gender inequality and racism and so on. Thus both of them may be said to be the epic heroes of India, who became martyrs in the noble cause. Though they are dead and gone, their ideas are not dead at all.

Native Language:

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi advocated the use of modern native language (or mother tongue) for easy communication of their ideas so that a large number of people might understand it. For example, although Basaveswara was well-versed in Sanskrit, he never used it for the expression of his views in his vacanas. On the contrary he employed the contemporary Kannada language spoken by the twelfth century people in Karnataka. His great popularity was due to the use of popular Kannada of his time. He decolonized his mind by rejecting the difficult and elitist Sanskrit language, which was understood only by a small number of pundits, and adopted Kannada for the wide communication of his ideas.
Like Basaveswara, Gandhi also advocated the use of Hindi and Gujarati in his daily interaction with people of different regions of India, (although he used English for his interaction with people in South Africa) because he believed that the people, especially illiterate ones would understand their mother tongue like Hindi or Gujarati in different parts of India. Gandhi, therefore used these two languages which were understood by a large number of people. That is why he wrote his Autobiography in Gujarati, which was later translated by Mahadev Desai into English.

Contrast between Basaveswara and Gandhi:

So far we have examined the conspicuous similarities between the ideas of Basaveswara and those of Mahatma Gandhi in spite of the gap of eight centuries between them. We may now turn our attention to the dissimilarities between them.

For example, though both of them were householders and not sanyasis living in forests, Gandhi advocated brahmacharya not only before marriage but during the married life as well. His wife, Kasturba Gandhi agreed to oblige him in observing brahmacharya and focusing his attention fully on the public service. But Basaveswara did not talk about brahmacharya as he had two wives by sheer accident like Gangambika and Nilambika, who were his true companions in his socio-spiritual pursuit.

Similarly Gandhi insisted on cow-protection and requested the Muslim population of India to understand the feelings of Hindus and voluntarily stop killing the cows. Such a Hindu-Muslim problem was not there during Basaveswara’s age. Therefore he could not talk about cow protection, although he advocated compassion for all the living creatures. In one of his vacanas his says:

Can there be dharma without compassion?
Compassion there must be towards all beings in the world.
Compassion is the source of religion.
Kudala Sangayya will not accept anything else. (No.247)

His idea of compassion for all the living creatures of the world naturally includes Gandhi’s idea of cow-protection.

As far as the field of action is concerned one may easily say that Gandhi’s was wider than Basaveswara’s. Whereas Basaveswara’s field of action was confined to northern part of Kannada Land and Marathi Land, Gandhi’s field of action extended from entire India to South Africa to England. Gandhi, therefore, had to meet greater challenges than Basaveswara did. But qualitatively the struggle for Truth and justice of both the leaders was the same.

Another conspicuous difference between the two is that whereas Basaveswara was a mystic and poet of the highest order, Gandhi was not a mystic or a poet in that sense. More than a thousand vacanas of Basaveswara are available in print and are widely read and studied in Karnataka. They are the crystals of mystic experience. His vacanas have been translated not only into all the Indian languages but also into European languages like English, French, Spanish and Nepalese. They are likely to be translated into many more European languages in future. By contrast Gandhi was a great prose writer both in Gujarati and in English. His prose is, known for its simplicity and profundity at the same time. Thousands of pages of his writings have been published by the Government of India.

Both Basaveswara and Gandhi were so inspiring ideals for the people that the writers of subsequent ages have immortalized them in their writings. For example, many epic legends and narratives have been written on Basaveswara in the South Indian languages like Kannada, Marathi, Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil. Many dramatists and poets have been writing their plays and epics in Kannada even in the twenty-first century. Many films have been produced on him even now.

Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi has been so popular in India and elsewhere in the world that many novels, plays and critical books have been written on his life and message by his admirers. Chaman Nahal’s Gandhi Quartet is a classic example of commemorating the life and achievements of Gandhi. Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, who was deeply influenced and inspired by the Gandhian ideal, wrote his famous novel, Untouchable, which has remained as a classic now. Attenborough’s film on Gandhi is too well known to be described.

Thus, on the whole, it may be said that although there is a difference between Basaveswara and Gandhi as far as their personalities, backgrounds and contexts are concerned, there is a qualitative similarity between their ideas, which testify to the truth that great men think alike. Though they lived at particular points of time and place their message is relevant for all the ages and climes. They remain our eternal contemporaries as their message guides and helps us to lead a noble life.




  1. Quoted in Wodeyar, S. S. et al. Sri Basaveswara (Eighth Centenary Commemoration Volume). Bangalore: Government of Mysore, 1967. P.146.
  2. Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Tr. Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. Reprint.1972. (All the subsequent page numbers refer to this text.)
  3. Armando Menezes, L.M. & Angadi, S.M. Vacanas of Basavanna. Sirigere: Annana Balaga Publication, 1967. (All the numbed vacanas quoted in the article are from this edition. The rest are translated by me.)
  4. Quoted in Wodeyar, S. S. et al. Sri Basaveswara (Eighth Centenary Commemoration Volume). Bangalore: Government of Mysore, 1967. P. 286.
  5. Ibid., p.279.


Works Cited

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Chidanandamurthy, M. Sri Basaveswara, New Delhi: National Book Trust. 1972.

Gandhi, M.K. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. Reprint, 2006.
---------------. Satyagraha in South Africa. Tr. V.G. Desai.  Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. Reprint.1972.

Hendi, B.B. Basaveswara. Tr. Sadanand Kanavalli. Dharwad: Karnatak University. 2010.

Hunashyal, S.M. The Virasaiva Social Philosophy. Raichur:Vireswara Sastri Publication, 1957.

Kalburgi, M.M. Fall of Kalyana. Tr. Basavaraj Naikar. Bengaluru: CVG India. 2016

Naikar, Basavaraj. Ed. Perspectives on Fall of Kalyana, Bengaluru: CVG India. 2016